Thursday, 26 February 2015

My Back Pages

I like February, in principle.  It's my birthday month, and it does make you feel a bit special, as a kid, to have been born in the most eccentric, short and shape-shifting month of the year.  I associate it with clear, crisp blue-sky days, with the anticipation of waking up to an overnight snowfall and another day off school; February 1963 was definitive.  But, this year, February has been a truly dull month, weather-wise, down here on the south coast.  Weeks of cloud, rain, and nothing in particular, broken only by the occasional frost, a single feeble snow-shower, and a hailstorm of great intensity that briefly buried our garden with what looked like polystyrene packing beads.  It means there has been little disruption to normal life, but it has also made for an uninspiring month, photographically.  I looked with envy on the images from the Middle East this week, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem blanketed in snow like Christmas cards.  Though after some initial fun snowballing I expect it got old pretty quickly for refugees from Syria camped out in makeshift tents in Jordan and Turkey.

I've also been trying, with mixed success, to overcome the inertia induced by some surgery in late November which restricted my mobility until very recently.  Once you get into the habit of mooching about indoors, reluctant to test the boundaries of your new comfort zone, it's awfully hard to break out of it.  Dull, dull weather doesn't help.  A brief morning outbreak of sunshine, or a pretty frost would get me out in the back garden at breakfast-time, but it was generally gone by the time I was ready to think about going out.

As a consequence, I've been reading a lot, drawing a lot (once I've got my hand-eye-brain mojo back I may show some here), and browsing through my image backfiles, like a soothsayer looking for hints of the shape of the year to come.  But, as the financial advisers are required to say, "past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance".  I'll say.  I came across these next two pictures looking at Februaries past, and liked them for their clarity, and the fact they weren't taken in the back garden.  Both from February 2012.

Hockley Viaduct

M3 motorway from the B3335

And, despite my declared reluctance to revisit the past, I've spent a fair amount of time there in recent days, having broken out some old notebooks and read about the acts and opinions of some strange young man whose terrible handwriting seems uncannily similar to mine.  If nothing else, it's been a useful reminder of the value of writing things down.  For, dear reader, whatever you think you remember about your past, you're probably wrong.  And so is everybody else.  But in your case you probably don't have written (or drawn) evidence to the contrary.  In the absence of which -- and assuming you have no belief in an omniscient Recording Angel, whose revelatory notebooks will eventually be opened to us all -- your life is indeed writ in water.  Which may, of course, be just the way you like it.

Ah, but I was so much older then...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Sadly Die

Southampton Common cemetery

I think I am going to start a campaign against an annoying formula that has established itself in the writing of even the more sensitive journalists and commentators:  "to sadly die".

Now, death and dying do present the writer with a number of difficult issues of tone and vocabulary: you don't necessarily want to upset or insult anybody (other than the recently rigidified themselves, who are beyond all that).  Death has often been described as the the "last taboo", which is just silly.  There are plenty of taboos left.  I find, to my surprise and embarrassment, that toenail trimming in restaurants (even with proper nail-clippers!) is still generally frowned upon, for example, just to start at the milder and more obviously absurd end of the taboo spectrum.  There are also any number of subjects which it is forbidden to discuss, but we won't talk about them here.

But "to sadly die" is a curious construct.  Typically, a sentence will read:  "Joan McGloan, who sadly died last month, was perhaps best known as a virtuoso on the Ettrick nose-harp".  Now, what work is the word "sadly" doing in that sentence?  Was Joan sad to die?  Did she die in a sad way? Is the writer sad that Joan died?  Is it sad, in particular, that it was Joan who died?  Perhaps we are being invited to admire or share the writer's sensitivity to Joan's death?  Or is the word merely acting as a sort of soft buffer before the dread word "die"?  Is there perhaps a feeling that to write, plainly, "Joan McGloan, who died last month..." is somehow a bit too brutal, a touch "inappropriate"?  Or is it even that to name, um, Mr. D out loud and unqualified is a form of tempting fate, so that "sadly" performs an apotropaic function?

Whatever.  It's still annoying.  But I think I can help.  I have some alternative suggestions, for those who blink at plain old "died":

to gladly die (for evangelical Christians)
to badly die (for those who make a bit too much fuss about dying)
to madly die (for candidates for the Darwin Awards)
to radly die (for grunge band members)
to tadly die (for those who die surprisingly quickly)
to fadly die  (for those who die from dieting or self-medication)
to plaidly die (for Scots nationalists)

These could be used in combination, too.  For example, "Joan McGloan, who gladly madly plaidly died last month" would indicate in an efficient way that Joan was a Scottish Nationalist evangelical who died in some risibly stupid way; for example, while attempting to prove the Ettrick nose-harp could be played by ear.

Of course, the judicious use of some commas ("Joan McGloan, who, sadly, died last month...") might rescue the situation, and turn an annoying verbal tic into a mere cliché, but where's the fun in that?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Time-Traveller's Dream

Look away now, any photo-purists.  There's nothing to see here.  Move along, please.  Come back later.

By means of the triptastic, far-out magic of Photoshop, I have cunningly combined two photos from the previous post into one, resulting in an image that invokes a certain recently-mentioned virtual space, with its vanished entrances and exits -- not to mention its walls, floor and ceiling -- a time-traveller's dream of a faraway time and place, forever lost in the early 1970s.

Well, you had to be there...  If nothing else, that would have made a great album cover.  Oh, what?  Like this, you mean?

Or possibly this:

Cult albums, both of them, marking the transition of The Tryptolytes from psychedelic folk-rock -- songs like the plangently pungent "Lost in Woolworths", and the pungently plangent "Time (To Buy Another Packet)" -- to proto-punk space-rock, exemplified by the fervently frantic "Get Off My Face (No, Really, Get Off My Face)" and the festival favourite, the 15-minute free-form thrash "Metal Iron Jelloid Tin" (described by the New Musical Express as "Hawkwind meets Gong in an industrial cement-mixer, but with attitude", and by Melody Maker as "a crowd-pleaser, in the great British tradition of public executions and machine-breaking").  Heady days, heady days.

So, take that, Hipgnosis!  What a shame I could never actually have done this in the early 1970s...  But at least no stuntmen were set on fire in the making of these album covers.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Chair in the Sky

Entrance lobby, Chauncy House flats, 1970

This week, in order to resolve yet another "partial memory" dispute  -- they seem to be getting more frequent -- I ended up looking through various boxes of old notebooks and diaries, searching for the ur-notebook, the one I started in 1971, shortly after breaking up with my first serious girlfriend.  There's nothing quite like a dose of teenage misery to get the attention of the diary-muse.

Having found it, and deciphered the relevant pages -- written during a hitchhiking trip a schoolfriend and I took through Holland and Germany later that same year, aged 17 -- I was able to establish The Truth: that he and I were both mistaken about various things we thought we could recall with certainty -- but rather differently -- after 44 years.  Those battered pages did confirm, however, that we were both correct in remembering a lift in Germany from the driver of a car with only second gear, who liked to roll himself cigarettes, one foot up on the dashboard, while my friend steered us down the autobahn from the passenger seat.  You do tend to remember that sort of thing.

Naturally, I ended up reading the whole notebook.  People, events and feelings I had utterly forgotten about came bobbing back up into memory.  Although, according to this irrefutable primary source, some occasions I thought I remembered well had in fact been played out rather differently, or with a different cast-list, and some others might as well have happened to someone else, as they had utterly gone from my mind.  I was a little appalled to see what a casual -- or, more likely, ignorant -- view I took of various risks and dangers, but I found myself experiencing an acute nostalgia for the intensity of life at that age, when the slightest thing -- some unusual weather, an encouraging smile from a girl, a difficult day at school -- was fretted with the hot Shakespearean fires of flaming youth, only to be doused by a wet blanket of adolescent bathos.

The trouble with such documents is that they are themselves a very partial account.  Sadnesses and setbacks are meditated upon with greater zeal than simple joys and successes.  The everyday goes unrecorded, and the exceptional is described in depth and at length.  The life of a 17-year-old -- this 17-year-old, anyway -- is apparently a life lived for the weekends, in a small-town soap opera with a cast of about a dozen close contemporaries, sporadically disrupted by invasions from the outer space inhabited by parents and teachers.  Seeing myself seeing myself, as it were, was a real hall of mirrors: "You're wrong, you little idiot... Don't do it!" I wanted to shout down the years.  Though I know only too well what I'd shout back.

Time-travel is bound to have unpredictable consequences. The main fallout for me was that I started obsessively mentally reconstructing my bedroom in the fourth-floor council flat we had lived in since 1967, from the dark blue I had painted my walls right down to the carpet I butchered, by cutting up hardboard sheets for paintings with a Stanley knife and steel ruler on the floor.  That block of flats, where I spent some of the most intensely lived years of my life, became emblematic of all my subsequent personal and private griefs and losses when it was demolished a few years ago, something I only discovered when taking a memory-lane detour through town on the way to my mother's funeral in Norfolk.  It was one of those ludicrously symbolic moments -- I had to pull over to the side of the road, gaping in utter disbelief -- when you think, Really?  Who writes this stuff?

And it's very odd to think that this intimately-known room, fifty or so feet above the ground, with its window hooded by our little balcony, looking out over a playing field and the town centre towards the motorway -- the stage-set for all my teenage hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions -- is now just an empty space somewhere in the air above the new houses built on the site.

The alchemical bedroom 1972

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

It Never Happened

Nope, still don't remember...
(Amsterdam junkshop)
I was mentioning an unforgettable incident from our shared, misspent youth to an old chum, recently, when it transpired that he couldn't remember a damned thing about it.  Now, when herbal mood enhancement may have been involved, it's perhaps not surprising that memories differ and fade, but you'd think, if you had been ejected from an exhibition of kinetic sculpture with the immortal words, "Please leave now, this is an art gallery, not an adventure playground", you'd probably recall the occasion.  But no, not a glimmer.

I am increasingly intrigued by this "partial memory" syndrome.  The recognition that there are differing perceptions of the same event is nothing new, of course.  The fable of the blind men describing the elephant is ancient, and well-known, though it would be interesting to know whether any of them, forty years later, had managed to forget all about ever having handled that elephant.  Especially in the case of the unfortunate guy -- rarely mentioned -- who discovered that an elephant was very like a heavy shower of evil-smelling rain.

But that entire notable events can be forgotten -- not just recalled differently, but erased from the memory bank -- by one or more of the participants is strange, and not a little sad. This is especially the case when that particular event is of significance or emblematic to someone.  I was puzzled, for example, not to be able to recall an occasion, early in the relationship with my Significant Other, when, apparently, a pigeon flew into a department store window directly in front of us, stunning itself -- thunk! -- and falling to the pavement, leaving one of those ghostly "feather dust" impressions on the plate glass.  Ah, talk about yer coup de foudre...  Such a shame that, in my mind, it never happened.

Worse, though, is to be the subject of stories -- much retold by others and polished to a deep shine -- which, as far as you can recall, either never happened at all or, if they did, were perpetrated by somebody else, someone completely unlike you.  Me?  I would never say or do something like that!  Admittedly, there can be a certain level of Jeckyll and Hyde in my behaviour; like anyone, beyond a certain level of intake -- even of fresh air -- I may switch into a different personality, and say or do things I may come to regret.  Or forget.  Or even choose to forget.

But that thing with the monkey on a tricycle in that carpark in France?  It never bloody happened, as far as I'm concerned.  Though oddly -- in the words of the song -- I remember it well.  Just don't ask.

The horse that wasn't there...
(Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)

Monday, 16 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 3

When visiting museums and galleries, one of the things that probably marks me out as a suspicious oddball, and an obstructor of the orderly flow of visitors, is my inconvenient interest in the building itself and its infrastructure, especially the windows.  How I love windows.  Like Mullah Nasruddin under the lamppost, I'm looking for my keys pictures there, because that's where the light is.

I'm pretty confident that a thousand snaps will have been taken of The Nightwatch on the Friday I visited the Rijksmuseum -- and even quite a few ironically reflexive Thomas-Struth-alike shots of the crowd photographing The Nightwatch, like the one in Postcard from Amsterdam 1 -- but I doubt whether many visitors, if any, will have brought home images quite like these.  Everyone else will have been looking in the right place!

For me, it's the difference between the camera as a simple aide-mémoire and the camera as a medium.  It's also why, used thoughtlessly, a camera can become an obstacle to experiencing the moment but, used well, is a way of creating a more permanent "moment", one that might just be permanent enough to make its way back inside the gallery one day, as an object of contemplation in its own right.  Besides, I think they've already got enough pictures of The Nightwatch.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 2

It is well known that holiday postcards only ever arrive long after the sender has returned home.  "Wish you were here" and descriptions of balmy weather and languorous leisure always have more than a little calculated irony, when inscribed into the allotted 4" x 3" area of a postcard.  I was in Amsterdam for just three days, but you should imagine that I managed to post these four cards, which have just arrived.

It is a cycling city, Amsterdam.  Bikes are everywhere, rattling over the cobbles, and stacked together in great clumps on every available railing.  Cycleways are not painted on as a gesture but built into the fabric of pretty much every street.  If you come from a country that drives on the left, and where speeding cars are the main predator of pedestrians, crossing the road is hazardous: you're simply not expecting a swarm of bikes to swoop round the corner out of left field.  An elderly man was floored dramatically when descending from our airport shuttle bus: the driver didn't have time to call out, "Watch out for ...  Oh dear!"

The Dutch bike is a sturdy thing: long in the frame with backswept "sit-up-and-beg" handlebars, which encourages an upright riding posture that looks very comfortable, and seems especially favoured by women.  Bikes with multiple baskets and trailers are common: the school run and shopping trips look very different here.  Next time, I'm definitely hiring a bike.

"Real good for free"...  As readers who read my Innsbruck posts will know, I like street musicians.  This guy, sitting in a tunnel behind the Rijksmuseum, was exceptional.  He was playing Bach toccatas from memory on a piano accordion that he had somehow adapted to sound like a church organ.  It was amazing.  It was also very cold.  How he kept his fingers working I cannot imagine...  I stood and listened for as long as I could bear to stand still, gave him some money, and went in search of a hot drink.

WTF.  It appears that cameras can have flashbacks, too.  Look carefully at her arm and her ear: isn't that the weirdest thing you have seen this year so far?  I'm not sure whether explaining what is going on here would help.  In fact, I'm not entirely sure what is going on, and what little I do know won't help.  Visit the Tropenmuseum for yourself -- she's always there.

A lot of the older buildings in Amsterdam are distinctly wonky, leaning on each other in a companionable way.  Ground subsidence must be a constant problem.  I saw several buildings with mind-bogglingly trapezoid or parallelogram-shaped door- and window-frames -- fitting replacements (not to mention buying blinds and curtains) must be a challenging business.  The generous size of the buildings is a clear indication of the trading wealth that has flowed through the city.  Our hotel in the west of the city had once been an orphanage, and was built like a palace: our room had a 20 foot ceiling, with a window to match.  That's either a lot of air per orphan, or a lot of orphans per room.

I rather like the European preference for apartment-dwelling; it does make for more convivial city centres.  People can live together in higher densities and, as the ground floor of most buildings is allocated to shops with the apartments on the floors above, you don't get that feeling of isolation that blights our own attempts at high-density living.  Though whether Europeans might equally admire the typical British suburban terraced or semi-detached house-with-a-garden, with curving streets full of trees and green open spaces I don't know: sometimes the allure is simply the attraction of difference.  From the air, though, as your plane loses height and banks towards the airport, the contrast is quite striking. Even in winter it can appear that Hampshire's towns and villages have been lost and overgrown within a forest, whereas coastal Holland is strikingly geometrical, outlined with drainage ditches twinkling in the sun, and as treeless as an East Anglian agri-desert.

Should you be interested:  I decided to take only a Fuji X-M1 with a 27mm pancake lens.  I bought mine second-hand, and they're a real bargain, especially now that a second wave of Fuji X models is coming through, and the firm seems to have lost faith in the idea of a small, viewfinder-less option for the X sensor.  If you can manage with just the LCD and are happy with a single standard focal length it's a perfect travel combination.  I keep mine in an Op/Tech neoprene pouch, and it lurks unobtrusively in my shoulder-bag.  Sufficiently so, in fact, that I occasionally forget whether or not it's there, not something that has ever happened with the X-E1...

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 1

Souvenir shop landscape

My partner had very much wanted to see the fabulous "Late Rembrandt" exhibition, when it was on at the National Gallery, but with one thing and another she managed to miss it.  But the show has now shifted to its natural home, the re-opened and renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so what better excuse for a few winter days in one of the more exciting European capitals?

I have been to Amsterdam twice before, but that was back in 1971 and 1974 when the town was in an advanced state of disrepair, and mainly famous for its White Bicycle anarchists, a relaxed attitude to cannabis, and an exotic Red Light district. It was a magnet for the thousands of us seeking the fullest expression of Youth Culture, primarily by getting helplessly intoxicated, and trying to live in a major capital city on a tiny budget, thus becoming vulnerable to the more streetwise and predatory inhabitants, and putting a massive strain on the municipal budget.  Amsterdam has been seeking to improve its louche image ever since, and the city I visited this week has been transformed, by and large in a good way, though I doubt my 17-year-old self would agree.

The "Late Rembrandt" exhibition is, indeed, fabulous.  Paintings, prints and drawings from collections all over the world have been assembled in what is probably a never-to-be-repeated experience.  We had booked our tickets for the second day and, even with time-slot allocation,  the inevitable level of interest meant shuffling through crowded galleries with sharp-elbowed scrums forming around the choicer items.  It's surprising how competitive the bespectacled classes can be in such circumstances.  As it happens, I have a taste for prints and drawings, and these draw rather less attention than the blockbuster self-portraits. Being able to compare four different "states" of the same etching on the same wall -- seeing the masterful additions, subtractions, and rethinkings by flicking your eyes back and forth, as if in one of those "spot the differences" competitions -- was, for me, deeply instructive and rewarding and worth the discomforts and annoyances of the travel several times over.

One of the bad decisions they have made is to allow photography throughout the museum, including the Rembrandt show.  Few things are as irritating as an assemblage of fools with iPhones, all attempting to get to the front of a crowd in order to get a clear shot of the same painting; photographs which will inevitably be blurred and worthless (most galleries are dimly lit, for obvious archival reasons).  I kept hearing someone muttering, "Buy a fucking postcard, you fucking idiot...", then realised it was me.

Of course, the Rijksmuseum has plenty of early and middle-period Rembrandts, too, hanging in the permanent galleries, not to mention Vermeers and any other Dutch or Flemish artist you have or haven't hear of.  I loved the mediaeval galleries: for sheer eye-candy, you can't beat those generally nameless painters of jewel-like altarpieces, full of excruciating martyrdoms and characterful crowds, all evenly lit by the clear blue sky of a summer's afternoon in heaven; not something often encountered in the Low Countries.

Although, the day before, we'd seen plenty of blue skies, not to mention martyrdoms and characterful crowds, when visiting the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum), a brilliant examination of Holland's imperial trading past, with some truly clear-eyed displays about the nature, benefits, tragedies, and mixed legacies of the colonial enterprise.  I wish there was something similar in Britain.

Yep, that's "The Night Watch": buy a postcard...

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Winter Grasses

There are some impressively steep and deep earthworks on the north edge of Twyford Down, where it looks like relatively recent chalk-mining has underscored the lines of some Iron Age hillfort defences.  I've always presumed these are the famous "dongas", a word brought back as a souvenir from South Africa in the late 19th century, and appropriated by the Dongas Tribe of road protesters in the 1980s.  In the right light, they can look like giant waves breaking on a geological timescale.

On the parallel south side, there is a curious little "dry valley", of a sort typical of chalk downland, which has that watchful, haunted feel that abandoned places of habitation tend to have, although it's hard to imagine anyone living in such a sunless pinch in the landscape.  The gravelly track running through it is full of fragments of old brick and tile, which adds to the melancholy impression of desertion, but these have probably been dumped here to improve the going for the occasional farm vehicle.

Such quiet, layered places bring to mind a famous haiku of Bashō, composed in summer 1689:
Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors' dreams.

trans. R.H. Blyth
There's an interesting gloss on this poem in a book by Jane Reichhold, which takes a slightly different tack to most interpretations:
It seems that Bashō, looking over a former battleground now covered with grass, felt that he was seeing the old soldiers hurrying towards battle and victory.  Another element is the old poetic exp0ression "pillow of grass", which signifies "being on a journey" in Japanese poetry.  The grass cut and folded for pillows for the poorest soldiers would still contain a trace of their dreams, perhaps enough to make the dream of war rise up and grow again.  Sora wrote in his diary that after writing this verse, Bashō sat down on his hat and wept.  Bashō wrote the same in his account.

Bashō: the Complete Haiku, translated with an introduction, biography & notes by Jane Reichhold
I'm not sure of the significance of sitting on one's hat...  Is this like Zen master Joshu placing his shoes on his head, I wonder, or merely a practical way of keeping your backside dry?

The translation of haiku is a fraught business: most Western enthusiasts are unaware of the real differences between the Japanese originals and the familiar English versions, or the strict poetic conventions at work in the genre, although the idea of "seventeen syllables" arranged 5:7:5 is well known.  Perhaps, for us, the close association of haiku poets with Zen combined with the popularization of Zen via the American "beats" of the 20th century post-War period has caused us to see these poems through a hepcat's dark glasses as simplisticly imagistic, loose and spontaneous word games, deceptively easy to imitate.

Here's a commentary on some issues in translation, from a brief piece by John Carley which focuses on the Bashō haiku quoted above:
Haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters of groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text. There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjections which are considered as words in their own right.

The following poem is a hokku (haiku) by Basho. I give it in its generally accepted original, followed by the same text entirely in Japanese phonetic script (i.e., without ideograms) - this is separated out into individual words with the metrical phrase boundaries shown by a double line. Then comes an approximate phonetic transliteration in the Roman alphabet. And lastly there is a crude word-for-word rendering.


なつくさ | や || つわものども | が || ゆめ | の | あと

natsugusa | ya || tsuwamonodomo | ga || yume | no | ato

summer-grass | !/:/? || warrior | 's || dream | 's | mark/remainder
The Japanese word "ya" is the so-called "cutting word", indicating the break in the poetic logic, rendered by Carley as "!/:/?" (i.e. any of these punctuation marks might serve), and the words "ga" and "no" indicate the equivalent of a genitive (rendered by Carley as "'s").

The gulf between Japanese and English language and poetics is quite steep and deep, widened by our very different cultures and histories, and quite difficult to cross.  Rhyme, rhythm and patterns of stress, not syllable counting, are our poetic traditions -- our Way (though syllabic poetry is the norm in French). In both Britain and Japan in February, however, it's generally best to keep your shoes on your feet, and your hat on your head.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


One of the nicer things about Southampton is the existence of the Common, a massive green wedge driven into the city.  Seen from above on a satellite view, central Southampton looks like a pie-chart or perhaps a Pac-Man, about to gobble up Eastleigh and Winchester to the north.  The Common is a strange and varied space, with a magnificent and overgrown Victorian cemetery at the southern sharp end, and various ponds and paddling pools, ditches and streams scattered around, but most of its 360-plus acres are covered by stretches of open grass and scrub divided up by woodland and impenetrable thickets.

There is also a complex network of paths which it takes many years to understand.  It is very easy to take a wrong turning, especially at night -- there are no lights on the Common -- and you can end up following a path that exits a mile or two from your intended destination.  In fact, most sensible people avoid the Common at night.  At best it's rather spooky and at worst it's quite a dangerous place to be alone.  Bands of medieval brigands who took a wrong path back in the 13th century still live on in the deepest thickets.

Obviously, it's a boon to dog-owners, joggers, and others in need of a convenient open space (not to mention those in need of a convenient bit of dense cover).  Crossing the Common on the way to work, I would encounter the same people at more or less the exact same time and place walking their dogs, or chatting in groups as they waited for their dogs to return from some exuberant squirrel-chasing foray.  One night, cycling back in the dark, I collided with a dog.  I went head-first over the handlebars, saved from injury only by the thousands of repeated judo rolling forward-breakfalls practised in my youth, but was seriously dazed and confused.  The dog's owner found me with her torch, which was doubly confusing -- she was running the beam over me, lying on the ground, and babbling continually, "Are you all right?  Oh Shit!  Oh Shit!  Are you all right?"  Meanwhile her yelping hound ran around in confused circles somewhere nearby in the dark.  Remarkably, dog, bicycle, and rider were undamaged by the incident.

Nicest of all, the council takes a low-maintenance approach to the woodland and thickets.  In many places, trees have fallen, but have merely been sawn away where they blocked a footpath.  It's invertebrate heaven, and the only place I have ever seen stag beetles.  As a result, it is something of a wildlife haven, with herons and buzzards overhead, and everything from deer on down lurking in the undergrowth.  The night our daughter was born, I drove our son over to sleep at a friend's house on the other side of town.  I must have seen twenty foxes in my headlights, criss-crossing the road running along the top of the Common, as they ripped and raided the bin-bags arrayed along the kerbside for the morning collection.

The numbers of "urban" foxes have declined, somewhat, since the introduction of wheelie-bins, but their unearthly screams and barks still punctuate the small hours.  There is no shortage of rats and mice, after all, plus a steady windfall of discarded takeaways and other urban delicacies.  But if they want to tackle those wheelie-bins, though, they need to open a dialogue with those master thieves, the grey squirrels.  It'll never happen.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Black & White in Colour

Sometimes, despite the bitter cold, a February afternoon can be all about the warmth of the sunshine, and the blue of the sky.  Then the clouds come over again, the colours fade, and you find yourself wondering whether some of your photographs might be truer to the experience in monochrome.  It always reminds me of when people say, "the pictures are better on the radio".

I first heard the expression "black & white in colour" coined many years ago by a friend, who was trying to get at the essential difference between colour and monochrome film.  A black and white object photographed (or filmed) in colour is a far more vivid and immediate experience for the eye, he maintained:  it is truly black and white, with no hint of grey.  But then the same object photographed in monochrome can have subtle tonal qualities that have greater visual longevity.  It's as if one's eye is refreshed by pure tonality, but exhausted by colour.

Assuming, of course, it has been well printed.  Sometime, I must scan a print given to me by another friend, probably the best printer of monochrome I have ever known.  His prints -- selenium-toned on "old stock" Agfa Record Rapid, with its high silver content and an unhealthy dose of cadmium -- are astonishing, with a symphonic range of tones, including shadows split-toned between a deep plum-colour and a rich plain-chocolate black, and luminous off-white highlights.  Add to that the inimitable flat sheen of air-dried fibre-based gloss paper, and you have an object of beauty, underpinning and setting off the strengths of the pictorial content.  Especially compared with the ugly plastic glossiness of a colour paper like Cibachrome.  Until the advent of inkjet printers (or, of course, high-resolution colour computer screens), colour photography was a depressingly unaesthetic experience.  If you've never read it, and have feelings one way or the other about the heaven or hell of the darkroom, my ancient post from 2009 Tears in the Stop Bath may be worth a look.

As it happens, my walk across Southampton Common this afternoon took me past the site of the bric-a-brac shop where I bought my first enlarger, a Meopta, in 1984.  It was just along from an old-fashioned barbershop, and a corner shop that still sold loose sweets in paper bags.  I sold my enlarger and darkroom kit over a decade ago, when you still could -- I don't suppose you could give that stuff away, now -- and all the shops in that little row have now closed, and their windows have been bricked up. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

When Rockstars Attack

As the early lives of our contemporaries drift into the twilight zone known as "within living memory", not yet compacted into "history", the semi-official accounts of Our Times begin to emerge.  For example, I am about to embark on David Kynaston's ongoing multi-volume account of post-War Britain, not least because I'm curious to know how we're going to look to posterity.  Although I can be certain my name won't appear in the index, I can be pretty sure the name of my home town, Stevenage, will.  It's one of the stranger aspects of having grown up as a juvenile extra in a major social experiment.  We were being watched, counted, and measured, although nobody said so at the time, or has ever asked me how I felt about it or what I have made of it since; just another microbe in the Petri dish, I suppose.

One area where I always find myself at odds with the emerging narratives is rock and pop, a subject close to my heart (as it is to 88.3% of all post-War teens born 1946-1960, or so it says here).  I've been reading Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, by David Browne.  I was intrigued by the title, or rather by the subtitle.  Or, actually, just the bit that says "the lost story of 1970".  Ah, 1970!  What a vintage year that was...  I turned 16 that year, began visiting pubs and clubs, had my first "steady" girlfriend, received the validation of some good exam results, had my first holiday without my parents...  The list goes on.  I have a vested interest in any account of that year, especially one that focusses on the popular culture of the time.  That's one of my years.  Tread carefully now!

It's not a bad book, Fire and Rain.  If you have an interest in the breakup of the Beatles, or the story behind the albums Déjà Vu, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Sweet Baby James, then you'll find it fascinating.  The trouble is, I don't, and didn't.  I never owned any of those albums, or remember hearing them much at the time, even.  In fact, I had never listened to Déjà Vu until yesterday, when I span it up on Spotify ("I Nearly Cut My Hair"?  Seriously?  This is not a Zappa-style spoof?).  So, as far as I am concerned, this is not the story -- whether lost, misplaced, damaged, or deliberately dropped behind the sofa -- of 1970.  Although, clearly, it is a story of 1970, but one compiled from the unreal, outer-space perspective of the historian.

Nonetheless, I have been finding this tale of behind-the-scenes sulks, spats and breakups entertaining.  How could you not?  What big babies these rockstars be!  And, as it happens, I have also recently watched two fascinating movies on Netflix, both of which tell a very similar story of young men behaving badly: History of The Eagles, and Beware of Mr. Baker.

Now, I only really know one Eagles album: Desperado, surely the most satisfying "concept" album ever made.  Granted, grown men dressing up as cowboys is a bit silly, but -- as I have written before -- the whole rock/pop enterprise comes out of the Dressing Up Box, so why not make a virtue of it?  Few albums can have taken a thematic metaphor and run with it as brilliantly as Desperado.  And yet, as I discovered from the film, it was a disappointment in sales terms, and got made amid some serious inter-personal difficulties and rivalries, and thus gets passed over fairly swiftly in the band's "history".  In the end, all roads lead to Hotel California, yet another album I have never heard.

And therein lies the lesson, historically.  To us, as consumers, the lost story of any given year, as far as music is concerned, is not a tale of hissy-fits in the studio, sales figures, clever technical feats, or how unfairly the loot got split; it's the private story of our relationship with those few entertainment "products" we happened to choose or, as it more often felt, the ones which chose us.  That was our real, lived experience, quite a different thing to the statistical reduction of a million lives. A lot of people bought and loved Déjà Vu: I didn't.  A lot of people didn't buy and love Desperado: but I did.  We didn't know and probably still don't care who walked out or who was fired or who had to struggle with demons and addictions in the process of manufacturing the songs that invoke important times and places and feelings in our own little lives.  No-one loves a song or an album because it went platinum, and they don't necessarily go platinum just because people love them.

To take an interest, retrospectively, in the production process is fine, if you want to find out how the trick was done.  But this is never such a good idea, if you want the enchantment to last. Which brings us to Beware of Mr. Baker.  That is, drummer Ginger Baker, Exhibit A in the Monsters of Rock freak-show.  I mean, really...  I knew he was regarded as a bit intense and difficult to work with, but crikey.  As it happens, Cream were never really my thing -- they were practically Dad-rock even by 1970 -- but if you harbour any precious memories of that particular rock combo, take my advice:  never, ever watch this extraordinary movie.  To anyone else, though, this is probably a pretty good insight into how the trick was done; or, in Baker's case, how the trick was thoroughly and repeatedly fluffed, muffed, stuffed and stamped on.  But do you really want to know?  I don't think you do.

Desperado, 1958

Sunday, 1 February 2015

On the Wall

It was a  cold, crisp first afternoon of February today, so we decided to drive over to Mottisfont Abbey, knowing that there is a photographic exhibition on there at the moment, which is as good an excuse as any to get inside when the cold gets too much.  So we made a perfunctory tour of the grounds -- a lot more repairs and renovations seem to be under way -- and headed gratefully for the gallery.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was amazed, on stepping inside, immediately to recognise the work of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, two of my personal favourite artists, both of whom work in the territory of "camera-less" photography, and whose books I have collected for some time.  However, the initial excitement was followed by a gradual disenchantment.  On the wall, the work was considerably less impressive than it is on the page, and for the usual simple reasons:  it is too big, and uses ugly, shiny paper.

Now, to an extent, Derges and Miller are stuck with their end-product, which is generally a one-off resulting from a unique interaction betweeen the natural world (or, in Miller's case, light sources) with light-sensitive materials, and these processes may well require the use of tough but ugly, shiny paper (I have always hated Cibachrome with a passion).  Digital technology -- scanning, for example -- could overcome this problem, but they presumably have chosen not to make use of it.  Fair enough.  But the other photographers in the show have no such excuse. Images from (I presume) medium-format colour negatives which would have had fullest impact at about 10 inches square on a semi-matte paper have been blown up to several feet across on a glossy, reflective paper stock that screams, "this is just a photograph!"  I hate that.  Especially when the price tag is £950 (so cheap!  The Derges and Miller items were £10,000 each...).

In fact, I am aware that I am feeling a certain  level of disenchantment with photography in general.  There's simply too much of it about, and too much of what gets shown (and the way it gets shown) is not to my liking.  By contrast, a small room of portraits in another room of the Mottisfont gallery, all made with pencil, charcoal, and paint, were really engaging: even the bad work (and, boy, was some of it bad -- hands are clearly very difficult to get right) has expressive, eye-pleasing qualities that reward close attention.  The fact that all the marks have been put there purposefully by a human hand and eye, albeit with varying degrees of skill and intention, counts for a lot.

Critics of photography as an art medium often say that it's too easy, and too mechanical.  There is some truth in that.  Consider either of the two images here:  taken around 3:00 p.m. today on a digital camera, with single clicks lasting 1/250th of a second, I had processed and printed the files to my satisfaction by about 7:00 p.m., and then made the small JPEG versions incorporated into this blog post, which was written this evening, and which was probably the part that took the longest.  Job done!

Frankly, I'd feel dishonest, charging £950 for a print.  Obviously, 30 years of experience and eye-training went into those clicks, and my digital processing and printing skills are excellent, drawing compliments wherever they are seen -- probably another 15 or more years of experience there.  So maybe £750 would not make me blush, were anyone ever prepared to pay that much (did I say I sold not a single print at my last exhibition?  And at a tenth of that price)...  But compared to painting or drawing the same scenes -- which I probably could not do, to my own satisfaction -- that's a very short time indeed from seeing to final product, with very little labour involved.

Which may explain why I've been fiddling around with pencils, pens and paper recently, and spending too much time gawking at stationery-porn sits like Cult Pens ...  Although I'm acutely aware that Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, later in life, after a career of unparalleled achievement in photography, hung up his cameras and returned to his first love, painting and drawing, saying, "All I care about these days is painting -- photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing".  Needless to say, HCB's paintings and drawings are awful.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Outside Looking In

Ferdinandeum library, Innsbruck

In my thirty years as an academic librarian, I have had the privilege of visiting quite a few magnificent libraries, either as a guest or by showing my access-all-areas On Her Majesty's Bibliographic Service wristband *.  I have gaped in envy at the Wellcome Institute's cash-rich plushness (the only library I have ever visited with its own logo printed on the vinyl dust-covers of its microfilm readers), been enchanted by the Harry-Potter-central-casting-leather-bound perfection of the Natural History Museum, and clanged through the shabby-chic recesses of the London Library and the old British Library stacks, with elevated walkways and shelving assembled out of slotted and perforated cast-iron sections (intended to maximise ventilation and penetration of daylight in the days before electricity), as if kitted out by a steam-punk IKEA.

So it was with a certain poignant foreshadowing of my imminent civilian status, back in the summer in Innsbruck, that I found myself outside looking in, peering through the glass partition separating a gallery of paintings in the "Ferdinandeum" State Museum from the comfortable and well-appointed Tyrolean State Library.  I was fascinated by the portrait of a bearded woman apparently wearing Comanche warpaint, hanging on the wall behind the researchers, until I realised I was seeing the superimposed reflection of another painting hanging on the facing wall [note to self:  maybe it's time to start wearing those glasses?].  The clients themselves were hunched in the international body-language of concentration, oblivious to each other and the idiot with a camera grinning at them through the glass.

There is an interesting portrait project for someone, probably not me, to capture the assorted states of rapt absorption, distraction and repose that people adopt when at work in a library.  Various photographers have done "people reading", from André Kertész to Steve McCurry, and there's a superb collection of anonymous photographic postcards on that theme, compiled by artist Tom Phillips from his own collection (now deposited in the Bodleian Library and published by them, ISBN 978-1851243594 **).  But "library readers" would be quite different.

In fact "library sleepers" might be even more interesting.  In a university library at exam times, students are always to be found slumped in various contorted poses over piles of books and notes at all hours of the day, sometimes with amusing notes pinned or glued onto their backs.  Not, I hasten to add, by library staff.  Or, at least, not as a matter of policy.

British Museum
I remember when this was all books...

It's only when you're finally permanently outside an institutional setting of any kind -- a school, an office, the police, a government department, or a library -- that you realise quite how crazy the long-term inmates invariably become. Which reminded me of this:

My former place of work has five floors, linked by a main staircase, a back staircase, and a lift.  One morning, I had to go from my office on the entrance-level floor (confusingly known as "Level 2") to take a copy of Puck of Pook's Hill I had on my desk back up to the top floor (Level 5).  I'm always in need of exercise, so I usually take the stairs.  That day I felt particularly badly in need of exercise, so I first went down to the basement (Level 1), and went up to Level 5 from there, using the back staircase.

I replaced the Kipling on the shelf.  It was the Puck volume of the Centenary Edition, published in 1965, with identical graphical dustjackets in a typically early 1960s design.  Soldiers Three in the same edition caught my eye, so I took it off the shelf and went back downstairs to my office, this time via the main staircase.  After a while I realised I probably didn't want to borrow it after all, and that I should probably return it immediately.

Just for fun -- I'm easily pleased -- I repeated my previous journey i.e. down to Level 1, and up to Level 5, again on the back staircase.  I replaced the volume, but for some reason took down another, Plain Tales from the Hills, and again went back down to Level 2, again via the main staircase.  Back in my office, I wondered: what if I were to immediately return this volume, too, by the same route?  How many times would I have to repeat the procedure before anyone would notice that I had just passed by in the same direction, apparently holding exactly the same book? (But, in fact -- ha! -- not the same book at all).  It struck me that this was a piece of conceptual performance art in the making.

Conceptual art is all about self-imposed rules and constraints; it's the Higher OCD.  So: what if I were to repeat this for all the volumes in the set?  There were only 23; what a pity there weren't 24...  Twenty-four being a magic number, instantly conferring significance; it might even be an ironically oblique way of marking our upcoming move to 24/7 opening hours.  I should probably find a different set of books, one with twenty-four volumes, ideally larger in size and with even more striking but identical dustjackets.

Some other refinements were probably needed.  Did it matter whether anyone spotted what was going on, or was it enough that the procedure was carried out as planned?  If so, would I be more noticeable if I ran, or did a funny walk?  Perhaps the thing to do would be to arrange for a Keystone Cops-style squad of Security staff to pursue me ineffectually, until ... yes! ... a white-coated team with a strait-jacket waylaid me, noisily and publicly, during the twenty-fourth iteration!

But, in an Ono-esque gesture, I merely wrote this project down in my notebook, rather than carry it out.  Of course, in the way of all such conceptual art, who's to say I didn't do it?  What difference would it make?  Does anyone care what is actually inside Piero Manzoni's tins, or whether Tracey Emin ever actually spent a single night in that bed?  It did briefly occur to me that it might be worth submitting my idea to a suitable body for funding; it could become a useful supplementary income stream, and at the same time open up a new avenue of self-expression.  But in the end I decided the best course would be to retire as soon as possible, before anyone realised quite how mad I had finally been driven.

* "Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to enter freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such access as may be required, with no jobsworth nonsense about opening times, public holidays, and the like. Don't make Us ask twice, yeah? Cheers, ER."

** In fact, there's a whole series of these Tom Phillips/Bodleian themed postcard compilations, all worth a look -- I particularly like "Bicycles" and "Fantasy Travel".

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lots of Laughs

Last Thursday afternoon, I went for a walk across Southampton Common.  The morning had been bright, cold and crisp, but the light started to fail quite quickly -- the picture above was taken at 14:34, the one below at 14:54.  Bizarrely, there was no frost anywhere except at this one spot, wedged between a path and a stream.  There were even patches of ice where small puddles had frozen, too: it seems I may have stumbled over the single coldest location in South Hampshire.  No doubt when the next Ice Age begins this will be the starting point for a glacier.

Mind you, according to the weather-folk, the next Ice Age will begin on Wednesday, and it seems it's already sweeping into America's East Coast.  Wrap up warm, guys!

Any talk of snow at this time of year always puts me in mind of the last Great Ice Age, the mid-to-late 1960s, when rough beasts stalked the land, and the ground was deeply, crisply, evenly covered beneath what must have been at least several inches of snow.  Playing around with the new BBC iPlayer Radio app, it was a pleasant surprise to find that episodes of a show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again are being re-broadcast on digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra.  Now, back in that last Ice Age, this was an innovative radio sketch comedy programme, a sort of pre-Python prototype.  It was very popular with some of the boys at school and, as with Monty Python later, breaktimes would be enlivened by the enthusiastic retelling of the previous night's feast of skit, wit and repartee.  Not having grown up in a "speech radio" household, I never did hear any of this show myself, and my memory of it is entirely second-hand.  So, I thought I'd have a listen, for old time's sake, and chose an episode at random from May 1966.

I was amazed, but not in a good way. The very first thing I heard was Bill Oddie assuming a bad generic "Jewish" accent, à la Fagin, as a booking agent handling Beethoven, although I suppose it might have been South African.  Are South Africans strongly associated with entertainment management? Not really... The cringe factor immediately went up to 9.  A few sketches later, we had Graeme Garden doing "Tales from Shakespeare, by David Pushoff", and the cringe factor went off the scale, and I had to stop listening.

I doubt David Kossoff is much remembered now, except possibly as the father of Paul Kossoff, the il-fated guitarist in the rock group Free, but his distinctive, avuncular storytelling style, with its kindly, sing-song Jewish inflections, was once a staple of British children's entertainment.  In the parody, Graeme Garden plays up the Jewishness for comic effect -- lots of "Oy! Oy!" -- and the wholesome-sounding audience laughs the laughter of "recognition humour".  Yes, Jews do have a funny way of speaking, don't they?  Ah yes, I've heard about Jews and their mothers!  That's funny, too, isn't it?

Now, clearly, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden are not, and were not, bad people.  They simply reached for whatever comic tools came to hand.  There was a fashion in the 1960s for dark, even "sick" humour, as an antidote to the bland and hypocritical pieties of an older generation, with the result that anything and everything was suddenly -- and confusingly -- fair game.  The boundaries of offense and "poor taste" had become blurred.  But this programme did remind me, uncomfortably, of the innocent, reflex racism that I grew up among and adopted, which I touched on in an earlier post.

Apart from staples like Jewish jokes (meanness with money), Irish jokes (stupidity), and "nig-nog" jokes (grotesque physical features), our white English schoolboy argot was suffused with casual, almost unconscious racism.  You would complain that someone had "wogged" your pencil, or that a friend was "jewing" their bag of sweets.  Inevitably -- with hindsight, incredibly -- the first black boy at our school was dubbed "Wog" Walters.  Homosexuality was, of course, even more beyond the pale of acceptability, and any hint of effeminacy was bullied mercilessly.  In retrospect, the playground atmosphere was pretty toxic, and the few representatives of those mocked and despised minorities must have walked in fear and held their tongues.

It's a obvious fact that nearly all comedy sparks off of our prejudices and preconceptions.  I watched a Frankie Boyle recording for the first time the other night, and was, well, surprised at the level of hostility he unleashes; I was even more surprised at the readiness of his victims in the audience to offer themselves up, and to laugh along.  Finding oneself funny can be a saving grace, but allowing oneself to be stereotyped for comic effect by others -- or, worse, to collude in that stereotyping -- is surely always a step in the wrong direction.  It's never really worked for Jews, has it?  I recently heard a female Asian comic quip that "brown people don't do camping".  It got a big laugh.  But, "brown people"?  Really?

The problem is that, as someone once said, most of us don't really have a sense of humour, but do love to laugh.  A good comedian knows how to give an audience permission to laugh, through the shape and rhythm of their patter: one ... two ... three ... laugh now!  But the content of the material is nearly always about Us putting Them back into their box.  With honourable exceptions, few comics ever get beyond the contemporary equivalent of, "Jews, they have a funny way of speaking don't they?  Ever noticed that?  Oy vey!" [Laugh now] ...

I mention this because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  We're all Righteous Among the Nations these days, of course.  Who wouldn't have risked torture, imprisonment and death to rescue or hide Jews fleeing from persecution by a government we had somehow, in an inexplicable lapse of judgement, voted into power?  Who wouldn't have endangered their career prospects to speak up against the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, even though from 1933 onwards acquiescence was simply a matter of obeying the law?  Not us, I'm sure.  [Laugh now]...

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Spider on the Wall

Of all the images I brought home from Innsbruck, I think this is one of those that have pleased me the most.  That strange spidery sunburst on the wall is the shadow of a cupola on top of the circular gallery, distorted by the angle of the sun and the fact that the wall onto which it is projected is itself curved.

It must be a fairly predictable sight, but whether it has been photographed before I couldn't say.  I like the way the figure on the right appears to be flinching away from the apparition, like Little Miss Muffet, and the way the panel on the left and the portion of the projection on the floor break the symmetry of the "legs", not to mention the way the polished parquet floor reflects the whole thing.

Choice! Though I say so myself...

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Salty Bread

You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

Of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Descending and ascending others' stairs.
 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XVII

It is the fate of most of us to go through life without touching the sides.  Whoosh!  There it was, gone.  Was that it?  I'm afraid so...  Next!  Yet, although only an exceptional few ever make any lasting impression, there are still places -- maybe not in the glare of the spotlight but also not quite in the outer darkness -- where unusual, interesting, fulfilling lives can be led.  But you may find that those places are not marked on the map handed out to you at birth, and you may need to become a bit of an explorer.

This, in Britain at least, has always been a matter of social class and education. "Class" has become unfashionable as a way of describing oneself, and the organisation of society.  The idea that you are to any degree defined and constrained by your origins, or that mobility between classes does not simply correlate with an increase or decrease in disposable income, is at odds with the more marketable idea that everything is a matter of choices, of elective lifestyle.  That the choices available to you might in themselves be defined and constrained by your social origins is never part of the sales pitch.

I think I've become more class-conscious as I've got older.  That is, it has become more obvious to me that, despite meritocratic claims to the contrary, you are as profoundly and permanently marked by your social origins -- high, low, or middling -- as by, say, race or gender.  It doesn't seem that way when you start out.  Whatever circumstances you have been born into, if you have been gifted with intelligence, creativity, and perhaps a little originality, your early life is all about your own personal exceptionalism.  Sure, most of my friends are doomed to repeat the ordinary, dull lives of their parents, but me, I'll never fit in, because I'm different!  But the thrill of exploring the territory of your own unique "difference" diminishes, when the realisation dawns that the price of trying to escape the gravitational pull of your origins will be never to feel fully at home anywhere else, either.

Banal as it sounds, I tend to feel this most on Saturdays, when I go to do the weekly shop.  I can choose between a number of supermarkets, depending on what we need and what mood I'm in, ranging from the downmarket anonymity of a Tesco superstore (situated off a dual-carriageway like a customs post to Nowhere) to the upmarket calm of a Waitrose in nearby market-town Romsey (which shares a carpark with a country lifestyle store where you can buy riding tack and hen coops).  In either of those stores, however, I wander the aisles, thinking, "I bloody hate these people...", whether it be the hyper-obese matriarchs in mobility scooters shrieking at brattish children, or the deluded snobs of rural Hampshire, happily paying those "reassuringly expensive" prices.

There is a smaller supermarket I use more often, situated in town near to the University, where I know I will meet a series of people I have worked with over the last 30 years, many of whom are long-retired, and hungry for a chat. The frequent stops mean the shop can take twice as long, and there is something unsettling about watching the wizened husk of a former professor of Rocket Science shuffling along absent-mindedly with a basket of cat food.  Laudably, the shop employs several shelf-stackers and trolley-retrievers on a "care in the community" basis, including a woman who sings and laughs constantly in a rather demented way and at the top of her voice.  In the wrong, uncharitable mood, though, the undertone of despair beneath the forced jolliness of her constant cackling and warbling can take me to a very dark place by the time I reach the checkouts. I often end up stuffing the bags in the boot of the car with a strong sense of relief: let's get out of here!

Most often, though, I use a large Sainsbury's in a nearby estate built in the 1960s on the top of a gentle hill, which has an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in.  There, although I know nobody, I know everyone, and they know me.  It's a pleasant feeling.  It's got a lot to do with body language, and choice of clothing.  These are "my" people, from my class of origin, living lives that -- with a little less awareness of difference -- would have been mine, and sometimes I can experience a deep sense of peace, simply pushing a trolley among the plumbers and builders, the primary school teachers and nurses, the postmen and electricians of the skilled, aspirational working and lower-middle classes.  And yet, of course, I am never now more than a weekend visitor, passing through.  Like thousands of others before and since, I left town at the first opportunity, never to return, becoming yet another displaced person, exiled by education.

So, wherever I happen to shop, it seems, I will drive home with the salty bread of exile stowed in the boot.  Which, let's be honest, is much nicer than the white sliced Sunblest of my youth -- though perhaps not as nice as a fresh-baked pain de campagne from a proper French boulangerie -- and I couldn't eat anything else, now.  Although getting the bags up and down all those stairs is becoming a pain.  Maybe it's time I signed up for online grocery deliveries?

On reflection, maybe not.  I'm still sufficiently a product of my origins to be embarrassed by the sight of an Ocado van pulling up outside.  So, who's gone all posh, then?

Museum staircase, Innsbruck

Monday, 19 January 2015


Finally, I am able to get out of the house for sustained periods, and went for a wander up on Twyford Down yesterday.  Like me, these two heifers were enjoying the last rays of the sun on a bright but chilly afternoon.  Although, unlike me, they weren't looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea.

As an image it's hardly to be compared with a Beethoven late quartet, but nonetheless I'm put in mind of the dedication of the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132, the extraordinary String Quartet in A minor:
Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart
(Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode)
Of course, in Beethoven's time, recovery from illness and medical intervention was rather less guaranteed than it is today.  Anyone who talks sniffily about "so-called progress" or regards the advances of empirical science and medicine as mere constructs is an idiot.  That such idiots should find a platform within institutions of higher education and be paid salaries out of the public purse is one of the wonders of our age.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Innsbruck Revisited

Given the dearth of new photographs in recent weeks, I have taken up a long-postponed task, and have been taking a closer look at the files I brought back from my residency in Innsbruck during summer 2014.  It's interesting, what a difference the lapse in time can make.

The immediate standouts that got used in my blog posts, and were reused in the "blog book" I produced last year (A Tourist From Mars) still mainly work for me, I'm glad to say, but others have begun to come to the fore, now the actual experience is receding into memory, and I am able to see them with a more objective eye.  In particular, there are many images I dismissed previously as "untypical outliers" or, at the other extreme, as "too like my other work".  Some of these are much more interesting than they appeared at first glance, and reveal some consistent threads in my approach I wasn't conscious of at the time.  Amongst other things, I was clearly obsessed by the way the intensity of the southern sun in June reveals colour and texture in the plainest of walls.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure how much further effort I will put into this.  As I have said about other isolated sets of images -- our yearly visits to Wales at Easter, for example, or what amount to "holiday snaps" taken on other short visits --  they tend either to lack enough coherence, to be too few in number, or to cover too limited a part of the year to make a considered, coherent series in their own right.  There was initially some talk of a possible further exhibition, but on current showing this seems unlikely.

I actually have no idea how the summer exhibition was received, as I haven't heard a single word about it, positive or negative, from anyone since returning home in June, and must conclude that it was less successful than hoped.  In particular, there seem to have been no picture sales at all this time, which is both surprising and disappointing.  I have to say I thought it was a pretty good show, and that I managed to produce some outstanding new work from a brief 10-day residency in an unfamiliar location, but, too bad: if we waited on other people's opinions and responses, we'd never do anything worth doing.