Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Drawing Conclusions On The Wall

I mentioned recently that I have taken up drawing again, though I have so far been shy about sharing any examples of my work.  I'm still feeling my way towards what sort of mark-making 61-year-old me wants to make.   Am I an expressive scribbler, a mixed-media man, an advocate of pure line and volume, or perhaps even something I don't have a name for yet?  It's fun, but man do I wish I didn't have to use reading glasses, nowadays, and didn't also suffer from a touch of arthritis in my index finger.

Naturally, I've been looking with interest at what other people are up to these days.  It seems that after decades of neglect by many artists -- who have generally preferred the conceptual approach to anything as hands-on as paper and pencil -- drawing seems to be having a bit of a revival (hey, call me Mr. Zeitgeist...).   Though the conceptualists have inevitably complicated the picture:  "So why shouldn't pouring a cup of tea over a magazine count as drawing?  Do you have a problem with my practice?"

I found a really useful compendium of contemporary approaches to drawing, Walk the Line : the Art of Drawing, compiled by Marc Valli and Ana Ibarra (Laurence King, 2013).  Its 300 or so pages cover the range from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the balance tipping a little towards the latter; the reach:grasp ratio of so many young artists seems truly lamentable to me. *  The urge to have something to say clearly overwhelms the urge to acquire the means to show, not tell.  However, I'm always on the alert for that Hendrix Moment, so I don't rush to judgement (30 seconds or so usually does the trick, though).

But, to save you the trouble of finding a copy, you can get a decent sense of the wild variety of "practice" and competence out there by checking out the Drawing Room's Drawing Biennial 2015.  All the works are on A4 paper, and donated by invited artists as a fund-raiser, which may explain the variable standard, but there are some BIG NAMES in there (Kapoor, Emin, Creed, etc.), and you can bid to buy any of the works on show until 30th April (minimum bid £250).  Inexplicably, nearly all of the few items I rated highly are so far marked "no bid".  Not entirely incidentally, did you know Tracey Emin is now Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy?  No, seriously.  I really, really don't know what to make of that.  Is it them, or is it me?  If it's me, I am beyond beyond help.

Of course, the best part of this renewed enthusiasm is browsing the online catalogues of art materials suppliers, and getting up to speed with all the new pencils (yes, there are new pencils), erasers (did you know you can get battery-driven erasers?), papers, sketchbooks, pencil cases...  It's all way cheaper than camera gear, and somehow more enticing, and much less like researching a new toaster.  But then I've always been a fool for stationery porn.

Woman reading, by José Sobral de Almada Negreiros

* "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" (Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto -- one of the greatest poems by one of the greatest poets, and quite relevant to this post).

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Home From The Hills

As you will have realised, the last few posts were automatically scheduled to be published while I was away -- if not actually off-grid then barely hanging on to it -- with the assistance of my loyal in-house robot.  It will take a while to catch up with your comments and emails, but thanks in advance, especially to those of you who have responded to my slightly grandiose request for "signature" images!

It is a curious thing, but the availability of mobile phone and internet access declines dramatically as you head west in our country.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear that something similar happens as you head north.  Or east.  It reminds me of those illustrations of relativistic space-time involving a rubber sheet and a heavy ball, London and the south-east being the heavy ball. Even in a lively, happening place like Bristol (Bristol is Brighton's crustie cousin) signals are poor.  In my partner's sister's house, the best place to use a phone is an upstairs bedroom; the front half of a front bedroom, to be precise.  As for mid-Wales... Well, the signal is not only confined to certain ley-line convergences, but profoundly affected by the weather.  We had three bars one day, nothing at all for the next two.  Then -- ping! -- the phone in my pocket suddenly revived with a five bar signal, announcing the arrival of a mini-flood of emails.  There is clearly scope for a new profession in such regions:  the phone dowser.

We visit mid-Wales every year around this time, and have done so for the last 35 years.  Here is our home for the last week:

We tend to find a rentable property we like, and book it every year until it goes off the market, generally because it's been sold, or because some lucky person has taken up permanent residence there.  It's strange, how quickly an annual weekly visit can give you an illusion of ownership.  This particular house is one we've been using for the past five years, and the aristocratic sense of familiarity as you enter and dump your bags into a recently-swept hall is all part of the pleasure.* It's a well-appointed barn conversion in a beautiful, isolated hilltop setting, making use of an eco-friendly heat-exchange system for hot water and underfloor heating, which involves mysterious convoluted pipes buried in the hillside.

Landscape photography is all about repeatedly showing up somewhere until something interesting happens, usually involving the light, the weather, and the time of day.  This can involve unpleasant experiences like getting up very early, camping out, or getting cold and wet; often all of the above.  This may explain why habitual landscapists like to push all the Photoshop sliders up to 11: it's a sort of compensatory hyperbole.  No, really, it looked exactly like that -- you just had to be there!

But when you have a west-facing bedroom balcony looking out over a patchwork Radnorshire valley shading into hill-country, you can simply open a curtain to check out the progress of the dawn and, if the mist and sunlight are doing good things, lean out of an open window and snap away. Then get back into bed.  No need to exaggerate.  Later on, just around the time you might be opening a bottle of red, you generally also get a royal-box view of an unspeakably lurid sunset, nature's own way of pushing the sliders up to 11.

Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.  6 A.M.

*  Think of the sun and moon in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner: "... and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural home, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival."

Friday, 17 April 2015

Unsolicited Testimonial: VistaPrint Photobooks

I've mentioned VistaPrint before: it's the print service that looks like a scam but isn't (someone suggested I should offer this to VistaPrint as a slogan).  I'm a fan.  For a modest price they do excellent and reliable reproduction of photographs in small runs of postcards, greetings cards, and calendars, and quite often there are promotional free offers. You simply upload your images, and they do the rest.  I use them several times a year and have never been anything less than satisfied with the end result, and I'm a fussy bastard when it comes to my own work.

VistaPrint are now offering photobooks, and they are good.  In absolute terms of print and binding quality, I'd even say they are as good as Blurb.  That's seriously good.  Of course, you don't get any of the shop-front or marketing opportunity you get with a full print-on-demand service like Blurb, or the ability to choose multiple formats or to convert your book into a PDF or an e-book.  That's Blurb's USP, and Vistaprint offers no challenge there.

VistaPrint thinks of itself as a producer of discount business cards and stationery.  In pure business terms, this is probably very wise; I expect their turnover is many times that of a niche concern like Blurb.  Their relentess free offers and mailshots can feel like spamming, though, and there is a bland, MOR look to a lot of their pre-designed templates, no doubt carefully matched to their intended clients (I always use the blank ones, myself).  But in these new photobooks they have a five star product which they're marketing in a two star way.  You need to look past the presentation.

It works in a similar way to Blurb:  you download their free book-making software, you design your book, you upload it to their website, make some choices about binding and paper quality, put a copy in your trolley and buy it.  It's kept online in your account, so you can buy more copies later. The Vistaprint Photo Books software has a less "bookish" user interface than Blurb's BookSmart, and it's a little opaque to use.  It seems to lack pre-packaged "wizardized" features like page numbers, running titles, and so on, but they may well be in there somewhere.  For example, it took me a while to figure out how the image resizing and positioning facility worked, but -- once discovered -- I realised it's actually better than the BookSmart version.

What makes this a useful alternative to Blurb is the sheer quality of the standard offering.  The basic, no-extra-charge binding is real cloth-covered boards with a choice of colours.  You can even pay a little extra for "real leather" -- I haven't tested the veracity of this claim, as I prefer cloth.  Same with the paper: the default choice is a thick, semi-gloss paper that is rather like Blurb's "premium" paper. The choice of sizes is nice, too: for example, a 21cm square book is a quietly impressive, hand-friendly size.

If you were looking to impress someone with a one-off portfolio, gift, or book dummy that is a pleasure to handle, I'd suggest having a look at Vistaprint.

[NOTE:  I am away from home until 18th April.  If you comment, please be patient!]

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


One of the "projects" I'm working on at the moment is a new website.  I used to have a website based at the university, but it went mouldy after a bit and I had to throw it away.  Compared to writing a blog, keeping a website fresh is hard work, and rather too much like keeping a tank of fish alive (see Reasons to be Cheerful).  However, maintaining a permanent presence on the web with a considered, well-organised, easy-to-navigate selection of one's best work is a sensible move.  Especially if you want to sell some pictures and get more exhibition invitations, which I do.

Which is where you may be able to help.  I'm thinking of signing up with one of those e-commerce operations that enable people to browse and buy your stuff online, but first I need to decide what my "stuff" is.  As an artist-photographer I'm sure of my ground: if people don't like what I do, they can sling their hook.  But there's no point in trying to sell people stuff they don't want to buy.  If I wanted to put together an attractive portfolio of, say, just a dozen prints, which would they be?  My work is quite diverse: for example, my "rings", my landscape photography, and my studies of architectural surfaces could easily be the work of three different people.  I also realise I am not always the best judge of the attractiveness of my own output.  My first, hastily-assembled exhibition at Innsbruck in 2009, for example, sold dozens of pictures; my second -- carefully-chosen and printed by me in 2014 -- sold none at all.  Hmmm.  There's a lesson there, but what?

Since 2008 there have been around 2,000 images posted on this blog, about 250 of which are "portfolio quality", and these include 25 which are as good as anything you'll see anywhere.  Yes, I know -- I'm that good!  But even the most prolific and well-known photographers have just a few "signature" images, the ones which immediately pop into your mind when their names are mentioned, and often, it seems, these are not (or are no longer) their personal favourites.  In fact, there is really often only one: Cartier Bresson produced many astounding photographs, but will never escape the gravitational pull of Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare.  Ditto Don McCullin and his Shell-shocked US marine, William Klein and Gun 1, New York, 1955, or Alec Soth and Charles, Vasa, Minnesota 2002.  Unfair, but that's how it is.

So, here's where you come in. I'm assuming you've been a regular visitor here for some while, with a consuming interest in photography.  I'm assuming you're photo-literate enough to recognise names like Cartier-Bresson, McCullin, Klein, and Soth.  I'm assuming you have a certain level of regard for my photography.  I'm assuming that probably defines a subset of about ten of you...  Now, here is the question: is there a single image of mine which you would regard as a "signature" image?  Not my "best", or "prettiest", or "most challenging", or "most representative", but the one that immediately pops into your mind.

If so, don't put your response in a comment, please, but email me using one of the addresses in the "Profile" on the right *.  If you can find that photo and identify it by the date of the post that would be excellent.  Even better, in most browsers you can get the actual filename by hovering your mouse over the image, as it's the last element in the URL chain.  For example, the image below is "DSCF1917b.jpg".  Or perhaps a flip through the various books in my Blurb Bookstore would help?  A book title and page number would be great.  Otherwise, a description of the image as it appears in your mind would be fine.  Or, failing that, is there a relatively narrow "genre" within my output that regularly hits the spot for you?

What's in it for you?  Well, if we can agree what photograph we're talking about, and you are prepared to share your address with me, I'll send you a signed A4 print of that picture, shipped anywhere in the world, free of charge.  You can tell I'm not expecting a great many replies...

* Isn't it strange how taboos about "speaking the name of the devil" or one's own "true" name have been made literal by the web?  We don't "speak" our addresses or names out loud, for fear of attracting the attention of the very real devils that lurk out there, waiting to troll, spam or dump malware on us.  Welcome to the new Middle Ages...

[NOTE:  I am away from home until 18th April.  If you comment, please be patient!]

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Unsolicited Testimonial: Evernote

I'm not really in the app demographic, either temperamentally or age-wise.  Although I am far from being a technophobe, I think I first really started to feel my age around the time everyone started going on about "Web 2.0", and it became mandatory for programs and services to have cutesy-wootsy names.  And, although I don't necessarily regard social media as the first ominous symptoms of an imminent decline into e-dystopia,  it's true I have found myself dusting off those old Situationist tracts, just to remind myself what the "society of the spectacle" might look like, if and when it were to arrive.

However, I imagine that you, like me, have a voracious visual appetite.  Most days, I expect you see something on the Web that, in an an earlier age, you might have snipped out of a magazine and filed away or pasted into a scrapbook, simply because you liked it, or because it sparked some useful visual train of thought.  It has always been easy enough to copy and save images from the Web (though I'm always amazed how many people never do "right click" on an image) but it's not really the same.  The point about a scrapbook is that you can browse it at your leisure, and bring to mind things and visual cues you had forgotten all about.

A couple of years ago I came across the Evernote app, and in particular the Evernote Web Clipper.  There are other similar tools, but this is the one I have come to like, and find most useful (and at least it's not called "Snoofle", or something equally silly).  Essentially, Evernote offers "cloud" storage for your notes, clippings and images, and like Kindle or Dropbox (that other indispensible tool for those of us with multiple "home" locations, or who need to share files with other data nomads) will synchronize your files across multiple devices (work computer, home computer, iPad, Android or iOS phone, etc.) so that you can browse through, add to, or edit your cloud scrapbook at any time, and see the updated results seamlessly on all your other various bits of kit.  Very handy!

The Web Clipper is a plugin for your web browser that enables you to send images (or any selected text, or even an entire webpage) to your Evernote stash, simply by right-clicking in the time-honoured way.  Although I do sometimes use Evernote as a convenient notebook, it is the Web Clipper that I use most.  I have built a browsable, sortable file of annotated images that I can flip through in idle moments on my phone.  I like to pick a particularly stunning image to display full screen on my phone or iPad, just so it's there to look at.

There's really no better way to improve your own image-making than by studying pictures which you like and which, by accident or by design, are better than yours.

[NOTE:  I am away from home until 18th April.  If you comment, please be patient!]

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Film Fun

There have been various online kerfuffles recently, where some film users have felt their feathers to have been too roughly ruffled.  For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the matter of film photography, and its self-styled Defenders of the Faith.

I'm not talking about devotees of the view camera, bless 'em. They are playing a different game in a different league to the rest of us.  As an instinctive contrarian and closet elitist, I've often contemplated joining them, to be honest.  What could be more gratifying to a member of the Awkward Squad than wielding one of those hefty mahogany and brass contraptions, with its tilts, swings and rises, upside-down and wrong-way-round ground glass image, two-shot sheet-film holders, and mandatory rock-solid tripod?  Well, lots of things, and I'm far too lazy and impatient to work at such a glacial pace, even given the stellar gains in image quality.  Besides, a view camera is potentially OCD on stilts, and I have enough trouble remembering to check what aperture I'm using, or whether I've forgotten to reset the exposure compensation dial.  But, hats off to the wearers of the dark cloth!

I'm not even talking about any remaining hold-out medium-format users out there.  I loved rollfilm: my Mamiya C330f and my Fuji GS645S were probably my favourite cameras.  The former is now sold, but I may ask to have the latter placed on my funeral pyre.  Done right, medium-format images have a tonal range and luminosity that is simply beautiful and only matched by, well, pretty much every serious digital camera currently available.  Will you tell them, or will I?

No, I'm talking about the guys who insist on using 35mm film, and behave as if it were the ne plus ultra of photographic quality.  It is inexplicable to me.  A lot of these people don't even process or print their own stuff.  I spent a decade or more processing and printing my own 35mm and medium-format film, and the day I discovered digital was Liberation Day.  Need I refer you to my venerable post, Tears In the Stop Bath?

There seem to be three main 35mm camps.  First, there are the "Lomographers", fashion-conscious types who pursue a lo-fi aesthetic for its own sake.  At its worst this is a cooler-than-thou analogue version of Instagram; at its best it's a celebration of the quirky, the accidental, and the fun.  This makes perfect sense.  It simultaneously makes a virtue of the essential imperfections of 35mm film and cocks a snook at gearheads.  Anyone looking to 35mm film for anything better than snapshot quality is looking in the wrong place, and treating it as a fun format seems right to me.

Which brings me to the second main camp, the Leica Mystics.  These people look so persistently in the wrong place for the wrong things that, once again, I'm put in mind of the parable of Mullah Nasruddin looking for his lost keys under a convenient streetlamp.  Now, I have to admit, I have never so much as picked up a Leica, so I may be missing the point entirely.  But, as far as I know, a Leica is simply a very well-made 35mm rangefinder camera, with a limited but superb range of interchangeable lenses (or "glass", as Leica Mystics tend to call lenses).  It has no advantage, technically, over any other functioning 35mm camera -- including a cardboard throwaway pre-loaded with film -- other than the quality of its components and assembly.

Those who know about such things talk about a "Leica glow".  This has nothing to do with the sense of well-being induced by having that much money to spend on a camera, but is an alleged mysterious property of Leica lenses.  Well, maybe so.  Other mysterious lenses are available.  But the Leica legend was really built on two things:  first, unobtrusiveness, and second, indestructability.  In the kind of situations associated with Leica users of legend -- primarily war and conflict reportage, and so-called "street" photography -- these were clearly good properties to possess.  "Quality" was never the issue: any photograph at all taken under fire is a remarkable achievement, and an excellent photograph is some kind of miracle.  To attribute such miraculousness to a particular brand of camera is, well, to be looking in the wrong place.  Hardly any serious photojournalists use film in 2015, and if anything standards have gone up, not down.

The third group are the most mystifying.  Photographers who simply believe that film has an esssentially distinctive "look" which is, in some indefinable, possibly moral way, superior to digital imaging, but whose own primary activity seems not to be making actual photographs but popping up on blogs and forums to make witless cracks about the indefinable, possibly moral superiority of film.  Let's call them Film Trolls (Trolls of Film? Heh...).  What can you say to such people?  Other than, "Please shut up now, guys, you're just making yourselves look ridiculous!  Why not go out and shoot a few rolls, while you still can?"

[NOTE:  I am away from home until 18th April.  If you comment, please be patient!]

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Tide Is High

The Itchen, looking towards Northam Bridge

Pretty much every time in the last 30 years when I have taken the train to London I have noticed this view, which suddenly opens out -- after the St. Mary's Stadium, after the Hell's Angels' clubhouse -- where the railway line runs close alongside the shore of the river Itchen's tidal estuary.  Early in the morning, with the sun glancing off the pewter-coloured expanse of water and the glistening mud studded with marine debris, it's a brief reminder of the otherness of Southampton, glimpsed before the train glides on into the rolling green Hampshire uplands around Winchester.  Not exactly Venice, but not just fields and woods, either.

Every time I see it I resolve to go down there, and walk along the path that runs next to the railway, but somehow never got around to it. In March, finally, I did make it down there, only to choose a day that was overcast and misty, with spits of rain in the wind, and a time when the estuary was still quite full.  Oh well.  Another time, another tide.

The Itchen, looking towards Horseshoe Bridge

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Appeal

"Odd, from the back she looks perfectly normal..."

I'm in a campaigning mood, so this is an appeal to the BBC, particularly those with responsibility for talk radio, with regard to a number of important matters.

First, young women with childish voices.  A lisp may have a certain cute-factor when deployed by an 8-year old. Even then, it is a pretty emetic, Shirley Temple kind of cute.  I listen to a lot of radio, and I'm hearing more and more young women speaking in a distinctly child-like manner, using a high, breathy register, and an over-distinct, mannered pronunciation, up to and including lisped sibilants.  So many of the younger female guests on, say, BBC Radio 4 Today sound about twelve.  It's the speech equivalent of one of those dreadful semi-military overcoats that royal girl-children were buttoned into in the 1940s, or white ankle socks.  Sometimes, it can sound as if the BBC has been overrun by the progeny of Violet Elizabeth Bott (you know, "I'll thcream and thcream until I'm thick!").

It's clearly a fashionable thing, and I'm not sure why this has come about.  Perhaps it's a reaction to hyper-masculine young male laddishness.  Perhaps it's an offshoot of that faux-naive, croaky-feeble singing voice that you hear everywhere now (yes, you, Laura Marling).  Or  -- whisper it -- maybe kawaii, the dreaded Japanese Cult of Cute, has finally taken ineradicable root on these shores, like knot-weed? But, wherever it's coming from, it's up to you, BBC, to put a stop to it.  Insist on grown-ups, please.  Get Mishal Husain to give them a severe talking-to.

Second, tutting.  There's been an outbreak of tutting and lip-smacking, as a form of aural punctuation.  Weather-forecast presenters do it, magazine-programme presenters do it.  Even certain Today and World at One regulars have started doing it.  [smack!].  Radio is an intimate medium, and these noises are intrusive, unpleasant to listen to, and give an air of smugness to everything ("Tut! There, wasn't that clever?").  There are a number of reasons Paddy O'Connell is not my favourite radio presenter, and this is one of them.

Next:  the use of So at the beginning of every response to a question by academics.  So I'm finding it very annoying.  So I don't understand why they think it helps.  So get Melvyn Bragg on the case; In Our Time would be a very good place to start.

Also, now the election is in full swing, could we start a Radio 4 "glottal stop jar" for middle-class politicians, starting with Ed Balls?  A pound for every ludicrously misplaced "ʔ" would soon sort it out.  Let Alan Johnson be the judge, as an appropriate punishment for not running for leadership of the Labour Party.

And finally, Robert Peston...  Why, BBC, why?

Thank you for your attention.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #4

If you go down to the woods today...  There's always something Arthur Rackham-esque about hedgerows and woodland, and something about the fidelity to line and tone of a camera seems well-suited to capturing it.  It's tempting to say that his characteristic blend of the uncanny and an ambivalent innocence is very English, but it's probably more true to say it's very Northern European -- something to do with wolves and witches, babes in the woods, and dodgy woodcutters.

Certainly, other illustrators of folk and fairy tales have shown a similar feeling for those earthy tones and twisted shapes -- Swede John Bauer and Russian Ivan Bilibin, for example -- but Rackham did always seem somehow to invest his tangled roots and malevolent dwarves with a greater sense of character.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #3

IKEA!  What a maze... There are poor wanderers in there who have been lost for days, living off frozen köttbullar (the famous IKEA meatballs).  I believe köttbullar is simply Swedish for "spherical processed meat product"; odd, that they don't give them an IKEA-style name (PÜKI, perhaps, or PLOPS).

I read somewhere that people have started arranging IKEA hide-and-seek games, which sounds like madness to me.  I have always thought that hide-and-seek sets up two of the loneliest experiences in a child's life: as the seeker, left alone at the start of the game with everyone else hiding, and as the last hider, who fears he or she may never be found!

IKEA blue

IKEA pink

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #2

Over the next few weeks I'm likely to be putting up a series of these picture posts, as I'm quite busy with a number of real-life projects that are eating into my blogging time.  Odd, how time seems in short supply now that, in theory, I've got plenty of it, but there you are.  Words take time and consideration, but the pictures just happen.  Maybe a little too easily, sometimes, but that's something I'm aware of and working on.  Another project!

I must admit I'm never quite comfortable with that word, "project".  It always falls somewhere slightly odd inside the triangle defined by schoolwork ("I've got to finish my GCSE project by Friday"), celeb-speak ("Lady Gaga is developing several projects at this time"), and mighty works ("The pyramidical project proceeds apace, Your Pharaonic Fabulousness!").  It's hard to think of an alternative, though, so it will have to do.  Places to go, people to see, projects to develop!

Banks of the Test, Mottisfont Abbey

Bull Drove, Winchester

North slope, St. Catherine's Hill

Monday, 23 March 2015

Three-Square Story

Horseshoe Bridge, Southampton

Burgess Road, Southampton

Lordswood Road, Southampton

Friday, 20 March 2015

Here's One I Made Earlier

Here in Britain this Friday morning we had our first solar eclipse since 1999.  Exciting!  Cue media hysteria!  However, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib down on the South Coast -- only 80-odd percent of eclipse, and 110% cloud cover.  The morning started gloomy, and it merely got a bit darker around 09:30.  I couldn't even see where the sun was in the sky; though I did have to turn a light on in the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Spooky!

At the time of the previous eclipse in summer 1999 we were on holiday in Norfolk.  Our son was eight, and our daughter five -- perfect ages for a bit of home-made science magic.  So, with the aid of a couple of kitchen stools, a mirror, a piece of white card and some sticky tape we rigged up an eclipse viewing station in the garden of our cottage.  It worked!

I really enjoyed that aspect of being a father -- the endless improvised making of props and playthings with scissors and tape, whether it be an elaborate crawl-through tunnel of cardboard boxes or a carefully painted and fitted Power Rangers mask made from robust watercolour paper.  It's a bit like being a primary school teacher with a class of two.  Or perhaps more like home-schooling, where the only lesson is always Art & Craft.  Putting up the occasional shelf or redecorating the bathroom just doesn't hit the same spot.

Something of that same spirit must have animated those early pre-astronomers who worked out the basic solar, lunar, and stellar patterns.  I mean, for thousands of years you couldn't just look up in a calendar how long it was until spring, never mind when the next eclipse was due.  In fact, it must have taken a while for someone to first figure out that there were regular cycles involved, and then even longer for someone to be bothered to work out exactly what they were.  One of my earliest blog posts (Bloody Elves!, a good post, too) was a tribute to those odd souls who could be bothered to do the observational spadework that eventually meant that the rest of us could just look it up with confidence (at least, those who can be bothered to make even that minimal effort).

I imagine a field somewhere, where someone -- a minor princeling, perhaps, someone not entirely cut out for warfare, much derided, but oddly driven -- has decided to lay out a stick for each day that passes, perhaps aligning each stick with the point on the horizon where the sun rose that day.  He has a sense that there is a pattern, but what?  After a couple of years, rapidly running out of field, it strikes him that if he lays them in a circle, he only needs to do the job once.  Bingo!

Next steps:  he puts in a bid for funding for a permanent version -- maybe some large imported stones would be nice? -- and charges the rest of the tribe fat fees for bespoke predictions from version 2.0; spring, start of the raiding season, Black Friday, and so on.  He is no longer much derided, and starts wearing an especially idiotic hat, just because he can, and begins planning a massive and profitable franchise operation:  Solar Solutions.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Many moons, many sticks...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Highfield Lane

Running up through the eastern side of Southampton Common is the main road out of town towards Winchester and ultimately to London, known along that stretch as the Avenue.  This busy thoroughfare cuts off a narrow vertical slice of the Common, which sits alongside the university campus and the residential area known as Highfield.  Because it is nowhere in particular -- a long and narrow transitional green buffer between highway and suburb -- it is actually wilder and denser than much of the main Common.  It is also more dangerous: students are advised to avoid its few, poorly-lit paths at night as, unfortunately, serious assaults happen there most years.

The road leading off the Avenue into Highfield cuts through about 200 yards of this tangled urban wilderness.  I walked over to the university earlier this week by this route, and in a steady light drizzle the emerging spring colours were subtly enhanced.  In a matter of weeks, new leaves will start to obscure and darken the woodland, and the undergrowth will become impenetrable; already, thorny loops of bramble are booby-trapping the ground.  If you do wander about in there, however, you may notice the bumps and ditches of some old foundations.  During World War 2, military huts of various sorts were built there, mainly in preparation for the D-Day landings.  After the War, these were squatted for some years by the homeless, bombed out during the Blitz, before being dismantled.

Somewhere on the Common -- perhaps on this side of the Avenue, perhaps the other -- there is also the concealed entrance to an underground bunker, which was to be the hideout for members of a so-called Auxiliary Unit of the "British Resistance", recruited from the Home Guard and trained in sabotage in anticipation of a German invasion.  Remarkably, my grandfather was a member of this very unit; we are not a Southampton family, but in 1939 he moved here to take up a job at a printing firm, and as an ex-infantryman had joined the local Home Guard at the outbreak of war.  After the war I know he showed the bunker's location to my uncle but, unsurprisingly, seventy years later he can't remember where it was.  I wonder whether anybody does?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our Emails Now Are Ended

As those of you who contact me off-blog should know, I'm in transition away from my long-standing institutional email address, which I'd got into the habit of using for everything, simply because I acquired it back in the days when having any email address at all was a novelty and a privilege.  I do still have the use of that original email ID, thanks to the indulgence of the university, but can't rely on it indefinitely.

Before I retired I foolishly decided to transfer much of my "personal" mail into a separate location, where it would be safely archived, only to discover -- too late -- that the transfer had not worked.  So that was 20 years of choice wit'n'wisdom down the e-tubes.  But now I realise I need to clear the decks again so the remaining "personal" stuff  (still a considerable quantity) can, at some point, be transferred to my new address (or more probably dumped down a different e-drain).  Oh, well.  So I spent much of Saturday and Sunday deleting thousands of work-related emails, received and sent, which I had felt the need to keep for one reason or another.  The bulk of them dated from after 2005, when I must last have seriously purged my mailboxes, but some dated back as far as 1998.

It was a real trip down Memory Lane, an electronic repeat of the bulk dump of paper files I carried out before vacating my office.  Not, I hasten to add, in a Stasi-style attempt to evade justice, but merely in recognition of the fact that the contents of my over-stuffed filing cabinet of personal copies of various agendas, minutes, and position papers were not unique or rendered more valuable by the annotations and elaborate doodlings I had scrawled over them (though see Tom Phillips' book Merry Meetings for a different perspective).

Doodles?  I'll always have my notebooks...
(where the doodle:note ratio is quite high...)

Ah, all those half-forgotten names, the prestigious projects and the last-minute lash-ups, the pressing concerns and the coat-trailing, the mails marked "urgent" and still unread after a decade (sorry!) with their never-to-be-opened attachments, the real and imagined crises, the routine comradely banter, and the occasional flash of genuine wit or even genius...  The stuff of work, replicated a billion-billion-billion-fold across the planet, and deader even than yesterday's papers: the day before yesterday's emails...

But talk about the ten thousand things!  Just to pick one: How could I forget the sheer aggravation caused to our library -- and to me, personally -- by the soliciting, chasing, submission, processing, and recording by my staff of something as apparently straightforward as our own bloody PhD theses?  Oh, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, but above all emails.  Lots of emails.  For example, a few years ago I was required to submit a signed and witnessed statement to a court in Massachusetts, where a multi-million dollar patent-infringement lawsuit hung on exactly when a particular PhD thesis -- embargoed for a certain period due to its commercial sensitivity -- had become available to public scrutiny on our shelves, more than a decade previously.  Lawyers can be fussy devils when they want to be -- the meter was really ticking on this one -- and there was an endless round of emails before the scope and wording of this statement was satisfactory to all parties.  And yet, ironically, it turned out that a faxed document is more acceptable to the legal mind than an email attachment.  I'd imagined flying to Boston with a notarised parchment chained to my wrist, but there was to be no expenses-paid trip to New England for me (although finding a functioning fax machine in the 21st century was an adventure in itself).

Then there were the endless changes.  Changes of library management system, changes of operating system, changes in programming language, changes in bibliographic standards, changes in network protocols, changes in platform and delivery of services, changes to the ownership, personnel, practices and geographical location of library automation "partners", and the constant updates, patches, service packs, changes to changes to ch-ch-ch-changes, version succeeding (which we had never implemented, anyway)...  I suddenly remembered why it was I had felt it was time to retire.  I was really, really tired of all that.

Over the years, I have taken to email as a medium.  I enjoy its to-and-fro, its immediacy, and its informality.  Where others preferred a perfunctory, all-business tone -- often mispelling wrods on prupose, I suspect -- I cultivated an email "voice" which, in a way, was a twenty year dry run for this blog.  However, I realise my attempts at witty, wordy, oblique, perspective-restoring replies may often have been exasperating, particularly for anyone trying to whip up some serious attention to a serious issue.  I was tempted to keep a representative sample, but a "selected emails" doesn't really have the same cachet as a "collected correspondence", especially when the subject is yet another go-round on the strange smell emanating from the basement.

Besides, I always have in the back of my mind the (bad) example set by a senior member of staff at one of the branch libraries at the university where I started my career, who -- in response to a letter from the manager of a local bookshop, explaining a problem with the supply of a certain book -- wrote that he had "no interest in the exculpatory whinings of a jumped-up shop-boy".  Luckily, this was in the pre-email days, when such a letter had to be typed up and filed and could be spotted and quietly modified by a wise secretary (who might keep it nonetheless, perhaps for blackmail purposes, or perhaps merely to show to junior professionals like me, for amusement and instruction).

I'm sure there must have been many times when I did hit "send" too soon, with no mediating secretary to save me from myself.  I do know I once accidentally broadcast confidential details of a competitive system tender from a particularly annoying supplier to an entire email list of British university systems support librarians, none of whom would afterwards believe it was an accident.  Which it was.

So, better now to hit "delete" a few thousand times, and say goodbye to all that...
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Except that all those emails will probably still be hanging around on or in some cloud somewhere, and cluttering up cyberspace until the last syllable of recorded time.

[Note: the new email address is in my "Profile", above right.]

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Half Full

Many years ago, when I was young and open to new ways and ideas, and trying to escape the limitations of my small-town swot-cum-stoner mentality, I met a few people whose ideas were so far out I thought they must be faking it.  One guy -- a tall, lugubrious northerner whose chest-length dark hair seemed to weigh his upper body down into a permanent stoop of resignation inside the heavy dark overcoat he wore in all weathers -- was the first anti-humanist I had ever encountered.  Not in the sense that he had problems with humanist philosophy, but that he thought humans were the problem, and extinction of our species was the planet's best hope. No, really?  Far out!

My friend was a straw in the wind, it turned out.  In certain parts of the academy, and in particular within that strange penumbra of academically-tinged thinking on the Web that is the haunt of the recovering but still-unemployed humanities postgraduate, an oppressive orthodoxy of pessimism has taken hold, a sort of intellectual End Times mindset.  For a while, this stuff seemed compelling.  But, I don't know about you, now I'm really bored with the dull droning sound that this sombre hive produces, and I still tend to think they're faking it.

There is a serious contemporary problem of disillusion, of course: the steady stripping away by science of the handy illusions and delusions that have, for most of us, in large part defined our humanity, can be experienced as a bleakness.  If not god, if not transcendence, if not spirit, if not art, then what?  Attempts to rationalise consciousness -- most recently as a heuristic, integrating information-processing device -- strike directly at the "soul" and the "self" and the deep values of moral behaviour in ways that can be profoundly upsetting, but don't offer anything to put in their place.  Humanism itself comes to seem like a mere comfort break on the journey away from superstition to nihilism.

Some sad cases, not themselves scientists, revel in this bleakness.  Humanism is dismissed by them with a sneer.  They enjoy the oh, so superior sense that -- you poor sentimental fools! -- it's all in vain.  Life is a meaningless text, onto which we merely project whatever grids of meaning we have inherited, created, or had imposed on us.  It is a tale told by an idiot, so to speak, full of sound and fury, signifying ... Well, nothing.  The ultimate revenge of these nerds of nothingness, these nihilism wonks -- many of whom have found a congenial home in higher education -- is to take our brightest and best children and fill them with this grey poison of relativism and cultural pessimism.

This often goes hand in hand with a rejection of "Enlightenment" values, generally understood as a set of beliefs about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of human rights, with an underpinning conviction that cumulative progress through rational enquiry will free humanity from the chains of superstition and political oppression, and the scourges of disease and hunger.  Hah!  As if!  Don't you know we're all doomed?

This toxic stuff is seeping into the wider culture.  Take this quote from an article in a recent weekend's Guardian Review by voguish novelist Tom McCarthy:
Careful not to fall back on some naive escapist fantasy (of individual self-expression, or the transcendent human spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth -- in other words, the very fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings), De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way towards some kind of resistance to or rupture of the machine's logic.
(James Joyce Would be Working for Google, 7/3/2015)
Whoah...  Watch out for those naive escapist conservative fantasies, dude!  He goes on:
We could quite easily dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks, brush them aside and pen great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation, even as the sands in which we'd need to bury our heads in order to do so are being blown away.  Alternatively, we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing's true and only lot, its afterlife.
Blimey, what is the point?  Hand me that razor-blade, when you've finished with it, mate.

Now, I'm no philosopher.  The problem is, neither are most writers or humanities scholars.  Sure, they've read some French bollocks Bourdieu and some Foucault and some Deleuze and maybe some Benjamin and some Bakhtin, mainly in translation, but they have no sense of the traditions and arguments in and against which such marginal, provocative figures are writing.  Also, so much academic writing is scholastic in impulse, in the mediaeval sense that it merely looks for interesting, approved and publishable wriggle-room within the confines of the thoughts of certain acknowledged authorities.  Who these are, of course, is largely a matter of fashion.  Who now admits to reading even Althusser, Adorno, Goldmann, or Lukács?  No doubt Deleuze is already curling the lip of some black-clad 20-year old.

As I say, I'm bored with this pessimism, however smart.  Life is not meaningless, except as defined by someone playing linguistic games, obsessed by the meaning of "meaning", or by someone with an oedipal grudge against organised religion, and a minimal grasp of what religion is and does.  Your life may have no "meaning", but it is not futile.  All of the universe has followed a clear and compelling logic of behaviour -- "laws" -- that, however improbably, has resulted in me and you, right here, right now.  You exist!  I exist!  Is that not utterly bizarre?  Is that not exciting enough?

Yes, consciousness is fragmentary, and yes, we have plural, largely constructed identities, and yes, we're mortal, and yes, there is almost certainly no continuance of existence after death, at least in any form we would recognise, but...  When was it ever any different?  Why let the too-clever sweet nothings of a few academic doom-mongers poison your life at the well?

But then I'm still just a small-town swot-cum-stoner at heart.  In the end, life is simply so much nicer than the alternative.  Its very absurdity is a deep source of joy.  I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself otherwise.  Besides, pessimism breeds passivity -- what's the point? -- and if we're ever going to get out the various messes we're in as a species, rather than simply extinguish ourselves, we're going to need all the optimism and activism we can muster.

Ditch, post, tree, copse, wood

Friday, 13 March 2015


A recent visit to Mottisfont Abbey was productive despite the return of dull weather.  I love that "out of season" feel, most obviously encountered at seaside resorts; it's a liminal time when visitors are starting to return but repairs are ongoing, and the attractions are still swathed in the tarpaulins that protected them against the winter weather.  Though it does seem extreme to swathe the ground staff -- I expect this guy stood still just a bit too long.

There are some major and mysterious construction works still underway at the entrance, there's been a lot more tree-felling and undergrowth-clearing, and some new sluiced drainage ditches have been dug to protect against flooding of the Test.  As always, I'm ambivalent about the aesthetic appeal of such "improvements", but it's nice when the interests of estate managers and visiting photographers coincide.  I still don't like the new adventure playgrounds, though.  If kids can't learn to be bored at National Trust properties, where can they learn to be bored?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


Increasingly, it seems "class" is becoming uncomfortably old-fashioned as a way of describing one's background and the workings of society, not least because politicians and others have put a lot of effort into persuading us we now live in a "classless" society.  That is to say, not classless in the sense of a society where wealth and ownership are spread evenly across the population, or where the difference between the richest and the poorest has diminished to some morally acceptable multiple, but in the sense that sufficient opportunity and means now exist for "social mobility"* to be a matter of choice, supposedly, regardless of the stratum of society into which an individual was born.  There are, it is claimed, no longer any barriers of class.  The only real barriers are attitude and aspiration. To which my considered response is:  Yeah, right.

To a limited extent, this has always been sort-of-true.  As Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall reaches its apotheosis as a BBC TV six-parter, we should remind ourselves: Thomas Cromwell is not a fictional character.  The son of a Putney blacksmith really did rise to become the most powerful man in the land.  Not many years later, and pace various anti-Stratfordian lunatics, the son of a Warwickshire glover really did become the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known.  Although we should bear in mind that such men were never illiterate, dung-spattered ragamuffins from the hovels of the lower orders.  That our society should regard the children of influential tradesmen as coming from "humble" beginnings is revealing in itself.  For centuries, if not millennia, the actual poor -- numerous, ubiquitous, malodorous, and dangerous -- have been regarded as essentially a form of livestock.

I think what is really signified by this insistence on "classlessness" is that the privileged now once again feel sufficiently threatened by the structural "problem" of the poor that their best answer is to deny the existence of any such problem.  Anyone who points out the inbuilt unfairness and self-replicating rigidity of society must be derided as an out-of-date "class warrior" or -- in a word that tops my hate list -- merely "chippy".  A clown like Russell Brand only gets the attention he does because he is a clown.  It's tempting to say something similar about Slavoj Žižek.  I mean, how many other academic Marxists get millions of views on YouTube?

Obviously, in a world of limited opportunities, it suits the interests of those who regard an interesting, meaningful life as their exclusive birthright to control and limit access to the Good Stuff.  Nepotism, prejudice, shibboleths, patronage, connections, and inheritance; these were always the traditional methods of ensuring the Good Stuff went to the right people and, more importantly, to the children of the right people.  The striking thing is, in modern Britain, these sleights and sharp practices are being used more, not less.

You only have to look at the widespread contemporary use of unpaid "internships" as Route A to the juicier jobs in practically any employment sector that will -- eventually -- pay a proper professional salary.  These are open to "anyone", of course, provided you happen to know the right people, and can survive on no pay at all for at least a year or two.  As a way of filtering out the lower orders it couldn't be improved upon, really.  I have even read of cases where unpaid internships are offered as prizes at top fee-paying schools.  I was deeply confused the first time I was approached by a recent graduate asking to work for no pay for a year.  What?  I simply could not process the information.  She had used the word "internship", but I did not recognise its meaning at the time: it had something to do with doctors and hospitals, as far as I knew.  Did junior doctors work for nothing, then?

It is also quite shocking to observe shameless and systematic nepotism going on quite openly.  A network of famous families is threaded all through the media and the arts, for example, to a degree that suggests that we have re-invented a form of aristocracy for the 21st century.  How amazing -- in a classless meritocracy like ours, where jobs always go to the best available candidate -- that the second and, yea, even the third generations should turn out to be just as talented as the dynasty's founder!  Nepotistic?  No, genetic!

But it's not just the good jobs and the influential friends -- useful as these are -- that build a wall around our ruling elites and their lucky offspring, but something more enabling: the permission and the means to regard yourself as exempt from the common run of expectations, not least from the social gravity of failure.  It has long been a mystery to me:  where do upper-middle class children of average or below average intelligence and no particular talent end up?  Where are they educated, given most fee-paying schools have fiercely competitive entrance requirements?  Why are they never to be found stacking supermarket shelves, or emptying my bins?  Is there an offshore island somewhere, entirely populated by Justins and Sophies who cannot master the twelve times table?

When celebrating the undoubted achievements of "our" culture, we should never overlook the fundamental truth that the productivity of what we might call the Achieving Classes was bought at a high social and human price.  It depended entirely on a ready supply of domestic servants, for example, expected to work long and unsocial hours for little pay, and to remain single as a condition of employment.  It also depended on private incomes, derived from rents, grimy industries, dubious colonial enterprises, and speculation, all of which wrought misery for others before being laundered into immaculate cash in the bank.  Above all, it presumed the unquestioning commitment of the majority population to living lives of unrewarding drudgery, building and shoring up the economic base that supported the gilded pin, on the head of which "our" cultivated angels danced their elegant dance.

Many might ask:  So what has changed, exactly? I think I'd reply: Nothing much, except that, increasingly, the very wealthy and the globally well-connected like to think they don't really need the poor any more -- or, indeed, most of the rest of us -- and are losing interest in the political fantasy that they, too, have a stake in alleviating poverty by means of welfare and social mobility.  So last century!  Welcome to the New Middle Ages; just one mobile classless class, plus livestock.

* Always understood as an "upwards", never a "downwards" movement.  Eventually, I suppose, we could all be wealthy, leisured aristocrats!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Walk in the Woods

As the weather seemed finally to have taken a spring-like turn, I went for a wander in Spearywell Wood, near Mottisfont, on Friday.  I would have described it as "peaceful", had my ears not been assaulted periodically by the hysterical snarling of chainsaws.  It's not just the birds, dog-walkers and photographers who get busy in the woods in Spring.

I wonder if the tree in that last photograph thought it had won some kind of prize, when it was awarded the red dot?  Yesss!  You could almost hear the other trees calling out a warning, "Run, Jimmy, run!"  For some reason it reminded me of my favourite Tom Gauld cartoon:

© Tom Gauld

At this time of year the strength of the sunlight has increased significantly, but the day is still relatively short-lived, so by the time I headed back to the car the late-afternoon shadows were raking through the trees in dramatically gothic fashion.

It gets a bit spooky, after a bit, tramping through the woods at dusk alone, with chainsaw-wielding maniacs round every corner.  Unfortunately, this puts me into the sort of nervous, ironically-theatrical mood where I start cackling with laughter to myself, which probably accounted for the expression on the faces of the dog-walking couple I met on the way back to the carpark.  Sorry about that, guys.

Carpark noticeboard sprite

Friday, 6 March 2015

At Maldon

Spearywell Wood

I forgot to report back on J.O. Morgan's At Maldon, his rendering of the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon.  I mentioned it way back in October 2013 (Badwulf), when I was having a contrarian moan about the universal praise for Seamus Heaney's (to my mind) indifferent translation of Beowulf.   So:  it's very good.  But don't take my word for it, check out this page of comments at publisher CB editions.  And note the availability from today of that limited edition CD of Morgan's own recital.  By all accounts it's electrifying: I've already ordered mine.

And talking of Beowulf, did you hear Professor Andy Orchard on this week's edition of In Our Time (see Thursday 5th March 2015) ?  I was truly impressed.  Orchard is everything an inspiring teacher should be: learned, witty, insightful, fluent, amusing...  (Odd, therefore, you might think, that he should have chosen early mediaeval languages as his speciality, but never mind).  I'm pretty sure that if I had studied Anglo-Saxon with him, my view of it would have been rather different (see Caedmon's Dream Part 1).  I think what impressed me most was his awareness of the "Dark Ages" as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual melting-pot of influences.  His comments on the importance of those "Saxon poems in Latin that no-one reads" and how it is a shame that Anglo-Saxon is generally studied in English departments -- where, ahem, let us say that linguistic competence is scarce -- were well made.

I have to say Andy Orchard restored much of my waning faith in the standards that apply on the Humanities side of our institutions of higher education, although to acquire his manifest level of fluency in Latin, Old English, Welsh, and the ancient Scandinavian languages is a big ask by any standards.  Best of all, he had a welcome reticence about the virtues of "Heaneywulf", as it is apparently known in the trade, despite Melvyn Bragg's presumption of enthusiasm.

Spearywell Wood

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Fly Past

I expect all habitual photographers are the same, in this respect: there are certain potential photographs that you have seen and liked, and continue to see and like every time you go past, and yet have never yet got around to making.  Partly because it's never the right time or the right light, or you never have the right camera or lens, but mainly because you only ever remember them when you happen to be in that particular spot.

This is a classic example.  I pass its location less often these days, and rarely with a suitable camera, but any time I do, I think:  must remember to do that one, one of these days.  Last week, I happened to be in the right place with the right camera, but the light was awful.  Nevertheless, there it is: a dull facade transformed by a bit of imagination (artist Ray Smith's, in this case).  I may get a better shot at it, another time, I may not.  At least now I know where (and on what) to stand.

Monday, 2 March 2015

On Lambeth Bridge

 Looking south

Looking north

A trip to London yesterday, to visit the "Salt and Silver" exhibition of early photography at Tate Britain.  It was a toss-up between that and the poorly-reviewed "Sculpture Victorious" in the next room.

I suspect a laugh at the expense of Victorian sculptors might have been more entertaining.  One forgets how in love those early photographers were with the novelty of photographing ancient architecture.  The detail!  The even tonality!  And, best of all, the immobility!  So, several rooms mainly full of historic, worthy but dull records of grey stonework.  Although I wouldn't have minded taking home John Wheeley Gutch's wonderfully toned image of Tintern Abbey in 1858, ranging from the deep shadow of the ivy-covered arches to a bare hint of a sunlit, tree-covered hillside beyond, a view surely little changed since Wordsworth's repeat visit in 1798:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods
And not a single English Heritage interpretation board in sight.

As always, the photographs of people proved the most compelling, especially Roger Fenton's Crimean War portraits, which I have long admired for their bleak and scruffy renderings of the realities of life "in the field".  Especially as the field in question was located in the cold and rocky Crimean Peninsula, but its temporary residents were kitted out for some rather more congenial field near Aldershot.  I felt for them as we crossed the Thames on Lambeth Bridge, with a cold March wind cutting up the river and the clear sunlight periodically blocked by the ever-higher architectural cliffs along the Embankment.