Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dream House

Do you have recurring dreams?  I understand most people do.  Certainly, I seem to have dreamed variations on the same few scenarios most of my adult life.  There have been many changes of personnel, shifts of location, and a varying balance of anxiety and serenity -- becoming a parent introduces a whole new level of anxious terror into the mix -- but, most nights, I seem to revisit the same old scenes and storylines, like a complex role-playing videogame where I can never seem to progress beyond level three.

The Dream House is one of mine, and I believe it's a classic scenario, shared by many.  The Dream House is a strangely familiar, multi-storey dwelling, with a shifting complement of rooms, passageways, inhabitants (both welcome and unwelcome), in which I am sometimes a guest, sometimes the owner, and sometimes something anxiously inbetween.  I am forever finding new rooms, an unknown basement (what, another one?) or stairways that take me into unsuspected corridors, where Tarkovsky-style shifts of mood and ambience take place.  Sometimes the house is more like a block of flats or a college; sometimes it's a weird amalgam of various places I've lived; occasionally it is somewhere I have never lived, but have perhaps often passed in the street.

Playing around with these two digital collages, I realised that I was building versions of the Dream House.  That is, quite real-seeming edifices, but constructed out of disparate elements, always on the verge of dissolving into some new arrangement, and haunted by disconcerting presences. Nothing is quite what it seems.  These may not be places where I have ever actually lived, but I suppose might be said to be places that inhabit me.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Guitar Hero

A couple more digital constructions using my "clumsy guitar" drawings.  I'm finding that one quite satisfying way to do this is to use photographs all taken on the same day in the same place.  For example, the one at the top memorialises a snowy February day in 2009, wandering in the Oxford Botanical Garden.  If nothing else, having a ready-made unity of light and subject matter -- not to mention having the same image size and resolution using files from the same camera -- eases the work of layering and blending.

By contrast, the second one brings together image files from widely different occasions and cameras.  A lot more effort was required to unify the whole, but in the end only I need to know that was the case.  As someone once said, no-one cares how hard you worked.  What matters is the result.

Why the guitars?  Perhaps because, like so many of my generation, for most of my life I've been a guitar noodler.  As a left-hander who self-taught on a cheap instrument borrowed from a friend, I have terrible technique, not least because I play upside-down i.e. holding a guitar conventionally-strung for a right-hander in the left-handed orientation.  This has taken its toll, and a year ago I realised I was developing arthritis in certain fingers, and a variety of tennis-elbow in my right arm.  Well, as the doctor says in the old joke, if it hurts when you do that, then you should probably stop doing it.  So I did.  I was never that good, but I do miss the sensations of playing, in the same way I missed the sensations of rolling and smoking a cigarette.  It'll pass.

N.B. I'm away for a few days over the Bank Holiday.  I'll schedule a post or two to keep things ticking over, but I'll be back mid-week.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Yet another series of digital images is coming together, on the theme of Orpheus.  I found myself drawing crude stringed instruments, some of which resembled guitars constructed by luthiers wearing oven gloves and blindfolds, some of which had more in common with ancient radio sets than lyres.  I liked them, but felt they needed more context.

What I like about this digital collage approach is that I can finally find a use for those "end of roll" style images that speak strongly of something, but are not complete enough in themselves to stand as straight photographs.  It's a lot of fun assembling something new out of the various elements that come to hand.

I particularly like the combination of hand-drawn and photographic elements.  It seems to evoke a 1940s/1950s sensibility that lurks just below the surface of my mind.  Unsurprising, really, as -- like anyone born in the 1950s -- I grew up surrounded by that Festival of Britain aesthetic.

Saturday, 16 May 2015


Another thing I've been filling the idle hours with is drawing.  As I have written before, drawing was my first love, and -- like any first love -- has been the subject of many a "what if?" fantasy in the subsequent years.  On balance, though, I'm content with the choices I made.  Most successful artists, in my observation, are either completely reckless in their self-belief or have a soft trust-fund cushion to fall back on; ideally, both.  The rest teach.  There is a huge amount of survivor bias in tales of artistic success ("I believed I could do it, and that's why I succeeded!").  Well, maybe, but it ain't me, babe.  Given the need to earn a living, the oddly toxic atmosphere of the mid-1970s, and my Groucho-Marxian constitution (a reluctance to join any club that would have me as a member), it was never really an option.  Besides, I suspect I'd have struggled eternally with that dissenting-protestant-heritage misgiving that drawing pictures doesn't count as a proper job.

Now, of course, I can afford to be a reckless, if backdated, trustafarian, or "pensioner" as we generally call my new tribe.  I suppose I may have left it a little late, and am aware my tastes may have been permanently fixed somewhere around 1978.  Nonetheless, I've been filling various sketchbooks, and to my delight have found that moderately high-resolution scans of these small original drawings (1200 dpi on my Epson flatbed) reproduce very nicely indeed enlarged on plain paper.  Once I can find a suitable paper stock (perhaps a Japanese paper like a medium-weight kozo, provided it can survive the journey through the printer) I'm going to try editioning some of these as digital prints.  In the end, there's no better test of whether you are just a superannuated Sunday painter than asking hard cash for your wares.

This may be doomed as an enterprise, but people tend to value only what they have paid good money for.  There are fewer more deflating sights than seeing a drawing or photograph of yours, given as a gift, unframed and dog-eared, and blu-tacked to a wall in a guest bedroom.  This lack of regard for the cost-free is reinforced by the prevailing business model of the internet, i.e. that content is free.  This radical undervaluing of creativity -- hey, everyone's an artists now! -- is spreading into the real world.  There may originally have been some sort of libertarian inflection to that word "free", but now it just means that nobody gets paid for colouring in the blank spaces on the advertising hoarding that is the Web and social media.  Musician, photographer, writer, film-maker, journalist...These used to be highly-competitive, reasonably-paid careers, not sanity-saving hobbies for pensioners and the under-employed.  That dissenting-protestant-heritage reflex mentioned above seems to have triumphed:  wait, you want to be paid for this?  OK, I'll find someone else...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Fallen Angels

Two more angels, equally literary, but this time of a more fallen variety.  In the first, you may recognise Satan's words from Book 1 of Paradise Lost, debriefing and regrouping his fallen angels with the mission statement to end all mission statements:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.
In the second, you may equally recognise the famous opening tercet of Dante's Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

(In the middle of our life's journey I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight path was lost)

I knew it would be worth holding on to that rubber bat...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Book Buying

This is really a temporary post that I will probably take down after a while.  I need to establish whether Blurb is returning an accurate account of book sales.

Have you bought one of my Blurb books in the last year?  If so, it would be useful if you would let me know which, and roughly when, using one of the email addresses in the profile above right ("Since you ask...").  This would include e-books and PDFs, as well as conventional paper books. In fact, e-books are of particular interest.  Did you buy yours direct from Blurb, or via Apple's iBookstore, for example?

It would also be helpful to know if you had declared your intention to buy one, e.g. in a comment, but never actually did.  I really don't mind (I only make about £1 profit from each sale, so I'll get by...) but it's useful to know.  This could be the source of my impression that there have been more sales than are showing up.

Of course, the best test would be if I could persuade you to buy a book now, using the "My Blurb Bookstore" link, also over on the right.  If you have an iPad or iPhone most are also available as e-books, which are very good value at just a few pounds/dollars each.  If you then let me know that you have done so, I can monitor Blurb's sales account. But please don't feel I'm turning this into a disguised sales drive!

Books?  We've got a few ... In every room...

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Nothing to do with Robbie Williams, obviously.  At least, I don't think so.  In my recent dabblings with digital imagery, a theme of "angels" has started to emerge.  There is a slightly disreputable vein of modern thinking that has revived the ancient figure of the angel as a "messenger" between different domains of discourse, for example in the work of philosopher Michel Serres, Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), or Tony Kushner's Angels in America.  The idea of these mercurial envoys, faithfully and patiently transmitting communications between realms appeals to me, perhaps in part because of my father's wartime trade as a despatch rider.  The emblem of the Royal Signals is Mercury, wing-heeled messenger of the gods, known to all as "Jimmy".

The words inscribed on the image above are the opening of Rike's first Duino Elegy:  "Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?" (Who, among the ranks of angels, would hear me, if I cried out?).

Friday, 8 May 2015


No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.  Remember that one?  Rarely has it seemed so true as it does this morning.  Even if Labour had won, or there had been some improbable-but-intriguing "coalition of the losers", it would still simply have meant five more years of the same dreary branch-office managerialism; "tough decisions", implementing whatever dispensation gets handed down from the offices of Global Enterprises Incorporated.

Someone at BBC Radio 4 carried out a brilliant piece of scheduling this morning.  After intermittently listening to the election results from 05:30 to 09:00, I found myself listening to a repeat of The Reunion, a programme chaired by Sue MacGregor, where participants in some notable past event are brought back together to reminisce.  Today, it was Peter Brook's revolutionary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, described at the time as "Best. Shakespeare. Ever", or words to that effect.  What a contrast; talk about "look here upon this picture, and on this..." (sorry, that's Hamlet).  That all-too-brief decade of post-1968 revolutionary turbulence provided my generation's formative years.  Unfortunately, in contrast to the now 90-year-old Brook and his generation, who brought about that shining time, it seems all we were capable of delivering was Tony Blair.  To a large extent, then, this is all our fault.  Our best and brightest refused to get involved in anything short of a proper revolution.  They're all out there, somewhere, still waiting.

Your blogger tends the People's flag, 1978

It all made me think of Miliband.  Not poor old Ed -- did anyone really imagine him as Prime Minister? -- but his father, academic Marxist Ralph.  His book, The State in Capitalist Society, was required reading for the serious student revolutionary back in my university days. Not that I ever read it -- I suppose I was at best a frivolous student revolutionary -- but I think his view can be summarised as: "The Labour Party is not a revolutionary party; parliamentary democracy can never change the balance of power between classes".  Well, right enough.  Presumably his boys Ed and David either thought him wrong or were more fascinated by the pursuit and exercise of power within those despised bourgeois institutions.

Did you ever read One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse?  I'm not going to summarise it here -- I don't think I could -- but it was one of the few "political" books I did actually read as a student back in the mid-1970s that made any sense to me.  "Free election of masters does not abolish masters or slaves" is only subtly different from the Ralph Miliband line; but the idea of "repressive tolerance" and the shift of emphasis from organised "class struggle" to freeing oneself from psychological and technological domination seemed more radical (and distinctly un-Marxist) and seemed to chime with my own experience.  Of course, the really smart guys were all way past that easy-reader Frankfurt School stage -- Feyerabend's Against Method was the hot read, I seem to recall -- but, having somehow arrived in the political-philosophical powerhouse and career launch-pad of Balliol College, Oxford as a know-nothing Mirror-reader (whose only real talents were for reading poetry, drawing, and telling amusing stories) I was badly in need of some remedial reading.

Other cult classics I managed to digest were Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, the Illuminations collection of Walter Benjamin's writings, and various of the post-structuralist books of Roland Barthes.  I tried to read Marx and Lukacs and Althusser and Lucien Goldmann at the urging of Terry Eagleton and others but it was like eating porridge oats straight from the box.  To be honest, I much preferred Carlos Castaneda.

A windy day in the Wilson-Heath years, 1974

I have no problem with being an intellectual lightweight.  I did a few rounds with some genuine heavyweight title contenders back then, and quickly realised I was fighting in the wrong ring.  I discovered I had better intuitive understanding than them, could more easily tolerate illogical, irrational and contradictory ideas, and was considerably better at making the unlikely leaps and links between apparently unconnected subjects that make for an amusing conversation.  I was an artist, essentially, not a scholar or a politician. A piss-artist, others would have said, with some justification. But our rock-solid common ground was a conviction that the world needed to be changed, and could be changed.

Forty years on, I think very few people would still argue that "classical" Marxism offers an adequate critique of what is wrong with the world, and how to fix it.  The world has changed, along lines that were better predicted by thinkers once discounted as outsiders and inconsequential oddballs, people like Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan, and even Fritz Perls and Wilhelm Reich.  How?  In the film The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint, speaking of the disappearance of Keyser Söze, says "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist" (actually Baudelaire: "La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas").  By shedding that giveaway top-hat and donning designer jeans, international capital has pulled off the same trick.  But sometimes those standing back outside the crowd can better observe the moves of the ideological shell-game.  They can more easily see the con that is perpetrated on those who stare fixedly at the moving cups, those who believe, "Next time I'll get it!  Let's have another go!"

Perhaps now the essential political task, once more as in Peter Brook's time, is cutting through the illusion that this is all there is.   Getting back the conviction that things can be different.  Having the courage to try different things, and fail, without fearing the media backlash or the poll ratings would be useful.  It would also help to figure out where the real battle is, and between whom and over what, then choose a side and stick to it.  Winning elections is not enough: Miliband senior was probably right -- it may not be where the real political fight is happening, if it ever was.  To despise and destroy those who stand in opposition, and to dance joyfully on their graves -- as we did in 1997 when Thatcher's exhausted Tory Party was finally and definitively trashed by a Labour landslide -- is never more than a short-term goal.  We should never forget that Blair's Labour Party was handed a massive opportunity, three times, and wasted it, three times.

I do think some questions need to be asked at the BBC.  For months, the broadcasters have talked up a predicted "hung Parliament", cutting off politicians attempting to present their policies, with a "Yeah, yeah, we know all about that, but what deals are you willing to do when nobody wins?"  Everyone knew there was going to be a hung Parliament: why waste our time pretending there wouldn't be?  The only interesting thing was who would get into bed with whom, and on what conditions.  The rush to premature analysis -- to exercise hindsight in advance -- and the attempt to trip politicians into mis-speaking a headline are so much more fun for highly-paid media folk than simply providing a platform for mere here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians to peddle their wares to the voting public.  Well, it seems "everyone" was wrong.  Power without responsibility, I think, is the phrase I'm looking for.

Same old new dawn...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Amber Blues

Junked metaphors

Lately, I keep feeling a nostalgia for the vocabulary of the analogue world I grew up in.  A certain linguistic vigour seems to be fading away, as the old connections between language and the real physical world are replaced or weakened by more intangible digital equivalents.

Our most vivid vocabulary tends to leak into everyday use from other domains -- mainly the worlds of work, domestic labour, and entertainment -- and in the days when most work involved bashing and bending, inking and blotting, sieving and sorting, and a thousand other precisely named actions and processes, there was a lively, physical, real-world turn to our metaphors and similes.  Everyone still sort of knows what it means to blot our copy book, to go through something with a fine-tooth comb, or to get up a head of steam; such expressions have a vivid materiality that can outlive their real-world application.  But the digital, electronic world is itself already almost entirely a world of metaphors, where most user interfaces rely on quaint analogue gestures to perform mysterious digital tasks.  You page through a menu, dial in a setting, press the button, and complicated electronic stuff just happens.

Naturally, old figures of speech do get replaced by new ones; as we might say in 2015, they eventually reach their sell-by date.  But it's the wider vocabulary I'm talking about.  So many finely-tuned verbs, nouns and adjectives have been usurped by all-purpose equivalents, in a parallel process to the inflation that turns "tremendous", "terrific", "outstanding", "brilliant", "excellent", "amazing" and "awesome" into mere synonyms for "quite good". I was recently amazed to overhear someone describe an action as "quite dainty".  Dainty!  I half expected them to be dressed in a frock coat and top hat.  It's hard to imagine a word like that, with the degree of delicate discrimination it implies, in the vocabulary of many contemporary Britons.

Take colours, for example.  In the digital world, we can actually be very precise about a particular shade of orange, say, using the RGB (Red Blue Green) values used on a computer screen.  Oh, let's say, #FFA310  -- nice!  Designers, of course, have long used the Pantone system to specify colours for CMYK (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black) devices like offset printers, which might be seen as a sort of digitisation avant la lettre. Pantone 130 is a very similar orange to RGB #FFA310. But while this precision is an advance and incredibly useful to the specialist it is utterly meaningless to everyone else. Colours need names.

Colours have names, of course.  If you've ever owned a decent paintbox or set of coloured pencils, you'll recognise Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow, Gamboge, and Crimson Lake -- less precise than Pantone, but far more evocative.  If you've ever been unlucky enough to help choose what colour to paint a room, you'll also recognise names like Nile Green, Terracotta, Duck Egg Blue, and the ubiqitous Magnolia.  And yet, despite this readily available nomenclature, colour names are increasingy rarely heard, and imprecision is the norm;  "kind of blue" is not just the name of an album by Miles Davis.  I particularly miss hearing the names of those interesting midway shades like "buff" and "tan" and "fawn" in everyday speech; they've all been subsumed into "sort of beige".  And who now would even think of using a word as precise as "amber" to describe the sort of orangey-browny colour of the middle traffic light?

Name that colour!

Saturday, 2 May 2015


I'm going to try and get through this post without mentioning Proust, but -- oops -- it seems I have already done so.  Impossible not to, really.  I was making myself a cup of coffee, and had laid on the worktop the plastic screw-cap of a litre bottle of milk.  Something about the colour and shape of the knurled green top lying there triggered something deep in my memory and -- bang! -- suddenly I had an overwhelming sense-memory of a long-forgotten acrid smoky smell.  Caps!

A set of vivid images and sensations heaved into view: caps, cap guns, cap bombs...  Once, from about the age of five to the age of ten, I had been quite the gun-nut.  I had a drawerful of sidearms that might have alarmed even a particularly paranoid Tea-Party Texan.  There was a Buntline Special, long in the barrel, a Luger, a Derringer, multiple versions of the western revolver -- variously decorated with indian heads, bucking broncos and elaborate scrollwork -- and a selection of snub-noses and automatics, as packed by various TV detectives, spies, and law enforcers.  Some were water pistols, a couple were spud-guns, and a few merely went "click", but most of them fired caps.

Guns have largely disappeared from the toy repertoire in recent decades.  There seems to have been an outbreak of parental pop psychology in the late 1970s that predicted that heavily-armed toy-gunslingers like me would probably go on to carry out acts of mass slaughter.  I imagine cap guns are kept under the counter in toyshops, these days, along with the catapults and the pierced and tattooed Barbie dolls.  But in the 1950s and 60s, the production of toy weaponry must have been a significant industry.

Armed and mostly harmless, 1962

OK, I'll take it...

An important part of running a decent armoury, of course, was ensuring a proper supply of ammunition. Caps came as a tightly rolled paper strip, like a watch-spring, generally green but sometimes red, with regularly spaced black blisters of percussion explosive.  You would usually break open the gun, place the roll inside the gun onto a spool, and then feed the free end up through the feed mechanism and between the hammer and the strike-plate.  When properly loaded, pulling the trigger would cock and release the hammer, exploding the cap with a snap not unlike a Christmas cracker, and feed the roll through so that the next cap came up into the firing position.  After a firing frenzy you would end up with a pall of that glorious reeking smoke and a slightly annoying strip of spent caps protruding from your gun.

Back then, caps came in little round cardboard pillboxes with crimped lids, like bottle-tops.  I think they cost one penny a box, and out of my vivid Proustian reverie emerged a practically photographic memory that the brand we bought in our local sweet-shop had the words BROCK'S AMORCES crudely printed on the lid.  Brock's were a well-known fireworks company, but I have just looked up "amorces" -- it's the kind of word you take for granted at age eight, but not at sixty-one -- and it turns out to be a synonym for "caps".  Well, of course.

My most vivid memories, though, concern cap-bombs.  You could buy cap-bombs in the sweet-shop, too.  The crudest ones were made out of moulded metal, but they were generally a finned, rocket-shaped plastic projectile, with a spring-loaded plunger in a sort of cage on the nose end.  You would place as many torn-off single caps as you could get under the plunger, and then either toss it into the air or hurl it at the ground.  Where it went bang -- we were easily amused, I suppose.  The best place to do this was on the concrete driveway between two rows of garages, where the surface guaranteed an explosion, which the metal garage doors would amplify and reverb gratifyingly.  P-tangg!

The best cap-bomb of all, though, was made by finding a suitably large metal nut and two matching bolts.  You would screw one bolt in partway, pack a wad of caps in (or match-heads), and carefully -- very carefully -- screw in the other bolt on the other side.  Done just right, the thing made a terrific noise and stayed in one piece; done wrong, it flew apart at lethal speed.  Or exploded in your hands as you were tightening the bolt.  We discovered that parents would get inexplicably and unfairly exercised when they found out what was going on.

An advanced seminar on the merits of roll caps
versus the new plastic ring caps, 1973

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Oh Well

I have always liked those lines in Fleetwood Mac's 1969 hit Oh Well:
Don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to...
There's nothing quite like asking people for an opinion to get back the answer that you weren't expecting.  So, when asking selected sets of eyes for reactions to my new website, I was rather surprised by the number who replied, in effect, "Yeah, yeah, very nice, great pictures, easy to use, but ...  What's going on with that portrait in the "About" section?  Are you insane??"

Well, I didn't think I was insane.  Quirky, perhaps; a little eccentric, sometimes; annoyingly contrarian, occasionally, even a tiny bit obsessive; but not actually certifiable. I like that picture.  I like the way the Christmas cracker hat might be taken for a Simpsons-ish shock of red hair, or, I concede, an exploding head; I like the way the closed eyes, defocussed face, and rain of lights give an air of ecstatic, meditative repose to one who is quite probably merely asleep or quite drunk.  Though, again, I concede it does have some of the qualities of a death-mask.  It seemed amusingly self-deprecating, yet insightful, to me; a psychological portrait.  Others found it scary or bizarre: a psycho portrait.

The trouble is, like most photographers, I'm a bit short of decent photos of myself.  I do occasionally take "selfies" (as in, arm's length self-portraits), but these always look contrived, and do quite often make me look mad.  I'm not good at pulling expressions on demand, other than a very convincing scowl.  One of the lost but unlamented social graces, I feel, is the acquisition of a ridiculous "camera smile", something my parents' generation had perfected -- say "cheeeese!"  But, really, why have a portrait on a website at all?  I suspect it's a carry-over from that "portrait of the author" slot on a book cover -- a tiny one for the middle-aged, elderly, and troll-like, an enormous one for the young and bankably good-looking.  Who cares what I look like?

My real problem, though, is that I don't look like me.  People who have never met me but who read this blog, for example, will have a picture in their head which probably differs radically from the actual physical manifestation.  Which is fine.  If they like the blog, they probably quite like the look of the person my words conjure up in their head.  Why spoil the illusion?  I have seen pictures of John Humphrys, Sarah Montague, Mishal Husain, and Justin Webb (the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme presenters) but that's not what any of them really look like!

Cold print is even less predictable than radio.  Who knows what voice -- what timbre, what accent, what inflections -- my words are triggering, right now, in a range of third-party brains?  I might be Stephen Fry, I might be John Lydon.  Appallingly, I might even be Will Self or Russell Brand. As it happens, my actual voice is an unlovely, Estuarine thing.  In the unlikely event that the Idiotic Hat were ever to become a broadcast programme I'd have to insist on an actor reading my words.  I'm thinking Ian McKellen, or possibly Dreda Say Mitchell, who always lifts my heart when she guests on Saturday Review.

Anyway, I'm nothing if not proactively responsive to customer demand, so I have replaced the offending psycho-portrait with this:

It somehow seemed appropriate.  That's not actually me, by the way, in case you were wondering.  I have fewer teeth, and more nose.

Actually, the really big surprise in the reaction to my website was the universal admiration for the idea of a pinboard i.e. a changing selection of pictures presented in a constant shape and number.  Am I really the first person to think of this?  As a way of keeping a webpage fresh with minimal effort it seems fairly obvious.  However, it may be that my enduring legacy to humanity could be this single, simple idea, which quite a few people have declared it their intention to steal.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Gates of Eden

Leaving the "Garden" images to season quietly for a few years has turned out to be a good move.  As so often seems to be the case, my conscious eye has matured in the intervening period to understand more clearly what my unconscious eye saw at the time. Last year I began to copy every file that looked as if it had been made in the Valley Garden or the Old Dairy allotments into a single directory; over the weekend I finished the job and found I had just over 3000 images.  That's a lot, obviously, but many are duplicates, or very similar, or sub-standard, or just not very interesting.  There are more -- probably quite a lot more, including a substantial amount of work on 120 film -- but I only have files going back to 2005 conveniently available on a backup drive, and the oldest of these are 8 megapixel files from a Canon 350D, which have begun to look a little noisy next to their more recent 16 megapixel neighbours.  A decade's worth seemed a suitable quantity to work with.  A first pass through these 3000 candidate files for items of obvious merit quickly produced a more refined subset of just 150 selected photographs.  Perfect!

The pleasure of starting work on editing a new series, with the prospect of a new Blurb book as the immediate end result, is tempered by reminders of the disappearance of its subject matter.  For me, for many years, the Valley Garden was a place of profound personal significance.  It was where I realised that my photography depended not on finding exotic locations, but on an extended engagement with the "spirit of place".  That place might be anywhere, but it happened to be here.  I was originally led there by following the stream that runs through the Highfield campus, the subject of my first extended photographic series in the late 1990s.  The campus site was originally a brick-pit, and in a neglected corner behind the Students' Union the stream flows into a steep sided, broad-bottomed valley, which had been developed into a gated botanical garden by the Biology Department for its own purposes, but which had gradually been allowed to revert into a low-maintenance semi-wilderness.

There were the traditional raised beds, borders, cold frames and greenhouses with gravelled paths, all arranged taxonomically with neat metal labels, but these were all slowly falling apart and the livelier plants had escaped the bonds of classification and self-seeded everywhere; the groundsmen had gradually abandoned their attempts to tidy the place, so many of them having been laid off as budget cuts began to bite in the 1980s. A small hillside orchard still bore large quantities of beautiful apples each year, but nobody bothered to collect them, or even compost the windfalls.  Some of the larger greenhouses were still partly in use, but most were semi-derelict and full of the detritus of long-abandoned projects and experiments.  For a photographer with a liking for the aesthetics of patination and the patterns created when human structures are reclaimed by nature, it was a little Eden.

For years, I had the place to myself, especially in the cold months, when the stream often flooded and the valley bottom became boggy. In summer and autumn, while they were at the university Day Nursery, I would take my children there to hunt for the sweetest apples in the orchard and to wonder at the enormous, thorny umbrellas of Gunnera manicata, the giant Brazilian rhubarb.  In February a pond, concealed among tall stands of reeds and bamboo within a grove of trees, would fill with improbable numbers of mating frogs, their resonant croaking chorus audible from a distance, as they clung to each other ecstatically among glistening piles of frogspawn. It became a major part of my daily lunchtime circuit of the campus, checking out what was new and what had changed, and photographing whatever caught my eye.

Inevitably, though, the tidy-minded university planners eventually turned their attention to this idyllic haven, two acres too many of messy green chaos at the heart of the campus.  In 2008 the Valley was shut, and the (admittedly hazardous) greenhouses torn down. The days of poorly-paid but dedicated "plantsmen" had gone, and the biologists had their brand new Life Sciences building; the Valley Garden was destined to become a bland park where, on a few sunny days, staff might safely eat their lunch where once the Solanaceae, Brassicaceae and other tribes had run riot.  For the rest of the year, when the stream still floods and the lawns become sodden, it would be about as interesting to the connoisseur of wabi-sabi as a plastic sandwich box.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic rooted in a Buddhist awareness of the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of existence, a bitter-sweet acceptance that nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect. The qualities it values are usually said to include simplicity, roughness, asymmetry, modesty, intimacy, and the revelation of natural processes at work. It is the difference between appreciating the patina and wear on an old coin, and scrubbing it off with Brasso. A semi-derelict greenhouse with algaed window-panes inscribed by grazing snails has wabi-sabi; rows of concrete planters and picnic benches do not.  Not yet, anyway; nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

One Misty, Moisty Morning

One immediate effect of working on the new webpage has been to refocus my attention on some sets of images which I have not yet got around to completing.  In the gallery "The Garden" I describe the series as "an ongoing project photographing the Valley Garden and Old Dairy Allotments at the University of Southampton".  In actual fact, the ongoingness of this particular project is illusory, as not only have I stopped working at the university, but also both the Valley Garden and the Allotments have ceased to be.  At least, in any form that appeals to my eye.  Any photographs that I was ever going to take must therefore already exist, and describe two vanished havens of an agreeable state of benign neglect.

This does not mean that work on the series is not "ongoing", however.  It never ceases to surprise me how one can fail to see standout frames on a first pass.  This one for example.  One Monday morning in early October 2013 I parked my car around 08:15, just as the sun began to shine intensely onto the mist-shrouded allotments, behind and below the creeper-covered carpark wall.  Beyond the trees, the new, shining edifice of the Biological Sciences building gleamed softly, like a moored cruise ship.

I took just the one shot and, until today, hadn't even processed the raw image file.  But now that I have seen it, I think it's likely to be assured a place in the final sequenced series.

Friday, 24 April 2015

New Website

Laying the groundwork

I've been spending some time over the last few months developing a  new website.  As I wrote in a recent post:
I used to have a website based at the university, but it went mouldy after a bit and I had to throw it away.  Compared to writing a blog, keeping a website fresh is hard work, and rather too much like keeping a tank of fish alive.  However, maintaining a permanent presence on the web with a considered, well-organised, easy-to-navigate selection of one's best work is a sensible move.
Having spent a large part of my working life dealing with HTML, Javascript, CSS and the like, I naturally gravitated to a "knit your own website" solution.  After a few months I realised this was a time-consuming mistake.  Hand-crafted websites can look OK if -- on top of the basic coding skills -- you've got an eye for design, can create your own graphics, and understand how to make a useable user interface.  All of which boxes I like to think I can tick.  But, inevitably, they rarely look great and, crucially, they're a real pain to update.

I tried using some budget-priced website creation software, but the results were no better.  Then several people recently mentioned Squarespace as a good, affordable web-hosting service, with easy-to-assemble "wizardized" templates.  They were right.  I signed up for the free trial earlier this week, and it took me about three days to create something that looks a hundred times better than my own best previous effort, and is a thousand times easier to update.  You can see it here at  It's still under development, but I'm more than pleased with the advanced state it has reached so quickly.

Those previous months of work were not wasted, however.  Because I knew what I wanted to achieve, and had already done the basic organizational groundwork and prepared sets of web-ready images, the hard part was already done.  Obviously, it also helps to have a substantial body of work already edited and sorted into series and sequenced in book form, and to have recently gone through the agony of selecting your best work for an 85-picture solo exhibition.  All I needed to do was put it all together, making basic guided choices about layout, navigation, and functionality.  In the end, a photographer's website is a common sort of web application with well-understood requirements, so my needs were easily met by Squarespace.

As I explained to one of its early previewers, I see this new site as primarily a "calling card" rather than as a pizza-delivery flyer; a stable web presence to which I or others can refer interested parties, rather than a means of generating interest in its own right.  A blog like this is too volatile to act as a reference point -- who knows what dodgy or debatable topic might be uppermost at the point anyone pays a visit? -- and good photographs quickly get shoved out of sight by the accumulation of new posts.  It will be excellent to have the equivalent of a clean, well-lit and comfortably-furnished reception room in which to accommodate virtual gallery visitors.

It's also a convenient platform to point people at my Blurb books.  As soon as I get hold of a pigment-ink printer and have it satisfactorily calibrated (my current printer is dye-based, and less than archival) I also intend to start selling prints more proactively, but although it does offer "web commerce" options Squarespace is not ideal for this, being entirely US-based and, oddly, not offering PayPal as one of its accepted payment options. So, I am now also starting to look at hosting operations where selling is the primary function, and if anyone has experience -- good or bad -- with this, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.  The idea of offering a small porfolio of prints online on a site dedicated to web-based sales is attractive, but there are bound to be pitfalls.  SupaDupa, for example, looks quite good to me, but is it?

Which reminds me: thanks to those of you who responded to my call for "signature" images.  Your input has been very useful, and I'm still digesting the information you have given me.  Your prints will go in the post later today!  It's not too late to contribute, if you had meant to but not got around to it, and the "free print" offer still stands.

My card...

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Shakespeare's Birthday

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind;
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By aught predict that I in heaven find;
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert:
  Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
  Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Sonnet 14

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Drawing Conclusions On The Wall

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

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

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

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

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

Woman reading, by José Sobral de Almada Negreiros

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

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Home From The Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.  6 A.M.

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

Friday, 17 April 2015

Unsolicited Testimonial: VistaPrint Photobooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Unsolicited Testimonial: Evernote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Film Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Tide Is High

The Itchen, looking towards Northam Bridge

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

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

The Itchen, looking towards Horseshoe Bridge

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your attention.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #4

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

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

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #3

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

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

IKEA blue

IKEA pink