Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Quieter Brighton

A few more images from my recent Brighton visit.  Sometimes, once you've got over the impact of the standout frames, it's the quieter pictures that start to emerge more strongly.  Same stormy day, different perspectives.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Not Venice

Yesterday afternoon had the quiet but interesting light that is just right for photographing water.  I needed to top up various supplies -- printer ink, again -- so headed down town, and after doing my shopping walked down to a waterside park, where a good view of the docks may be had.

When I first came here, thirty years ago, you could access the dockside area pretty freely, if you had the necessary chutzpah: no-one would challenge you.  I shared a house just over the railway line from the dry dock (with this guy, now in Australia, who has some interesting things to say about the state of universities), and you could cross over a footbridge and wander alongside the gigantic moored hulls and busy cranes.  Now, with heightened concerns about public safety, theft, terrorism, and the smuggling of contraband and people, the place is inevitably shut off behind gates and tall fences topped with razor wire.

Venice it ain't, but there is a certain serenity to a broad view of the docks.  But, I hear you ask, what is that silver dome that keeps cropping up in these pictures of Southampton Water?  Why, it is the Marchwood Energy Recovery Facility.  Not everything around here is about polluting the seas with fossil fuels.  In fact, there are a number of eco-friendly energy schemes, including the Southampton Geothermal Heating Company, right in the centre of the main shopping area.

The sea and ships and the shoreline have a mysterious pull, and even on a chilly mid-week October afternoon a few people can be seen sitting around -- on benches, on the grass, in parked cars -- staring contemplatively out across the water.  A waterfront park is one of those liminal places where the normal rules are in suspension, and it's OK to spend the day quietly doing nothing in public.
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Morell Moment

Our house is orientated roughly north-south, with the front of the house facing east.  At this time of year, as the days shorten dramatically and the weather takes an autumnal turn, opening the front door to fetch in the milk first thing in the morning can present a very different spectacle, day by day, especially now that my rising hours are varying so much.  If I'm up at 6:00, there are stars in the sky; if I'm up at 9:00, the day is already in full swing.  Will there be frost, will there be fog, will there be rain?  Will the rising sun announce itself with a dazzling blaze of orange light, or be obscured by clouds?

This morning, around 8:55, I was sitting in the kitchen, listening to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time (he's started to sound both bored and tired, don't you think?) when my eye was caught by a vision.  On one of the white melamine cupboard doors beneath the sink, a brightly-illuminated geometrical shape had formed, with that insistent optical sharpness and clarity that says to the brain, "This is real!"

Now, the Prof is always amused by my susceptibility to the uncanny, which she attributes to a certain unwise level of, ah, chemical indiscretion in my youth, which is compounded by my reluctance to wear spectacles.  I'm afraid the world is not yet ready for the story of the monkey I saw riding a tricycle in a Caen carpark, while waiting for a car ferry home on a family holiday.  But she was still upstairs, waiting for a cup of tea, so I took my time scrutinising this apparition.

It was familiar.  It was ...  Surely it was the decorative leaded lights from our front door, but upside down, and somehow shining through the closed kitchen door?  I then realised what was going on:  the rising sun was shining brightly through the glass panel on the front door, and passing through the keyhole in the kitchen door, which was acting as a pinhole and projecting a virtual image of the pebbled glass and lead cames onto the handy white melamine screen opposite.

I ran to get a camera, but the crucial alignment had started to go by the time I returned, so all I have to show you is this over-processed grab-shot of a fading vision:

If you're familiar with the work of Abelardo Morell, you'll know what a travesty this image is, but it's a tribute nonetheless to one of the most creative photographers working today, who took a single, simple idea and really ran with it.

It may happen again tomorrow, at a slightly later time, or it may not -- a neighbouring roof or chimney pot may intercept the necessary alignment of elements.  Or it may be cloudy.  Maybe next year...  One thing's for sure, though: I won't be sealing the kitchen doorway tomorrow morning with black plastic à la Morell just to see what the front of the house looks like projected onto the back of the house.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Big Show

U-boats over Mayfair

I was up in London yesterday, primarily to see the Anselm Kiefer show (girls! music!) at the Royal Academy of Arts.  As an amateur Germanophile, I have taken an interest in Kiefer's work ever since a copy of Mark Rosenthal's catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago's 1987 exhibition passed across my desk.  He is an artist who has taken on the big German themes like no other; from the very beginning he was tackling taboos such as Hitler, the Holocaust and the roots of Nazi ideology in German culture in a very confrontational way. However, until yesterday afternoon, I had never actually seen any of these fabled works in real life, merely as reproductions in books and magazines.

So, wow...  They are BIG.  I mean, I knew they were big, but they are ENORMOUS.  To see something you have previously contemplated at postcard size occupying 18 x 12 feet of wall space is a disconcerting experience, to say the least.  The RA is just the right space for this sort of gigantism, though: it swallows it whole without a problem.  After all, this is the space that Hockney attempted (and, some say, failed) to fill with his sprawling A Bigger Picture exhibition in 2012.

Now, I say I have taken an interest in Kiefer, but that is not to say that I like his work.  I don't think it's work that wants to be liked. Seeing it hanging there, it reminded me of certain people I have known, whose identity is constructed around an abrasive and unforgiving self-awareness; "Sure, I've got problems; so do you, if only you'd face up to it.  Why pretend otherwise?  Don't like it?  Then fuck off!"  It's a lonely space to inhabit, carrying the burden of the entire German past as your personal baggage.

Despite his standing, Kiefer maintains an outsider's perspective.  In fact, he reminds me of those classic "outsider" artists, borderline guys with no formal training or education who have a set of idées fixes, gestures and mannerisms that they repeat over and over, building vast edifices made out of drink cans and concrete, or painting weird, repetitive scenarios out of a personal mythology.  You can imagine him cackling away, building yet another tunnel or tower at his grandiose derelict silk factory workspace down in Barjac in southern France.

My problem (as if Kiefer could care less what I think) is that the work seems big in declared ambition, yet small in achieved substance.  Not literally, clearly: the famous lead books and submarines and vast impasto paintings and sculptural assemblages are all substance: gloweringly and overbearingly so, insistently material.  But it is not enough, surely, to paste layer upon layer of paint and acrylic and ash onto lead sheets and then lightly scribble the names of German Romantic poets and other notables onto the result.  Yes, Novalis, Hölderlin, Heine, Celan, Bachmann... Check.  Yes, I've read them.  And your point is?  I'm not keen on this kind of cultural dot-to-dot game of allusion.  The work exists in an interesting but frustrating place somewhere between conventional depiction and conceptual art; it is that unsatifying thing, painted ideas.

Also, I have to say Kiefer's drawing is of a similar standard to that of Tracey Emin i.e. it is dreadful.  Now, I am not naive enough not to realise that there is a solid point to be made by deliberately drawing badly.  Take that, Sunday painters!  But when an artist of this stature takes up watercolours and paints more or less conventional nudes, even if they are compiled into gigantic bound albums, I think we are entitled to stand back and say:  Whoa, Anselm...  These are bad.  You really can't do this, can you?  Stick to collage!

I did love the lead submarines in the courtyard vitrines, though (despite -- or perhaps because of -- the theme music from Das Boot playing insistently in my head), and there is a site-specific work in an enclosed, round, inner gallery, Ages of the World, that is truly extraordinary, a meditation on the constructs of geological time derived from and imposed on the trash heap we inhabit, and worth the price of the ticket in itself.

But, next up on the German entertainers front:  Sigmar Polke is in town!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Broken Britain

Regular listeners to BBC Radio 4 will need no introduction to Robert Peston.  Blessed with probably the most irritating speech mannerisms on the, ah, ah, the, ah, the, ah, ah, ra-di-o, he is nonetheless the BBC's star economics and finance reporter, widely credited with various scoops that anticipated the events of the 2008 "credit crunch".

On Sunday morning, half-awake, I heard that familiar voice intoning on the most irritating programme on Radio 4, the "magazine" Broadcasting House, which I usually take as my cue to get up, go and make a pot of tea, and read the paper in the kitchen.  He was talking about the differences between state and private schooling, and how -- much as he disapproved of the private school system -- he couldn't help but admire individual schools as exemplars of educational excellence.  So far, so routine.  But he then said that, in particular, he admired the way the private sector, unlike the public sector, invested in the sense of a school as an institution, with a history and a sense of self.

Peston himself was educated at a North London comprehensive, and is proud of that, as he should be.  But he told a very telling anecdote.  During his time at the school, there was a sense of pride in the achievements of ex-pupil Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to play for England.  On his recent return to the school, Peston had wondered why there wasn't, say, a building named after Cunningham?  The current headteacher's response was, "Who?"

There, precisely, he has put his finger on a key problem in contemporary Britain.  The endless churning of policies and reconfiguring of priorities and outsourcing of services and abolition and combination and recombination and renaming of institutions -- in the public sector -- mean that there is no longer any continuity from generation to generation for the "clients" of public services.  We have no history, and communities need a sense of their own narrative to exist as communities.

At your local health centre, you probably see a different doctor with each appointment, and that doctor will have had no time to prepare for your ten-minute slot, and will be unaware of your previous medical history.  Public services -- things as basic as rent collection, say, never mind the fancy stuff like libraries -- will have been outsourced and downsized and moved between departments, with older staff laid off in successive waves of "rationalization", and historic files digitized or more likely recycled as useless old paper.*  Institutional amnesia is the norm: no-one can remember how things used to be done, or how and why we got where we are now.  As a consequence, no-one cares, either.

The environment and infrastructure are in constant flux, too. Your gas, electricity and telecomms are no longer supplied by national utilities.  Your bank and the Post Office will have closed their small local branches as "inefficient".  Venerable local shops will have been driven out of business by hypermarkets, and large local employers will have moved their manufacturing base abroad.  In the name of competition and market forces and in the mad pursuit of ever-lower taxes, continuity has been replaced with endless empty "choice" between one unknowable quantity and another, all brightly-wrapped in PR hype, and arriving daily in the form of mail-shots, cold-calls and email spam.  It's all too faceless, too confusing to care about.

As for schools, for those who were educated at public expense, the chances are that your primary and secondary schools have been renamed, merged, demolished, rebuilt, reorganised and even moved to a new site -- mine have -- so that any sense of history or institutional pride will have been broken decades ago.  Uniforms will have been abolished and reinvented several times over, games fields sold off and built on and competitive sports abandoned. Old team photos?  Into the skip!  And what about previous heads, teachers, and pupils -- their names, their achievements, their peculiarities, their reputations?  "Who?"

There is a common dream, which most people find upsetting, in which you go back to your childhood home, and the current occupants have no idea who you are.  Well, that is our contemporary world, for the majority who cannot afford to buy themselves out.  It is a place where you are always becoming a stranger, whose name is unrecognised, whose files have been lost, whose account has expired, and whose key no longer fits the door.  Why vote, when all it means is more empty change?  Why care about your community, when it gets dumped into a skip twice every decade?

When a politician like David Cameron talks of "broken Britain", don't you want to grip him firmly by the lapels, and ask:  And who was it who broke it?  And how come only my bit of it seems to be broken?  Maybe if you stopped constantly pretending to fix it, yet all the time deliberately making it worse, who knows, perhaps it might mend all by itself?

* Family historians will know of the frustration of tracing Irish ancestors.  Why?  The census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the censuses were taken. Those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the First World War. The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were destroyed in 1922 in a fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War.  To lose one set of census returns may be regarded as a misfortune...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Dodging and Burning

Here's a strange one.  I was out on St. Catherine's Hill again this afternoon, or rather, walking along the remnant ridge facing the hill, which is the western side of the deep cutting through Twyford Down that accommodates the M3 motorway.  The light was pretty, and there was a warm southern wind blowing: a nice day for a walk, and I was carrying a Fuji X100 to keep things light.

I always like this view, because of the interest that wiggly track down into the valley gives to an otherwise bland green vista:

However, in the process of adjusting the image this evening, I noticed something both odd and annoying.  Above the main clump of trees on the crown  of the hill there appeared to be a bright halo, very like the sort of artefact that would result, back in the darkroom days, from a bit of clumsy "dodging" i.e. selectively blocking some of the light from the enlarger with a card disc mounted on a wire, in order to brighten up a dark area.  Looking at it more closely, however, I could see that it appeared to be "real", in the sense that it wasn't just a bit of lens flare, or some other such optical artefact.  There really was a bright halo around the trees.

So, I crunched down the brightness, to bring it out, and this is what resulted:

Ignore the cyan coloration, which is an artefact, but look at the shape and texture of the halo.  Note that we are looking west, and the wind is coming from the south i.e. the left side of the picture, and it's around 15:30, so the sun is moderately low in the sky, off to the south-west.  I would say it's clearly some kind of brightly-illuminated turbulent flow, emanating from the trees, or from somewhere immediately behind, and blowing away to the north.  But what?

It's possible it's smoke from burning cleared undergrowth, which happens all over the hill, though that seems unlikely on a Sunday.  Also, immediately on the other side of the clump is the Mizmaze, which is a protected monument, and not a place where any responsible person would build a bonfire.  Of course, mentioning the Mizmaze opens the door to all sorts of bonkers speculation, but we won't go there.  Most likely, I think, is that it is simply the trees giving off water vapour after some heavy rainfall yesterday.  Curious, though, and not something I've ever noticed before.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

It's Behind You

St. Catherine's Hill across the M3 cutting

After a week of dull and rainy weather, things cleared up a bit on Thursday, so I went for a walk.  I did a four-to-five mile circuit from the Hockley Viaduct, up onto the remnant of Twyford Down opposite St. Catherine's Hill, over the footbridge crossing the M3, down the track beside the Hockley Golf Course, then along the side of the wood at the bottom of the valley towards the Morestead Road, finally heading back along the unmarked right-of-way across the fields towards the motorway footbridge.  It's a route that only takes a couple of hours at a moderate pace, but, unaccompanied and on the lookout for photographs, with many off-road diversions into woods and stony fields and much standing about just looking at and thinking about things, it takes twice as long.

Photography's main tool, and its main limitation, is selection.  Cameras have no peripheral vision, and a photograph cannot include or even hint at what is out of frame. Just inside the beechwood on the south side of a small but steep-sided valley, someone had been busy tidying things up in readiness for the winter; gathering up the plastic sleeves that protect saplings against deer into heaps, piling sawn logs for collection and burning the brash, leaving neat round bosses of ash and charred wood on the leaf-litter.  It made a nice scene in muted tones, with the receding tree trunks and leaves just starting to turn in the background.

However, turn yourself through 180 degrees in the same spot, and the view to the north is completely different: a ploughed and sown chalk downland field rises up to a ridge from within the shadow of the wood on the facing slope, with a big open sky floating past on the near horizon.

I suppose a 360 degree panorama might do more justice to the reality of such a place, but then that would be true of more or less anywhere you could stand.  It would be a pretty dull (and unusual) landscape where what is behind you exactly resembles what is in front of you.

This partiality of the camera lens troubles some serious-minded people, I think mainly because it seems like an analogy for the partial view of history and society that has privileged the dreaded Western Colonial / Patriarchal White Male view of the world over other, equally valid, worldviews.  You show us this, mister straight white man, but why not that?  The romantic idea of a landscape as an analogue of one's inner states is also deeply suspect to many, or at least deeply unfashionable.  How dare you presume that a wandering cloud is lonely? You can build a decent career out of "challenging" such things.  It goes along with an obsession with traces and implied absences, and the (not unreasonable) idea that the prominence of one point of view must have obscured others.  I am sympathetic, but don't always trust the sincerity of the rhetoric. As with conceptual art, I am more persuaded by the outcome than the prospectus.  "Don't trust the teller, trust the tale"...

Other points of view abound, of course.  Birds, for example.  These fields are a favoured spot for skylarks, and to them I must look suspiciously out of place and a potential threat seen from way up there. The foolish creatures lay their eggs and raise their chicks in mere scrapes in the ground, where they are vulnerable to clumsy boots, not to mention agricultural machinery, or foxes and badgers.  The RSPB does encourage farmers to create "skylark plots" in their fields, now that autumn-sown winter crops are so commonplace, but they are still very much under threat from us: our species can and will continually change our ways, but they are stuck with theirs.

Fossil shell in pathway flint

I was struck, yomping across those recently-ploughed fields, by the sight of a spider hunkered down in the lee of a single clod of earth.  What must our shared chunk of planetary surface look like, seen through those multiple, tiny arachnid eyes, filtered through that tiny, arachnid brain?  We simply cannot begin to imagine.  And, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, even if a spider could talk, we could not understand her.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Brighton Facades

Many seaside towns have an agreeably louche mix of new, renovated, repurposed, and time-worn buildings.  Proximity to the sea causes the changeable winds of economics, and the irregular tides of fashion to leave behind a different sort of architectural legacy to that found in more buttoned-up, landlocked towns.  Even so, Brighton is somewhat special in this regard, with buildings ranging from squalid multiple-occupancy houses (it seems the Student Experience has not changed much in the last 40 years, except that it now costs £95 a week), through the bijou terraces in the famous "laines", all the way up to grand Georgian and Victorian villas.  Culminating, of course, in the grandiloquently ill-advised Royal Pavilion.

This crumbling wall, surprisingly, is not the basement area of a student squat but is the Royal Pavilion, as seen from an approach not customarily used by the sight-seeing public:

I'm not sure what the opposite of a "whited sepulchre" is, but that would be it.  But here is the full-on gleaming spectacle, a Regency fever-dream of India, as mediated by a nearby and rather more mundane modern facade:

Hmm, if the right angles in these images seem a bit tortured to you, they do to me, too, despite the corrective work I've done.  I'm beginning to wonder whether my Fuji 18-55 lens is optically flawed, or whether perhaps Photo Ninja is failing to correct for barrel and pincushion distortion when interpreting the RAW files from the X-E1.  Or maybe Brighton is just too characterful for anything as, um, straight as a right angle.

Perhaps just one more pinnacle, Your Majesty?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A Tourist From Mars Revisited

Mutters, looking NW from Hotel Sonnhof

I have now completed a "blog book", which brings together all the blog posts resulting from my ten-day photographic residency in Innsbruck, Austria, in June this year, supplemented by a few more photographs.  If you click on this Book Preview link or the one in the following Blurb "book badge", you'll be able to see a low-resolution version of the whole thing: be patient, it can be a bit slow to load. You will get the best sense of the book in Fullscreen mode (rightmost icon on the Blurb Preview toolbar).

a blog book
by Mike Chisholm
Photo book

As well as the usual paperback (£29.95) and hardback (£39.00) there is also a downloadable PDF version (viewable on pretty much anything) at £4.99 and a separately listed e-book version (iPad / iPhone / iPod only) also available at £4.99.  Frankly, I'd recommend the e-book or the PDF.  The image reproduction quality is better and I actually make more profit on those sales than on the paper books.

If you do choose to buy the PDF, you will need to make these settings in your Adobe Acrobat viewer:

Under the View menu choose "Page Display":
Tick "Two Page View";
Tick "Show Gaps Between Pages";
Tick "Show Cover Page in Two Page View".

If you don't do this, the page order will be wrong.

Anichstrasse, Innsbruck

Monday, 13 October 2014

Your First Three Words in Turkish


In a recent comment, I mentioned the Firesign Theatre (or, possibly, Theater).  To American readers of a certain age and inclination, the Firesign Theatre will be as familar as Monty Python.  However, very few Brits seem to know their work, even those cosmopolitan types who were familiar with, say, the Cheech and Chong recorded oeuvre.  British politicos in the 1970s tended towards the puritanical, and British stoners tended towards the horizontal.  Humour was rarely a common ground between the two camps, and a taste for left-field, post-modern, acid-tinged, surrealist political sketch comedy and soap opera was more unusual than you might think.

But some tastes are like a secret cult, whose members are always looking for new recruits.  One day in my first term at college in 1973, a new friend (now, confusingly, Professor of Islamic Archaeology in the University of Oxford)  pressed into my hands two objects, saying, in effect, "Here, I think you need to know about these".  One was a book -- Musrum, by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw (in need of a post in its own right) -- and the other was an LP album by Firesign Theatre.  I can't remember now whether it was How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At All? or Waiting For the Electrician or Someone Like Him.  One or the other.  Probably the latter.  As if it matters.


As well as being funny, Firesign's albums were pretty sophisticated for their time.  Nowadays, po-mo reflexiveness is the default setting of every jobbing standup -- it's the comedy equivalent of conceptual art -- but even today it is rare to find such acute explorations and subversions of media tropes, linguistic cliches, and political and social conventions.  If I had to characterise FT for someone who'd never heard them, I'd say it was like Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In crossed with The Goon Show, tinged with Frank Zappa and That Was The Week That Was.  Not that that would help: they would probably never had heard (or even heard of) any of those acts, either.

"Hearing" is key, though: it's very much an aural experience, with quick-change accents, scene changes and sound-effects that evoke and parody the glory days of radio.  And, as is well known, the pictures are always better on radio.  It's also very layered: some of the best jokes happen in the background, mixed behind the dialogue.  There's nothing around now that is remotely similar, as far as I know: that late sixties / early seventies mashup of politics, counterculture, and nostalgia-fuelled zaniness was a flavour all its own.  No, wait... Didn't I say that on the other side of the record?

(May I see your passport, sir?)

Sunday, 12 October 2014


A couple more images from my recent Ashmolean visit.  I can't resist the surreal and comic justapositions that happen in places like the gallery of plaster casts of classical sculpture, once you have freed your eye from what you are supposed to be looking at.  The one at the top is positively Dali-esque.

They make an interesting combination with this bit of shadow-play, seen in the Hall of Armour in Schloss Ambras, near Innsbruck, in the summer:

Which in turn chimes nicely with this one, also from Innsbruck, but this time from the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum:

As I have become rather too fond of saying, wherever you go, there you are.  Put that end-to-end with various other favourite sayings -- "to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail" and "there are two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don't" suggest themselves -- and you have come depressingly close to summing up the contents of my mind after 60 years on the planet.  There are probably a couple more nostrums in there somewhere, but I can't think what they are just now.  Ah well, any wisdom that can't be summarised onto one side of A4 is not worth knowing (ah, there goes another one!).

From a technical point of view, I think these pictures demonstrate pretty conclusively the superior low-light performance of the Fuji X-E1 (top two) over the Panasonic G3 (bottom two).  I had to work quite hard to get usable files from the Panasonic, including generous application of Noise Ninja, but the Fuji files have barely been tweaked.  Impressive.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Book Club

Christmas is coming, so here are a few book recommendations.

Eric Ravilious:  Artist & Designer / by Alan Powers (ISBN 978-1-84822-111-6)

If you like Ravilious, you will love this book.  Mind you, if you like Ravilious, you've probably already got it.  Design, binding, reproduction quality -- it's all there.  The whole span of his creative life is covered, from plates and mugs to book illustrations and prints.  Possibly the most quintessentially English artist of the 20th century (not always or necessarily a good thing), and yet another life cut tragically short by war.

A Ted Hughes Bestiary: Poems / selected by Alice Oswald (ISBN 978-0-571-30143-0)

Alice Oswald is emerging as a major figure on the British poetry scene (if you're a poetry reader, and don't know her book Dart, buy it immediately) and her selection of Hughes was bound to be an interesting one.  I find her focus on the "animal poem" theme has identified pretty much all my favourite Hughes poems, plus plenty more from collections I've never seen, and it's a real pleasure to have this well-presented volume to browse through.

Empire / by Jon Tonks (ISBN 978-1-907893-49-0)

This is another substantial and beautifully-produced book, from that very reliable photo-publisher Dewi Lewis, presenting Jon Tonks' photographic project to visit the remote island dependencies of our former empire, such as the recently-mentioned Tristan da Cunha.  A very original idea, very nicely executed in the spirit of Chris Killip and Martin Parr, now into its second edition, though copies of the first edition are still around (my own copy, as an early purchaser direct from Jon Tonks, is signed and inscribed).

[Note to self:  it's time you stopped buying your own Christmas presents.]

By the way, if you're ambivalent about using Amazon, you may not know that the Guardian has quietly launched its own online bookshop, currently selling EVERYTHING at 20% discount,which makes it even cheaper than Amazon.  I bought the Hughes Bestiary from them, and it arrived quickly, even using free second-class postage, and well packaged in one of those excellent and now universal corrugated card mailers that Amazon pioneered.  For everything but the most obscure books (and e-books for the Kindle, obviously) I may be a convert.  And, as they say, by buying books from their shop, you'll be helping to keep independent journalism alive.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Making Waves

I drove to Brighton yesterday, to deliver and sort out a few things for my daughter, back studying at Sussex University, and decided to stay overnight in a convenient hotel, get up early and have a morning wandering around with a camera.  I chose well: a fierce wind was blowing straight in from the channel, and the waves were really piling onto the beach.  I have no idea why being next to the sea on a blowy, sunshine-and-showers type of day is so exhilarating, but it is.  It's like taking a short ride in a fast machine, but standing still.

Despite the Brighton Photo Biennial being on at the moment (what, another photo festival?), no-one else was working the seafront spectacle.  Too early in the morning, perhaps, or too conventional a subject for the more trend-conscious photographer?  Both, probably; their loss.

Unfortunately, camera lenses and salt water are not a good combination and, despite trying to stay downwind of the bigger splashes, a steady drift of seaspray* was filling the seafront air, and my lens got a good coating (as did my hair and beard).  So before heading back home after lunch I had to seek out a camera shop to get some lens cleaning fluid.  Luckily, Brighton still has at least one "proper" camera shop, in the form of Clock Tower Cameras, a genuine Aladdin's Cave of photographica.  I like to touch base in such places, have a chat with the knowledgeable staff, and spend enough money to feel I've helped to keep them in business.

* Is there anyone else in the entire world who remembers a children's TV programme from around 1960 which contained the phrase, "Seaspray?  Salty Cyril!" (I think Salty Cyril was a seafarer's ghost), the mere repetition of which would convulse me and my primary-school best friend John Boxley with hysterical laughter?  Odd, how these things stick in the memory.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014


As I had cause to confess recently, I am a man in whom a spiritual impulse is in a constant wrestling match with a deep skepticism.  As skepticism knows all the dirty tricks it usually wins.  However, the struggle doesn't strike me as pointless.  G.K. Chesterton's words are truer today than ever:  "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything."  Today, once you step outside the tightly-guarded compound of rational, positivist science, you are surrounded by the babble of crystal healers, aromatherapists and a thousand other snake-oil merchants trying to monetize credulity.

Recently I was browsing through a collection of "inspirational" extracts from well-known artists, writers, and songwriters, and was struck by some common threads.  There was much of the usual nonsense about following your dream, which is just annoying, but more usefully there was an insistence on the value of actually getting down to hard labour ("Inspiration is for amateurs -- the rest of us just show up and get to work" -- Chuck Close).  In the end, all dream-chasing aside, a writer is a person who writes, a painter is a person who paints.  A successful artist is a person who makes at least a partial living from their art.

But there was another thread, of which this is exemplary:
If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.
Charles Bukowski, Factotum
Sounds great, doesn't it?  It's the romance of the outsider, shot through with righteous self-justification (nicely hubristic, too: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." Isaiah 53:3).  We've surely all had such moments, alone with the gods in our ecstatic shining nights.  No?  Well, if you haven't, you have my sympathy.  But anyone seeking to lead a life led at that pitch of self-absorption who is not also blessed with considerable talent is, as Bukowski warns, likely to die alone, cold and hungry, a burned-out, rejected and resentful never-was.  The flaming fire must cool, be transmuted into ink, and end up as meaningful words on a page.  Those laughing gods won't write your book for you, but it will amuse them to steal it from you, like rolling a drunk.

Reading the "how to" advice of those who have achieved notable artistic success always invites the skeptical question:  Sure, but how many more have failed utterly, following exactly the same formula?  Curiously, the "secret" that many succesful people seem to want to propagate, in variations on Bukowski's theme, is this: that total commitment somehow of itself invokes a positive, supportive response from the universe, in the form of life-changing coincidences, chance meetings, and unexpected opportunities.  It's like magic! Believe you can fly, and you will -- just jump!

It seems never to have occurred to them that it is more likely the other way round: that their response to the random churning of the world -- to the coincidences, chance meetings and unexpected opportunities that happen to everyone -- has been total commitment, and that it is this eye for the main chance that has made all the difference.  I suppose that to advocate the clever, even ruthless exploitation of every chance opportunity may sound rather too cold, too calculating, too businesslike, and there is something more appealing, something reassuringly quasi-religious about the idea of art as a high-stakes game of trust played with the universe.  Maybe we should split the difference and simply call it self-belief.  Self-belief does have a certain magic, teflon quality to it.

But the fact is that if you can fly, you can believe whatever you like about how you got up there.  And probably will.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Postcards from Oxford

I was in Oxford on Friday.  There's a photography festival on at the moment, and a highlight that immediately grabbed my attention in the programme is a show of the work of Finnish master Pentti Sammallahti.  As regular readers will know, I'm a fan.  There's a room of about 30 photographs in the St. John's College Kendrew Barn exhibition space, and it's well worth seeing if you're in the area.  There is also work by two other Finns in the same show, but that is pretty negligible stuff by comparison.

The most immediately striking thing about the Sammallahti photographs is how small they are.  Thirty or so frames comfortably occupy a space about the size of a large domestic room.  Even the signature panoramic images are only about 14 inches by 6 inches, which is, by contemporary exhibition standards, tiny.  But the tonal quality and control are exquisite, even behind reflective glass and some rather uneven illumination.  It's an opportunity to look and learn.

Talking of looking and learning, while I was in town I dropped in on the recently refurbished Natural History Museum, and the resolutely unrefurbished Pitt Rivers Museum.  While I was there, I made this postcard for you:

On the way to an old friend's house for lunch, I made the obligatory stop at the Ashmolean.  There, I made another postcard:

The contrast of the old and the new philosophies of museum display comes across pretty clearly, I think.  Though there's something quite contemporary, in an eco-friendly way, about the Natural History Museum's extensive use of natural light.

The contrast would have been starker if I could have been bothered to photograph in the Pitt Rivers Museum, but it's simply too dark in there.  The collection -- a large proportion of which is indistinguishable from mouldering touristic bric-a-brac -- sits in a permanent gloom, presumably to stop the stuff fading away any more than it already has. What a very strange place it is; a cross between a museum, a junk shop, and a department store.  "Charms against the evil eye?  Certainly, sir -- ground floor, third cabinet on aisle three.  Assorted throwing sticks and boomerangs?  That'll be on the first-floor balcony, over towards the far side, opposite the bows and arrows.  Have you brought a torch, sir?  It's a touch dark over there between the taller cabinets..."

It seems to be very popular for group visits from the sort of school that still wears caps and blazers.  Jennings and his chums couldn't get enough of a case of sub-machine guns and rifles, I noticed.  Shades of Lindsay Anderson's film If..., if anyone remembers that now.  I had thought I would still love the place, too, but -- like the curators of the Ashmolean -- my views on museums have changed since my last visit (in 1974!) and I found its taxonomic, pile-em-high approach a relic of an anthropological worldview that is as much a curio, now, as the unplayable instruments, faded costumes and blunt weapons arrayed in its glazed mahogany cabinets.

Give me a squid bottled in formaldehyde any time...

fast and bulbous...

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Days at Sea

On Tuesday, I drove out to Calshot, a shingle spit which marks the very end of Southampton Water, where the estuary meets the Solent, itself a sheltered side-channel of the English Channel, allegedly the busiest waterway on the planet.  It's one of those scruffy, nook-shotten corners of our island which have surprisingly rich histories.

There's a solid, round, gun-fort there within a sixteen-sided moat, like a great stone bolt screwed into the spit; perhaps it is what keeps the Isle Of Wight attached to the mainland.  It dates, like a number of such forts along the Solent, from the time of Henry VIII, with Napoleonic Era enhancements, and continues to keep Southampton safe from the French and Spanish fleets, though [whisper it] from a quick inspection I suspect the guns are now a bluff.

But, for much of the 20th century, Calshot was synonymous with seaplanes and flying boats.  It was here that the Supermarine S.5, the seaplane predecessor of the Spitfire fighter, won the Schneider Trophy in 1929 and again in 1931.  T.E. Lawrence was billeted at the RAF base here around that time.  I remember seeing flying boats moored on the water myself when we visited on a family holiday around 1960, in the last days of the RAF presence at Calshot. The great hangars are still standing, but are now a leisure centre, one of them big enough to house a ski-slope.

Even if you have no interest in learning to sail or canoe or windsurf, it's a good spot just to hang out on the shingly beach, and watch the gigantic container ships and cruise liners making their way up Southampton Water with the tide.

But here's a curious thing that I didn't know before.  On the way back, driving through Calshot village, I happened to notice a road named "Tristan Close".  Nothing unusual there: coming up with names for the roads in a new estate must be a terrible job, and planners often resort to themes.  You know, streets named after explorers, planets, cities, musicians... A particularly notorious estate near the university is known as "The Flowers Estate".  My son's secondary school was there, on Violet Road, which I often subliminally misread as "Violent Road".  I fully expected Isolde Way to be just round the corner from Tristan Close, perhaps followed by Liebestod Lane.

But, doing some fact-checking on Calshot's history, I discovered that -- following the eruption of their volcano in 1961 (if you are my age and British, you will probably remember this) -- the inhabitants of the extremely remote South Atlantic island Tristan da Cunha were evacuated half-way round the globe to, of all places, Calshot.

They didn't like it much, not least because their arrival was followed by the extreme winter of 1962/3 and devastating outbreaks of 'flu, to which they had little or no immunity.  The local community was also, shall we say, unsupportive.  Most of the islanders agitated to be sent back, which they were, but a few families did stay on, and they formed a close-knit community around, yes, Tristan Close in Calshot.