Tuesday, April 22, 2014


An exemplary contemporary kerfuffle happened recently.  It has to do with the wording on a memorial to the victims of "Nine Eleven", as we call it even here in the UK, where "Eleven Nine" would make more sense.  We ignore the irrationality of American date numbering in deference to the solemnity of the occasion commemorated.  I don't recall where I was, or what I was doing on 22/11/63,  the day Kennedy was shot, but I certainly do remember 11/9/01.

It seems a new National September 11 Memorial Museum will open in New York in May.  It seems an odd move, to me, and one does wonder what such a "museum" might contain.  But one thing it certainly will contain is a repository of the remains of the unindentified victims, behind a large, bare concrete wall, on which there is mounted -- in fifteen inch letters made from steel recovered from the Twin Towers site --  a quotation from the Aeneid:  "No day shall erase you from the memory of time".

It is this rather dull and awkwardly-translated quotation that has caused the kerfuffle.  Now, I am no classicist, and my acquaintance with the Aeneid is limited to the single book we had to study in Latin O-level, and a cursory skim-read of various translations over the years.  I am curiously immune to classical mythology, and can never remember who was who or who did what to whom, never mind why or when, or in what order.  Therefore the names Nisus and Euralyus mean nothing to me.  I'd be amazed if they meant anything to most readers of this blog.

However.  It seems that, to those to whom those names are not just empty signifiers, the quotation chosen for the Memorial Museum is not just dull, but shockingly inappropriate.  Virgil's words, apparently, are his elegy for a pair of exiled Trojan warriors, bonded by mutual love in the not-at-all-gay Greek fashion, who carried out a surprise night attack on a tribe in Italy -- a terror raid, in effect -- spearing and slashing dozens of warriors in their sleep.  You can read a summary of their story here.  As classicist Helen Morales told the New York Times, "If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than those honored by the memorial".

Oops.  But, as James McQuade revealed in his post on the excellent Melville House blog:
It may come as a surprise, then, that those representing the 9/11 Memorial were not unaware of the quotation’s objectionable context. Speaking on the contentious inscription, museum director Alice M. Greenwald says, "In selecting this quote, our focus was not on the specific narrative of the classic story or its characters. What resonated with us, and with everyone who reviewed its use in the context of the museum, was the reference to a single day not being able to erase the memory of those we love." Seems like whoever was put in charge of compiling a list of potential quotes just googled "Important Things Said by Latin Poets," and didn’t bother to research it any further—because, you know, who reads epic poetry anymore?
It's a curious modern disease, this shallowness, what we might call second-order source-blindness.  Primary source-blindness is not yet a serious problem.  If Google had turned up a perfectly apposite quote in Mein Kampf, for example, someone would surely have stamped on it.  Something in Trotsky or Lenin?  Reject!  Some of the more fascistic musings of Henry Ford or Ayn Rand?  Nix!  But the Aeneid?  Excellent choice! Nothing lends more gravitas than the classics.  We'd better have it in translation, though: the days of e pluribus unum are long gone.

But what about the second-order source of any quotation, its context?  As I have noted on this blog before, context increasingly counts for very little in our sound-bite culture.  I recall my rant against the London Olympics opening ceremony (An Island Full of Noises) where Bowie's "Heroes" and Pink Floyd's "Eclipse" were filleted of meaning, in the service of mere illustration.   But, surely, context is everything?  The recognition of the significance of context is 90% of what we call intelligence.  "All red berries are good to eat" was never a good survival strategy.

I admit, I have a thing about context-checking, where quotations are concerned.  It's a basic principle of humanities scholarship, after all.  You should never recycle a quotation found in a secondary source without first checking the primary source.  Not least because beating up another scholar on grounds of misquotation or quotation out-of-context is a large part of the fun.  So, if you're going to sling quotations around yourself, you'd better make sure your own backside is well-protected.  Especially with quotations in translation from languages you don't know, from books you've never read, by authors you've never heard of.

There is an alternative, of course. If you have great contemporary wordsmiths available to you, why not ask one of them for a few choice words, rather than rummage through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations?  The First World War covered no-one in glory, but the post-war grieving was deftly and tastefully handled.  Kipling's words on the anonymous tombstones of the War Graves Commission did the job nicely: A soldier of the Great War -- known unto God.  You don't have to believe in any particular god, or any god at all, to grasp the meaning and intent of those words.  You don't even have to know that Kipling's own, only son, John, was killed by a shell at Loos, and his body never identified in Kipling's lifetime.  Though context, as always, will add poignancy.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


For those of us of a Christian heritage, today is a day of profound significance, much more so than Christmas, though you could be forgiven for not knowing  that, or why.  Christianity is very bad at explaining itself to grown-ups, I find.  I have lost count of the "Lent talks" I have listened to on the BBC where a sophisticated speaker gets hopelessly lost somewhere in the wilderness that lies between literal truth and metaphor.

Without the resurrection, the story of the crucifixion is meaningless, they say.  OK.  We have Paul's word on that:  "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain."  Fine; got that.  But the Resurrection is not to be taken too literally, they also say.  There's a lot of metaphor in there.  Uh, OK, but confusing.

The crucifixion is easy to grasp: great story, great scenario, wonderful images, if terribly, brutally tragic, with no punches pulled.  I'm amazed children are allowed to listen to it.  The resurrection...  less so.  "With a single bound he was free..." It's no wonder modern religious sensibilities reach for the metaphors.  Or that most of the population goes with the chocolate eggs and rabbits on Easter Sunday, instead.

Anyway, don't look at me, I'm a lapsed-Baptist Zen pagan pantheist agnostic, with an unfortunately skeptical nature that takes absolutely nothing on trust, even if printed in tiny print in numbered paragraphs in double columns on india paper.  If it's theological debate you want, try the Archbishop of Canterbury (he seems generally less busy at this time of year than that Pope fellow).

We'll be in Wales for a few days from tomorrow, but I'll schedule some posts to keep you company during the week.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Walk in the Woods

The Fuji X100 blows me away with its sheer quality, every time I take it out for a walk.  Which is quite often, recently, as it slips so easily into a shoulder bag, is forgettably light and such a pleasure to use, despite -- or perhaps even because of -- its quirks.  Above all, its image quality, straight out of the camera, is breathtaking.  I think I see a Fuji "X" system in my future, once I've got a little more cash in the bank.

It's always nice to discover a new piece of ground to explore, and I came across one just yesterday.  We had headed out towards Mottisfont Abbey, forgetting it was Good Friday. The place was packed out, with cars parked  end-to-end on the roadside verges for several hundred yards beyond the official car-park.  Forget about it!

Luckily, the Prof remembered a tract of woodland a bit further on, where she had once taken the kids when they were small.  There was no problem parking, and the dappled light falling onto the woodland floor was very enticing, with bluebells in drifts among the crisp brown beech and birch leaf litter.  We had a lovely exploratory ramble along the network of forestry paths, swishing, prodding, and pointing at things with our sticks.

Of course, the problem with pretty woodlands is that they tempt you to take pretty woodland photographs.  On the drives out and back we spotted several guys in roadside copses, hunched over tripods and working at getting the magazine-perfect "bluebells in dappled spring sunlight" shot.  They probably do it every year.  Maybe this year they'll get it right.

What you need is a genuinely strange and mysterious intrusion, to add the necessary disruptive presence.  I was amazed and delighted to discover this surreal object, a single sheet of corrugated iron, curled up organically like a gigantic dead leaf, a headless sphinx among the trees.  Perfect!  Though I don't think it will get into Hampshire Life magazine...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Run-Time Rhino

Ever met Ronnie*, the psycho-psychedelic Run-Time Rhino? Why run-time?  Well, for whatever reasons, Ronnie hates hackers, and lies in wait in the foyer of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, artfully-camouflaged as a fairground attraction built out of recycled hardware.  Very hard, in Ronnie's case.

When he spots his unmistakably-dressed hacker prey he makes his move.  It's time to run.

* Do you think Ronnie Cray would be a pun too far?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Summer Term?

Deserted campus...

It was with some consternation that I learned that my daughter, a first year university student, would be coming home for the Easter break and not returning to university, other than to submit some assessed coursework.  It's the kind of thing that causes dark thoughts to crowd in on a parent. Is she unhappy?  Is she unwell?  Or is she still not capable of reading a calendar properly?

But, no.  It seems most of her friends have already gone home, and will also only be returning to take exams or hand in essays.  Their summer term will be very short --a single month -- and is an "assessment period", in which no teaching takes place.  For them, the academic year is effectively over.  Really? And all this for a mere £9000 p.a.!

After I'd made a few enquiries and done a few comparative sums, it emerged that quite a few universities are quietly shrinking the teaching year from the traditional three ten-week terms to an Oxbridge-style 24 weeks, sometimes split into two longish 12-week terms, sometimes spread in a complex overlay of two "semesters" over three terms.  In the process, it appears that some are abolishing the summer term.  At those institutions the student year, as a communal experience, now simply fizzles out in April.

I have to say I am amazed.  The 1970s, when I was a student, may be slipping into history -- incredibly, 1974 is as far in the past now as 1934 was back then -- but I still recall those summer terms vividly.  When people talk of the Student Experience (and they do, incessantly and anxiously, within university circles*) it is surely that sequence of year-end terms they ought to have in mind.   Whether it was the compression of a few years of neglected study into a month of cramming in the run-up to finals, or the bliss of a couple of summer months without the pressure of exams, those weeks from Easter until mid-June were an intensely-lived experience. It was, traditionally, a time when undergraduates -- mainly destined for worthy but dusty careers in public service -- got to behave, briefly but memorably, like the decadent idle rich, in a sort of swot's heaven.  I think I even once went punting in a Laura Ashley dress, though I may be making that up.

By contrast, a sort of alienated, lonely drifting-away in April is not the stuff of fond memories.  We seem to be moving towards an industrial efficiency in graduate throughput that may, I suspect, presage a move to intensive two-year degrees.  I'm not sure what the actual benefit of a factory-farmed, leisure-free degree would be: it seems like an academic version of the bean-counter's fallacy that 100 men can dig the same hole 100 times faster than one man.  My vision of the Degree-in-Pill-Form starts to seem less satirical.  It's yet another step down the road that leads to Ant World, where any moment not spent on achieving carefully-aligned national, corporate and personal goals by approved methods is a wasted moment. Possibly, eventually, a criminal moment.

This is not even to mention the prospect of bored young adults hanging around the parental home for four long summer months -- heh, as if that were even a problem! -- or trying, hopelessly, to enter the job market temporarily which so many long to join permanently.  Once upon a time, of course, as well as there being full, serial maintenance grants, all students were entitled to sign on for Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole) during university vacations.  No, really: I remember those weekly Giro cheques with great fondness.

Ah, the world we have lost...  And all because nobody wants to pay taxes any more.

* The hope is to make the Student Experience at your institution so compelling that (a) school-leavers choose you, rather than the competition, and (b) graduates (sorry: alumni) remember you with such fondness they feel inclined to bestow regular gifts of cash (to make up for those taxes they don't want to pay).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easing the Spring

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
          And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
          Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
          For to-day we have naming of parts.

"Naming of Parts", by Henry Reed

Thursday, April 10, 2014

March Past

I haven't been over to the Hockley Viaduct for some weeks, mainly due to the weather, so here's a suitably spring-like image from late March.  This is one of those shots I have taken repeatedly over the past few years.  I like the way that trunk obscures the view of the viaduct, and gives an ambiguous sense of discovery, revelation, and concealment to the picture.

This is as much a necessity as an aesthetic choice.  To get this shot, I have to push through a gap in the shrubs and saplings lining the road, and balance on a very small, often slippery piece of level ground, above where the bank shelves steeply down into a culvert, heavily overgrown with thorns.  The tree is just there -- large, close (but out of reach), and in the way -- so it's a simple case of use it or lose it. Or lean waay out over to the right.  I have generally decided to use it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Kiosk Collage

On a wet, drab Monday lunchtime, there is a pleasing, diffused lighting-effect to be found inside a telephone kiosk, rather like a large, vertical light-table.  It's nice and dry, too.

I like the palimpsest of stickers and posters that builds up on the more prominently-situated kiosks.  It's an effect reminiscent of those modernist and Dada collages that were first made, incredibly, 100 years ago.  Whatever did happen to that scissors-and-paste modernity?

Sometimes -- in fact, most of the time -- it seems impossible to imagine what comes next, as if we were stuck in an eternal present, facing helplessly back towards the past watching it pile up, as in Walter Benjamin's famous description of Angelus Novus, a monoprint by Paul Klee that he used to own.  The knowledge that things are, in effect, changing radically in unimaginable ways behind your back is either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on your mood, age, and frame of mind.

Today, after a successful upgrade to our library management system software -- probably the last I will ever oversee -- it all seems perfectly benign.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Tourist from Mars

It was once suggested that, in the end, there are only two stories:  A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Comes to Town.  As an analytical tool, this is pretty feeble.  You might as well further reduce those two to their lowest common denominator, and say there is only one story:  When People Get Around Stuff Happens.  True enough, but even more useless.  So what about stories where people turn into giant beetles? Or lament the impossibility of even travelling to the next village?

But there is a truth there.  Far down in the archaeological layers of the human spirit, there's an urge to move on, to see what lies over those hills.  Much of civilization comes down to ways of persuading the young that this might not be such a good idea.  Why not stick around and do something useful, instead? That washing up won't do itself!  But the gene pool urges a different, deeper story: listen, why not go and see if the girls in the next village are as pretty as they say?  Hmm? Otherwise we'll probably all end up as giant beetles.  Hey, is it your turn to feed Ugly Franz, or mine?

Over on another blog I occasionally frequent, the topic of travel vs. tourism often comes up.  You know, proper travel: running out of cash after six months -- ideally somewhere that doesn't have running water, electricity, or use the roman alphabet -- and trusting to your native wit and the kindness of strangers (plus a supersized, western-style helping of luck) to avoid ending up robbed, raped, and dead in a ditch.  It's scary stuff, independent travel, at least in retrospect. Travellers' tales so often seem to be hymns to blissful ignorance, near-miss horror stories that usually hinge on the tolerance and forbearance of the resident population.

The great paradox of travel is that, as temporary, uninvited and marginal guests -- often in tradition-bound, dictatorial and corrupt societies from which the locals themselves would dearly like to escape -- we act as ambassadors for the hard-won comforts of our liberal, technological democracies back home, advantages dismissed by most hardcore western drifters as inauthentic.  Like players in some global game of trust, the abandon with which we cast ourselves adrift is seen as a measure of personal integrity.  The bragging rights of travel are earned, not by wisdom ("I decided not to wade into the crocodile-infested waters"), but by dumb luck ("As luck would have it, the crocodile that swallowed the bag containing all my cash and documents was caught downstream, and I was able to buy my passport back from the local police, three months later, with the cash I earned by [censored]".

Much-despised tourists, by contrast, are welcome guests everywhere.  They spend lots more money, and are perfectly happy to be corralled, herded and milked as a seasonal resource, risking nothing more irksome than a room with a view blocked by the hotel next door.  The local businessmen must beam upon those glistening hides, as they bake in the sun, like farmers admiring a prime dairy herd.

I am unusually stirred by this subject at the moment, because I have a little adventure of my own coming up.  In June, I will be having another exhibition at the Fotoforum in Innsbruck, Austria (thanks to Rupert Larl).  This time, I have agreed to attend and give an opening night presentation, and have been asked to stay on and do a short photo-project in the Tyrol (double thanks, Rupert!).  As you can imagine, this is both exciting and terrifying, partly because I am prone to attacks of Impostor Syndrome, partly because my spoken German is pretty rusty, but also because of the tourist / traveller thing.

Although I have travelled in the past, I am, at heart, a native.  It has taken something in the order of a decade of constantly photographing a very few, very local beats to emerge as a photographer with some small degree of originality, preceded by another decade in which the clichés and false steps were worked out of my system, not by avoiding them but by making them.  I cringe when I look back at my contact sheets from, say, 1995. But that's just how it works -- the 10,000 hours, and all that.

Now, if anything worthwhile (photographically) is to come of my time in the Tyrol, I need to compress that 10-year process into about 10 days.  I think I can probably bypass the worst clichés -- we all know what they look like, whether perpetrated by tourists or landscape-porn professionals -- but the Austrian Alps are hardly photographic terra incognita; it's ground that has been thoroughly worked over since the invention of photography. Heard of Heinrich Kuehn, the pioneer of autochrome in the 1900s?  He was an Innsbruck resident.  There is also no shortage of contemporary Austrian photographers: wherever you look, wherever you go, it will be someone's well-trodden personal turf.  That is not even to mention the thousands of tourist snaps that must be taken every year.

Heinrich Kuehn, 1912

The hope, and the challenge, of course, is that dropping a keen-eyed stranger into such thoroughly pre-visualized territory (one is tempted to call it a hyperreal space) will deliver a fresh perspective.  Well, let's hope so.  I intend to be a tourist from Mars, combining the curiosity of a traveller with the voracity of a tourist, and avoiding the crocodiles wherever possible.

It may even be -- and this is just a thought -- that the best subject may not be the magnificent landscape, or the "real" Austria, but the tourists themselves, and the industry that surrounds them.  I have, after all, been there, done that.  But not for a very long time.

Near Tarrenz, Tyrol, summer 1966

Saturday, April 5, 2014

You Again

Marina Abramović is back in the news.  She is the ne plus ultra of performance art, the test case, working at the borderline where narcissism, obsession, insanity, sheer daftness, and that nebulous thing called "art" ebb and flow.  She is the self-styled "grandmother of performance art", with the stories and the scars to prove it.

I'm not much interested in her work, as such, but the story of her relationship with fellow nutter-cum-artist Ulay is deeply fascinating to me.  They met in 1976, and formed an intense folie à deux that found expression in some (now) famous performance pieces:  breathing mouth-to-mouth until they both pass out from lack of oxygen, alternately slapping each other in the face until one or other is unable to continue, bellowing incoherently at each other for hours -- just the usual stuff of any intense relationship, no?  We've all been there, though not generally before a public audience...

In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. Each of them walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. As Abramović described it: “That walk became a complete personal drama. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye". Abramović conceived this walk in a dream, and it provided what she thought was an appropriate, romantic ending to a relationship full of mysticism, energy, and attraction. She later described the process: “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending … Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
(from Wikipedia's Abramovic article)
The thing is, having decided to end their relationship as a grandiose piece of performance art, they never met again.

In 2010, Abramović gave her most famous performance, "The Artist is Present", at New York's MOMA, in which she shared a period of silence with each of an endless queue of visitors to the gallery, sat opposite each other at a small table.  After their 22 year separation, Ulay simply turned up.  You can witness what happened here on YouTube.

Despite the fact that some of those present clearly knew what was happening, suggesting it was not quite as spontaneous as it might seem, it is nevertheless a very moving moment, and in a spirit quite different from the studied, stony-faced mask of the performance.  It's an undeniable moment of humanity, interrupting -- and, surely, undermining -- an art-form which can seem little more than sterile narcissism, onto which we are free to project whatever we care to or need to.  Which may, of course, have been the point all along.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Derby Day

Paul Strand, Man in a Bowler Hat, 1916

I try to avoid the topic of hats on this blog, for obvious reasons.  But I was idly "researching" (i.e. surfing) the subject of bowler hats, when I came across this photograph by Paul Strand.  Does it remind you of anyone? Surely that is none other than Keith Richards?  I mean, I'm not going to suggest that Keef is one of the Undead (no need), but ...


[Little-known Keef Fact #47: Richards sang as a boy soprano at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.  No, really.]

Thursday, April 3, 2014


The shifts in light and atmosphere at this time of year can be extreme.  At 8:00 a.m. on 1st April there was a heavy, drifting fog shrouding and diffusing everything.

Then, by 12:30 p.m. the sun was bright in a clear sky.  As it raked down this bank, it caught the emerging green shoots in a dramatic, stage-lighting effect.  Rarely has the expression "blades of grass" seemed so appropriate. Or maybe "light-sabres of grass" would be better.

Without the barrier, of course, it would be nothing...

Later, as I drove home, a hailstorm pounded on the roof of my car. The hailstones were falling so hard they were invisible, and appeared to be pinging up out of the road, like popcorn.  By the time I got home, the sun was out again.  Perfectly normal April weather, of course.  However, yesterday and today things turned weird as the "Saharan Smog" enveloped the South Coast, somehow muffling everything in a blanket of smoky fog.  You can feel the soft grit on your teeth after even a short walk.  I decided not to risk scratching my lens coatings ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sunshine Superman

My Becher-like taxonomical pursuit of the decorative possibilities of barrier-tape and plastic mesh fencing may be beyond the grasp of some readers (not so much "Mysterious Barricades" as "Downright Baffling Obstacles"), but these daily five-finger exercises do at least give me a reason to get off my backside at lunchtime and beat the bounds of the campus.

I don't know whether it's just that I've become a familiar loony, like the alleged sometime professor of Maths who used to wander the place shouting incomprehensible greetings and occasionally dropping his trousers (whatever happened to him, I wonder?), but I rarely attract any attention when I'm about my photographic business.  Today, however, was different.

I was hunkered down inside my favourite telephone booth, squinting at the fresh tape-marks and abrasions in the sunshine, when the door was opened.  I assumed that, by malign coincidence, the only person on campus without a mobile phone wanted to use the pay-phone.  "Sorry," I said, "I'll come out."  "No," the person said, "I just wondered what you were doing?"

Now, I suppose it's possible that, from the outside, it may have looked a bit odd, suspicious even, to see a man squatting down inside a phone booth.  But it takes a certain kind of guileless curiosity, actually to open the kiosk door and ask what's going on.  I must admit I was tempted to play the situation for laughs  -- quite a few obvious turns on telephone booth tropes sprang instantly to mind -- but instead waggled my camera, and said, cheerily, "Taking photographs!"  "But why?  What on earth of?" he said.

This is always a tricky one to negotiate.  I could see he was genuinely baffled, and perhaps even concerned for my sanity.  It's easy to forget, quite how far beyond most people's concept of "normal" any photography is that does not involve close relatives or safely-accredited subjects (sunsets, kittens, porn, etc.).  The beauty of digital cameras, however, is that you can show, not tell.  "Here," I said, "Have a look", and put the camera into "chimping" mode.  I showed him the image below.

I could see he wasn't convinced.  Which was quite disappointing, and even a little insulting, so -- with my best "Good day to you, sir!" expression -- I firmly shut the door and carried on.  There's none so blind as they that will not see.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


Architects can be remarkably insensitive about any aspect of their projects not intended to be seen from the street.  They always have been: go behind the glorious facade of any Georgian terrace in, say, Bath, and be prepared to be amazed (and not in a good way).  Costs are costs, and speculative clients will always demand that they are minimised.  Round the back is where the corners get cut.

Of course, there is a utilitarian "big barn" philosophy that says, in effect, I don't care what this thing looks like from any angle; it's a carpet superstore, for Richard Rogers' sake, not a cathedral.  But you have the aesthetic poverty of the 21st century built environment, right there.  Who cares what "ordinary" looks like? Is there anything more soulless than those clusters of steel-frame, aluminium-clad cubes that dominate light-industrial and retail "parks"?  The liveried employees grabbing a fag in the service area around the back are the true animae loci of such places -- furtive, temporary, alienated, dispensible.  There's a photo-project there for someone, but not me.

Take, for example, our campus swimming pool.  From the front, an attractive expanse of smoked glass and glazed terra cotta tile; from behind, a bleak cube of corrugated metal siding.  Well, fine; it can't be seen from the street.  But it seems not to have occurred to anyone that this giant silver-grey brick with its drainpipes would dominate the view from the "recreational space" of the Valley Garden.

Mind you, if you get really close up, sneaking around the service paths, and maybe squeezing through the odd fence, there's a curious sub-tropical ambience of heat and light created by the reflective surfaces which I, for one, find quite interesting.  Nature is encroaching on this fresh wound at the micro level -- algae and moss -- and at the macro level -- vigorous sapling growth.  Give it a decade, and the thing may have vanished like a Mayan temple swallowed by the jungles of Central America.

Friday, March 28, 2014


If there's one thing I will regret when I retire later this year, it's not being able to spend my lunch hour wandering around such a visually-rich environment.  Today, with a bit of alternating sunshine and rain, was perfect: after about 20 minutes I was in the zone and stumbled back into work like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

Which reminds me, it's time I watched that film again...
The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, ah... Sometimes he goes too far. He's the first one to admit it...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Later, on the same morning as yesterday's post, it clouded over and drizzled a fine rain.  Those are the steps on which I stood to take yesterday's photograph, several hours earlier.  The lime-stains on the new-ish buff brickwork make a nicely ironic echo of the bright shapes of the reflected glass windows in that earlier image.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these inevitable stains and discolorations, that always appear within a year or two of the completion of a new building, never figure in the architect's renderings, and yet they do give a sort of character and interest to bland expanses of brickwork.  Just wait until those railings really start to corrode, and bleed rusty red trails down the facade...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Early One Morning

The oddest places, even the most mundane corners, can be touched with a bit of magic,  first thing on a bright March morning...

Saturday, March 22, 2014


A couple of days late, maybe, but still to the point. Look, what's that strange, beckoning shape over there?

It's the gateway where days begin to be longer than nights.

Not long now, and the swifts will be here.  Time to quote Ted Hughes:
"Look! They’re back! Look!" And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills -- are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come --
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters...

from: Swifts
The globe's still working (we hope) ... 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Socialist Sorcery

I haven't written anything about the deaths last week of two of our most prominent socialist personalities, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, because I don't really have a great deal to say.  Unless you suspect some sort of co-ordinated assassination plot -- unlikely, given that the two of them were probably the Right's greatest media assets -- it merely seems one of those odd coincidences that might, at most, reinforce a belief in astrology.

As a radio listener, primarily, I always thought of Bob Crow as as a fat man with a thin man's voice, and Tony Benn as a thin man with a fat man's voice.  Profound, eh?  I did hear Tony Benn speak a few times in my days as a NALGO activist in Bristol, and shook his hand twice: he was our local MP in those days, and would often come along to address our meetings, especially in those early years of the Thatcher government, when it seemed that there was still everything to fight for.  As many have said in their Benn obituaries, he was a mesmerising, old-school orator, but one whose spell-binding effect lasted precisely until you stepped out of the meeting-hall and breathed the tobacco-free air.  His career as a politician was somewhat similar: he could move rhetorical mountains while he spoke, but diminished into a smouldering, jut-jawed sulk as soon as he stopped.

But, talking of spells and astrology, I heard Tony Benn read some extracts from his famous diaries on Radio 4 on Thursday morning, covering the early Blair years.  At one point he described exchanging gifts at Christmas, and how he'd given his wife Caroline, an academic and educational reformer, an aromatherapy kit, which struck me as an odd choice.  I was then slightly astonished to hear Benn describe, in those familiar, measured, rational cadences, how -- it being a full moon -- Caroline had gone out into the garden that night to bury half a potato, in order to charm away a wart.

Eh? Witchcraft! Who knew?  But, I must say, I felt rather fonder of the whole Benn Family Project, knowing such things had gone on in their Holland Park home, and that he felt able to share them with us.  I wonder if there was a little Blair mannekin stuck with pins somewhere in the house?  I do hope so...  It would have been a sort of Blair witch project, wouldn't it?

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Waiting at home for a British Gas engineer to call, I listened to this morning's In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg's wonderfully informative weekly series, where he chairs a discussion between three academics on a topic of interest.  This morning it was the philosopher bishop, George Berkeley, amazingly apposite to this post, which I began yesterday evening.  If a tree falls on the university campus, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  I think I'm an unsubtle Johnsonian on this matter, i.e. don't be a bloody idiot, bish, of course it does. 

It was a monster, this time, a 40-foot conifer, crashed across and blocking a groundsmen's access track leading out of the Valley Garden.  It looked pretty recently fallen, as no-one had even trimmed the branches, never mind attempted to saw up the immense, gnarly trunk. It seems the recent biblical rains have softened the ground to the extent that many trees are in imminent danger of falling in the slightest breeze.

The thing is, trees are heavy.  I mean, really, really heavy.  This sounds obvious, but the sheer weight of timber in a mature tree is not uppermost in your mind, as you watch its branches swaying in the wind.  Trees have a curiously weightless, anti-gravity quality about them; in a storm, you could imagine them just blowing away like dandelion seeds.  It's only when one topples over that your view of its properties changes quite quickly.  It transmutes from a gracefully vertical adornment in the landscape to an inert, horizontal obstacle, a deadweight capable of crushing a car like a beer-can.

I remember vividly one night on a summer holiday in the Scottish Borders.  We were staying in a friend's cottage near Jedburgh, and had been out for most of the day.  Driving back along a narrow lane after dark, I screeched to a halt when the leafy mass of a fallen tree appeared in the headlights, blocking the road ahead.  It wasn't particularly large -- the trunk can't have been more than eight inches in diameter -- so I got out and attempted to heave it off the road.

I simply couldn't lift it; it was as if someone had bolted it to the road for a laugh.  I think the kids thought I was pretending, the way us dads do sometimes, when you know perfectly well you can toss this particular caber over the hedge quicker than you can say "call the RAC!"  At least, I think that was the reason for the hoots of laughter emanating from the car.

Another vehicle had by now pulled up on the other side of the tree.  Our combined efforts still failed to move it.  Across the leafy barrier I asked whether there was an alternative route, but got the Scottish version of "Well, I don't think you can't get there from here..."    Luckily, we never leave home without a set of the local Ordnance Survey maps.  In the end, the only thing to do was to go back several miles, cross the valley, map-reading by torchlight, and follow a circuitous route that eventually approached our destination from behind.

By the way, it seems Berkeley never really said the thing about the tree.  Though Johnson definitely did kick the rock.  "Thus I refute him, sir! OW!!  Damn it, Boswell, don't just stand there laughing, I think I may have broken something..."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Rings

Consternation in the museum.  Two rings of apparently 20th century design have now shown up, both made of decorative glass in a sub-Cubist style, one possibly dated "1923".  This raises interesting questions about the provenance and purpose of all the previously recovered artefacts.  Speculation is rife.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Head of a Dead Cat

Ah, Marcel Duchamp!  It seems he's not the messiah, but a very naughty boy.
"To a large extent, the art world today represents the institutionalization of Duchamp’s early-twentieth-century pranks. The great irony is that Duchamp intended not to extend the boundaries of art but to short-circuit the entire project of aesthetic delectation. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into to their faces as a challenge,” he noted contemptuously, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” Duchamp had the courage of his contempt. He gave up on art entirely and devoted himself to chess."

From: The New Criterion, Volume 32 March 2014, "But is it Art?"
The New Criterion has a pretty conservative (and, in this case, slightly misleading) take on art, but when, as increasingly does seem to be the case, the cynics and nihilists find themselves running the show and acting as gatekeepers -- deciding who gets to join the private In-Crowd party where exhibitions, book deals and funding are given away -- it's probably time for a little conservatism.

After all, you can only really go in for épater la bourgeoisie so long as you are scrupulous about keeping your own snout out of the bourgeois trough.  It's like parricidal sniping from the sidelines (such a satisfying activity when you're young): it has to stop, when you find you are the only father-figure left standing in the room.

When I was a young man, I invented (or came across) a formula that I considered very profound.  It went:
Nothing matters, therefore everything matters.  Everything matters, therefore nothing matters.
It's a delightfully ironic position, one where absurdity meets eternity, and the choice is always open between doing the right thing and staying in bed. Far out! When you're young, and life is a bewildering and exciting maze of choices, and you're standing at the entrance with your crisp, new, unclipped ticket, wondering which way to go, it's not a bad stance to take.  No hurry...

Forty years later, lost deep in the maze, and fully conscious that there really is only one way out of here, you find you're only too aware that choices have consequences, but also of the paradox that you are where you are because of the choices you have made and yet -- whatever choices you had made -- you would always have ended up here, and never there.  Perhaps it's time to sit down on a bench in the sun, fish that old mantra out of a deep pocket, and contemplate it again.

Mind you, I think Duchamp knew, or sensed, more than he was letting on.  Here's a story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps' collection of Zen teaching stories:
Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: ‘What is the most valuable thing in the world?’
 The master replied: ‘The head of a dead cat.’
 ‘Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?’ inquired the student.
 Sozan replied: ‘Because no one can name its price.’
As they say, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Among Broken Pines

There's nothing quite like a heavy fog to add a bit of mystery to your morning walk to work, especially when you can take a detour -- a dérive, maybe -- along the edge of a covered reservoir on Southampton Common.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's The Real Thing

Accept no substitutes, they say.  For what?  Why, for the Real Thing!

But what is the Real Thing?  Everything is real, isn't it?  Apart from imaginary things (and a good case could be made for their reality, too).  PVC is every bit as real as hand-tanned hide.  What is meant, of course, is that real leather is better than its substitutes, because it is the thing for which they are mere surrogates.  We still assign primacy to materials and methods which were long ago superseded in the mass market.

For some, the Real Thing persists as a shadowy ideal, standing behind the ersatz approximations that we encounter in the, ah, real world.  I suppose a paper bag of plums from a market-stall does somehow feel more authentic than a plastic supermarket pre-pack, doesn't it? In the ideal world of Real Thing enthusiasts, everything would be manufactured to the standard of a Swiss watch, and delivered in a wooden box with proper dovetail joints, or perhaps wrapped in straw and waxed-paper, and packed in hand-crafted baskets or ceramic pots.

Once upon a time, of course, this ideal world was the real world inhabited by the wealthy. Nowadays, though, even the wealthy are content with the good-enough quality of mass-market goods; no-one expects the cabinet of a TV or a PC to be made of French-polished mahogany with gold-plated knobs.  That's why the Hasselblad Lunar is so risible.  I believe even the Queen helps herself to muesli from a Tupperware plastic box.  But authenticity and truth to materials are, in fact, as much matters of design and taste as vintage or tradition: so perhaps Tupperware, like the iPhone, is the Real Thing?

In the aesthetic realm, the Real Thing used to be the canon: those supreme works of the human spirit that stood, marmoreally eternal and unchallengeable, as the stern measure of everything else. In the late 20th century, we began to feel oppressed by these Nobodaddy superegos -- and rightly so -- and knocked them all over.  Free at last!

Now, there is a basic move in therapy, which is learning to say "I feel this is bad" rather than "this is bad".  It's a very simple, but very empowering shift in emphasis.  A similar, therapeutic move has happened with aesthetic judgements.  We have learned to say, "I feel this to be beautiful" rather than "this is beautiful", in the process disempowering a whole class of culture gurus, handing down their Olympian judgements.  That distinction between essence (this is) and experience (I feel) is an important part of contemporary culture.  But in a world where everyone, it seems, is compulsively sharing contradictory views on everything all the time, you could find yourself longing for culture-gurus and a fixed canon again, if only to expedite the process of finding the genuine article.

For -- reluctant as some might be to admit it -- there is a Real Thing, isn't there?  Or rather, a range of things that remain "real" for longer than most things.  Perhaps not eternally, and certainly not for everyone, but there is a cultural top drawer that holds works by Bach and Beethoven, John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell, and even the likes of Abba and AC/DC.  A "real" work of art doesn't have to be outstandingly original; in the end, everything is derivative of something else. The condition may not even last within an artistic lifetime, either: the Beatles produced the Real Thing up to but not including the White Album, and neither Lennon nor McCartney proved capable of the Real Thing separately.*

Authenticity is never a permanent condition in art, because all art has a mutable aspect, which is often overlooked:  the reception and use of works of art by audiences.  Without that, all you have is the sound of one hand clapping.  Keats was the poetic touchstone of the 19th century; now, many of us find his antiquated style  -- and not just all those thees and thous -- gets in the way.  "Verdurous glooms"?  "Blushful Hippocrene"?  Really, John?  The words haven't changed, but we have.  The volume of the applause is gradually fading.

Unless you are some sort of bloodless connoisseur, what you are seeking, in this pursuit of the Real Thing, amounts to a physiological response.  We talk of the chills, goosebumps, involuntary tears, hairs bristling, the spine tingling, a quickening of the pulse...  We know the Real Thing when we encounter it, because we feel it.  It is not the art object itself, or a property built into it by its creator, but an experience, felt when a mysterious, elusive wire joins the two poles -- work and audience -- and delivers an unmistakable, authentic jolt.  Everything else is just a way of passing the time.

Whether you regard this as a spiritual or a material experience is a matter of inclination.  When you sit among a rapt, wet-faced audience as King Lear soars to its conclusion -- "Never, never, never, never, never!" -- I doubt it matters much whether half the audience are right, and half wrong, about why this is happening to them.  Similarly with a good joke: no amount of analysis will make it any funnier, or enable you to come up with another one.  No doubt if the right area of the brain could be identified and stimulated, the same experience would be triggered.  But that would be a simulacrum**, not the real Real Thing.

That leaves the important question of how necessary it is to educate this response.  Is it OK to leave kids happily swilling Coke and only Coke into middle age (the Real Thing, allegedly), or should we attempt to broaden their horizons, in a world that also includes teas, coffees, beers, fine wines and single malt whiskies?  Are these "acquired tastes" more satisfying? Another time...

* IMHO. Not even "Imagine"?  Not really...

** I'm aware that this word has a technical use in deconstruction which is relevant to these reflections -- see Baudrillard and Deleuze --but we don't care about them any more, do we?  "So bad it's good" / "So unreal it's hyperreal" is fun, but you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our  fate.  So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Two sunny early spring days in a row...  It's a bit intoxicating, after such a dismal winter.  Never mind the brimstone butterflies in the garden, and the platoons of ladybirds emerging from the eaves of our house: I spotted the first shirtless men in the garden of our nearest pub, showing off their tattooed "sleeves".  Weird.  You could see the goosebumps even through the ink...  Careful, guys:  cast not a clout 'til May (or, more likely, June) be out, and even then do keep a vest on, please.  I blame that Vladimir Putin.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Shades of Grey

Sometimes, when the light is dull and the contrasts are subtle, as was the case yesterday, monochrome does it best.

Working mainly with colour, as most of us do nowadays, it's easy to forget the importance of pure tone.  It used to be what photography was all about.  A wise photographer once said to me that no-one should be allowed to use colour until they have mastered black and white.  You might say it is the equivalent of drawing in relation to painting -- splashing colours about is fun, but leads nowhere very interesting without the underlying disciplines of line, shape, volume, tone, and balance.