Friday, 9 October 2015

The Dim Light of Nature

Britannia commands her legion of upstart crows to chase away the predatory, aristocratic falcon.  Get him, boys!  Fetch me a feather or two for my idiotic hat!

Huh?  Well, this week I watched the film Anonymous, and -- entertaining as it is -- I have not seen such a ridiculous confection of tendentious nonsense since, oh, Braveheart, say.  The film is a dramatisation of the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question, given a spurious dignity by the presence of those very strange people, actors Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, and Mark Rylance.  It plays fast and loose with historical facts in order to bolster the claim that the plays were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, and not by some self-made nobody from the Midlands.  Oh, and that Elizabeth I had at least three illegitimate children by different fathers.  Obviously.

The "anti-Stratfordian" thing seems to be motivated entirely by snobbery.  How could such a person -- the son of a glover, if you please! -- possibly have written those plays?  It's very strange: I mean, does anyone question whether Thomas Cromwell could really have been Henry VIII's chief minister, because he was a low-born chancer from Putney with an unknown, undocumented past (including some murky years spent abroad), or suggest he was just a stooge for some aristocratic genius lurking in the background? It's baffling.  Besides, the whole point of Shakespeare was always that he was a "natural" genius, who didn't write stilted, aristocratic verse, or creaky "university" plays, hidebound by their own ostentatious learning.  As Beaumont wrote to Ben Jonson:

Here I would let slip
(If I had any in me) scholarship,
And from all learning keep these lines as clear
as Shakespeare's best are, which our heirs shall hear
Preachers apt to their auditors to show
how far sometimes a mortal man may go
by the dim light of Nature
Plus Shakespeare does get things wrong, often because he leaned too heavily on the contemporary equivalents of Wikipedia. Jonson got a big laugh from Will's belief that Bohemia had a coastline (Winter's Tale -- "exit pursued by a bear", and all that) and was quite dismissive of such "learning" as was on display in the plays.  Jonson himself, of course, was the adopted son of a bricklayer, and although famously learned was not university-educated, and a bit of a jail-bird.  As far as the more established writers were concerned, Will Shakespeare (or Shagsper, as anti-Stratfordians prefer) was a mere actor who had dared to try his hand at playwriting, an "upstart crow, beautified with our feathers".  Well, some crow, some feathers...

No, if it's an entertaining, speculative film about Shakespeare you want, I recommend Shakespeare in Love.  It's a rom-com romp, with an absurd but very Shakespearian cross-dressing plot, amusingly self-aware of its own deliberate anachronisms yet steeped in Shakespeare and theatrical history, and with a sparkling script by Tom Stoppard.  And a bit with a dog for the groundlings.

Hmm, Stoppard...  Yet another of these nobodies (an immigrant, if you please!) with no real education to speak of, and yet a suspiciously substantial body of work.  Which raises the question: who really wrote Jumpers, Travesties, and all those all other clever, witty plays about matters the autodidact and journalist "Stoppard" could not possibly have understood?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Hall of Mirrors

Lady Falco welcomes you to her Hall of Mirrors, which leads to her private enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus.  Or, at any rate, what I imagine a hawk would imagine as a private garden.  Lots of mice in there; some nice perches; not a lot of effort gone into the wall...

The curious thing about this picture is that the two foreground mirrors and the grassy background are real, and constitute the same, single photograph: they stand, like monoliths (mirrorliths?), in a tapir paddock at Marwell Zoo.  Why, I have no idea.  Perhaps tapirs are delusional creatures, or simply incredibly vain, and need regular reminders of quite how weird they really are?  Something we all need, from time to time.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hare Today

Of all the easy cliches of graphic art, hares are up there with suns, moons and stars, and all the other symbolically-overloaded repertoire you are likely to find in combination on artisanal greetings cards, along with various decoratively stylized plant seed-heads.  The hare is a creature of mystery with strong pagan associations and, in its leaping form, seems to awaken some latent, atavistic response in the soul of the kind of person who is attracted to the folksy, home-spun appeal of faux-naive paintings and woodcuts*.  That would be me, then.

Hares -- real hares, that is -- do seem to be more common, these days.  Or perhaps it's just that I am spending more time in the kinds of places hares favour.  One can generally be seen each evening going up the grassy track that runs past our Easter hangout in mid-Wales, loping slowly along like a cat with its hind legs loosely tied together.  The long, black-tipped ears, baleful eyes, and gangly legs easily distinguish the hare from its ubiquitous cousin, the rabbit.  I believe they are more tasty, too, though I have never yet tested that.

This particular specimen is stuffed, of course, extracted and placed before a segment of an enormous oil painting of a harvest scene, itself placed in front of the side of a telephone booth.  Beneath, a particularly fine ichthyosaur fossil, also from Bristol Museum, dreams Jurassic dreams.  Why?  Because it works for me and, besides, if you can show me that combination on a greetings card I'll be very surprised.

My closest encounter of the leporine kind happened in Norfolk.  One summer, we were staying in a cottage near Swaffham, right next to a typical East Anglian agricultural field. Early one evening, a hare wriggled under the fence, and sat on the edge of the lawn.  As we watched, it keeled over, and lay there, panting.  It didn't get up again.

Having convinced the kids it was only having a nap -- hares are famous for that! -- I resolved to sneak out later before it got too dark, fetch a spade from the shed, and bury the poor creature behind the hedge somewhere.  As I approached, I was impressed by the size of the thing: it was like a small dog.  It was also, I realised, still breathing.  Shit.  Should I despatch it myself, or let nature take its course?  As I dithered, one yellow eye snapped open, and the hare saw me standing over it, holding a spade like an executioner's axe. It stood up, gave itself a shake, and ran off like, well, like a hare.  As I said, famous for it.

* Hare lore is extensively documented by George Ewart Evans in his book The Leaping Hare, published in 1972 and which is still in print.  There has also been a lot of interest in the curious phenomenon of the "three hares", see Chris Chapman's Three Hares Project, for example.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Aeolian, Aleatory

Treesong installation

I was in Bristol again this last week, and had some interesting encounters.  One of the things I strongly associate with Bristol is good art, easily accessible.  This mainly derives from our previous residence in the city during that wonderful period of the late 1970s to the early 1980s, when land art, conceptual art, radical cinema, new photography and exciting music all seemed to be bubbling up from the ground.  Even earlier, on hedonistic visits to a friend studying there, art also managed to figure: I recall that in 1972 we were ejected from an exhibition of kinetic art at the Arnolfini Gallery with the words, "This is an art gallery, not an adventure playground".  Happy days!

Thursday started out as a classic cool and foggy autumn morning, so I went for a walk on Durdham Downs, along with the dog-emptiers and fitness fanatics.  I noticed something odd was happening around a particularly magnificent beech tree: it looked as if a couple of young women were wiring it up, possibly to extract a confession or as some kind of experiment in psychokinesis.  Naturally, I wandered over.

Setting up

It turned out they were setting up a sound-art installation, Treesong, designed to transmute the movements of the tree and the passing wind into electronica -- the wooden collar acting as a pickup, augmented by 200 strings and tautly suspended stringed-instrument bows -- which would both be played through loudspeakers for the passing public and recorded by sound and installation artists Jony Easterby and Matthew Olden, lurking in a nearby hut.  The captured sounds would subsequently be composed by William Goodchild of the Bristol Ensemble into a piece to be performed at St. George's (the venue for the performance of Spem in alium I described in 2013) on 29th November.  So, no pressure, then!

Jony Easterby and Matthew Olden in the hut.
It's a serious business, this sound art...

I had a pleasant chat with Easterby and Olden, the men in the shed, and later on an enlightening discussion with an engaging man dispensing handout leaflets, who self-effacingly introduced himself as a member of the Bristol Ensemble but who, in retrospect, I realised may have been the composer William Goodchild*.  Amusingly, it seems the original intention had been to trigger the electronic sounds by the falling of beech-nuts, but nature has designated 2015 a Barren Year for this particular tree and, as no suitably-located conker-laden chestnut trees could be found, Plan B -- the Aeolian Option -- was hurriedly put into operation.

Even more amusingly (for me, but not for Jony and Matthew) a succession of those dogs who contest ownership of this stretch of the Downs evinced a yearning to pee over the pegged ground-level wires.  I wonder if Jony's enraged cries, suitably transfigured, will make it into the final piece?  Adirato, ma non troppo...

As long-term readers will know, I have form with sound-art, but I though this was an intriguing project, a nice combination of team effort, natural forces, and chance.  If I'm in Bristol on 29th November, I intend to hear the final result.  It will be a musical week; the weekend before I have been offered a ticket to hear Keith Jarrett play solo in London.

* More likely leader and founder Roger Huckle.

Friday, 2 October 2015


Although he knew they needed to be taken with a grain of salt, Mickey Mandrill always enjoyed listening to Polly's tales of her colourful social life.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Voyages of Discovery

Same old song...

Motorway driving is generally a dull business, punctuated by moments of madness, so you need something to help you to stay alert.  One of our little stay-awake pastimes is spotting the best straplines on the sides of vans and lorries.  You know the sort of thing: "Billy Smith Logistics: get ahead of the competition with BS"; "Tinpot Packaging -- Yes, we can!".  A lot of people have remarked on the inanity of these bits of verbiage, but nonetheless companies clearly feel the need to have one, and presumably have paid good money to some PR merchant for theirs ("Strapline Solutions -- does what it says on the van!").

I suppose the impulse behind this is similar to the politician's urge to come up with dog-whistle soundbites.  It's a very modern mix, this desire to get a message across to a target demographic, combined with a contempt for the intelligence and attention-span of that very same group of people:  "Buy our product, you morons!  Yes, you!"

All this terse attention-grabbing has produced a specialist vocabulary, where words like "solution", "excitement", and "delivery" have to do more work than they are really being paid for.  Sometimes a strapline can seem to be merely a selection of such words picked out of a hat; perhaps those ones are cheaper ("delivering exciting logistics solutions", and so on).  In the end, box-ticking and demographic-tickling are not really exercises in creativity, no matter what PR industry "creatives" might claim.  The first van-side straplines were an inventive and effective idea; the next million or so were just copycat "me too" efforts.

In an earlier post I complained about the appropriation of the words "passion" and "passionate" by the corporate world.  Nothing sucks the life out of a word like power-dressing it in a suit, or writing it continually on a flip-chart until it loses all meaning.  "Excitement" and its cognates had already been turned into dry husks by overuse ("We're really excited to announce the latest revision of Accounting Standard BRS-4353B"), so I suppose "passion" and "passionate" had it coming.

"Passion" has always been a fairly slippery word covering a very wide field, from a serious interest in stamp-collecting to the crucifixion of Jesus, with sex and football somewhere in the middle.  But it has now become part of that cynical vocabulary that encourages a view of wage-slavery as adventure; you don't just have a job, but are following your dream, and that job is not just a way of paying your bills, but a pathway to fulfilment. It is now obligatory to be "passionate" about whatever field of employment you happen to find yourself in: sausage-making, widget-bashing, paper-pushing, cold-calling...  To declare yourself as anything less ("I am not terribly interested in burger-flipping, as such") is to fail to have signed up wholeheartedly for the voyages of discovery skippered by our self-styled buccaneering captains of industry.  Which is to find yourself walking the plank, matey.

The recent competition for leadership of the Labour Party has been exemplary.  You can expect this factitious attitude-striking from the likes of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham: their political souls have been sold so many times over that they must have a tough job remembering who they are in the morning.  Like all career politicians, you would expect them to be excited and to be passionate about whatever might deliver an election logistics solution.  But even Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Excitement himself, used the words "passion" and "passionate" so frequently in the first paragraphs of his victory speech that I began to suspect he'd forgotten his reading glasses and had resorted to making it up.  By Kinnock and by Keir Hardie, it was dull stuff, wasn't it?

So I think I may have formulated a law, that goes something like this:

In rhetoric, the real intensity of a speaker's emotion is in inverse proportion to the number of times any specific emotion is invoked by the speaker.

In other words -- as in all good writing, we are told -- it's a case of show, not tell.  The more you tell us you're passionate about solving all our problems, the more we will suspect you're just another lying, posturing hypocrite.  On the other hand, if you can find ways to solve all our problems, we really don't care how deeply you feel about it.  Be as casual as you like!
But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Monday, 28 September 2015

On Forgetting Stuff

Bristol City Museum as a Palace of Memory

There's an engaging poem by Billy Collins called "Forgetfulness", which has been nicely animated, and which I've linked to before (but had to check, because I couldn't, uh, remember).  As you get older, the experience of forgetting takes on a troubling significance, like a persistent cough, or those aches in the joints that paracetamol won't quite soothe any more.  No-one looks forward to the infirmities of age, and most of us try to pretend it'll never happen.  Hope I die before I get old...  You should be so lucky, son.

In her last years, my mother suffered some form of dementia.  My parents lived in a mobile home in my sister's back garden, so she had to bear most of the burden of their final decline, for which I will be eternally grateful; I'm not sure I could have.  On my last visits, my mother did not know who I was, though she kept insisting that her son would really like me, if we were ever to meet.  I'm not so sure about that, but you had to look on the funny side.  One time, she gestured out of the caravan window and exclaimed with such conviction "Is that an elephant out there??" that I actually looked.

Around the same time, my partner's mother and aunt were also dementing.  Our phone would regularly ring at 3 a.m. and it would be her aunt -- a rather posh and formidable woman who had once been the village schoolteacher -- demanding to know why the village shop wasn't open.  That, or it would be some villager, woken from deep sleep by Susan's insistent knocking on their door in the small hours, demanding to know when we were going to have her put into a home.  It was a testing time, and none of it was a great advertisement for old age.

But there's more to forgetting than a fear of dementia.  One of the more appealing traditions in those religions that believe in a final judgement of human souls is the idea of a Recording Angel, whose task it is, continually and authoritatively, to write up the ultimate diary of humanity's daily doings (and, perhaps more troublingly, our thinkings and non-doings).  Deep down, I suspect even the most aggressive, unsentimental atheist has a yearning for the existence of an irrefutable record -- like an infinitely-faceted and relativistic CCTV tape, which can never be conveniently lost, or tampered with -- to which final appeal might be made.  There!  I told you it happened!  And that was exactly how it happened!  Now do you believe me?  Hah!  Our instinct for justice is closely bound up with the idea that The Truth exists, even it can't always be established forensically.

Sadly, of course, there is no such record.  Which can be distressing, when the only witnesses to the key events in your life are, in your view, mistaken, or have forgotten all about those events, or are even, so unfairly and inconveniently, dead.  But, unless at some far distant point in the future it is discovered that time can somehow be stopped, rewound and replayed -- perhaps there is a backup universe somewhere?  -- the fact is that the past is not reeled up like a tape but is burned away like a fuse as the present sparks into being, at least as far as we humans are concerned.  We remember what we remember; we have forgotten the rest.  Maybe the owls know better?

The owls are not what they seem
(Twin Peaks, in case you've forgotten...)

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Horses of Instruction

In Bristol City Museum, a jackdaw and a sparrow-hawk debate William Blake's assertion that "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction", illustrated with selected exhibits from the museum collections and architecture.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Selfie in a Convex Mirror

With apologies to John Ashbery.  One of these days I'll get around to finishing "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", but I can never get past that elementary error about the "right hand" in Parmigianino's painting.  At least, I presume it's an error.  Maybe it's a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us lefties.  If so, it works.

Anyway.  I was in Bristol most of this week, and revisited the City Museum for the first time in thirty-five years.  It has both changed a lot and not changed at all, in that paradoxical way of cash-strapped public museums.  I used to pop in there once or more a week in my lunch break, when I worked at the university library in the late 1970s, as it's right next to what used to be the refectory.  It still houses mostly the same old stuff, but re-arranged, re-mounted and re-interpreted for newer generations who clearly need things explaining to them in what even the eleven-year old me would have regarded as patronising detail.   I know what an amphibian is, thank you very much.  No, and I don't want to stroke some feathers or handle a chunk of fossilized "dinosaur poo", either.

Museums do have my sympathy, though, especially the civic variety.  It's vitally important that someone holds comprehensive, well-displayed and interpreted collections of real artefacts produced by historic local industries, but jugs and plates and glassware are dull stuff to the typical museum-goer compared to dinosaur skeletons and shrunken heads.  Especially when the typical visitor is a member of a school-party of bored kids fizzing with cola-induced ADSD.

But you can't beat a stuffed mandrill, can you?  I was very taken by the prescient, meditative posture chosen by some taxidermist, decades before The Lion King; thank goodness some crowd-pleaser hasn't given him Rafiki's stick.  Mind you, there really aren't that many mandrills in the Bristol locality.

Except in the zoo, of course, which I also visited, but wished I hadn't.  Not least because Bristol Zoo holds a special place in the hearts of those who were TV-watching children in the 1960s and 70s, as it was the home turf of the programme Animal Magic and its presenter Johnny Morris.  It's always been a small zoo, being tucked away in a tight corner between the open Downs and the Georgian terraces of Clifton, but in our more humane times it clearly now has acute space problems.  Despite having done away with various bear pits, elephant enclosures and other Victorian abuses, and focussed its efforts on endangered species in the same way as its more spacious cousin at Marwell, there's still a sad air of freak-show clinging to the place.
There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

The Lion and Albert, by Marriott Edgar (delivered by Stanley Holloway)
For all the brightly upbeat publicity, the sight of bored gorillas slumped like stoners in a particularly bare and squalid squat, or neurotic Asiatic lions pacing endlessly back and forth behind glass and wire are at odds with the progressive image the zoo would like to project.  I came away feeling quite negative about "survival in captivity" as a strategy, when human destruction of ecosystems is the real and inescapable issue.  Crows will adapt to and survive anything, obviously, including a McDiet of discarded takeaways, but the giant panda and other borderline species seems pretty hell-bent on going extinct, if they can't have things just so.  I don't see a concrete enclosure with idiotic humans tapping constantly on the glass ever becoming any creature's environment of choice.

To compound matters, the zoo managers have concluded -- like the museum, and perhaps rightly -- that their typical visitor is about ten, has the attention span of a goldfish, and would actually rather be in an adventure playground.  No problem!  We have one of those, too -- right this way!  And please don't poke the lions with that stick.

Hey, kid!  Interpret THIS!

Oh, and a completely unrelated warning:  if you own an iPad 2 (or presumably the original version) DO NOT attempt to upgrade it to iOS 9.  Repeat:  DO NOT attempt to upgrade it to iOS 9.  You'll be sorry if you do.  Mine is OK now (I think) but it's been a long road to recovery.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Light as a Feather

This rook is pushing its luck, mucking about like that in a guitarra player's apartment in Lisbon.  There's going to be a very expensive accident, and rooks very rarely have insurance.  Neither do struggling musicians.  Although I see this one has been able to afford the insanely expensive guitarra azul.

Stringed instruments are often surprisingly light, when you pick them up.  A good violin can seem as weightless as a balsa-wood model aircraft.  Birds, on the other hand, generally seem heavier than they have any right to be.  Every Christmas I wonder at the weight of our goose when I collect it from the butcher.  It could have flown between continents, and yet stripped down and oven-ready it's still as heavy as a bag of tools.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Deer? What Deer?

 Now that I'm a complete Fuji fanboy, I have accumulated a number of camera bodies and lenses, mainly bought second-hand.  Given their stellar quality, it's surprising how quickly the older model Fuji bodies become undervalued in the second-hand market.  Not the lenses, though, unfortunately.

I think my favourite purchase has been a very cheap, barely-used silver-and-black X-M1, which I couple exclusively with the "pancake" 27mm f/2.8 lens.  Together, they are negligibly light, and the combination looks like a cheapo tourist film camera of yesteryear, which is unobtrusive and goes nicely with the rest of my customary outfit (no more "Say, why is that tramp carrying a hugely expensive camera?").  There is no viewfinder on it, true, but there is a tilting LCD, and the exact same 16 megapixel X-Trans APS-C sensor as used in its flashier siblings.  Even better, it uses the exact same batteries as the X-E1.

If I'm out for a walk and don't feel like carrying the X-E1 around, I find I'm favouring the X-M1 over the X-100.  I've recently done something rather painful to my lower back (probably from lugging crates of stuff to Oxfam -- "no good deed will go unpunished") so lightness was a factor when I hobbled over Twyford Down yesterday.  We spotted some roe deer crossing a field, and one posed obligingly on the horizon.  Obviously, the 27mm lens's angle of view is not ideal for distant wildlife (equivalent to a 40mm lens in 35mm lens terms) but its resolution is such that at a 100% crop you can make it out quite nicely.  And I love the front-to-back depth of field at f/5.6.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

September Song

It's mid September, the leaves are beginning to turn, and a rook has been overcome by a pleasantly Wordsworthian melancholy up on Twyford Down.
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
I was amazed to discover that, in the wild, rooks have a typical lifespan of 15-20 years, and in captivity might live as long as 60-70 years.  Plenty of time to build up a store of nostalgic memories.  No wonder they're always muttering to themselves.

Used t' be a really nice tree just 'ere.  I used t' like sittin' in that tree.  We 'ad some good larfs in that tree, we did.  Bloody great wind blew it over.  'Course, we 'ad a proper feast o' grubs an' such in the big 'ole its roots made in the ground, din't we?  It's an ill wind, innit, eh?  I'm 22, you know...  Soon be food for the crows meself.  Funny birds, crows...

This particular rook is actually over 200 years old, though: I carefully extracted him from Bewick's A History of British Birds, volume 1, published in 1797.  As it happens, the year before Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Tyger

There was a social media uproar recently when an American dentist shot a lion, disarmingly dubbed "Cecil", which had been lured off a reserve into an area where "hunting" is permitted.  I write "hunting" in quotes, as the orchestrated execution of a beast by high-powered rifle (or even crossbow, as in this case) hardly seems the sort of contest of cunning and matched skill implied by that venerable word.  Suburban animal-lovers world-wide were quickly demanding an end to the killing of all "big game".

However, I heard an interesting, alternative scenario on Radio 4, put forward by seriously-engaged conservationists in southern Africa, that without the income from properly-controlled hunting, the conservation of lions would cease.  Reserves would fall into disrepair, fences would come down, and the lands turned to agricultural use; the whole ecology upon which lions as top predator depend would topple.  It seems the pressure from local inhabitants is a far greater threat than that from any number of wealthy dentists with a crossbow and a Hemingway complex.

This does make sense, even if it is distasteful to the kind of person who delights in videos of cute cats, but would happily see a dentist tortured to death.  Big cats are terrifying creatures, not even slightly cute, and I would certainly not want to share my landscape with them, any more than the farmers and villagers of southern Africa do.  I think it was Bruce Chatwin who speculated that some sabre-toothed cat with a taste for hominid flesh was the original "enemy of mankind".

I was reminded of this at Marwell Zoo, when -- as photographers will -- I followed my nose and the light to a half-illuminated, condensation-covered window around the side of one of the enclosures. What I saw was the image above.  In a darkened chamber, a recumbent tiger the size of a large motorbike was luxuriously stroking its tongue, back and forth, along the length of an antelope carcase.   It was a scene as intimate and as primal as if I had inadvertently opened a curtain onto an axe-murderer and his victim.  Cute it wasn't; frankly, it gave me the shivers.  I did feel a pang of sorrow for the great beast's imprisonment, but felt a greater sense of gratitude for the solidity of the barrier between us.  As William Blake -- who probably had seen tigers similarly confined in various London menageries -- once asked: Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Shadow Detail

The photograph from 1985 in the previous post reminded me, in turn, of another from the same period.  In this case, an indirect portrait of the man whose course of tuition in photographic and darkroom skills turned me from a bloke with a camera into a photographer, Mike Skipper.  I wrote a short appreciation of Mike when I learned he had died in 2010.

Even though I gave up film and the black and white darkroom years ago, many of Mike's words still pop into my head whenever I look through a viewfinder, or evaluate a photograph.  "Take a reading from the shadows, and stop down twice -- shadow detail is important!"; "Always look for a strong black and a strong white: avoid scenes which are just mid-tones"; "Who needs a tripod when you've got two hands and a forehead?"; "Drop my EL-Nikkor lens and I will kill you"; and so on...  The standard stuff of a thousand photography evening classes, but memorably conveyed with real commitment and infectious enthusiasm*.  Mike was the first person I met who lived photography.

The mid-1980s were something of a heyday for the fully hands-on monochrome image, though in retrospect it was more of a last hurrah.  New materials like Ilford Multigrade and Galerie papers were still coming onto the market, because supplying the millions of three-colour-films-a-year camera owners was still profitable enough for the big players to keep "niche" materials in development for an important but tiny minority of three-monochrome-films-a-week enthusiasts.  Not to mention a thriving global village of cottage industries making darkroom gizmos -- ever-better enlargers, more efficient print-washers, convenient paper-safes, etc.

In 1984, most of the prominent "art" photographers were working in black and white, producing archivally-processed prints on fibre-based, silver-rich papers, often toned with selenium -- a ridiculously hazardous substance -- to lock in the permanence and give those characteristic purple-brown shadows.  Unlike, say, learning to make etchings and engravings, learning the skills to produce fine prints in the darkroom still seemed a very contemporary thing to do; you felt you were joining a living, growing tradition.  But not for much longer.  Within a decade, most notable photographers were working in colour and rapidly going digital, and monochrome film users had become the backwoods holdouts of photography, perpetually on the defensive about "craft", with their lines of supply always threatening to dry up.  Rather like etchers and engravers, in fact.   And you can't give those state-of-the-art darkroom gizmos away, now.

Warm, neutral, and cold-tone Skippers

* I nearly wrote "with real passion", but I have come to loathe the contemporary uses of that word, as in in "We are passionate about shelf-stacking at Tesco".  A post is underway...

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Zoo Quest

For some reason, I recently had a very strong memory of a dream-like photo I took around 1985, so I looked it out and made a scan of it.  The original photograph was made on film that I developed in the bathroom and printed myself in an improvised darkroom that was, essentially, the corridor of my flat, and only really suitable for use in the hours of darkness.  As I have written before, I do not miss working in the darkroom at all.  I particularly do not miss occasionally putting my foot into a tray of developer left on the floor when getting up for a pee in the early hours, after I had printed myself into exhaustion and neglected to tidy things away.

I thought this slightly mysterious monochrome image would combine well with some of the digital colour photographs I brought away from my visit to Marwell Zoo this week.  It had been a beautiful, early September weekday, with warm afternoon sunlight bathing everything, and the zoo was half empty, all the kids now being back at school.  The only other visitors seemed mainly to be women with rather more than the usual number of infants in tow, which made me wonder whether the weekday zoo is a favoured resort of childminders, in the same way it is the divorced father's "custody day" outing of choice at weekends.

The interesting thing, though, is how much more satisfying this digital monochrome version is than the original.  I was never a great "analogue" printer -- far too unsystematic, way too impatient -- but subtle tweaks to contrast and so on are simplicity itself to achieve once you've got a decent scan, compared to the repetitive, time-consuming and wasteful process of making a series of "wet" test prints from a negative.  And people say there's no such thing as progress...

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Zoo Time

I was feeling a bit short of crows, or rather, pictures of crows.  They are wary birds, so getting them to pose can take a little effort, and I've used most of my best ones several times over in those "Crow Country" collages.  But I know one place where -- if they're in the mood -- they can be downright co-operative, and that is Marwell Zoo.  It's where I took my Google ID image, over on the right there, many years ago, now.

Being smart birds, they like to hang out in those places where humans put out feed for other animals, as well as dropping bits of their own tasty human foodstuffs at picnic sites.  Lovely grub!  A zoo is a perfect place in that regard, and a well-fed crow is not disinclined to have its portrait taken, provided a respectful distance is maintained.

This fine fellow is a rook, probably the smartest of the crows in Britain.  If you get close enough, you can hear a rook muttering to itself, in a small, gruff, hollow voice that sounds almost as if it is being produced electronically through a cheap loudspeaker:  Wot's 'e up to, then?  'As 'e got grub?  No? Wossat in 'is 'and, then?  Oi, not so close, matey, or I'm off!

As well as talking to themselves, rooks have a touching belief in the beauty of their own song.  This one was in fine form.  In the old joke, not so much bel canto as can belto.

Just before he took off, I noticed something had changed.  What the...

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Little Boxes

Break on through (to the other side)

These days, pretty much anyone with an interest in art and aesthetics will be aware of Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".  Quite a few will even have read it.  It's become a classic, though one which is much misunderstood, for the simple reason it is a pretty incoherent mish-mash of half-baked ideas, developed by someone whose sensibility was formed on the "wrong" side of a crucial historical divide in the development of what would then have been termed "mass culture".  Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Group in general, were like Dylan's Mr. Jones, aware that something was going on, but fated never to know quite what it was.  I know how they felt: social media are doing much the same thing to me.

The main takeaway that people get from Benjamin's essay is the idea of the difference between a reproduced work of art, which can have many contexts and uses, and the "aura" of the unique Real Thing, hanging on one particular wall somewhere.  John Berger picked up this and other ideas inchoate in Benjamin and ran with them in his TV series Ways of Seeing, broadcast in 1972 and perfectly timed to blow my teenage mind.  Overnight, aesthetic theory became cool and edgy, though I think I would more likely have called it "far out" at the time.

One major effect of growing up in a New Town like Stevenage, entirely populated by working and lower-middle class families and without any galleries or museums to speak of, is that you get all your "culture" from the town library, or from Sunday colour supplements.  Until I travelled to Europe in 1971 at the age of 17, and despite an intense interest in visual art, I had never actually been inside an art gallery until -- like some barbarian entering Rome -- I visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Until then, every famous picture that I knew I had only seen in book or magazine sized reproductions.  That a Rubens painting might be bigger than the kitchen of our flat had never occurred to me; that a Dürer engraving might actually be smaller than its reproductions was equally a revelation.  But I found something else, too: that I was curiously immune to the "aura" of the Real Thing.  In many ways, I preferred a reproduction, and still do.

I was reminded of this when I went up to London to see the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy on Saturday with an old college friend.  It was incredibly crowded -- something I'd not expected at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon in early September, in the last weeks of a show's run.  Gallery-going does seem to have become a very popular activity in recent years.  The problem is that contemplating works of art is hard to do over someone else's shoulder, or with an impatient queue building to your left.  Next!  You tend to gravitate to the less popular items, just to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with them.  This is not ideal.

I've known about Cornell's boxes for a long time, but only ever seen the same few items regularly reproduced.  Small and in two dimensions these assemblages of cut-outs and bric-a-brac have an indefinable, intimate magic, not unlike the covers of the Junior World Encyclopaedia I posted about some years ago.  But at full size and in three dimensions -- for me, anyway -- a lot of the magic is lost.  It doesn't help when they're displayed behind multiple layers of reflective glass, or you are feeling under constant pressure to move on.  I was expecting to be enchanted; in fact, I was bored.

Oh, well; they still look pretty good in the catalogue.  And, ironically, some of the best items, it turns out, are two-dimensional, after all.

The same message twice: for Joseph Cornell

Sunday, 6 September 2015


Sorry, this is a long one.  Sometimes I make a picture, and then wonder what on earth I meant by it, or at least what I have to say about it, directly or indirectly.   A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but you're going to get them, anyway.  No need to read them, of course.

The shadow cast by the Second World War is a very long one; my generation, born within a decade of that conflict's ending, will perhaps never quite escape it, despite not having experienced the War directly.  In some ways it's harder to escape from a shadow than from the thing itself; the Battle of Britain lasted for less than four months in 1940, but has been replayed and re-interpreted constantly over the succeeding seventy years.

We grew up in an environment saturated with representations of the battles our parents had fought, and played with toy versions of the weapons and materiel they had fought them with.  Dinky, Corgi, Airfix, Matchbox, Britains...  Toy manufacturers vied with each other in the variety and accuracy of the die-cast models and plastic-assembly kits we could buy with our pocket-money.  Field-guns that fired matchsticks devastated ranks of plastic soldiers on living room carpets across the country, while trucks and tanks advanced through the mown grass of suburban lawns.  In the streets, woods, and fields, children ambushed and charged, armed to the teeth by Lone Star.  You might be forgiven for thinking that a fresh generation was being made war-ready.

I was thinking about this as I watched the Ken Burns seven-parter, The War.  The Ken Burns formula will be familiar to anyone who has watched at least one of his other productions.  His signature style is based on clever rostrum camera work, panning across archival images and zooming in on a significant detail -- often an expressive face -- or zooming out to give context.  The other key elements are a resonant voice-over; a focus on the stories of a limited number of representative participants; intercut "talking head" interviews with witnesses and experts; and, crucially, the use of evocative musical leitmotifs that tie the parts together, emotionally.  It really does work, although one can feel manipulated at times.

Britons often bemoan the Hollywood tendency to rewrite WW2, recasting and slanting events to maximise American agency and to caricature the role of others.  Burns' series shows the other side of the coin: the War as experienced in the USA.  It's both instructive and a useful corrective.  In particular, we tend to regard the Pacific War as the stuff of comic books.  A veteran of dozens of TV histories, I found I was shocked anew by its brutal insanity; the absurd slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men fighting to the death over useless atolls and tiny volcanic islands.  The sheer wasteful folly of warfare is laid bare, looking at footage of Iwo Jima.  There's really nothing else to see.

Which made me wonder how often combatants must have had intense moments of clarity:  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Fairly often, I'd have thought, especially in the case of young Americans drafted from some Californian demi-paradise straight into hot hell.  In this regard, the Burns interview with historian Paul Fussell, an infantry lieutenant at the Battle of the Bulge, is enlightening.  Fussell later wrote extensively about men at war, and the gulf between the romantic myth and the grisly reality; in his own words he made a "career out of refusing to disguise it or elevate it".  Yet even he identifies the fear of shame in the eyes of one's peers as, in most cases, outweighing the fear of death or personal injury.  I suppose the mythicised version of that fear goes by the names of "duty" and "honour", old-fashioned ideas most of us have come to regard with deep suspicion, but which may run deeper than we think.

American writer Carl Sandburg, in his poem "The People, Yes" (1936) wrote, "Sometime they'll give a war, and nobody will come". This spoke out loud a possibility that the Peace Movement of the 1960s seized on and turned into a rhetorical question:  what if they gave a war and nobody came?  The verb "to give" implicitly compares a war with a party, attendance at which is purely optional.  Why the hell would anybody choose to dance on that killing floor?

Choice, of course, is not usually an option, when it comes to war.  Ironically, perhaps, Sandburg's phrase was taken up in post-war Germany, and often re-attributed to Bertolt Brecht: "Stell dir vor, es kommt Krieg und keiner geht hin" (Imagine, war comes and nobody goes).  However, some cynic, at some point, added a new line:  "Dann kommt der Krieg zu euch!" (then the war will come to you!).  And then some genuine lines of Brecht were appended:
Wer zu Hause bleibt, wenn der Kampf beginnt
Und lässt andere kämpfen für seine Sache
Der muss sich vorsehen: denn
Wer den Kampf nicht geteilt hat
Der wird teilen die Niederlage.
Nicht einmal den Kampf vermeidet
Wer den Kampf vermeiden will: denn
Es wird kämpfen für die Sache des Feinds
Wer für seine eigene Sache nicht gekämpft hat.

Who stays at home, when the fight begins
And lets others fight for his cause
Should take care: for
He who does not share
In the fight will share in the defeat.
You won't even avoid the fight by

Not fighting.  Since
Not to have fought for your own cause
Is to have fought for the enemy's cause.
All true enough, but a little odd, coming from a blowhard dramatist who spent most of that war in exile in Hollywood.

Luckily for us, my generation in Britain never, in the end, had to face such a choice, except metaphorically.  Pacifism is easy, when no-one is dropping bombs on your street, or packing your relatives off to camps to die.  Struggle is easy, too, when no-one need get hurt beyond a bloody nose at a demonstration, or need fear "disappearance" merely for having taken part in one.  Both are easy, when you have the luxury of picking and choosing who your enemies are, or whether to have any at all.

It all becomes a lot more complicated when someone else decides that you are the enemy.  So unfair!  At that point, "something worth fighting for" stops being a metaphor and, awkwardly -- if your self-appointed enemy decides to force the issue -- mutates into "something worth dying for".  Inevitably, I think we're all beginning to wonder, as the world changes chaotically around us, what we'd be prepared -- and not prepared -- to do, if such a time were to come again.  Or, more to the point, what we'd be prepared, or not prepared, for our children to have to do.

Watching Burns' footage of the Pacific slaughter I came to understand more viscerally the motivation behind the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  How much more senseless butchery of their children was anyone prepared to endure to bring about the surrender of Japan?  Why not at least try this new-fangled weapon, and see whether it would finally put a dent in Japan's will to fight on to the bitter end?  Perhaps it would be a simple, less costly alternative to what we have learned to call "boots on the ground"?  Even with hindsight, it is hard to characterise that decision as absolutely mistaken.

Of course, the victims of those bombs were primarily non-combatant civilians.  Even without the current news focus on the mass movements of populations fleeing conflict and oppression worldwide, the most striking thing about WW2 was the impact on non-combatant, civilian populations.  The figures speak for themselves.  France alone lost around 390,000 civilians; that's about the same figure as the British military deaths.  To prepare the way for the invasion of Europe, French cities were carpet-bombed.  As Antony Beevor writes in D-Day:
The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day in particular was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime. There was an assumption, I think, that Caen must have been evacuated beforehand. That was wishful thinking on the part of the British. 
That's one way of looking at "liberation", I suppose.  Then come the big numbers: Poland lost 5.5 million civilians; the Soviet Union somewhere around 9 million; Germany, around 2 million.  It takes a real effort of imagination to imagine all those invisible civilians hidden somewhere in that familiar footage of soldiers fighting over cities reduced to rubble; dead, injured, terrified, hungry, and huddled in cellars.  Or on the road somewhere fleeing the carnage, and inconsiderately blocking the free flow of military transport, a strategic factor that fools like Montgomery failed to take into account, and which contributed to the disaster at Arnhem.

This was nothing new, of course.  Something like 1 million European civilians had died in the Napoleonic Wars, and another 2 million in WW1.  But the cold fact is that more civilians died in WW2 than combatants, either as a direct result of military action, or by starvation and disease -- around 50 million, something like 60% of the overall "butcher's bill".  Similar numbers wandered the continent, or were forcibly expelled, as "displaced persons".  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Probably a more terrible thought to be having in the ruins of your own home than in some foxhole far away.

And yet, curiously, as far as I'm aware, no toy manufacturer ever made suitable quantities of scale-model refugees, with belongings piled on carts and children carried on their shoulders, to put alongside their tanks, trucks, field guns and military personnel.  I suppose they can be forgiven for not making "mass grave of unidentified civilians", or "assorted body parts, 1:72 scale".  Which -- who knows? -- may help to explain our inability to see refugees for what they are: the principal human fallout or "collateral damage" of our well-meaning, self-serving foreign policies involving real-life games with bombs and soldiers.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


In Britain, no-one factors in the heat of summer when planning a building.  What would be the point?  In a "good" summer, there might be two or three weeks of continuous sunshine; in a more typical year, like this one, successive weeks of perpetual gloom and rain are just as likely.  I suppose that's how you end up with a building that can focus the sun's rays onto the street and melt cars.  Oops!

Consequently, the weather forecast is a matter of intense interest to us, and an important evening and morning ritual: who knows what might be happening tomorrow?  Sure, it's August, but that doesn't mean you won't need a coat, or even, if you're very unlucky indeed, a boat.  That's why the Fast Show "Scorchio!" sketch is funny (to us): just imagine living in a country where the weather is invariably sunny, eh!

Portugal, of course, is a hot country, though the influence of the ocean means it's not always a "scorchio" country, as our chilly experience in Sintra proved.  But it's hot enough for refuge from the sun to be an important factor.  Buildings are built to provide shade, and blinds of various sorts and subtlety are installed on most windows, much more commonly than curtains.  Although it is surprising how many older small shops have the sort of noisy, free-standing air-conditioning units you associate with countries where intense heat has come as an unwelcome surprise.  As an Atlantic people, I suspect the Portuguese have an underlying phlegmatic, stoical attitude to changeable weather not dissimilar to our own.  Hot in summer?  Who'd have thought it?  Mustn't grumble...

Visually, I find the play of intense light and shadow on architectural and domestic surfaces entrancing.  I love to sit and watch the distorted shadow-play on a window-blind as it shifts gently back and forth in a sea breeze, and the strong afternoon shadows cast on baking streets and stonework by trees and street furniture became a bit of an obsession.  Fuji cameras do seem ideally suited to these contrasty situations, and even the little X-20 took them comfortably in its stride. Those annoying "blown highlights" were a rarity.

Incidentally, if you can read the traffic sign in that last picture, it illustrates something that always intrigues me.  Most languages have some aspect that strikes you as mad when you first encounter them as a stranger.  English is pretty much made out of such madnesses, of course, not least our orthography; it is a cause for astonishment how so many learn to speak it so well as a second language.  But in French, for example, the numbers are utterly baffling: how such a self-declared rational people ended up representing "99" as "four twenties and nineteen" (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) is beyond me.  I dread dealing with money in France, and behave like a true tourist at the till, shoving large denomination notes across the counter, hoping for the best.

In Portuguese, the "mad" thing I immediately noticed was the names of the days of the week.  There's none of your good old pagan "moon day", "Thor's day", and the rest of it.  It seems that the Catholic Church in Portugal, uniquely in Europe, saw that off centuries ago.  In an act of stunning oddness, all the days of the week were given the names of the days of Holy Week -- the one week in the year in Catholic Europe when nobody was expected to work.  So, apart from Saturday and Sunday, all the days are named as numbered feiras, meaning "fairs" or "holidays".  That is, Monday is segunda-feira ("second holiday"), Tuesday terça-feira ("third holiday"), and so on.  Confusing...

Returning to that sign, it takes an effort of imagination to recognise segunda and sexta feira as days of the week, and true insight to interpret them as "Monday" and "Friday".  As with those French numbers, it's entirely rational in its own terms, but nevertheless more than a little crazy.  To read that parking restrictions apply "from second to sixth holiday" is bewildering on two levels: Monday and Friday generally being thought of as the first and fifth days of the working week, not the second and sixth, and working days only rarely counting as "holidays".

Oh, well.  It's all part of the fun of being abroad.  Unless, of  course, you get a parking ticket.

Monday, 31 August 2015

A Rainha do Fado

Fadista (fado singer)

If it wasn't for the fact I've now given up playing, I think I'd be craving one of the Portuguese guitars used to accompany fado singing.  If you watched the Ana Moura video linked in the previous post, you'll have seen one in action.

It's a lovely instrument, a sort of cross between a mandolin and a guitar, with six pairs of strings, with the bottom three in octave-separated pairs like a twelve-string guitar.  Its most distinctive feature is the use of a splayed fan of so-called "Preston tuners", rather than the geared machine-heads normally seen on modern guitars and mandolins.

Queen of Fado

A few people have asked about the "how" of these composite pictures (I'm ignoring the "why" constituency).  In principle, nothing could be simpler.  Good taste, skill, imagination and judgement aside, it's just a big stack of "layers" in Photoshop (in my case, Photoshop Elements 10, because I'm a cheapskate).  Figure out how to use layers, and Bob's your uncle.

The "Fadista" image above contains 16 layers, comprising 10 images plus 6 layers which are "shapes", duplicate layers, or adjustments.  I particularly like the bottom right corner:

The guy stepping through a portal into another dimension (or possibly a fado club) was snapped exiting from the dark interior of a Lisbon cathedral through a "wicket" into the overpowering sunlight outside.  I have a personal aversion to featureless white "blown" highlights, so to me the shot is unusable as a straight photograph.  Regrettable, as the way his lanky body fills the narrow opening is great.  However, by contriving a mousehole archway in the stone blocks of the tiled wall image I thought I'd found a suitable use for the picture.  I still hated the blown-out highlights, though, so I selected the area inside the wicket opening and converted it into negative values.  Yes!  I could probably refine this a bit (the bottom of his leg is still "normal", for example) but I quite like the roughness of the effect.

Hmm, I'm now also noticing the sharpness of the division between the "tiled wall" layer and the "decoratively-shadowed steps" layer...  More work needed there.  As they say: ars longa, vita brevis...

Saturday, 29 August 2015


Portugal's main contribution to "world music" is the mournful, black-clad genre known as fado.  At its best, fado is one of those profound musical expressions that seem to plumb the depths of human emotion; at its worst, it is like being force-fed a diet of Mariah Carey.  You really have to be in the right mood.

The appropriate mood is saudade, one of those defiantly untranslatable words that define a culture, but loosely defined as
A deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.  A stronger form of saudade might be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing, moved away, separated, or died. (Wikipedia)
The definitive possessor of saudade and singer of fado is generally said to be the wife of a Portuguese sailor, long absent at sea, and possibly sleeping with the fishes (the husband, that is, not the wife).

One of our hosts' friends in Lisbon was a photographer and academic, who was a fado aficionado.  He recommended to us a late-night joint where the Real Thing would be performed, as opposed to the touristic simulacrum.  But, after a few days of incessant and inescapable fado muzak wherever we went, the profound melancholic longing I was feeling was, simply, not to have to hear any more soulful wailing, however authentic, and we didn't go; something I now regret.  Maybe next time.

Crows, obviously, love fado.

As it happens, I did have a moment of saudade myself in Lisbon.  We were walking through the steep, cobbled streets of the Alfama district, when I heard a familiar tune drifting from a doorway.  I stopped to listen, and let the others wander on; they're very used to my stop-start progress.  It was a fado-ized version of "Case of You" by Joni Mitchell.*  Now, that song will floor me at the best of times, but leaning there in the deep shadow of a doorway on a street of a foreign capital, watching the world drift by in the sunshine, it transfixed me.  As I listened, I became acutely aware of the forty-plus years that had passed since I first ventured into Europe and since I first heard the album Blue (the two are closely linked in my mind) and recalled all the sadnesses and losses along the way; I also thought of Joni Mitchell's recent brush with death, and the Ten Thousand Things you think of in such wistful moments. Above all, I longed to be twenty again.

Then the song finished and faded out, the street noise faded back up, and I felt somehow renewed, and -- to my surprise -- intensely happy.  Mainly, I realised, I was very happy not to be twenty again.  Very happy indeed.  Much as I'd enjoyed a brief excursion into a deep blue "emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone", it was good to be back.  Now, where'd everybody go?

* Almost certainly this version by Ana Moura.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Lisbon Crows

Sitting here indoors, avoiding torrential rain in Southampton, what better way to recall our recent ten days avoiding the blazing Portuguese sun than a bit of cut and paste?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


When I wrote the previous post, I was in a particularly hard-nosed, rationalist mood.  Ghosts?  Hah!  Who ya gonna call?  Nobody!  Have these people never watched Scooby-Doo, surely the most demystifyingly freethinking children's programme ever?  Lesson: it's always just some scam-artist in a rubber mask and a sheet.  On reflection, if you are being troubled by ghosts -- particularly if you are the owner of an allegedly worked-out old mine -- you should probably call the police.

This mood may have been in reaction to a strangely synchronistic thing that had happened a few days before.  What follows is true; what conclusions you draw from it are entirely up to you.

Having recently established a pied-à-terre in Bristol, I've been casting around for possible excursions, particularly into parts of the West Country we didn't visit back in the late 1970s, when we previously lived in Bristol, but were too cash, time, and car-poor to get out and about much.  Google Maps is indispensible in this regard.  I love just floating around over the landscape, like a glider pilot equipped with a pair of ridiculously powerful zoom binoculars.  While I was checking out the coast, for some reason Lundy Island caught my eye, sitting there at the mouth of the Bristol Channel so incongruously that, at first, I thought it was something stuck on my screen.

Naturally, having failed to scratch it off, I zoomed in for a closer look.  It looked so invitingly like a child's fantasy of a Treasure Island that I had to check it out further.  It does sound wonderfully romantic, if a bit bleak as a place to live.  It actually does have a history of pirates and buried treasure, not to mention dingbat aristocrats, deranged criminal dynasties, a castle, sandy coves, cliffs, and all those little Famous Five touches that make a wind-blasted rock into a proper island.  The place even has a connection with the Knights Templar, for Dan Brown fans.

Then, in Wikipedia, I read:
In 1957 a message in a bottle from one of the seamen of the HMS Caledonia was washed ashore between Babbacombe and Peppercombe in Devon. The letter, dated 15 August 1843 read: "Dear Brother, Please e God i be with y against Michaelmas. Prepare y search Lundy for y Jenny ivories. Adiue William, Odessa". The bottle and letter are on display at the Portledge Hotel at Fairy Cross, in Devon, England. The Jenny was a three-masted schooner reputed to be carrying ivory and gold dust that was wrecked on Lundy (at a place thereafter called Jenny's Cove) on 20 February 1797. The ivory was apparently recovered some years later but the leather bags supposed to contain gold dust were never found.
I started checking out the ferry times.

But my curiosity was mainly piqued by messages in bottles.  Some re-ocurring ideas in popular culture -- so-called tropes -- are so well-established that one is automatically skeptical of their veracity, or at least their alleged frequency. Pirates with one leg, one eye, and a parrot must surely have been thin on the ground, even in Bristol, the initial setting of Treasure Island *.  So how many actual messages washing up in bottles would it take to establish the idea in the popular imagination?  Perhaps just one or two?  Or maybe they were always turning up on the beach, like junk mail?  Was any castaway or shipwrecked sailor ever saved, in the days before GPS, by a note entrusted to the circulation of the world's ocean currents?  It seemed unlikely.

As ever, Wikipedia was a good place to start.  Who knew that the 16th century English navy used this ultra-unreliable medium to communicate enemy positions?  Or that Elizabeth I established the official position of "Uncorker of Ocean Bottles"?  Apparently, anyone else opening the bottles faced the death penalty [get this nonsense properly fact-checked ASAP.  Ed.].  I wondered what the oldest genuine message found might be, and whether it might be on display somewhere (ideally on the Web).  I was initially puzzled by what the Guinness Book of Records claimed as the "oldest" ocean-going message, given the alleged antiquity of the practice, but it seems what they mean by "oldest" is "longest time between despatch and discovery".  Disappointingly, the current record holder was a mere 98 years, one of many bottles dropped into the sea near Scotland in 1914 by a researcher from Glasgow tracking ocean currents, and recovered by the fishing-boat Copious (no, really) in 2012.

Then, the very next morning, the BBC news ran the story of the discovery of a similar bottle, one of many cast adrift in the North Sea by another ocean-currents researcher, this time from Plymouth, between 1904 and 1906, which had turned up on an island in the north of Germany.  At around 109+ years, it was quite likely the "oldest" message-in-bottle to turn up yet.  I was suitably spooked.  As coincidences go, it's not exactly spine-chilling, but it certainly woke me up when I heard it on the Today programme; I thought I was probably still dreaming.  It wouldn't be the first time I had drifted off again in the middle of one of Jim Naughtie's interminable questions.

I suppose the thing about such coincidences is that, like dreams, they feel incredibly significant to the "recipient", and are utterly meaningless to everyone else.  Presumably, the world being richly textured with events and massively populated by people, some such synchronistic, subjective spookiness is happening to someone, somewhere, all the time.  It must be a variant of good old pareidolia, that human ability to spot patterns that has saved us enough times from being eaten by leopards to have become hard-wired into our brains.  Though in some of us, clearly, more so than in others.

* Q:  Why are pirates called pirates?
   A:  Because they arrhhh...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Headless Man

I laughed out loud this morning when I read this in a book review in this weekend's Guardian:
At times, Jacobs’s speculations owe less to Professor Blunt than to Professor Robert Langdon: “Simultaneously I scribbled down random observations of possible bearing on the case: my sharing of a birthday with Foucault, Foucault’s death at the same age that Velázquez had begun the painting, the realisation that the word ‘meaning’ was nearly an anagram of Meninas.” Another near anagram is “insane”.
The book, Everything is Happening, by Michael Jacobs, is a highly personal investigation into that much-investigated painting, "Las Meninas", by Velázquez.  "Professor Blunt" is Anthony Blunt, art historian, Soviet spy, and the author's mentor; "Professor Robert Langdon" is, of course, the protagonist of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

As well as being amused, however, I was also intrigued to read that the book had been completed after the author's death by journalist Ed Vulliamy.  I happen to know Ed, in the sense that one "knows" someone briefly encountered at university forty years ago, in the heat of radical student politics.  I don't suppose he'd remember me, now, any more than I'd recognise him in the street, looking at his byline photograph.  How the years do change us.  I wonder if he still wears a QPR scarf?

But then I found that Ed himself had written in July in the Observer about his friendship with Michael Jacobs, so I read what he had written there.  It was both moving, and faintly annoying.  Moving, because of the tragic, painful circumstances of the book's genesis, and the doomed flourishing of a late friendship.  Annoying, because Ed is one of those well-connected, ambitious, and successful types you encounter at university, who seem destined to lead a life painted in more intense and vivid colours.  It is always annoying to be reminded of the comparatively dull grisaille and uneventful introversion of one's own life.  "There is a tide in the affairs of men", and all that.  In compensation, it seems his mother is Shirley Hughes, which is highly amusing, if you've ever had to endure her "Alfie" books with your kids at bedtime.  That "Ed is Alfie" gave me an even bigger laugh.

Vulliamy's article in turn linked to a further piece in the Observer by Jacobs himself describing his project, and its origin in a teasing communication from an old school friend, written on the back of a jigsaw puzzle of "Las Meninas".  What he describes is fascinating, and "Las Meninas" is a compellingly strange painting to be sure, but I have become resistant, practically immune, to suggestions of hidden meanings in works of art.  Sure, writers and artists may have embedded cryptograms and clues and meta-gestures ("art about art") in the works they create.  But they may equally well have not.  Even when they appear to be there.

For example, one of the best demonstrations of the futility of searching for cryptic messages in Shakepeare's plays is the astonishing fact that those famous words, "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" are -- allegedly, I haven't actually checked -- an anagram of "in one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..."  Cripes, how did Shakespeare do that?  Well, the fact is that he didn't, did he?

"Art about art" aside -- artists are permitted a certain reflexive fascination with their own mystery -- in the end I think we have to conclude that the Great Secret is, simply, that there is no great secret.  Behind all the coded ciphers, mathematical puzzles, trails of clues, smoke and mirrors and distracting, abracadabratizing razzamatazz laid down before our very eyes by magicians of every kind, from high priests to David Blaine, there is ... nothing -- nothing beyond their manipulative desire to mystify or merely entertain, in response to our linked propensities for mystification and entertainment.  Jacobs seems to divine his own imminent mortality in "Las Meninas" and, by god, he was right.  Well, your turn to look in the mirror:  what do you see in there?

By way of an oblique illustration:  Recently, we were down by the Itchen Navigation, where a weirpool at an old lock forms a popular (if slightly risky) bathing pool.  I took this shot quite casually as we passed by.  People splashing about in the water on a hot August day.  Something about the scene tweaked my attention.  Click.  Not really my thing, but why not?

Only later did I come to notice how everything in the bathers' body-language is pointing to some kind of disturbance.  It's really quite theatrical.  And only then did I notice ... whoah ... the apparently headless man wading purposefully towards some mysterious portal.

I don't think a Jeff Wall or a Gregory Crewdson could have arranged things better.  I suppose, if it were a setup, I might have moved the foreground couple a bit nearer the camera?  "Just two paces, darlings...  Same positions... Hold it!"   And I suppose I could actually remove the guy's head, too.  But in the end it's just one of those uncanny games played by pure chance.  I make no claims other than that I happened to be there to take the picture.  It signifies much, and means nothing; but it certainly does gratify that desire to be mystified and entertained.  I thank you; please put some money in my hat.

But, wait ...  Never mind the headless man.  What's that in the sky?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Access Denied

One of the Ultimate Things happened to me this last week.  An external backup drive failed.  I'm still assessing the damage, but I think it's edging towards "inconvenient" rather than "disastrous".

It was my own silly, complacent fault.  In recent years I have tried to run a quadruple backup routine: internal hard drive, two external drives, plus intermittent DVD copies.  This broke down somewhat when (a) one of the two external drives became full (those 16 megapixel files fill up a drive quicker than you think), and (b) I needed urgently to replace my PC.  Somehow, somewhere in the confusion of retirement, some hospital treatment stretched intermittently over a couple of months, and swapping system components around, I failed to ensure that all files were being properly copied between the old PC, the new PC, the remaining active external drive, and onto DVDs, and had got into the very bad habit of using the single external drive as the main active drive for converting raw files and working them up in Photoshop during the period when the old internal hard drive was too full for comfort.

Inevitably, I suppose, it was that external drive that failed.  A local data recovery firm has managed to retrieve a mere 30% of its contents (one terabyte in all).  I had probably made things worse by running the "chkdsk" utility on it.  So it goes.  Luckily, many if not most of the raw files are backed up elsewhere, so it's just the final versions of work done in the last year and before the new PC came into operation that have vanished.  "Just"...

My biggest stroke of counter-balancing luck was finding an almost complete set of the photographs made during my Innsbruck residency last summer still residing on the laptop I had taken with me.  Phew.  Inexplicably, I seemed to have no other backup copy of those files.  I cannot understand how I seem to have failed to make any other copies of that work; it's a mystery.  Without that bit of luck, the entire lot would have been lost, a sobering thought.  As it is, to reprint or revisit any older work (for example, I had been toying with the idea of re-designing the Pentagonal Pool book) I will have to identify and find each individual original file in the set and reconvert it, a very tedious task indeed.

So, be warned.  In the wisest words concerning the failure of hard drives: it's not a question of "if", but "when"...  And make sure everything valuable is in at least two places.

Or not.  The whole thing gave me pause for thought.  Here am I, sitting like a dragon on my precious image-hoard, about which no-one else really cares very much.  Sure, from time to time I get asked to show some work, and occasionally sell the odd book or print, but I don't think I'm on course for a late-life burst of global celebrity.*  What's more, thinking ahead, I'd hate for my kids to inherit the task of deciding what to do with several terabytes of undifferentiated image files...  Are they e-junk or might they yet become a gold mine?  It's the curse of Vivian Maier!

I could easily reduce that hoard to the selected and sequenced images in my various books and shown in various exhibitions, together with a generous "family album" plus a hundred or more uncollected favourites for luck, and still have room on a 32 gigabyte USB stick.  That would certainly be a whole lot easier to back up.  The books exist in multiple hard copies, and will outlive both me and Blurb; I also have decent exhibition prints of most of the good stuff.  If I did lose all the other electronic files, it could be a blessing in disguise.

I should remind myself of my own words, read out (in a German rendering) at my Innsbruck opening last year:
It is important to emphasise that I regard photography primarily as a process, not as an outcome.  I photograph every day – in my lunch-hour, on the way from the car-park to my office – in the same way that a musician practices scales.  I recommend this: try to find photographs where you are, and never wait to be where you wish you were.  As they say, "Wherever you go, there you are".

The 80 or so images you see on the walls here are a by-product of this primary activity of creative seeing, not its purpose.  A relatively small by-product, too.  I show photographs constantly as a "work in progress" on the Web via my blog.  There have been over 2000 images posted there since 2008.  Two thousand: that's an average of five a week.  Again, I recommend this sustained level of productivity: I believe firmly in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours".  Or, as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it long before Gladwell, "your first 10,000 photographs are your worst"...
Ten thousand photographs?  That's about 250 gigabytes...

* Do feel free to correct me, if you have good reason to believe I'm wrong...