Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Balls From Outer Space

OK, so now, obviously, I'm just squeezing the last drops out of my all-too-brief, all-too-cold hour on the South Bank on Friday...

Nocturnal blur is not mandatory, of course.  A degree of hand-held "sharpness" is always possible at night, if that's what you want.  A lamp-post, a railing or a solid pillar are your friends, in this regard.   But on a cold, haily, windy night at slow shutter speeds, things are going to be moving around, even if you lug a sack of ready-mix kwik-set cement around with you, so as to mount your camera to something really solid.  Anything to avoid carrying a tripod!

But, talking of unnatural devices, look... What is that?  No, not the London Eye!  Look, some sort of spherical alien pods are glowing ominously in the foreground...  It seems that when they emerge, these cosmic strangers pass among us, grey, unseen, oddly flat.  Who knows what they are seeking?  Do they crave the warmth and colour of humanity?  Or just a ride on the merry-go-round?

And somewhere, presumably, they have parked their mothership, improbably difficult as that may seem in central London, even for a modest family hatchback.  It's hidden in plain sight somewhere, no doubt, if only to avoid a ticket. Whoah, what's that, lurking in the shadows beneath Hungerford Bridge?  Quick, get me Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood Institute on the phone!  Or if he's busy, the Alien Parking Section of Southwark Council...

Ah, of course...  Thanks... An excellent plan, Jack.  When you're 2,000 light years from home and in urgent need of facilities, a trap is easily laid...

London is saved.  For now...  But do keep an eye out for those weird flat aliens, folks, and remember: they always seem to come in breeding pairs.  The truth is out there...

Monday, 23 November 2015

Further Tales of the Riverbank

A few more from Friday night's pre-concert ramble along the Thames embankment.  Not a bad haul for an hour's work, but then the South Bank is the sort of place you could set a camera on self-timer, swing it round your head by its strap, and still get a great shot.  In fact, I might even try that, sometime.  But I would still like to think it's the way I swing it that gets results.

Of course, it helps if you're not fussy about photo-phetishes like sharpness, and such.  I actually like the blurriness of hand-held night shots, which seems to give a diffused, inner warmth to the shapes and colours that always reminds me of happily stumbling around town on a cold night in a state of profound intoxication.  Now there's something I have tried -- oh, just once in a while in my youth -- but no longer practise, endorse, or recommend. Srsly!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Melody At Night, And Me

Last night, at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, I had the great pleasure and privilege of hearing Keith Jarrett improvise for two hours on a very well-tempered piano, in front of an enthusiastic but suitably attentive audience.  In fact, Keith commented on how attentive we were, and how much that aided his improvisational flair, which made everyone purr and got a round of applause.  But, hey, I bet he says that to all his audiences... [simper... as the Beano used to put it in the days before emoticons].  Although I think what he really meant was that we didn't cough too much -- he is known to walk out of concerts over such distractions, as he did last year in Paris -- and he did get a bit testy about "cameras" at several points, by which he probably meant mobile phones, which is more than a little unwordly, not to say precious.  But then if I could play like that I'd be so freakin' precious you wouldn't believe it.

If you don't know who Keith Jarrett is, he is the man Geoff Dyer recently dubbed, a touch hyperbolically, "our greatest living musician" in the Guardian.  What do you mean, who is Geoff Dyer?  How did you get in here?  Anyway...  Jarrett may not quite fit that description, but he is so far beyond good at what he does, an improvisational high-wire act of breathtaking facility and inventiveness, that for the right audience on the right night it can approach a level of communion for which the only, inadequate word is "spiritual". Which, in a way, is his music's weak spot, as a constant pursuit of the sublime and the lost chord can, frankly, become a bit tedious.  Are we there yet?  What really lit up this audience was when he relaxed into a bit of bluesy boogie-woogie.  As one of my companions said, Jarrett has a driving left hand that could power the lights of London.

Actually, Jarrett could have played "Chopsticks" and got an ovation, once he'd really warmed up, and started to weave his pianistic magic.  And actually, thinking about it, he may have done, just for fun, in the middle there for a spell.  I'm pretty sure I also heard snatches of Gershwin, and Abba, and Bill Evans (lots of Bill Evans, actually), and Satie, and there was an extraordinary piece that used a Middle-Eastern modal scale that left even Jarrett drop-jawed with amazement...  "Where did that come from?" he wondered out loud.  Paris, perhaps, would be my suggestion.

Before the concert, I wandered up and down the gaily-lit South Bank for an hour or so doing my thing.  Despite the surprisingly chilly temperature and biting wind, the embankment walkways were crowded with people checking out the Christmas lights and the fairground rides and the fast-food stalls, and somehow this made the quieter, darker corners richer and more resonant.  As always, I am impressed by what you can get away with, hand-holding a Fuji X-M1 in such ludicrous lighting conditions.  It's one of those cameras that just wants to help -- set everything on auto, lean on a lampost, and pop away.  It was bloody cold, though, and I was glad in the end to meet up with some very old friends for a pre-concert meal and a drink -- party of ten -- where I could warm up, and then shuffle into the RFH auditorium for a truly memorable experience in what turned out to be some of the best seats in the house.*

* Thanks, Andy B.!

Friday, 20 November 2015

So So

So I'm thinking about this "so" thing.  So it's hard to establish when it began, and whether it's just a tasty Americanism that feels nice and hip to use, like "no way" and "rip-off" and "reach out" in their day, or something more.  So it's incredibly irritating, wherever it came from.

So the new "so" does seem different from the old uses of that handy, shape-shifting conjunction, "So, ..." when used at the beginning of a sentence.  So these old usages are nicely analysed and illustrated in the online Cambridge English Dictionary:
Used at the ​beginning of a ​sentence to ​connect it with something that has been said or has ​happened ​previously:
So, there I was ​standing at the ​edge of the ​road with only my ​underwear on ...
So, just to ​finish what I was saying ​earlier...

Used as a way of making ​certain that you or someone ​else ​understand something correctly, often when you are ​repeating the ​important ​points of a ​plan:
So we ​leave on the ​Thursday and get back the next ​Tuesday, is that ​right?

Used to refer to a ​discovery that you have just made:
So that's what he does when I'm not around!

Used as a ​short ​pause, sometimes to ​emphasize what you are saying:
So, here we are again - just you and me.

Used before you ​introduce a ​subject of ​conversation that is of ​present ​interest, ​especially when you are ​asking a ​question:
So, who do you ​think is going to ​win the ​election?

informal Used to show that you ​agree with something that someone has just said, but you do not ​think that it is ​important:
So the car's ​expensive - well, I can ​afford it.
So ... No!  Enough of that!

This new "so" is interesting to think about in comparison to those examples.  For a start, it is clearly not followed by an implicit comma.  It is most frequently heard used by academics and experts under mild interrogation on the radio, and it does seem mainly to be a modish throat-clearing let's-kick-off noise that sounds more contemporary and fluent than "Well...", "Um...", or "OK...".  But the fact is that "so" has never previously been a conventional response to a question not beginning with "how" or "why" (even if it now emphatically is), and this may mean that something else is going on here.

Now, "so" may not have previously been used to introduce an answer, but it did frequently start off a question.  See usage (2) above ("a way of making certain that you or someone else understand something correctly").  Tentatively, might it be that a new question-and-response formula has evolved?  That is, from
"So how old are you, professor?"
" I'm 61"
"So how old are you, professor?"
"So I'm 61"
Perhaps the aggressive, nicety-free style of questioning developed by John Humphrys and his ilk has stimulated the "so" response?   So it's a theory, but an unlikely one, I think.  But I have a feeling that it is not unconnected.  You might say that the new "so" implies the use of "so" at the beginning of the question, even when it's absent ("How old are you, professor?" "So I'm 61").  The second exchange above does have a certain symmetry to it, and the second leading "so" seems to grab back some initiative from the questioner, in a semi-sarcastic, passive-aggressive, mirroring kind of way.  "So please let's remember that I'm the expert around here, mate", it seems to say.

In fact, "passive-aggressive" behaviour may be a key here, understood as a way of expressing hostility indirectly (for example by repeatedly failing to do the washing-up, or in that curious military offence of "dumb insolence").  Although the new "so" has now undoubtedly escaped into the wild, and really has become just a modish kind of phatic teeing-up noise, I suspect that lurking sulkily behind its origins is a passive-aggressive text something along these lines:
"I know you're probably going to misunderstand and quite possibly belittle what I'm about to say, because you don't have the necessary context or background reading, and I'm feeling rather defensive because I'm a fish out of water in this studio, but I think you should accept that I know what I'm talking about and you most definitely don't, and SO a radically simplified but nonetheless authoritative version of the latest thinking on the subject would go something like this..."
Or it might even shade into something a little more arrogant, rather more overtly aggressive, what we might call the new "right?/yeah?" (as in "The latest thinking on string theory -- right? -- is that all string is very long and very thin, yeah?").  Something like this:
"Pretend to pay attention now, you ignorant, preening fool, as I'm about to share some industrial-strength wisdom on a subject you can barely begin to comprehend, and -- even though I know you're inevitably going to latch onto some irrelevant little detail and worry it to death, in the process wasting this entire five minute slot in which I could be educating people on the topic rather than acting as the foil for your ponderous 'wit', Humphrys, you egregious **** -- it goes like SO..."
So -- right?  -- so "so" is so much shorter, yeah?

So it's a car-park, innit?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Solid Air

Back in Portugal again to sort out her father's complex but, as it turned out, not very substantial financial affairs, and exhausted by the endless bureaucracy of bereavement and inheritance, Ana panicked.  Unless she left now -- right now, as soon as she could pack a bag, say goodbye to a few friends, and pick up a fresh set of strings -- the liquid Atlantic sky would set hard and become a solid, looming, cliff-sided cavern, making escape impossible forever, and darkening the rest of her days.  Run, Ana, run!

Foolish...  But she sat for a while in a favourite home-town spot in the autumn sun, reminiscing, and slowly began to imagine the way that solid sky might look.  She found herself wondering whether she had, in fact, already left it too long, and whether she might more happily stay and abandon all hope of a different, bigger life?  A wave of resignation swept through her that felt a little too much like relief.  To be off the hook of ambition, at last...

But then, barely noticing the pink submarine that had surfaced in the bay, she reached in her bag for her phone, and entered a number in England she had not dialled for years, but still knew by heart.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Late For The Party

Come back later, we're closed...

I am someone who is never knowingly early for the party.  I was early for a party once, and felt like an idiot for the excruciating hour before anyone else rocked up.  It wasn't quite as mortifying as the day I brought my packed lunch to primary school the day before our class trip to London – I can still see my green tartan duffle-bag hanging there on my peg like a decomposing albatross – but I learned my lesson.  "Fashionably late" is the thing; unless we're talking about catching a train, in which case "neurotically early" is still my preference.

However, in these fast-moving days, I often find I am so late that the party is pretty much over by the time I arrive.  Now, let's be clear: I am talking metaphorically here.  I haven't actually been to a party in years.  Do people even still have parties, I wonder?  The idea of having your house gate-trashed by a whirlwind of uninvited strangers seems like something that belongs back in the 1970s, along with Watney's Party Sevens, a "bopping" room with a stereo, and couples rolling around on the coats dumped on a bed upstairs.  That probably merely shows how long it is since I was invited to a party.  Anyway and whatever, the parties to which I am so very late these days are not that sort of party.

I'm talking about things like social media.  I think I've already described how, in my previous life as a library IT manager, an entire university was late for the smartphone party.  For all the right reasons, of course.  Before 2009 no-one in a position of responsibility owned a smartphone, or could imagine what kind of fool would want to run their life on the tiny screen of a phone, FFS, when generous quantities of full-size PC workstations had only recently been provided for students and staff to use all around the campus.  Besides, we couldn't and shouldn't be running things on the basis of what only the richest students could afford.  I mean, have you seen what those things cost?  In 2010 the ownership of smartphones among the student body was estimated at below 20%.  Above all, there was that justifiable phobia in IT circles about being an "early adopter": let someone else find the show-stopping bugs in the first release of that exciting new product.

Well, you know how that one went.  We had to run to catch up, and in the process I had to learn very quickly about providing Web Services from our library server and how differently the various smartphone operating systems would implement the exact same "service" (Blackberry is not the only fruit, Vice-Chancellor).  Just to make things interesting, at the same time we had to migrate our operating system to Linux and our database to Oracle, in order to relocate the whole library package "virtually" onto a new remote university data centre.  It was around then that early retirement began to seem attractive.

However, one upside was that for six months or so in 2011/12 I was loaned a brand new Apple iPhone 4s, a sleek white beauty, so that I could monitor the implementation on iOS of the new university and library "app".  I was smitten, but knew I would never be able to afford or justify the ownership and upkeep of such a gorgeous, high-maintenance thing, so I made do with a series of perfectly adequate Android phones.  Until this month, when I suddenly had the urge to experiment with phone photography.  At which point, a "free with this contract" Android phone – or rather, the camera in it – suddenly became inadequate.

So, having found myself a new iPhone 4s (white, naturally, and now comparatively cheap – though have you seen what the actual latest versions of these things cost?) I'm boldly setting forth into the far-from-unexplored and probably exhausted territory of iphoneography.  Late for the party?  I'll say.

But, I promise: no selfie-stick, no grungy filters, no food.

UPDATE 18/11/15:  Looks like I'll be later than I thought...  The bloody thing was faulty, and after a very enlightening chat with Apple Support (who are brilliant, btw) I sent it straight back for a refund... Lesson learned -- don't bargain hunt for top end equipment!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Bennett's Patch

At the bottom of the Avon Gorge, as well as the river itself, there run a major road known as the Portway and two railway lines, one on either side of the river.  It was a very stormy day on Friday, but I went for a long circular walk along the stretch of land squeezed between the road and the railway line known as Bennett's Patch and White's Paddock, which is now a nature reserve.  Between heavy showers the sun shone brightly, and brought a certain twinkly magic to the scene.

Beyond Bennett's Patch you can pass through another nature reserve, cross the Portway between bursts of traffic, and emerge down by the river itself.  I have to say, I find the mud of the river-bed when the tide is out both fascinating and terrifying.  In places, the riverside path is no more than three feet across, with no railing and a steep twenty foot drop into who knows how many feet of grey gloop.  For some reason the words "Friday the thirteenth" kept going through my mind...

It's funny, but the more I come to regard photo-collage as my main creative expression -- for now, anyway -- the less I police the photographs I take with that puritanical eye that rejects simple visual pleasures as unambitious and probably kitschy.  Even backlit "twinkly magic"?  Hey, why not...

Thursday, 12 November 2015


For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, both these photographs trigger a very similar, strong response for me.  The first is a glass enclosure at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire; the second is a view across Clifton Downs in Bristol, looking along a series of freshly-marked football pitches towards the water-tower on Stoke Road.  They share a sort of "populated emptiness" that reminds me of childhood, and not in an unpleasant way.  The football pitches are very reminiscent of a recreation ground I used to walk across to and from primary school each day.

The first photograph has already figured in a couple of "crow" composites.  In it (or not in it), more or less where X marks the spot, a golden tamarind monkey has just left the scene.  In the second, oddly enough, there ought to have been a rook more or less at the T-junction of the white lines, but it, too, evaded me.  It didn't have to try very hard: much as I like these Fuji cameras, the rapidity of the autofocus is not their most remarkable feature.  Nice clouds, though...

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Windy Estates

Hampshire and Hertfordshire (where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen*) have quite similar geology.  The underlying chalk gives a smooth, eye-pleasing roll to the hills, and the valleys are lined with fertile but claggy and flint-filled clays interleaved with beds of sand and gravel, all the legacy of the last ice age.  Before the mid-twentieth century, settlements tended to avoid the chalky uplands (known as "downs") -- they're dry, exposed, and the soil is thin -- and clustered instead in the valleys, mainly along the arterial routes that have spread out from London since Roman times.  I was born and brought up close by one such, the Great North Road, which had been the main mail-coach route from London to Edinburgh.

Things changed when major public housing projects were set in train after WW2.  Housing estates began to be built on any land that could conveniently be bulk-purchased in contiguous blocks.  In the south and east of England, this land was often those high, thin-soiled, low-yield downland acres that farmers were all too ready to exchange for cash in the bank.  Many post-war generations have now grown up, like me, on windy council estates draped with varying degrees of subtlety over undulating downland topography, where knobbly flints and labourers' clay pipes -- and the occasional bit of Iron Age archaeology  -- are often turned up on a garden spade.

This geomorphological connection (plus the use of a limited range of off-the-peg architectural patterns) means that there is a distinct family resemblance between estates built in Herts and Hants during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  It's not just the houses, it's the whole approach to infrastructure, in large part determined by the landscape.  Major roads tend to be sunk into cuttings, or offset from residential areas by barriers and large areas of grass and shrubs, with the honorable intention of providing green space and separating people from traffic.  However, this also means that paths and cycleways have to run over pedestrian bridges or through underpasses, with the apparent intention of making life easier for vandals, taggers and muggers.

One of the more forgiveable failures of the estate planners of the 50s and 60s was not to foresee the current levels of car ownership, or the inflated size of some modern vehicles.  As a consequence, all those nice new roads were made far too narrow and off-road parking space was rarely provided -- for one car, never mind three per household.  The rolling land means that the houses tend to be packed tightly together in creatively-jigsawed, high-density clusters.  The resulting combination of convoluted street layouts, unexpected dips and rises, and saturation parking makes negotiating an ordinary car down some streets a challenge; to manage a refuse truck or delivery van requires either the nerves and judgement of a fighter pilot, or utter indifference to collateral damage.  Probably both.

* Somehow, these days "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady doesn't seem to get the regular airplay it used to when I was a kid...

Sunday, 8 November 2015


From a Jack...

I recently read something in an essay by John Berger on Rembrandt's self-portraits that intrigued me.  He wrote:
A painter can draw his left hand as if it belonged to somebody else. Using two mirrors he can draw his own profile as if observing a stranger. But when he looks straight into a mirror, he is caught in a trap: his reaction to the face he is seeing changes that face [...]  It is the same for all of us. We play-act when we look in the bathroom mirror, we instantly make an adjustment to our expression and our face. Quite apart from the reversal of the left and right, nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin. And this dissimilation is spontaneous and uncalculated. It’s as old as the invention of the mirror.
The face arranges itself ... Nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin.  A troubling thought, that.  I've been trying to catch my own "real" face in the mirror ever since.

Or, at least, one or two of the many real faces we all wear.  I think of the way I must have looked in countless meetings, struggling with boredom or irritation or slipping quietly away into a rapt doodling session.  Or when giving presentations beneath the PowerPoint screen, or telling a funny story over coffee, or listening to outrageous get-out-of-here gossip.  Then there are the faces I make when driving, or playing with my children, or just buying stamps in the Post Office, or any number of public or intimate circumstances.  Face it (oops), to everyone else you are that person -- those people -- not the one you imagine yourself to be, gurning winningly at the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand.

As W.B. Yeats put it, with a conscious level of irony:
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
Yeah, right.  So are all those other seekers, checking themselves out in the shop window.

I presume the same observation holds true for the smartphone selfie, where the reflexive subject sees a face without reversal but with every opportunity for that face to rearrange itself before the shot is taken.  It's mirror time!  Maybe that's why selfies are nearly always so ridiculous.
O, wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
To a Louse, Robert Burns
Thank you, Robert, but I think we'll leave dress and gait out of this for now, and stick to faces.

... to a King

Now this version definitely trumps the original; you might even say it's an ace portrait, though I suppose the joker might have been more appropriate.  The open-hand "sceptre" is a fly-swat we bought in Spain one year.  If you can read the inscriptions, the Latin words aetatis suae LIX are the conventional Renaissance portraitist's formula for "at the age of 59", and Rex stultorum is, of course, "the King of Fools".  Though it is salutary to see how much more I am beginning to resemble the Duke of Prunes...
And I know
The love I have for you
Will grow & grow & grow
(I think)
And so my love
I offer you
A love that is strong
A prune that is true! 

(Frank Zappa, Duke of Prunes)
But I do like the idea of adding a little Photoshop wizardry to portraiture.  For a suitably enormous fee, I should start taking commissions...  You, too, could look like an idiot.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The U-Boat Captain's Dream

Always the same dream, he says.  I wade through a shallow sea slick with oil towards a submarine -- a U-boat -- which is beached or in dry dock.  Behind it, an enormous weight of sand is heaped, rippled like desert dunes or a Baltic beach at low tide.  I know I have a choice to make.  I also know I am afraid to make that choice, or even to name it.  As I approach, I see there is a word painted in faded letters above the submarine.  When I am finally close enough, I can read the single word "Blechkoller".  Then I wake up.  Always.  Do you know this word, doctor?

No, my German is not very good, I'm afraid.

It means something like, oh, "tin-can tantrum" or "metal madness".  It was the word we used when one of the crew lost his self-control -- a violent fit of anger, of hysterical rage -- and needed restraint.  Blechkoller...  Usually, this was when we had dived deep for refuge -- refuge! -- after an attack run, and were ourselves under attack from depth-charges.  Any noise could betray us!  The tension was extreme.  Very, very extreme...  You could feel the ocean squeezing the boat in its fist.  You could hear it.  Rivets would pop like bullets.  Such a panic could happen to anyone.  I'm proud to say it was rare in my crews.

And yourself?  Did you ever feel such moments of terror?

Oh, "feel", yes...  But command brings responsibilities, doctor.  Der Herr Kaleun must be a man of steel.  Steel.  The men expect no less.  Now, may we go back to talking about my mother?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Baking Soda

For some reason, submarines have recently started to feature in the iconography of these assemblages. I originally attributed this to having visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition, and re-wakened memories of the TV series Das Boot, but there is probably more to it than that.  After all, a submarine is the very embodiment of an item bobbing up from the subconscious.  Though, as Freud might have said, sometimes a submarine is just a submarine.

If you are old enough you will remember those little plastic submarines that came as a "free gift" with a box of breakfast cereal -- Corn Flakes, I think, or possibly Shreddies.  The idea was that by putting baking soda into a little compartment beneath the sub, the thing would rise and fall in a bottle of water.  As we never had any baking soda in the house -- my mother was not a keen cook -- I never did get to try this out.  Besides, I thought the fat black plastic plug that sealed the compartment spoiled the lines of the craft, and usually discarded them.

As these tiny submarines were usually yellow, I have always assumed that they lurk somewhere beneath that single appalling blot on the otherwise immaculate and only truly enduring Beatles album, Revolver.  Though, oddly, no-one has ever suggested this, as far as I know.  It may be in Revolution in the Head somewhere, but I have never been able to open that tome without wishing I hadn't.  I gave it away to Oxfam last year, along with Lipstick Traces, Lights Out For The Territory, and various other unrewarding fat volumes I shall never read again.  I need the shelf space.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Flying the Flag

There's something I find interesting going on here, to do with flags, flying, and symbology.*

At one time, I had a small series going called "Flags", which -- as so many side-projects do -- came to nothing.  On one level, it was simply a matter of finding flag-like patterns in the world, and naming them as such.  Look, it's just like a flag!  On another, it had a lot to do with the nature and purposes of "flags", and all similar, purely symbolic objects around which our loyalties and hostilities are expected (required, even) to cluster.  I was also fascinated by the contrast between a flag in its "ideal" form -- as, say, set out in an encyclopaedia of vexillology -- and its real-life instantiations, frayed and tattered by wind and battle.

At that time, I was also very interested in multiple images, and this is a good example of both concerns, from 2002, sheets of polythene wrapping thrashing around in a high wind from some newly-erected lamp-posts:

Sometimes I look at my older work, and wonder whether I've gone forwards, backwards or just sideways...  I remember that camera -- an Olympus C3030z -- with great affection.  It was the camera that persuaded me finally to abandon film, even though its 3 megapixel images (not to mention its tiny rear LCD) seem laughably small, now.  In fact, I think it was the small size yet high quality of the images that, in part, sent me down the road of multiples.  Something I gradually abandoned as I realised what an easy cliché the "grid" had become in contemporary art.

But maybe sometime I should revisit that "flags" theme, assuming that most of the original image files did not vanish in my recent backup drive disaster...

* Students of culture may also find themselves inexplicably humming the  "Stop the Pigeon" theme...

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Baltic Daydream

"There is a tide in the affairs of men..."

It is estimated that something like ten percent of the population of Southampton is now made up of Eastern European immigrants, mainly from Poland and Lithuania.  Shops catering to Polish tastes have popped up everywhere, and all the main supermarkets now carry Polish staples, from kielbasa sausages to carrot juice.  I wonder where they'll get their live carp for Christmas, though?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Rehearsal Space

I enjoy revisiting these digital collages, in a constant process of revision.   A first pass at this one was shown in an earlier post this month, but I think I like this version more.  It's the great advantage of working with layers: like theatrical scenery "flats", you can drop new ones in and out, to see what effect they have, and reposition your actors to the best advantage.  "No, sweetie, lift that left leg a little more...  That's it...  But do try not to fall over, darling."

Talking of crows lifting their legs, I hadn't really realised until recently that no tetrapod animal -- anything four-limbed, whether it be a crow, a crocodile, or a cat -- has knees that bend backwards. It's just that some have particularly high ankles and long footbones, dividing the hind limb into three sections, rather than two.  Such creatures walk on "feet" made entirely of toes.

Obvious, really, if you've ever carved a chicken.  Not so obvious, looking at a horse, but true, nonetheless.  It seems evolution, too, likes to revisit its work, in a constant process of revision.  Though, of course, that process is what evolution is, rather than what "it" does.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Shepherd's Warning

OK, look away now, if (like me) you have an extreme antipathy to photographs of sunsets.  I'm really sorry about this...  Come back another day!

It's just that our new flat in Bristol is perched on a bluff above the Avon Gorge, and you get these spectacular views all day long.  There's the river filling to the brim with the incoming tide, then draining away to a muddy trickle; buzzards and crows sky-skirmishing in their ancient tribal feud; improbably large boats and incredibly long freight-trains moving slowly along the gorge; all sorts of weather coming in and passing over; green woodpeckers and jays flashing around on the trees and lawns below.  It can be a real effort to drag yourself away from the kitchen window.  And when you do, you generally trip over something in the gloom, because your eyes won't adjust after gazing on daylight for too long.  Maybe I should substitute "I" for "you", there... Is this an age thing?  I don't remember it being a problem before...  Anyway,  this all culminates on most evenings in the sort of extended crepuscular lightshow that you only really get to see from an elevated viewpoint.

Generally, of course, a sunset is too extreme a phenomenon to be rendered photographically.  The hot core of the show -- the sun! -- is far too far off the scale to pull back into any kind of satisfactory range, which is why nearly all sunset photographs are false representations of what could actually be seen at the time.  They show us what could be photographed at the time, which is not the same thing.  The kind of "awesome" sunset image people seem to like is generally a radically under-exposed image, with lurid, harsh colours bunched at the hotter end of the spectrum, and the land reduced to an ugly, sooty silhouette, like a Hawaiian shirt from hell.  I suppose if you're a habitual wearer of very dark sunglasses you might actually have seen something of the sort, but -- in British latitudes, anyway -- a remarkable sunset is a far more nuanced spectacle, with plenty of residual visibility in the landscape.

Sunset, by Georges Seurat, with added, overexposed sun
(no need to thank me, Georges, it's what I do)
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Obviously, a better approach is to photograph the effects of the sunset, rather than the sun itself setting.  But, even then, you're likely to find yourself in the sort of extreme exposure range situation where some sort of bracketed HDR technique may be useful (though I've never tried anything like that myself -- I believe something called a tripod is involved).  Call me lazy, but I usually find my interest waning when a potential picture is pushing the "technical challenge" needle too far up the dial.  It's the simplicity of photography that attracts me, not its difficulty, and if a bit of exposure compensation doesn't get the shot, I walk away.

The only problem with our flat is that it's on the top floor, without a balcony, and the windows are hinged at the top edge, only opening about eight inches at the bottom -- I presume so that only extremely thin people can jump out -- so getting a decent angle on the scene is restricted to sticking one arm out, composing obliquely on the rear LCD through the double-glazing, and hoping not to drop the camera.  This is not a technique to be recommended if you like your photographs "tack sharp", whatever that means.  Or, indeed, if you have no insurance against accidental damage.

The Prof is cross with me at the moment, as a lens-hood popped off as it brushed against the window-frame -- curse you, Fuji! -- and ended up in the gutter of our downstairs neighbour's balcony roof.  Where it is BOUND to cause a blockage.  I am investigating the possibility of finding some kind of whippy, extendable stick, about ten feet long ("And that is how, Your Honour, I came to be on that roof with binoculars and a telescopic pole...").  It's a shame I no longer have my old fishing rod, made from a tank radio-aerial by my brother-in-law, back in the days when stuff was not cheap and we were poor, and clever improvisation was the thing.  I wonder if I could find a tank parked in a quiet street...

But did I hear someone out there say, "selfie stick"?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Not Just Me, Then

Narrow Quay hoarding, Bristol

Talking of ancient music and tribes, which I was a couple of posts ago, one phenomenon I could never understand was the cult of the Grateful Dead.  This may be a peculiarly British blindspot or prejudice, although I have known a few fervent Brit "deadheads", including an otherwise very admirable friend who arranged for "Box of Rain" to be played at his own memorial service.  Younger readers may not know the cult whereof I speak, so I direct their attention to this video on YouTube.  Ignore the dire animated intro, and then marvel at this live recording from 1974.  Not at the band, but at the audience.  Honestly...  All those hysterically-grinning, hand-waving fools...  Yes, if you're American and under 40, those may well have been your parents.  It's nothing but Billy Graham Beatlemania shifted into a different groove.

Obviously, the idea of the Dead had a certain appeal.  To have been the house band at Ken Kesey's "acid tests", to have ingested such prodigious amounts of various illicit substances and yet still manage to find their way on stage (never mind figure out which way up a guitar goes), as well as having acquired such a fanatically loyal fanbase, who would travel to the ends of the earth to be present at any Grateful Dead manifestation...  It's a legend to match those of the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan, or The Who.  Apart from one thing.  The music.

Oh, man, the trees ... They're just ... machines!
(Millennium Square, Bristol)

Oh, that music.  I suppose if you like homogenized, chug-along, boogified blues, with all the edges smoothed off, and with some portentous grab-bag lyrics about nothing in particular floating on top, all sung in the same limp harmonized vocals, with plenty of directionless guitar noodling ladled over everything, then you might not turn it off if it came on the radio.  But I have never been able to understand how anyone ever experienced a Damascene moment by listening to that feeble whining noise with its pasted-on ain't-we-got-fun rictus, however stoned they might have been at the time.

Why, you might justifiably ask, is there then no similar cult around, say, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (come on, they all had to be on something to remain so relentlessly upbeat), or any other outfit of inoffensively bland toe-tappers?  Though, on reflection, I believe it's true that muzak-meister and "party king" James Last did have a devoted and multitudinous following (Hansi-heads?).  I suspect in the case of the Dead it's a "sizzle vs. sausage" thing: like that other storied outfit from a rather different corner of the USA, the Velvet Underground, it seems the myth-making, publicity and back-story far outshine the "product", and will probably outlast it, too.  Rather like Swinburne or Byron, with their eternally fascinating "life and legend", and unread, mostly unreadable poetry.

Which means I was gratified to read this post on veteran music journalist David Hepworth's blog.  So, not just me, then!  Let the hate-mail commence...  I do not stand alone!

Mind you, I do feel very much the same about The Smiths.

Millennium Square, Bristol: giant mirrored ball

Saturday, 24 October 2015


The Moscow State Circus had been in town last week, camped out on Bristol's Clifton Downs. Early one morning, as they were packing up to hit the road, I walked through the remaining trailers and caravans, drawn up into a ragged circle around the yellowed patch of ground where the big top had been.

It must be a strange life, being circus folk.  In and around the encampment I could hear not just Russian but a rich mix of various other languages, as performers and stagehands did what presumably they spend most of their time doing: hanging around, getting ready, arguing, and moving on.  A glamorous trapeze-artist looks pretty indistinguishable from the girl who runs the ticket office, when kitted out in a hoodie, jeans, and trainers, though I doubt the ticket-office girl does quite such elaborate stretches in the morning.  Various semi-feral kids were running in and out of caravans, apparently trying to kill each other.

A long time ago I did once work as a "casual" for a couple of days with a visiting circus, hammering steel stakes into the ground for the hundreds of guy-ropes that hold everything up.  The cash was good, but it seemed a pretty seedy, hand-to-mouth sort of life, and needless to say I was not remotely inclined to run away with them, in the traditional style.  Though I suppose in meaner, leaner times the temptation must have been stronger, and something of the sort must have given young Will Shakespeare his chance to break out of a dull, predictable life of making gloves in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Friday, 23 October 2015


Another week mainly spent in Bristol, but as I have now bought myself a proper Windows laptop I have been less out of touch with the world than before, though I'm not yet ready to do full-on image editing on it.  Talking of Windows, it's interesting to see how many of you are Mac users, if Google Analytics can be trusted, which probably speaks volumes about the elegance and sophistication of my readers.  But for those who have stuck with Big Bill, I recommend the upgrade from the egregious Windows 8 to Windows 10 -- it's fairly painless (just a few drivers to download, in my case) and well worth it, if only to get the Start menu back.  For once" free" doesn't mean "rubbish", and I presume what it really means is "sorry about that"... Needless, to say, I still use the "desktop" mode, and don't think I'll ever go for the Windows "apps" approach.

It's been a poor week for photography, though, starting out with filthy, dull air trapped near the ground by a "decaying high pressure system", then becoming wet and windy as low pressure moved in from the Atlantic, a classic meteorological sequence in these parts.  Have I ever mentioned I studied geography at A-level?  Back in those days, English, German and Geography was the sort of "irrational" combination that, the conventional wisdom claimed, would damage one's chances of university entrance, though not as much as the German, Art and Geography combo I had originally proposed.  It was an acceptable compromise on both sides, and I did love geography with its boots-on-the ground, pragmatic attitude to the world.  We regularly used to play a classroom game called Hunt The Climate, which involved pinpointing a location on the planet based solely on its meteorological data -- not as hard as it sounds, once you've grasped the basic principles of climate patterns.  Although it's probably a much harder game to play in these days of dramatic and unpredictable climate change.

Nevertheless, I had some productive outings, including a lengthy stroll around the waterfront area, which is where the Arnolfini Gallery and Watershed arts centre are, and which used to be one of our main haunts when we first lived in Bristol back in the late 1970s.  I'd forgotten how much like Amsterdam these parts of Bristol are, with narrow cobbled streets running alongside canalized waterways, in the shadow of tall warehouse buildings.  Viv Stanshall -- every English eccentric ever rolled into one -- used to live on a boat moored in the docks then.  I don't know who lives in the houseboat in the foreground of the picture above, but that is one fancy paint-job!

But, my, how things have changed...  Like so many post-industrial cities, Bristol has invested much time, money and effort in recent decades into transforming its legacy of picturesque and capacious dockside buildings into arts, entertainment and educational facilities.  As a result, there are many upmarket bars, restaurants and clubs packed into what was once a moderately squalid area of mainly derelict and abandoned industrial buildings.  Although it seems these new businesses and activities have brought their own squalor, in the form of casually-dumped consumer rubbish, much of it gathering in mini-versions of the Great Pacific Rubbish Vortex.  People can be hard to love, can't they?  I mean, sure, the trees have made a hell of mess, chucking their leaves carelessly all over the place, but they'll sink and rot in time.  But those bottles, cans and takeaway boxes will be bobbing around until some poor devil is assigned the job of fishing them all out.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Being There

A musician

There's an excellent satirical show on BBC Radio 4 called The Now Show.  For an all-too-short six-episode season it broadcasts on Friday evenings in summer with a Saturday lunchtime repeat, poking gentle fun at the figures and issues in the news of the preceding week.  One of the show's most reliable regulars is Mitch Benn, who generally contributes two topical songs in an appropriate pastiche style; he's a gifted mimic, as well as writing genuinely funny comedy lyrics.

My only problem with Mitch Benn is that he was born in 1970.  Why is this a problem?  Because Mitch recently had his own series aired on Radio 4, in which he explored the music and legacy of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Elvis Presley.  And why is that a problem?  Well, because the series is very much about the impact of these artists on Mitch himself, and by any reckoning their golden years were pretty much over by his fifth birthday.  It seems that, in these days of instant access to everything, anyone can "own" anything, as if they were there at the time.  It shouldn't annoy me (Bach's golden years were over two centuries before I was born, after all) but it does.

Being there at the time used to be important, when it came to pop culture.  I mean, I have always regarded myself as a little too young to really be into Bob Dylan, despite the fact that Blood on the Tracks came out while I was at university.  He "belongs" to the generation that came of age in the mid-1960s.  Bowie, on the other hand, started out belonging in an ironic kind of way to my generation -- giving a cohort of students an excuse to glam it up like drag queens for a few years and bounce around to "Jean Genie" -- but he really belongs to the next wave, who saw "Starman" performed on Top of the Tops in 1972 aged 12 and came into their own college years synchronously with Bowie's "Berlin" phase.  Musical generations used not to be matter of choice, but of destiny, and were separated by as little as five years.

"Being there" is clearly still important when it comes to live music.  Anyone can listen to the recordings of past years, and increasingly they do  -- I posted some years ago about my amazement at hearing Black Sabbath's Paranoid playing to 14-year-olds in a Games Workshop outlet -- but to have been in the audience at significant performances is the thing that really knocks those character-forming dents into your soul (and also, unfortunately and less figuratively, your eardrums -- curse you, Hawkwind!).  Obviously, a significant gig needn't be a stellar performance by a big name.  The occasion that turned me from a mild-mannered swot into an idiot-dancing degenerate was a tiny set played in a community centre function room by a local blues-covers outfit, Vinegar Tom (no, not Vinegar Joe)*.   They were probably awful, or at least no more than competent, but I had never been within concussion range of 100 watt amplifiers and a drum kit before, and went home with my ears ringing and my soul truly on fire for the first time.

Even today, you don't just happen to be at a gig, the way you might catch something interesting on the radio or on Spotify: you have to know about it, it has to be happening within a convenient travel radius, you may even have to get hold of a ticket; but most importantly you actually have to turn up, and you have to fit in.  All of which means you may have found yourself a tribe.  Finding a tribe is one of the transformative experiences of youth, and not everyone is lucky enough to find one.  If you do, though, for a few heady years you may experience a completeness of being and belonging that will mark you for life, though not necessarily in a helpful way.

All the young dudes (Knebworth 1974). image © Martyn Cornell

The best thing is to form your own tribe, or to join a loose coalition of local tribes with a strong identity.   Think of the Canterbury Scene of the late 1960s, or the Bromley Contingent of the punk era.  Those few years of intense fun will store up enough nostalgia to see you well into your anecdotage.  Not so good, though, is to have joined an off-the-peg tribe, one of those with a strict dress-code and which encourage life-time membership.  Teds, bikers, heavy metal, punk...  These are tribes with some seriously senior members.  No doubt somewhere there will eventually be retirement homes for rockers who have finally banged their heads a gig too far, with the muzak turned up to 12, and a relaxed policy on in-house intoxication.  But it is a grim sight, to see grey-beards and grannies still rocking the tribal uniforms of their youth or, worst of all, to see youngsters aping the youthful getups of their elders and betters, especially when it's my youthful getup.  It is simply not true that you are only as old (or as pretty) as you feel.  If only...  Get a mirror, old dudes, and hey, you young 'uns, get offa my cloud.

But to get back to Mitch Benn, and other slightly nerdish enthusiasts like him...  I suppose the annoying thing is the sense of having your old clothes stolen (even if they don't really fit you any more), but I do think that this pick'n'mix attitude towards music which is actually the partial fossil record of long-extinct "scenes" does do a disservice to popular music.  You can't form a new scene around pop antiquarianism.

It all adds to the feeling that pop is now stalled in a perpetual revival of styles that are forty, fifty, even sixty years old.  Yes, Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Bowie were great, but they were also new.  I seem to have heard nothing substantially new for the last thirty years, not since rap and the various forms of techno first crunched into the airwaves, and neither of those was much more than a rhythmic recycling machine, musically-speaking.  Perhaps we're now in a post-pop world?  In the words of "Kansas City", have we gone about as fer as we c'n go?  What do you mean, kid, you've never heard of Oklahoma?  That -- and all the music like it -- is the reason why rock'n'roll exists!**

It weighs pop down to be handled with the kind of semi-scholarly reverence that forgets that it is primarily throwaway music for young people to dance and have fun to -- nothing more, nothing less.  A book like Ian MacDonald's much-praised Revolution in the Head has added nothing to my enjoyment or understanding of the Beatles.  Worse, to regard the soundtracks of previous teen generations as a library of models to copy -- right down to reproducing the sound of a particular guitar or studio ambience on a particular record -- is not just uncreative, it is to put on voluntarily the constricting straitjacket of classicism.

Unfortunately, the Web means that this is now a permanent and universal condition, rather than the private vice of the kind of person who used to read and remember the credits on album covers.  Everyone now will "always already" have heard it on the grape vine, and done the Locomotion while dancing in the street with Maybelline and Lucille, the girls from Ipanema.  It's all just one big musical grab bag.  You've got to feel sorry for creative young musicians who live with the burden that their task is to match or improve upon, say, the mighty works of Motown or Atlantic Soul.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T to anyone prepared to give it a try, though.

But remember, kids...  As we used to say in 1971:  be here now. And, no, that has absolutely nothing to do with bloody Oasis...

Some tribes are for life...

* An interesting sidelight:  the name "Vinegar Tom" can be found on a 17th c. engraving relating to the activities of Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins -- it's the name a witch under interrogation gives to one of her familiars, a hound-like creature with a bull's head.  The name was used by Caryl Churchill for the title of her 1976 play about witch-hunting, and I presume that engraving is also the source of the band's name (ca. 1969), though I recall speculation at school that, you know, "vinegar" equals "acid" and, like, "Tom" is short for "Tom Mix", rhyming slang for a fix, obviously.  Which just goes to show how a little learning can turn you into an idiot.  Quite how the originators of the band Vinegar Joe latched onto the formula is an interesting question.

** Yes, I am beginning to repeat myself.  See these posts: G-L-O-R-I-A from 2010 and You Can All Join In from 2011.  I'm 61, you know....

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Goat Gulley

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Bristol, I decided to go for a scramble down the Avon Gorge.  In places, the Gorge is sufficiently rocky and vertical to be a worthy challenge to those lunatics, rock-climbers.  There are hundreds of established routes with typically bizarre names -- Atmosfears, The Trembling, Dark Crystal, and The Enchanted Gordon, to pick a few at random --  pegged at every level of difficulty*.  I should say that I have never embarked on a proper rock-climb in my life, except once or twice by mistake.  I like steep rocky places, but try to stick to the paths.  I always have in my mind the example of someone I once worked with who was confined to a wheelchair. A keen climber, he had tried to take a shortcut up an Irish cliff on his way to a wedding.  He never got there.

I decided to go down a steep little gulley which is allegedly populated by wild goats.  There are signs at the top which inform you of this fact, and which warn you not to go to the aid of any goat apparently in distress.  As if I'd fall for that old trick!  It was a lovely, bright, early autumn day, and once I'd dropped into the Gorge on its south-facing side the microclimate kicked in, and it was immediately as if I were somewhere in the Dordogne; dry and sunny, steep limestone and light scrub above, dense trees and a river gorge below.  I had fun negotiating the narrow, descending tracks, and allowed myself the small risk of walking down a scree slope and a 35° bare rock "slide", polished smooth by generations of backsides.

What I hadn't expected was the little tower in the photograph.  As I descended it came into view, dramatically backlit by the afternoon sun.  Being of a literary bent, I immediately thought of Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came".  It's a great poem, the subject of much psychological speculation, but best understood, I suggest, as the paranoid ravings of a rambler who has overdone the magic mushrooms, and is passing through a perfectly ordinary rural landscape.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-side, met
 To view the last of me, a living frame
 For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

 And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”
Seeing the protective grille on top, however, I realised -- in an un-Rolandish moment of clarity -- that it was one of the ventilation shafts for the Clifton Down railway tunnel, and marked as such on the map.  To add to the bathos, I hadn't seen a single goat, either.  But they could probably tell from my slug-horn that I was wise to their brigandish tricks.

The Gorge from Goat Gulley (aka Walcombe Slade)

* I hadn't realised until writing this that climbing grades vary internationally, and need a conversion table!  Should you care, there's an interesting summary here.