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...

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Glorious Mud

Beneath the Portway at Sea Mills

Our new Idiotic Towers regional office, based in Bristol, is perched on a cliff above the Avon Gorge, affording magnificent views (as the estate agents say) of the woodland on the opposite side of the Gorge and, depending on the time of day, either a glittering expanse of navigable water or an equally glittering expanse of reddish mud.  This is because the lower reaches of the Avon are subject to the push and pull of the tides in the Bristol Channel, which have a huge range, apparently second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

You can get right down next to the river from our windy heights by clambering down through a wooded nature reserve, running across the busy Portway trunk road, negotiating some overgrown and crumbling steps, and then walking along a riverside towpath to Sea Mills and beyond, presumably all the way to Avonmouth Docks.  On Sunday, we went as far as Sea Mills.  The tide, needless to say, was out.

Looking towards Avonmouth from Sea Mills


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Clever Crow

Here's a treat for fellow crow enthusiasts:

Incredible, no?  The presenter, by the way, is Chris Packham, who seems to be pulling into lead position as heir apparent to Attenborough.  Chris -- a local lad, and a graduate of Southampton University -- is a genuine and well-informed wildlife enthusiast, who first made his name as the punk-haired presenter of The Really Wild Show.

He is also a keen photographer, and...  But now I realise I'm repeating myself -- I've already written this post, two years ago!

[UPDATE: Ah...  Actually, it seems in this version Packham is not the presenter!   Never mind, it's the crow we care about!]

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Postcard from Lisbon 5

One final scuffed, bent and well-travelled postcard comes through your letterbox, long after I've returned home.  Perhaps you're away on vacation yourself, and it falls into a pile of bills and junk mail.  Perhaps this reminds you of the opening sequence of Wim Wenders' film Lisbon Story.

So, no trip abroad would be complete without some shots of mysterious wall markings.  There are few things I like better than walking along a cobbled backstreet in a foreign city, waiting to be stopped in my tracks by some cosmic message concealed in plain sight.

My holiday companions enjoy this stop-start style of progress rather less, especially when the cosmos is being particularly chatty...  Which, in Lisbon, it was (I mean, that last one...  It is a clumsy guitar, isn't it?). But I do appreciate that waiting around for the family fool to finish admiring yet another set of random splats, scratches, and splashes of light is tedious, not to say intensely aggravating, so I try to restrain myself.  But, hold that thought, cosmos-in-Lisbon, I'll be back...

Ever since -- quite fairly -- being tagged as one who habitually makes "horizonless" pictures, I've consciously been looking up more.  Like any good shape-shifting contrarian, I don't like to be known quite so well as that.  It's especially rewarding to look up in places where everyone else is looking straight ahead or down.  In this case, a roofline in Lisbon's picturesque Alfama district (where I suspect the Tourist Office is responsible for maintaining the photogenic quantities of colourful washing hanging out on lines), and a view of the "25th April" suspension bridge passing some 200 feet above an outdoor restaurant table in the LX Factory compound.

But, in the interests of memory and conviviality, I have also been making a conscious effort, these days, actually to record the places we've been, seen, and stayed, something I have conspicuously failed to do in the past.  In the end, that's what holidays snaps are for, after all.  Although I doubt I will ever succumb to the modern vice of photographing my food on a restaurant table and sharing it on Facebook before tucking in.

Bridge?  Oh, that bridge...

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Postcard from Lisbon 4

There was a bit of a to-do when we tried to pass through the check-in desk at Bristol Airport. We generally try to fly with hand-luggage only, and in the past have understood this to mean "one cabin-sized bag or trundler*, plus one moderately-sized handbag or shoulder-bag".  Not on EasyJet, however, it seems.

To be fair, the EasyJet luggage restrictions do say "one piece of hand-luggage only", and I did point this out to my partner and daughter when I read it.  Nah, they scoffed, that means "one piece of hand-luggage AND a handbag" -- it always does!  Nevertheless, I obediently packed one trundler, and they packed a trundler and a bag each.

Our flight was called, and we joined the boarding queue at the gate.  When our turn came, the EasyJet person said, "One bag only!  All things must go in one bag!  One bag!"  There was no arguing the case -- the person was impervious to my partner's industrial-grade sarcasm and scorn -- and there was a frantic five minutes scrunching, bending and stuffing things into the trundlers, including the other two bags.

Later in the week, chatting with my daughter about the way travel regulations have changed over the years -- remember currency restrictions? -- I recounted the Futon Incident of 1980.

We had flown to the West Coast of the USA, to stay for a few weeks with a friend and her American husband in Oakland, California.  Neither of us had been to the States before, and it was quite an adventure, not least because of the perpetual feeling of déjà vu derived from having watched countless American TV shows and movies, and the tricky differences in vocabulary (try asking for "twenty Marlboro" in an American store and see what you get).  Not to mention the sound of gunfire at night as locals shot out the streetlights, or the occasional low-grade earth-tremor.

Shopping in Berkeley, we spotted a shop selling hand-made Japanese roll-up mattresses, otherwise known as a futon.  We had to have one: no-one in England could yet buy such a thing, and their comfort, convenience and health-giving properties were legendary.  So we ordered a lovely deep-blue cotton-filled futon, in ordinary double-bed size.

Shortly before flying home, we collected our futon.  After we had checked it over, the thing was rolled up tightly for us, tied, wrapped in black plastic and securely taped up.  We left the shop carrying it between us, one at each end of a sagging, six-foot black sausage.  We must have made a curious sight, walking into the customs and passport check area of the San Francisco international terminal, carrying what to any objective observer would appear to be a human body wrapped for disposal.

We were approached by a customs official.  Could he see our passports, please?  And might he ask what was in the package?  Oh what, this package?  Yes, that package.  We gave him the story about the futon.  He was unconvinced, and uttered the immortal, but ominous words, "I see.  Do you smoke marijuana, Mr. Chisholm?"

Now, I suffer from Smart Mouth Syndrome.  It has landed me in trouble many times, but like any sufferer of a troublesome syndrome, I have acquired strategies over the years to help me out.  I needed help, because the following responses were already queuing up in my brain like aircraft awaiting permission to land:

A. "Of course I smoke marijuana, you dolt, but do you honestly think I'd walk into San Francisco airport lugging 30 pounds of the stuff barely concealed inside a mattress?  Do I look like an idiot?"

B. "Narcotics??  I am amazed and insulted that you would even suggest such a thing! Do I look like a dope-fiend?  I demand an apology!"

C. "Is that some fancy Mexican brand of cigarette?  I'm a Golden Virginia man, myself!  Though I've been enjoying your Marlboro brand during my stay here.  Hey, listen, have you ever asked for twenty Marlboro?  No?  No, I don't suppose you would have -- no-one seems to sell cigarettes in packs of 10 over here, so why would you even think of doing that?  Well, we do, and I did, and I got given two cartons of ten packs!  Heh!  How about that?  Two nations divided by a common language, or what? Whoa, is that gun real?"

But instead I used Oblique Strategy No. 1:  play dumb.  I can do dumb very well, and it generally works for me.  Luckily it worked for him, too, but I could see he was sorely tempted to slash open the contents of our "package" just to be sure.  No-one wants to be the guy who let a six-foot long black-plastic wrap containing 30 pounds of prime weed walk onto a plane to London.  Hey, they said it was a Japanese roll-up mattress!

Oh, and then we got into how much we'd paid for the thing, and very nearly landed in some really hot water.  As I said, remember currency restrictions?

And that, child, is why your mother and I always travel with hand-luggage only.  Makes for a faster get-away.

* I'm never sure whether "trundler" is our family coinage, or a generally-understood term for a rigid, wheeled suitcase with a collapsible handle.  I'm afraid that, like most parents, we have inadvertently saddled our kids with some non-standard, private vocabulary that can, from time to time, cause them acute embarrassment.  Sorry!

Monday, 10 August 2015

Postcard from Lisbon 3

Did I mention that Portugal is all about tiles?  In the older streets of Lisbon the exterior of pretty much every building -- including six story tenements -- is covered from pavement to roof with glazed tiles.  Thousands and thousands of hand-painted tiles.  Each building will have a different repeated motif, with a different border design, and the decorative effect is stunning.  It is also slightly disorientating, as to a Brit tiles are very much an interior feature, associated with kitchens and bathrooms.  I'm sure there's a reason for all this external ceramic cladding, but it won't be to facilitate wiping down surfaces after a fry-up.

However, there is also a high degree of dilapidation.  Some older buildings are crumbling and barely upright (even though these almost all postdate the famous earthquake of 1755, which destroyed the city, plus the remnant of Voltaire's faith in a benificent deity); others have either been bricked up or have been completely gutted internally, leaving only their fancy facades standing, as if the tilework has turned out to be stronger than the internal stonework.  However, I assume these are the equivalent of British "listed" buildings, and are awaiting infill with modern apartments.  The Portuguese economy being what it is, there may be a long wait.

Like any European capital, Lisbon shows several very different faces, depending on which streets you walk down, but in general, and despite the economic plight of the southern EU countries, it's a clean*, safe, modern, and welcoming city.  It has benefitted from several waves of development, successfully transforming itself from a post-industrial backwater into a thriving commercial centre and tourist destination.  In that it is reminiscent of Bilbao, that other Iberian Atlantic-facing port city.  I really liked the place, and intend to return.

Typically, as our host was keen to point out -- he has experienced the anarchy of modern London -- lisboetas still take queueing for buses very seriously.  By such signifiers the Portuguese, like their language, show that they are determinedly not Spanish.

Lisbon at night from our apartment

*  In Lisbon, the domestic rubbish is collected every night.  EVERY NIGHT.  Though, admittedly, in the early hours, and Portuguese bin-lorries are no quieter than British ones...

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Postcard from Lisbon 2

Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- says the one excursion you must make when in Lisbon is to visit Sintra.  The guidebooks are quite insistent about it.  So we did.  And so, it seemed, did everyone else; it was very crowded.

Now, I don't mean to be a terrible inverted snob, but the doings of royalty and aristocrats both bore and mystify me.  These, after all, are the people that gave us gilt-with-everything decorative styles like rococo, not to mention any number of dynastic wars.  Confronted with a concentrated efflorescence of aristocratic folly like Sintra, with its compacted layers of fantasy castle building and queasily intertwined family trees, you can only stretch your eyes and wonder.  This is not "taste" or high culture; this is freakin' Disneyland, right there in real life, perched on a rock.

Portugal is all about tiles, tiles, tiles

As we had limited time, we only managed to visit the Folly of Follies, the Palácio Nacional da Pena.  A bus from Sintra town takes you up an awe-inspiring series of hairpin bends, and deposits you at the entrance, some 400 metres higher up the hill.  It's hard to convey the sheer artificiality of the place.  Everything looks like a stage set, and you wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of stagehands effortlessly pick up some mighty boulder (of which there are many artfully left lying around) and reposition it somewhere more eye-catching.  Outside, it's quite enjoyable to gawp at Pena's tacky towers and decorative tilework, and walk around the windy, fun-sized battlements, declaiming Hamlet ("Look where it comes again!").  But inside it is pretty dull, made even more tedious by having to shuffle along a prescribed route through an endless succession of rooms containing four-poster beds and bad portraits, coralled into a slow, one-way queue of fellow tourists.

That wind, though...  The whole point of Sintra is that its elevation and westerly aspect gave Portugal's rulers some cool, moist relief from the blazing summer heat of Lisbon down at sea-level.  Unexpectedly, we got a first-hand demonstration.  From the battlements we watched a bank of cloud approaching, which gradually enveloped us in a damp and cold embrace that was distinctly Welsh in its chilliness.  The magnificent views disappeared behind dense white fog.  The wind gathered strength.  Being dressed for heat, the chill factor of the constant buffeting became truly unpleasant, and we quickly abandoned the place, catching the next bus back down the long and winding road to the baking plain.

Up here we freeze, down there they bake...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Postcard from Lisbon

I've just returned from 10 days in Lisbon, staying in an apartment* with my partner and daughter, who -- to our surprise and pleasure -- had asked to go on holiday with us as a 21st birthday present, and chose this remarkable city as our destination.  Myself, I'm afraid I can think of few things I would have been less likely to have asked for when I turned 21.  In fact, by mutual agreement, I stopped going on holiday with my own parents after 1970, when I was 16.  But the "generation gap" was much wider back then, I suppose.

I'd not visited Portugal before.  So, as I can hack a fair bit of tourist Spanish, I thought I might as well quickly pick up some Portuguese in the preceding weeks.  How hard could it be?  I hadn't reckoned with the pronunciation, however.  In summary, written Portuguese looks pretty similar to Spanish, but spoken Portuguese sounds like a sibilant carcrash of Russian and Spanish.  Don't believe me?  Try playing the sample text at this website (weirdly, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  I loved Lisbon so much, though, that I have resolved to put some effort into this intriguing language, and revisit at a cooler time of year.

With a "proper" camera, too.  As I have explained before, I never have any great ambitions for my holiday snaps; even the best of them exist in a contextless limbo which cannot be incorporated into any existing "serious" sequence (although something could be made, I'm sure, out of "daughters successfully evading the camera, again").  As a consequence (and in order to carry hand luggage only onto the flights) I chose to take just a Fuji X20 compact that I bought second-hand a couple of months ago.  It's a solid little camera with a built-in zoom that folds away very neatly and yet offers a reasonable range of focal length and aperture.  The image quality is what you would expect from Fuji, but it only has a 2/3 inch sensor that gets noisy above 400 ISO and I'd hate to try and get a gallery-sized print out of most of its indoor files.

Calouste Gulbenkian Centre for Modern Art

Like any sensible person on holiday in a hot country, in the heat of the afternoon I head for museums and galleries rather than the beach or the shopping streets, and Lisbon has some world-class examples.  I particularly enjoyed the Museu Colecção Berardo, a sensational collection of modern art from the early twentieth century to the present day and -- most importantly -- air-conditioned to perfection.  The so-called LX Factory was also worth a visit, a set of old industrial buildings beneath the gigantic "25th April" suspension bridge that have been turned into a creative hub, offering workshops and gallery space, as well as retail and refreshment outlets (including Landeau, selling allegedly the best chocolate cake in Lisbon).  Although I have to say there seemed to be little that was characteristically Portuguese going on there:  there seems to be a universal Euro-Trustafarian style, which borrows elements from everywhere else -- grafitti from America, tattoos and hairstyles from Britain, interior decoration from Scandinavia, philosophy and graphic novels from France, attitude from Germany -- but studiously ignores most local styles and traditions.

A zen-lite worldview is still all-pervasive, too, among the "creative" young.  I may have more to say on this later, but at 61 I do find it amusing to be encouraged to consider the brevity of life and the necessity to live it to the max by young people still lazing their way through the long morning of their lives.  As if, when we were their age forty years ago, we weren't doing and thinking exactly the same things.  Come on, you kids, do make more of an effort to move it along a bit!

LX Factory window

* My first serious experience with airbnb, and I can recommend both it and this apartment.

Friday, 24 July 2015


The front door to our house is set within a surround of tongue-and-groove wood panels and large leaded-lights of a very typical 1930s design.  Many thousands of suburban houses built in that decade will have the same or some very similar arrangement.  It lets in a lot of light, which gives a nice, airy feel to the entrance hall and staircase.  None of the panes of glass in the leaded sections are coloured, as in some houses of this vintage, but the pattern does use about six varieties of clear "pebbled" glass, which means you can't see through from the outside.

For a long time I have intended to produce a template of these three windows -- one within the top of the door, and two large ones either side.  They're made with quite an interesting sub-Art Deco design, which has a way of imprinting itself on your retina as an afterimage.  I finally got around to making this template recently and when the reality is abstracted into its basic shapes it look like this:

Producing a template was not as straightforward as I'd imagined, though, as it turned out to be tricky getting into a position where a camera could be pointed directly square-on at the door and include all three windows without distortion.  I was also unwilling to clear out of the way all the coats, boxes, and various other obstacles blocking the view.  So to get to the desired end result required much tweaking of perspective, and digital elimination and restoration of unwanted and missing elements before the relatively simple job of blacking out the solid parts and whiteing out the glass could take place.  It's not perfect, but then the real thing is not perfect either: like most Southampton houses, ours has been subject to subsidence due to the unstable underlying geology and bomb shocks from the 1940 Blitz.  Parallel lines are the exception, rather than the rule; if anything, this is an improvement on reality.

Why did I want to do this?  Because I thought it might be an evocative set of shapes to play with in Photoshop.  Using the magic of layers and "clipping masks", it is possible to combine different foregrounds and backgrounds in ways that play with ideas of interior and exterior, frame and subject, etc.  As I'm going to be away from home for the next ten days, I thought I'd schedule a series of posts of these experiments.  Make of them what you can!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Stately Garotte

The Ravilious (and the Samuel Palmer)
on our staircase

I was in London on Saturday to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where I met up with my partner (who'd stayed in London overnight, having seen Richard II at the Globe Theatre), and our son and his SO, on their way to a comedy event somewhere else in south London that evening, which she was to review for a blog she edits.  It's a fine exhibition: if you're an admirer of Ravilious' work, which I have been for many years, it's a real treat to see so many of the original watercolours and lithographs, and get a close look at that distinctive cross-hatched, dry-brush style, and his characteristic line, teetering on the brink of faux-naive mannerism, but never quite toppling over into cartoonishness (though I really don't enjoy his aeroplane propellers).  They're a lot bigger than I had supposed, too; I had somehow imagined him as something of a miniaturist, probably the result of seeing so much of his work in reproduction in books.

Now, although I do make the odd cultural excursion to an exhibition or the theatre  -- maybe half a dozen times in a typical year -- I've never quite got into the habit.  Until I was well over thirty, I associated visits to museums, galleries and theatres with school trips -- a lively coach to central London, full of over-excited schoolkids comparing packed lunches and pulling faces at passing motorists.  It just wasn't something you did at home, as part of normal domestic life.  As a student I would sometimes haunt the Ashmolean museum, but that was because it was nearby and I found the atmosphere congenial, especially after staying up all night in pursuit of the lost chord, truth and beauty, terror and magnificence, or whatever it was we thought we were up to.  I remember it actually felt quite transgressive, enjoyably strange, to be visiting a museum alone and for no reason at all (and with no packed lunch).  There was nothing "normal" about it.

Why do I mention this?  Because on the rail trip back to Southampton we found ourselves in a carriage from Hell.  No, not drunken Saints supporters, or even the thirty voluble Italian girls from some language summer-school I had to endure on the way up, but three ultra-posh private-school teachers, a couple and a single man, who happened to notice each other as they settled into the seats across the aisle from ours, and chatted long and loud over the headrests all the way from Waterloo to (inevitably) Winchester.

As it became evident they were never going to shut up, it became really annoying.  The main problem was the single man, who clearly loved the sound of his own voice, which had that sing-song, eeyore-ish Yorkshire accent used by the likes of Alan Bennett or Russell Harty, and which was very loud.  Neither of the couple -- both possessed of that icy clarity of diction that normally expects to command attention -- could start a sentence without him completing it for them, and going off on another tangential monologue.  I began to wonder how many other passengers were thinking how gratifying it would be to garotte him -- very slowly -- with an earphone cable dropped between the seat headrests.

The common ground between them, it quickly emerged, was choral music.  They had clearly once been in the same choir, quite probably at Cambridge, and had multiple links, professional and familial, within that curious world where, it seems, everyone is known to everyone else.   Over the course of a journey of more than an hour they did not exhaust their gossip about mutual acquaintances, each others' children, ex-pupils and their musical and academic achievements (suspiciously linked, involving choral scholarships at Cambridge), not to mention cathedrals, musical administrators and choir conductors ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, yes, yes...  Although..."), and private schools and teaching colleagues ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, quite, quite... Although...").  It was infuriating, but also enlightening.  It is curious to learn how such high-grade networks of connection, influence, and patronage can hide in plain sight from the rest of us.

Lead water-butt outside Dulwich Picture Gallery

Of course, we're all guilty of gossip on the train.  Somehow, the ambient white noise of the train combines with the semi-privacy of the seating arrangements to give the illusion that you cannot be overheard.  But you can.  I learned my lesson many years ago, travelling up to London for some trades union event with a colleague who was an ex-Wren (women's branch of the Royal Navy).  We fell to gossiping, and she revealed that her brother, still in the Navy, was in effect a real-life James Bond, based at a highly-secret establishment, H.M.S. [redacted] in [redacted].  I was suitably impressed -- she was a very level-headed person, and not given to fantasy -- and encouraged her to share as much detail as she could.  Which she did.  A few weeks later, she was both amused and mortified to receive a communication concerning her recent indiscreet disclosures, and reminding her of the consequences of loose talk.  It didn't actually say "remember, we know where you live", but the threat was clear, and delivered, ah, with the icy clarity that expects to command attention.

However, to get back to the train.  It was clear that these three were not your run-of-the-mill consumers of culture: these were prime specimens of that unseen stratum of society that makes culture happen.  Choirs and orchestras don't form spontaneously, and top performers don't emerge fully formed out of nowhere.  Just as Premier League football depends on large numbers of dedicated but invisible support staff, and a long tail of less prestigious leagues and school and amateur teams, so the less commercial musical and artistic life of the country depends on the efforts of people like these.  But, listening to them talk -- oblivious to their seething captive audience -- it's clearly not just a case of selfless, unpaid dedication to the promotion of Bach, Britten, and Eric Whitacre, with the prospect of an MBE at the end.  It is yet another of the many ways the upper-middle classes can exercise their "soft power", carefully positioning their children, their own careers and those of their favoured friends by cultivating connections and networks, maximising the payoff from an investment in piano lessons, choir practice, and school fees.  It suddenly occurred to me that, when you step back and look at it, the entire edifice of classical music -- with its unchallengable position within the wider culture, and profound links to the traditional seats of power -- might be viewed as resting on a conspiratorial network of exclusive unpaid internships and patronage.

I'm sure there are people within that network who genuinely regret the lack of wider "access" to proper music education, which is pretty much non-existent in state schools.  But classical music is, effectively, becoming a closed shop for the privately-educated, as the price of entry, in terms of commitment, effort and expense, is set so high, relative to any likely material rewards; "cultural capital" pays no bills.  It is also surrounded by an offputting, semi-ecclesiastical force-field of solemnity and decorousness, optimally designed to keep the uninitiated out.  I mean, who knew that eating your crisps during the slow movement was frowned upon?  Where does it say that in the programme?

At primary school, my daughter was offered cello lessons -- take it or leave it, a spare cello was all they had left in the cupboard -- on a once-a-week basis from an uninspiring peripatetic teacher.  After a few weeks she chose to leave it.  I didn't blame her: there was no school orchestra to join, after all, and at seven she had no real idea of what a cello was, or where it fitted into the musical scene.  Having had no background of joyless piano lessons myself, I couldn't see the point of forcing her to endure the pain of learning such a recalcitrant, niche (and expensive!) instrument.  I did play her a couple of Bach's cello suites on CD, but they somehow didn't hit the same spot as whatever was hot in the charts that year (Bob the Builder, possibly).  So I allowed a door to shut which a "tiger parent", I suppose, might have forced open.  But thankfully my kids seem to have done alright, without me clearing a path for them and insisting that they follow it...  As if I knew how.

Hey, fancy guitar!