Sunday, 18 February 2018


Those of you who had the good fortune to receive one of my 2018 calendars (and, be warned, my agents are at large checking whether or not these are on display and in use) will know that one of my innumerable-and-ongoing "projects" is loosely named Sketchbooks. That is, scribbles from my multiple-and-ongoing sketchbooks, digitized on the flatbed scanner and turned into something rich and strange (strange, anyway) on my computer.

Both the original scribbling and the subsequent alchemization process are activities that reliably induce an intensely pleasurable state of concentration. It's a form of that solitary disengagement-by-engagement that is wisely regarded as essential to mental well-being. Some like the challenge of a crossword or sudoku puzzle, or to read in bed, or to slump for an hour or two in front of the TV, or even – unfathomably – to go for a run, but at the end of a long day, I like to cover some good-quality paper with pencil marks. The nice thing is that this is one no-mind activity that leaves a useful legacy, one that can be worked on further or transformed multiple times into something that might even end up enlivening a space in someone else's house.

Incidentally, why do Americans use the word "sketchy" to denote an unsafe, run-down part of town, or the kind of people who might inhabit it? Is this a long-established usage, or a recent coinage? I was completely baffled when the son of some visiting American friends referred to Brixton in London as having been pretty sketchy the last time they had visited. Huh? It had always seemed pretty convincingly real to me.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Dim and Dimmer

 Looking towards Twyford village

I love the light you get in England in February (and, to be fair, in November, which is February run in reverse): it's like someone is playing around with the solar dimmer switch. One minute, it's so dim you can barely see; then, wham, it's so bright you can barely see; then suddenly the cloud and sun action has moved on, and you get extraordinary combinations of different weather sets happening simultaneously across the landscape. Blimey, look, is that a hailstorm coming our way? Put the hat back on!

 Looking towards Twyford Down

Of course, you need to be somewhere sufficiently open to both weather and sky to get the full effect, and the Itchen water-meadows are perfect for this. When we there on Sunday the sky was giving us the full Martin Creed treatment [1], although the resident cattle had clearly seen it all before, and had more important things on their minds.

Looking towards the M3 motorway

Perhaps everyone has a fondness for the meteorological trappings of their birthday month? I think us February folk can't help feeling a little bit special, though, with our uniquely cranky month – shorter than the rest but standing tall(er) every four years – mixing up the seasons with its tricksterish weather. We might yet wake up to a covering of snow. Or blazing sunshine. Or driving rain. Or all three in one morning. So glad I ain't a cattle.

1. Martin Creed's infamous Turner Prize entry, "Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off", solemnly and hilariously described here if you've never come across it.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"Send Me a postcard, Drop Me a Line, Stating Point of View..."

Gated entrance to the Idiots 'R' Us compound

As the nation finally calms down after a long weekend of celebrations to mark my 64th birthday – No, really, you needn't! Please, enough, you're embarrassing me! Sit! Sit! – I need to have the security staff shoo the last revellers and TV crews away from the compound gates and take stock of what to do with the next 64 years. In the immortal words, what a long, strange trip it's been!

I was particularly flattered that the brand new Nuffield theatre in town had commissioned a play by Howard Brenton to mark the occasion: how they knew that my grandparents had spent the war years in Southampton working on the construction of Spitfires (which had been distributed around town in various locations, following the destruction by bombing of the Supermarine factory early in the Blitz) I don't know, but someone had clearly tipped them off, as that was the subject of Brenton's play, Shadow Factory. Why, thank you, Howard! How very appropriate! I suppose I should review it, but when people have gone to that much trouble, you don't want to seem ungrateful or give offence. It was nice just to get out of the gated compound for the evening.

Some events were less successful. An old schoolfriend whom I had not seen for very many years had disguised himself as an aged hermit – planning to surprise me on the South Bank, where I was visiting the Andreas Gursky exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – but had so successfully concealed his identity that he was very nearly taken out by the rooftop marksmen that always accompany me to London. Also, and ironically, an unexploded German bomb from WW2 was uncovered that very morning by workmen, thus closing the City Airport all day, and preventing Gursky himself from flying in and escorting me around the show, which caused him no little embarrassment. As for poor old Banksy, he was hacked off to discover that his extensive birthday tribute in my favourite underpass, which had taken him most of the night, had literally been hacked off by unscrupulous collectors within hours of completion. We will all laugh about these mishaps later, no doubt! I will, anyway.

Hey, no pictures!

So, OK, I may have misinterpreted or misunderstood or even made up some or all of the above. I'm 64, dagnabbit! I'm entitled. But, talking of misinterpretation, it's at such moments that a man should consider the measure of his achievements, not least his blog statistics.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly the case that Blogger's own stats are completely corrupted by robotic click-bait. According to a sample I took last week, for example, I had already had 1,829 pageviews in the previous 24 hours. Yeah, right. Somehow, these robotised multiple "pageviews" are able to masquerade as genuine viewers, with the intention of getting you to visit some dodgy site or other, quite often a "boost your pageviews" site, offering the very service I'm complaining about. I suppose if you want advertising revenue based on traffic then false readers are as good as real ones, but it's basically like buying yourself a degree in medicine to hang on the office wall.

Blogger Stats

Google Analytics Stats

Much more reliable are the figures from Google Analytics, which are – sigh – significantly but realistically lower. As in, a mere 89 pageviews for roughly the same 24-hour period. But we don't weigh our readers around here; we value each of you as an individual! Which is not so difficult, obviously, with these kinds of numbers.

But one thing I particularly enjoy is looking at your geographical locations, which Google Analytics claims to be able to narrow to a town or city (although I suspect, in many cases, this probably means the nearest "node" on the Web from where your broadband service is provided). And, I have to say, you guys are gratifyingly widespread. Here is a map for a few week's worth of pageviews:

Not much going on in the frozen north, there, but a nice global scatter otherwise. And here is the "Top Twenty" listing for the same period:

All of those towns have one or more viewers who, in aggregate, made more than 12 pageviews over the weeks in question, plus a tail of 100+ visitors who made fewer visits than that; most of them, it's true, giving just a single glance before slamming the door shut. Not everyone is curious about what goes on behind this Green Door [1]. Interestingly, it's a picture that, at the top end, varies only slightly from month to month. I know who quite a few of you are, because you email me or comment on the posts, but I'm very curious about my unknown regular Top Twenty visitors from, say, Belgrade (really?), or Écublens (a suburb of Lausanne, Switzerland, apparently). I suppose it's not impossible that some of these are merely hungry libel and copyright lawyers, watching and waiting... Not so much "ambulance chasers" as "blog lurkers".

Of course, this Google Analytics list will have excluded those truly faithful readers among you who have signed up to "follow" this blog by email; unless you choose to click through to see the latest post in context, you don't register as a visitor. I actually have no idea of how many such readers I have, as neither Blogger nor Google Analytics seem to record that information. It could be one, it could be a hundred; my guess is fifteen.

So, unless you are enjoying the thrill of "lurking" silently down there in the bushes (bush? saguaro desert?) of Canberra or Auckland or Tucson, or wherever you really are, why not drop me an email to say who you are? You might even want belatedly to join in the 64th anniversary celebrations. Though, please, no more cash (oh, all right, go on then: PayPal is fine), but definitely no more interview requests, and do keep away from those gates.

Twyford Down from the Itchen water-meadows, February 2018

1. "Green Door" was one of the strangest hits of the late 1950s. As it says on Wikipedia, "The lyrics describe the allure of a mysterious private club with a green door, behind which 'a happy crowd' play piano, smoke and 'laugh a lot', and inside which the singer is not allowed." My favourite lines are:
Saw an eyeball peeping through a smoky cloud behind the green door
When I said "Joe sent me"
Someone laughed out loud behind the green door
Ah, those Green Door folk appreciate the irony of a classic trope when they hear one! I'm glad to say that in my 64 years I have spent some good times on the other side of that door.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Watch the Birdie!

Having said a few posts ago that "portraiture is not really my thing", for the last week or two – inevitably – it has become the central focus of my activity. You can tell a true contrarian because they will evade even their own categorisations, once stated. Not my thing? I'll show you, matey! Don't hang your sign on me!

Of course, the problem with portraits is that they require someone to portray, an actual person who is willing to submit to portrayal. Such people are in short supply around here. My partner, for example, is one of those who freezes into an unflattering rictus at the sight of a camera lens, and who has a talent for blinking at precisely the same instant and for exactly the same duration as the opening of the camera shutter. I keep reading that the important part of photographic portraiture is creating a rapport with the subject in the minutes leading up to the snap. It seems forty-four years of acquaintance are not enough to build a rapport with certain subjects. Or maybe there's a curve here: I suspect peak rapport may have been achieved somewhere around 1996.

So, what does the aspiring portraitist do, when starved of willing live subjects? Regular readers may recall my little adventure last year into the business of constructed portraiture, with my "Elective Family Album". It seemed an obvious route to take again. After all, I have decades of photographs of friends and family: why not recycle some of those? Even when blessed with such camera-shy subjects, I have managed the odd success. Generally either by pretending to be doing something else, or by being totally relentless. Honestly, it's been like photographing elusive wildlife... Maybe I should have installed motion-sensor activated cameras around the house?

Anyway, so that's what I've been doing (making constructed portraits from family snaps, not installing CCTV). Obviously, the "straight" photographs I have been choosing to work with have to be compelling enough in themselves, but I think recontextualizing them and adding a little decoration – all right, quite a lot of decoration – so as to give some hint of the interior life developing, say, behind the engaging smile of a chubby ten-year-old is not superfluous. After all, it's precisely what a portraitist using paints would do.

Admittedly, when it comes to the painted portrait, I incline more towards the Tom Phillips school than, say, that of Francis Bacon. It is a curious business, though, portraiture, and one calculated to expose the true nature and limits of your art appreciation. I recently went up to the National Portrait Gallery to see the "Cézanne Portraits" exhibition, allegedly a five-star, once-in-a-lifetime, must-see show. But, if I'm honest, the Cézannes did little for me: I find it hard to get excited by the systematic reduction of your wife's head to a characterless ovoid block. Clearly, this says a lot about Cézanne's views on the nature and development of painting, but it also speaks volumes about his developing view of his wife and, indeed, all his sitters. Are people just more shapes and smudges in a carefully arranged field of other toned and coloured shapes and smudges? Apparently so. Is that revelatory? I don't find it so.

Having given this show-of-a-lifetime a solid fifteen minutes, I had plenty of time to stroll around the National Portrait Gallery. What I do love in the NPG are the Tudor portraits – Holbein is my kind of portraitist, especially those sublime drawings, not surpassed in 500 years – and a good many of the Victorian and Edwardian portraits, sorted by class of achievement (writers, explorers, entertainers, reformers, statesmen, etc.) rather than by artist. Surely this is the right way round when it comes to portraits, to prioritize the subject and their characteristics (including at least some aspects of their physical, external appearance), rather than dwelling on the artist's sensibility and its place in art history? "The human face as a beautiful mystery" versus "My wife as a featureless egg"?

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Representation of the People

Future first-time voters (some of them, anyway)
Part of E Company 1/1st Herts Regiment, 1914/15

There's been a lot of attention paid recently, and especially today, to the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which extended the UK franchise to (some) women. Which is great: it's a highly historically-significant moment, obviously. But is it churlish to point out that the very same act gave the vote to an awful lot more men for the first time, too? Working class men? Who? Oh, them...

Yes, women had to fight for the vote, and some suffered and even died along the way, and it would still be another decade before they truly got it. But the 1918 act was even more a recognition of the way thousands upon thousands of "ordinary" men had literally fought and died for ... Well, for what?

As the then Conservative Home Secretary, George Cave, put it:
War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.
Amazingly, the 1918 reforms meant that the electorate went from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Ironically, one reason the vote was restricted to women of property over 30 is said to have been because so many men had died in WW1 that to include all women over 21 would have resulted in a female majority electorate. I'm not sure why, other than simple prejudice, this was thought to be a problem – too much, too soon? – but it clearly was.

One little electoral wrinkle that wasn't ironed out until as late as 1948 was that those with a university education had two votes, as they were entitled to vote in their "university constituencies" as well. Hmm, I'm not so sure that was really such a bad idea; I think I'd have four votes... Maybe we should bring it back. Or, let's go the other way, and make the vote dependent on passing GCSE Maths and English? One literate / numerate person, one vote! I wonder how that might have affected, oh, let's say, the Brexit referendum?

But: in the celebration of the 1918 Act, it's easy to overlook the fact that, when it gained Royal Assent on 6th February, the First World War was still being fought, and had nine whole months of slaughter left to run. Now, I hadn't looked closely at my scan of that quite small, dark photograph above before, but I'm pretty sure that, next to my grandfather Douglas on the left, the other sergeant is Frank Young, one of his pre-war pals. The Herts 1/1st were a territorial regiment, so the men in this photograph are volunteer "weekend" soldiers from the Hitchin / Letchworth / Baldock area. I imagine that, before 1914, it had seemed like a fun, outdoorsy thing to do, a continuation of, say, scouting. Certainly, before moving to Letchworth to work at the Temple Press, Douglas Chisholm had been in one of the very earliest scout troops in Elephant & Castle, London. His mate Frank Young was an army brat, born in India: his father was the RSM of the regular Herts Regiment.

The Hertfordshires were sent to France in 1914 as part of the original British Expeditionary Force, otherwise mainly professional soldiers, and earned themselves the nickname "The Herts Guards" at Mons and elsewhere. By 1918, both sergeants had become "temporary gentlemen", and been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.  Luckily for me, Douglas didn't get sent back to France after his officer training. Frank did, and died in furious hand-to-hand combat at Havrincourt, in September 1918. In the process he earned the regiment's second Victoria Cross, which, however you look at it, is no substitute for having earned the right to vote, had it for seven months, but never getting to exercise it in the General Election on December 14th that same year.

They don't make ears like that any more...

Monday, 5 February 2018

Salon des Refusés

Jardin des Plantes

View from Montmartre

It is a species of idiocy to visit Paris, as I did in October last year, take some good photographs and then to completely ignore them, either because they resemble too much the paintings you've been admiring on the wall of various galleries (a bit of Monet here, a touch of Rivière there, maybe a splash of Derain), or because they're not part of some self-declared project, or simply because they're just too conventionally attractive. It's basically self-censorship motivated by snobbery and a reflex contrarianism, which amounts, as I say, to a sort of stupidity. So here's a little Salon des Refusés of my own work, rejected and then defiantly exhibited. Hah! Take that, me!

These were all taken with the Fuji X20, which has established itself as my "holiday camera". It's conveniently small and robust, feels good to use in the hand, and a feature of the images it produces that I really like is the character of the grain. These may not be the sharpest or smoothest photos you've ever seen, but they have a "painterly" quality – especially at higher ISOs – which is very eye-pleasing. It would be nice to find a replacement camera that produces larger files than 12 megapixels, but so far I have failed to find anything. I had a brief flirtation with a Sony RX100 but didn't like the results; I'm also quite interested in the upcoming Fuji XC 15-45 "pancake" zoom lens (I like the suggestion that it's not so much a "pancake" as a "muffin" zoom) but will await the reviews. But, wow, look at me doing photo-gear talk!

Pompidou Centre nocturne 


Place de la Concorde

So, go on, admit it, Mike: these are pretty good pictures! Don't be so hard on yourself... Although (uh oh, here he comes again, that self-censoring idiot) what are they pictures of, exactly? What sort of experience of "Paris" are we seeing here? Who cares about your straight white western male sensibility any more? You're just another tourist in town, stepping around and ignoring all the homeless and the hopeless, carefully framing them just out of the picture! Why not get your lazy arse out to les banlieues or over to Calais and photograph the real stories? Or better still, why not just get out of the way, and let other, more urgent voices be heard? Besides, "pretty" good is the word: what's with this beauty shit? The world is an ugly, confusing place! Why pretend otherwise?

Hum. Well, I'm not exactly in the way, but I take your point, Meanie-Me. On the other hand, us straight white western males really aren't going to go away – and go and look in a mirror, btw, bro – but we are changing, and I think you'll just have to accept that how we see the world matters to us, if no-one else. We think we have multiple "identities" worth exploring, too. And as for "beauty", if you can't see we're surrounded by it, that we live within it, even at the toughest times and in the most unlikely places, then I feel sorry for you. Though I concede central Paris is the proverbial "low-hanging fruit" in that regard. But, banlieues? Hey, I /we live in Southampton...

Anyway, ignore him, the miserable old PC puritan. Check this out, instead, which I don't think I have posted before, and which, if nothing else, must surely score highly for "original view of an over-photographed object of touristic interest". I don't think you'll find this take on the grand old beige pylon thing on Flickr or Pinterest! Yet...

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Be Yourselves

I was down in the town centre doing a bit of shopping and, as is my habit, looking at the same time for interesting bits of wall and what-have-you to photograph. The tiny inscription above caught my eye, written on the remains of a peeled-off poster stuck on a street utility box: "Be yourself, everybody else is taken". It made me laugh, but something about its concision made me suspect it was, in fact, a well-worn bit of folksy wisdom lifted out of some Little book of Empowerment, along with "tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life", "life is not a dress rehearsal", and the like. After all, as a general rule, very few genuinely original or witty folk lay their aphorisms before the public in such a discreet and inefficiently lo-tech way. You might say it did work for Martin Luther, but reading material was probably scarcer back then. Plus he had 95 theses, not just the one.

It turns out that I was right – unsurprisingly, as there is a certain vein of sound-bite, fun-sized, philosophical simpering which always says, "copycat"  – but, as is so often the case with this stuff, the original source of the sentiment proves impossible to identify. There's a good discussion of that here, if you care about that sort of thing. Which I do: it's always salutary to chase down a quotation to its original source – if necessary in its original language – and in particular to check out its context. You don't want to end up using a quote from Mein Kampf, just because you've never heard of this Hitler guy, and it sounds suitably motivational.

Hunting down quotes can be fun, like miniature adventures in scholarship. It is also almost always instructive. In one of my earliest attempts at a book-length sequence of photographs, I made extensive use of what seemed like suitable quotations to break it up a bit. I liked the idea of texts being used in a visual book in the way illustrations are used in regular, text-heavy books. One of these was a quotation from Goethe I had come across in John Berger's essay on the photographer August Sander: "There is a tender empiricism that makes itself so inwardly identical with the object that it thereby becomes true theory". Well, if you say so, Johann! Now, in fact, Berger is actually citing the Frankfurt School writer and critic Walter Benjamin who is also writing about Sander, and only incidentally quoting Goethe. But Berger doesn't identify his source, so I first had to identify the Benjamin essay: after a bit of hunting, it turned out to be his Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. OK! But Benjamin in turn fails to identify the source of his Goethe quotation. Doh! After much burrowing around in Goethe's work, it eventually turned out to be one of his collected Maximen und Reflexionen, which itself had apparently been extracted from his own novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre:
Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird.(Maximen und Reflexionen 509)
Phew. I suppose a more thorough scholar might have (may already have) gone on to trace Goethe's source, and so on, receding into classical antiquity, but that was good enough for me; at least I knew who and what I was really quoting, where it came from, and what its context was. As I say, I care about this sort of thing.

To return to that little bit of graffiti, however. I like the way it's phrased but, honestly, "be yourself" has been recognised as sententious nonsense since at least Shakespeare's time, when he put "To thine own self be true" into the mouth of that pompous old twit Polonius in Hamlet. Again, context is crucial: how many times have you seen Polonius quoted as if this were Old Bill hisself preachin' eternal troof unto the world? Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Then I saw the latest Wondermark cartoon:

Now there's an original and witty person doing it the right way!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A Walk in the Park

After what has seemed like weeks of drab, dull, wet weather, we have finally had some sunnier days; well, intervals, anyway. So I varied my usual daily walk to take in a sweep through Southampton Common. I was really looking for crows and rooks (I know where they like to hang out) but couldn't resist photographing the park-ness of the Common, too, as it begins to emerge from winter.

Soon, they'll be re-filling this lake, which, unlike the Ornamental Lake and Cemetery Lake, is not a "natural" pond, and is always drained during the winter months. Nominally it's a resource for the use of model-boat enthusiasts, though I suspect that's a hobby that died out decades ago. There's the plughole in the photograph. I wonder where all the water goes?

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Professor Mega-Breakfast

Portraiture is not really my thing. At least, it hasn't been. But recently, I've been doing some more playing around with pictures of friends and family (do I ever do anything except play around?) and I like this one. This sturdy fellow is a Professor of Rural Medicine, composited with certain elements that seemed fitting. That's the Beauly Firth in the background, and more or less the view from his house a few miles outside Inverness.

I won't embarrass him by telling you what a remarkable chap he is. A medical man by vocation, I've known him since our college days, and he has continued to distinguish himself ever since, in that impressively modest way that medical folk have. Like teachers, they know what they do matters, so don't need to make a song and dance about it.

One curious fact, though: Phil has run the West Highland Way ultramarathon (that is, the 95 miles from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William, up hill, down dale, through bog...) not once but twice, both times in his fifties, and yet, and perhaps more impressively, I have seen him eat the twelve-part mega-breakfast at Cobbs Cafe in Highland Industrial Supplies (for the record, I had a bacon roll). Apparently, this is a regular treat. Let's see: that's bacon, sausage, black pudding, baked beans, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fried tomato, fried bread, and three other "foods to avoid" I can't recall... Awesome. It seems doctors take a very different view on what constitutes a healthy diet from food faddists...

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Happy Days

I was up in London last week to celebrate my partner's birthday together with our children, who both now live and work in the city. We spent the night at the house of some old friends, and by the time I caught the train back to Southampton the next morning I was well primed for one of those reveries that train journeys seem to induce. As Eastleigh rolled past in the bright but misty sunlight, I saw a young man in blue overalls kneeling on an industrial roof, pausing in his work with what looked liked some wiring to talk to an older man, standing on a ladder. They were both smiling and laughing, and something about the youngster's body language suggested to me that he was entirely happy in his work up there. Which reminded me that once I, too, was a young man in overalls, deeply contented and absorbed by his labours.

One of the oddities of the British educational system back in the 1970s was that Oxford and Cambridge still ran their own entrance examinations. Inconveniently, these happened during the winter term, followed by interviews, with admission results published in the national broadsheet papers around Christmas. So, unlike their private-school counterparts, potential Oxbridge candidates from state schools would first have to get some university offers in place, wait for their A-Level results in the summer and, if these were judged good enough, defer their year of university entrance and then spend an extra term at school preparing for and taking the entrance exams. Meanwhile, all your contemporaries would have left, either for university or the real world. As a consequence, successful or not, you had to experience a peculiar extended spell under a secondary school regime – uniform, haircuts and all – followed by nine months with nothing much to do.

I suppose children from wealthier families probably treated this as an opportunity for travel and adventure: what today would be called a "gap year". But I and my classmates Dave and Alan – two of us successful in our applications, one not – all came from typical New Town families, and needed to find paid work. Luckily, there was an informal agreement between some of Stevenage's schools that any Oxbridge candidates (there were never that many) might be taken on as temporary teaching assistants, and that's what we did. Dave went to a primary school, and Alan and I went to the Catholic boy's grammar school, St. Michael's, where I was put to work mainly as an art assistant.

Those two terms were some of the most intensely contented months in my life. Seeing that overalled young man on the roof brought back a wave of happy memories. I was earning real money for the first time and, outside of work hours, was free to do whatever I wanted: no more homework, no more exams, and with friends away at university I could visit them at weekends in exotic, faraway places like Bristol, Norwich, Birmingham, and Brighton. I was finally able to let my hair and beard grow, too, with the result that the boys at St. Michael's nicknamed me "Roy", after Roy Wood of Wizzard, a group that was a bit of a fixture on Top of the Pops in 1972/73.

At work I mainly wore overalls, as my main duties included attending to the kilns and clay bins in the art rooms, a messy business. It was also a hazardous and necessary business. The art and craft rooms at St. Michael's were very superior to those at my school, and in addition to a couple of kilns for firing pottery they boasted a plastic-injection machine, which melted little plastic beads to make moulded objects. Given a chance, boys would grab a handful of these beads and scatter them into the wet clay in the bins. If these weren't removed any pot placed into the kiln would explode, destroying much of the the other work being fired, even if it, too, hadn't been primed to self-destruct. One of my daily tasks was to pick through the clay to find these accursed things, which were about three millimetres in diameter and transparent, like clear plastic fish roe.

At the same time I had to keep a wary eye out for the Stanley-knife blades that would also occasionally get tossed into the clay, with potentially lethal consequences. Any boy caught doing this would suffer the ultimate penalty: being sent to see the school priest. I have no idea what went on in there, but it was clearly very effective. As far as I know he may even have been related to many of the boys, as his name was Father Brennan, and there seemed to be at least one Brennan in most classes throughout the school. Although, being in the main populated by the large extended families of the Irish construction workers who had built the New Town and decided to make it their home, the roll-call of names in every class was remarkably and confusingly similar.

"Roy", the carefree technician, 1972
(What, me worry?)

But I loved the work. I was a "technician": I learned to stack and fire a kiln, how to prepare slips and glazes and other useful hands-on skills, such as how to make screens for screen-printing, and racks to hang prints and paintings to dry. Sometimes I did help boys realise their art projects, and occasionally gave a hand with remedial literacy classes, and during the Easter break in 1973 I was among the staff accompanying two mini-vans full of boys to a Youth Hostel in Derbyshire's Peak District (I think it was there that my love of hills and hill-walking was awakened); but it was mainly brain-light manual work. I did an awful lot of sweeping up, tidying up, and putting tools back in racks and cupboards, as well as the eternal de-hazarding of the clay-bins.

I made friends with some of the younger teachers, and was invited to their houses. There I first became aware of the ways of the new, semi-bohemian middle-classes, with their duvets, Habitat furniture, and all sorts of eye-pleasing junk-shop bric-a-brac; antique glass bottles, stoneware jugs, and lacquered boxes, which sometimes concealed a little lump of hash for their weekend soirées. One couple, in particular, introduced me to the pleasures of illustrated books, of which they had a significant collection, including Arthur Rackham's Ring Cycle books and Some British Ballads [1]. In return, I introduced them to Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention [2].

To those teachers I expect I was just a curiosity, one of the natives with unexpected tastes and ambitions, but to me this was the start of my New Life. These were the people I aspired to become, and I studied them like an Ancient Briton hoping to become a Roman citizen. This, combined with the rather wilder times I and my old schoolfriends were having together, meant that by the time I turned up at college the following October I considered myself quite the worldly sophisticate, especially compared to my privately-educated peers, who were arriving more or less straight from school.

Heh. Little did I know how much I had to learn, and what a gulf there was between the home-life and aspirations of a secondary school teacher in a New Town and those brought up to expect privilege and prominence by right of birth. But this lesson I had learned and knew for sure: that there is great satisfaction to be had in doing a necessary, skilled, reasonably-paid manual job well, free from worries and responsibilities, with the anticipation of a pleasure-filled weekend just a few days away. It's what young people are for. It's Saturday night and I just got paid... Here comes the weekend...

It doesn't last, of  course, but is one of the Best Things while it does. So what on earth are we thinking, and what on earth is the point of stealing that precious, carefree transition into adulthood from so many of our own youngsters by taking away so many of precisely those semi-skilled manual jobs, and filling their young lives not with useful, meaningful work but instead with idleness, insecurity, and anxiety about the future? They need to be up on the roof in overalls, fixing something that needs to be fixed, happy in the working moment and looking forward to a little weekend mayhem, not flipping burgers or stuck at home flipping listlessly through social media on their phones.

And they certainly should not be obsessing about how us Boomers ate all the pies. Even if we do go on about how very tasty they were, back in the day. Which, I have to say, they were (probably something to do with all the MSG they used to dose us with...).

(with apologies to Beatrix Potter)

1. I saw all of these for the first time in 45 years in a bookshop in Bridport over Christmas, which had clearly acquired someone's Rackham collection, and my heart leapt, then sank when I saw the prices: £190 each...
2. It's hard to imagine, now, how quickly one lost touch back then with the "latest thing" after settling into adult life. The hipper reaches of pop culture were mainly passed on by word-of-mouth, and the very idea of a middle-aged enthusiast for what was still, essentially, young people's music was actually in the process of being invented by that generation. No-one could afford the speculative investment in vinyl records that would have been necessary to keep up with the burgeoning scene, and radio-play was still effectively non-existent: weeklies like the NME and new TV shows like "The Old Grey Whistle Test" were vital sources of information for these house-, child-, and career-bound bohemians.

Thursday, 25 January 2018


On Friday night we saw the touring production of Peter Bellamy's "folk opera" The Transports, or rather, the show which has been made out the raw material of Bellamy's 1977 album of songs on the theme of transportation of prisoners to Australia, best described in the programme notes:

Inspired by the true story of two petty criminals transported unjustly from Norfolk to Australia in 1787, Peter Bellamy created a cycle of folk ballads called The Transports. He released this in 1977 as an album, featuring arrangements by Dolly Collins and a glittering roster of folk musicians and singers including Dave Swarbrick, Nic Jones, June Tabor, AL Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Vic Legg, Mike & Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. This album became legendary in English folk music. 

In 2016 producer Michael Hughes of The Young’uns, and musical director Paul Sartin brought in storyteller Matthew Crampton to re-work the piece. Captivated by the original story, Matthew wrote a narration to tell the tale more fully, give historical context, and set up each song and character. New elements include Sean Cooney's somg Dark Water and local migrant stories from the Parallel Lives project. Paul arranged the songs afresh, drawing on the company's strengths and broadening the ballads with extensive harmony singing.

I've written about Peter Bellamy before (Borrowing Ballads) and, despite my declared intention finally to listen to The Transports never did get around to it. Folk had already stopped being my thing by 1977, and has never really regained its former place in my affections. Whole generations of performers and fashions in singing-style and instrumentation have been and gone since I last followed the scene: tellingly, I know all the names in the first paragraph of those programme notes, none in the second. When I was working in Bristol in the late 70s I must admit I was fairly dismissive of one of my colleagues who was an avid folkie and – worse – a morris dancer: at that exciting time for popular music, it seemed even more complacent and reactionary than a taste for heavy metal or disco. Similarly, I have written before about the suspicious political currents to be detected behind "roots" music (You (don't really) Need Roots). and have had no real reason to change my mind.

But The Transports, especially as adapted by Matthew Crampton, is different. It's not anti-modern yearning for a non-existent bucolic past, nor is it a gateway into some ethnic or nationalistic cul-de-sac, but is an exploration of the conditions of the poor in the late 18th century, using the musical styles of the time, which follows the remarkable true story of one couple on the very first convict transport fleet to Australia.

Matthew Crampton's narrative does what it says on the programme: it explains what it was like to be poor in East Anglia around 1780, and how easy it was for a decent person under pressure of poverty to end up on the gallows or languishing in the squalor of Norwich gaol for the pettiest of crimes. It also goes further, and links their story of enforced transportation to those of later migrants – Huguenots and Jews and Africans – including those of our own times. In a nice touch, these stories are sourced locally for each night's audience; in our case, Southampton, there was a particularly rich vein of stories to mine.

However, in this last regard, worthy as it is as a topic, I think the show is flawed. The parallel between the transportation of convicts and the migration of refugees is a little strained, and does feel as if the adapters have bolted it on to Bellamy's original work. The second half of the show is also rather brisker, narratively, than the first, and – given we're dealing with what is, in effect, the founding family of (white) Australia – peters out rather quickly once Botany Bay is finally reached. There appear to be no post-voyage songs, and you have to wonder whether this is due to the "20 minutes a side" constraint of the LP format. Also (and I realise I'm in danger here of sounding like the sort of pedant who counts the buttons on guardsmen's uniforms) as an East Anglian myself I was slightly disappointed that most of the performers appeared to be singing in the accents of the north-east of England [1].

Those reservations aside, it was a brilliant and rousing evening, culminating in a mighty, ten-voice rendering of Bellamy's sea-shanty "Roll Down", which really tingled the spine, especially if you were sitting as near the front as we were. If you can't get to see a performance, I recommend buying a copy of the Transports CD, just released, which includes much of the narration as well as all the sung material. Put the volume up to 11 and listen to "The Green Fields of England" and then "Roll Down". If your spine isn't tingled, then you may be in need of a spell in Norwich gaol.
So farewell to all judges so kind and forgiving,
Farewell to your prisons and cells,
For though we must leave all that makes life worth living,
We are leaving you bastards as well!

Here's adieu, here's adieu,
To the green fields of England,
Now we're parting from you.

1. This may be one of those folk-fashions that I've missed. Obviously, most folk-singers are not ex-trawlermen or sons and daughters of toil, and there has always been an element of what I call the "dressing-up box" in folk. It used to be the fashion to adopt a braying Mummerset voice (see: Peter Bellamy), and maybe the fashion has now swung north and east (for some reason, Richard Thompson himself has long adopted a NE accent when singing). Or, of course, that may be where they mainly come from.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018


A bright winter moon in fading daylight commands attention: "Oi, you! Yes, you! Look up here! Go on, take my picture!" Although, as I have observed before, the half a degree of arc that the moon actually occupies means that including it as a compositional element in a photograph is a tricky business; it's got all that sky around it, for one thing, and is a long way away, for another.

Walking out by St. Catherine's Hill, I was quite moonstruck for a while, not least because I had a telephoto zoom lens with me, which can help a bit with the first problem, but not much with the other. I did eventually tire of accommodating the moon's insistence on being included in every shot, however. It really only has the one expression, after all. But somehow you know it's still there, just out of the frame.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Beside the Seaside

Charmouth, December 2017

Over Christmas we were in Dorset and, as I usually do, I visited a bookshop in Bridport, one of very few remaining second-hand and antiquarian bookshops anywhere in the country. It is appropriately named Bridport Old Books, and is at 11 South Street, should you ever be down that way. It always has a wonderful stock – this time, they had a whole shelf of illustrated books by Arthur Rackham, fortunately all far too expensive for me – and I rarely come away without some unexpected treasure tucked under my arm. When the kids were small and we were on a Dorset seaside holiday, a certain Bridport toyshop was their rainy-day treat, and a visit to Bridport Old Books was mine. They may have outgrown the toyshop now – just as well, as it has recently closed – but that bookshop is still high on my to-do list.

Now, although I have generally aspired to be a "never look back" sort of guy, I'm as susceptible to nostalgia as anyone, especially when it takes me by surprise. Which it did, that same day in Bridport Old Books. Actually, "nostalgia" is the wrong word for what I experienced, but I don't know a better one. I'm talking about that rush you get when, after half a lifetime of trying to remember something important from your deep childhood – in my case, inevitably, a book, but it might equally well be a toy, or a picture, or even something off TV – you bump into it, as if it had always been waiting for you to stop by. Hello, old friend! Where have you been?

For many, many years, I have been tantalised by half a memory: a small, narrowly rectangular book, unusually printed in orange, that for some reason seemed like the secret key to some special place where I had been supremely happy. Given the resources now available on the internet, it's generally possible to triangulate a book from the flimsiest of clues; it's also a skill I have refined, professionally, over the years, and I rate myself pretty highly as a "book detective" [1]. But this one has always eluded me, mainly because the clues were so vague; I may even have been pre-literate when I last held it.

But: incredibly and unmistakably, there it was, laid out on a table, in a display of "collectable" children's books. Or, rather, there they were, as there were four of them, all different titles in Enid Blyton's "Mary Mouse" series, published by Brockhampton Press, printed in black line and orange body colour, each about 6" x 2.75", and simply stapled together along the narrow edge, with red linen tape covering the staples, like a cheque-book. It's not often that something so simple and throwaway can give such an intense rush of recognition and pleasure. But that's how it is with nostalgia: it doesn't take a Beethoven quartet to open a magic door onto childhood, merely the chime of an ice-cream van.

However, once I looked inside, I realised that although this was clearly the right format from the right publisher, these were not the right books. "My" book had trains in it, I was pretty sure. Maybe there was another one, "Mary Mouse Goes Trainspotting", perhaps, or "Mary Mouse is Enraged by Rail Privatisation"? Later, a little investigation on Google revealed the existence of another Brockhampton series by illustrator Neville Main [2], concerning Jimmy and His Engines; I'm pretty sure one of those is the secret key to some special place where I was once supremely happy. Unfortunately, that place is in the past, some sixty years ago, and even finding precisely the right key would be useless. "Never look back"? There's nowhere back there to be looking: the lock and the door and the room behind it are long gone.

But I'm happy enough to have caught this intense little flash of my own deep past, like the memory of the waves sparkling on Swanage Bay, in that exciting first glimpse of the sea on the first morning of our summer holidays, walking down to the beach. The title Jimmy at the Seaside did catch my eye... I wonder if that might have been it? It might well have been, but it might equally well have been Jimmy at the Zoo, or Jimmy Goes to a Party, or some other Brockhampton title altogether... But I think this particular tantalising quest has now been satisfied, thanks to Bridport Old Books.

Now: what about that annual bought for me to read in hospital when I had my tonsils removed around 1960, with its story about a giant pterodactyl trapped inside an iceberg that haunted my dreams for years? The truth is out there...

1. Got a book you can't find? Try me!
2. It turns out that in his long career Neville Main drew – among many others  comic strip versions of Muffin the Mule, Four Feather Falls, Fireball XL5, and the original Doctor Who strips. Anyone else remember the puppet version of Four Feather Falls on TV? It was something of a cult at my primary school!

Friday, 19 January 2018

H & M 5

Oh, all right ... Just one more. Then we're done for now.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

H & M 4

I'm going to make this the last instalment of Aitch 'n' Em to be trickled out via the blog for now, for two simple reasons. First, I don't see how anyone will be able to follow what's going on once the frames start getting spread out by regular blog stuff. Second, I'm enjoying this a lot, but I'm aware I'm entering territory with its own well-established "language", one which I barely speak. I can see a visit to Forbidden Planet in my future, and I wish I was in France, where shops specialising in BDs (bandes dessinées) are thicker on the ground, and incredibly well stocked.

In case you haven't twigged – unlikely, if [a] you didn't also grow up in my near neighbourhood, and [b] don't have any interest in Nordic mythology – the basic scenario is that Odin's two ravens, Huginn and Muninn ("thought" and "memory"), have been sent on a mission to [spoiler removed] in the block of council flats where I spent my adolescent years, now sadly demolished (which in architectural terms is the equivalent of being sadly dead). If (a big if) I develop this further, the idea is that these two birds will go on to have further adventures; this may happen quite quickly, as I will shortly run out of flat-related pictures to use.

I may, from time to time, show a choice frame or two on the blog as I learn my trade, and will also make available PDF "books" of any coherent stories that emerge. Meanwhile, here is a rainy Paris seen from the interior of a typical BD shop. Who knows? Maybe Aitch 'n' Em figurines will be on sale there one day (or Ache et Emme, I suppose). Although I must admit I do find these very expensive and purposeless items aimed at adult collectors rather sad, don't you? Even if I were stinking rich, I can't imagine wanting to put my arrested development as a reader on public display like that. Of course, writing the stuff is a very different matter...