Friday, 16 March 2018

Print and Process

For some reason yesterday morning I recalled a brief conversation I had last summer with one of my ex-colleagues, when I had dropped by the university library: she'd said that one of my books would probably be used in a forthcoming exhibition in the Special Collections gallery. As I was in the middle of all the excitement of having two pictures in the 2017 Royal Academy Open Exhibition this didn't make a great impression at the time, but yesterday I wondered: Did that ever happen? If so, I'd better add it to my CV. So I had a look at the Special Collections webpage to get the exhibition details, and was amazed to find that it's on right now, from 1st March to 8th June.

That's an interesting looking cabinet...

Naturally, I wandered over to the library that afternoon to take a look. It turns out it's a very nice exhibition indeed, called Print and Process, basically exploring all the various printing techniques used in art and book production, from woodblock to digital, using prints from the University Art Collection, artist's books from the Winchester School of Art, and various items from the Hartley Library's Special Collections. As it happens, two of my books are on display as exemplars of the digital artist's book (The Colour of the Water and The Revenants, both self-published under my Shepherd's Crown imprint), and it's really quite a privilege to be sharing space with the likes of William Blake and Max Ernst in the vitrines, not to mention Howard Hodgkin and Edward Bawden on the walls, just to drop a few names.

Oh look, The Colour of the Water, my first book!

 And that's The Revenants, my greatest hit...

Wow! Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté, his greatest hit

I have to say this cheered me up no end, as I had also discovered later that same morning that neither of my submissions to this year's Royal Academy Open had made it to the final round. So, it looks like this year's Open is going to be rubbish, then... Well, it is being curated by that ████ [redacted] Grayson Perry. I hope his stupid pots explode in the kiln.

By the way, if the various processes involved in the printing of illustrated matter over the centuries are a subject of interest to you (and how could they not be?) you should try to get hold of a copy of The Printed Picture, by Richard Benson. Sadly, it seems to be out of print now, and used copies are ridiculously expensive (I can't see one under £100), but it is pretty definitive, fascinating reading, and even more beautifully illustrated than you might expect. Also, if you'd like to take a look at (or even buy!) the Blurb incarnations of those two books of mine, full previews are available; The Colour of the Water has evolved into Downward Skies (although I do still have a few copies of the original stapled booklet – contact me by email if you'd like one), but The Revenants is still The Revenants. It's old work now, but still holds up well, I think.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Tallest Short Man & the Shortest Tall Man

A shaky construct

I wrote most of this post some while ago, but concluded I really had nothing to contribute on the subject, and should probably just shut up. Reading it again, it seems more coherent than I had thought at the time and, even if I still have nothing terribly original to say, writing these posts with the awareness and intention that they may be read by others is the best way I have of getting my thoughts in order. I suppose I'm just one of those people who doesn't know what they think until they say it out loud.

So: there was a lot of fuss a while ago about the politics and practicalities of elective identity, or what some might dismiss as the pursuit of wishful thinking. Frankly, I'd never heard of Rachel Dolezal or Caitlyn Jenner before those social media kerfuffles, but the issues their cases raise are interesting and very much of the moment. Attention spans being what they are these days those Twitter storms will have long passed on, but I have a few belated reflections to offer.

When I was an impressionable lad, the two lessons I learned at university from the brightest, most forward-thinking people I knew (which, it has to be said, didn't include any of the actual teaching faculty) were these:

First, in addition to social class, that one of the main enemies of progress is essentialism i.e. the insistence that any person has a "natural" essence which is generally derived from their biology – particularly gender, race, or sexual orientation (though as a short left-handed person I always wanted to add height and handedness...) – which determines who they are and what they are capable of. Those of a conservative, reactionary cast of mind really like essentialism in the same way they really like class, not least because of the way that, put together, they explain and justify the existing order of society, with the "natural" result that the right people (them) come out on top, for all the right "natural" reasons.

Second, that most, if not all, of these so-called essential qualities are actually as much social constructs as social class itself i.e. they have been invented by humans, generally by imposing rigid frameworks of categorisation onto fluid, complex realities. These categories get embedded into a society's way of doing things, generally giving a significant power advantage to one constituency in its relations with all the others. The job of ideology is to disguise this constructedness, and make the categories and power relationships seem, again, "natural" or, even better, invisible. But, being social constructs, they can be changed by society, given the will, generally by some political means aimed at redressing the imbalance. Thus, just as trade unions give workers collective strength in negotiations with employers, so legislation can make discrimination on various grounds not just bad manners but illegal. Impossible?  No!  Ideological...*

Simple! In fact, although these ideas can be (and often are) dressed up in some truly appalling, impenetrable academic jargon, they amount to little more than debating the scope of "nature vs. nurture", which anyone can understand, combined with a fair-minded and democratic rejection of "making generalizations about" or hanging limiting labels on people. Even those people we find odd, baffling, or even distasteful (Conservative voters, for example).

However, a more extreme version of these arguments seems to have evolved in subsequent years, an explosive combination of some Frenchified academic prestidigitation, an assertive politics of identity, and a trans movement which has taken to its extreme logical conclusion the idea that "biology is not destiny". Now, obviously, if the idea of, say, race is really a construct, then we can and should arrange society in such a way that superficial characteristics such as skin colour are never an impediment to equitable treatment. But the new, extreme position goes further. If a category does not exist essentially, then it does not really exist at all: a person's race is nothing more than an arbitrary label imposed on them by society, and thus – in the most controversial version, that reverses this logic – a matter of choice.

Ah. You don't have to be James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates to see that we have a problem here with the dodgy use of words like "real" and "choice". There is a fallacy here. You can no more choose to be white than I can choose to be tall. (Yet, anyway; who knows what consumer choices lie ahead for humanity?) Race and height may be constructed categories, but to grow up black within a white majority society is a real social fact, and is an experience and a heritage that cannot be faked, bought, or appropriated at will. Well, that's not quite true: the long history of white appropriation of black culture is both hypocritical (my, how beautifully you express your oppression by me!) and piratical (gimme!). But, hey, it's what we do best.

But there is an obvious contradiction here. Do races exist, or don't they? I suppose the answer is that they both do and they don't, like any category. Once created, however arbitrary, a category has real-world effects. In a variation of Parkinson's law, consciousness shrinks to fit the boxes it finds itself in. Take height. What if there was a simple medical procedure  – a pill, say – that would transform your physical appearance overnight?  Go to bed short, wake up tall. Yay! But would you then be tall, in anything but a superficial sense? No matter how much you'd always wanted to be tall, or resented the oppression of tall people? Of course you wouldn't. Your entire physical and social being would have been formed as a "short" person. It would take a complete recalibration over many years to acquire the self-image, reflexes, and attitudes – not all of them positive – that go with a significantly different height, even though this is theoretically merely another random point on the same spectrum. How much more complex, then, if a similar pill could transform one from white to black, or black to white?

Which brings us to gender. Cards on the table: I am a straight, white, grey-bearded male who, despite left-libertarian leanings and a complete commitment to gender equality, finds recent developments on the LGBT scene much more challenging than younger folk do. Which is probably exactly as it should be. Men of my generation were brought up by fathers who feared and did their best to eliminate any signs of gender-wobbliness in their sons. We may have gone on to grow our hair long and flirt with androgyny, but – as any woman or homosexual man who grew up in those years will tell you – this had considerably more to do with male peacockery than feminism or gay rights. But I'm afraid my comfort zone was set in those years, and does not include anything that involves piercings, tattoos, elective surgery, ostentatiously transgressive sex, or even rather too much pink. I concede that I am now, sad to say, The Man. But then so are Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.

But life, lived properly, is not all about comfort zones. I also happen to have a good friend in the States with a trans-gender child, whom I met last summer for the first time in 15 years, and who had recently undergone gender reassignment. The levels of courage and commitment involved in that – not to mention self-knowledge and sheer, determined optimism  – are not to be dismissed lightly. There is nothing frivolous about it. I was impressed, and felt my ready-made opinions shifting.

Sure, everything I have written above still applies. I just don't know how a wannabe trans-gendered male can ever really identify as a woman, for example, without first having been brought up as a girl; my sympathy is with those feminists of my generation who resent and resist the self-declaration of former "men" as "women", only to find themselves "no platformed" at universities by virtue-signalling zealots. So much for sisterhood! But here we are adrift in that liminal territory where "identity" and "essence" and "biology" and "social construct" and "ideology" all overlap confusingly. And it's hard for us older folks to understand why gender fluidity has become a chosen battleground for so many young people who are, presumably, personally unaffected by the issues. Although I suppose it's not so very different from all the privately-educated radicals from wealthy families agitating for proletarian revolution in our day.

Besides, it's really none of my business. In the end it is the realities we make for ourselves and our contribution to what we might grandly call the Human Project that really matter. My life has been straightforward: pretty much every step along the way has been signposted, approved, supported, and rewarded. Even allowing for my class origins, my height, my handedness, my introversion, my lack of interest in sports, and a certain indefinable arty oddness, as a straight white male I have only rarely felt the sting of rejection or systematic exclusion simply because of who or what I am. Others will have had quite the opposite experience in their lives, whether because of race, gender, disability, or some acute internal hurt or confusion that does not yet have a name. Why on earth should my comfort zone take precedence over theirs, and why would I feel entitled to sit in judgement over them, simply because of who and what I am?

Though I have to say that I'm still not comfortable around those Conservative voters. Especially the tall ones. What is their problem?

A male spectrum, plus outlier...

* Sorry, but I will never tire of that idiotic joke.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Be Here Now

Q: The first ten years of rock songwriters were students of the music that came before – but from about 1970 on, all the new rockers knew was rock, maybe a little blues. What was lost?
From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too – they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside. I don’t think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it’s out of your clutches – you can still find what you’re looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it – anything is possible. Trouble is, you can’t bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about.
Bob Dylan in interview with Bill Flanagan
As the venerable joke has it: Nostalgia... It's not what it was. But then, nothing ever is what it used to be, is it? Personally, I've always tried to resist the impulse to dwell on the past, but advancing age seems to bring with it a tendency to reflect on your earlier selves and to construct something like a narrative out of the accidents and contingencies of a single life, your walk-on part in a cast of millions. It's especially easy to slip into when you were born at a propitious time and had some moderately colourful adventures in your youthful years. A bit of flattering lighting, and with the grim and forgettably routine bits edited out, and your little pleasures, interests, ups, downs, and sadnesses can seem significant. I was there! Well, of course you were, idiot; where else might you have been?

Recently, I've been reading A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant, an account of the rise and fall of British counterculture, as embodied in the life of one man, Bob Rowberry, who actually does seem to have been present at or responsible for a surprising number of its key moments. The subject matter aside, I was also drawn to the book because Ian is based in Presteigne and Bob lives in a van in a wood near Llandegly, which, as regular readers will know, is the precise area of our annual Easter visit to mid-Wales, a pilgrimage we have been making for over 40 years now. In fact, we'll be heading up there in just a few weeks. Obviously, there's a lot of personal history embodied in those places for us now but, oddly, from the very beginning it had always seemed like a place where various pasts and roads-not-taken, personal and otherwise, were still hanging around, waiting to be revisited.

Which – contrary to Bob Dylan's quoted view above – is an illusion. The past is gone, and any remnants of it will have been changed utterly. I think I must have described before that fantasy that many of us seem to nurture, that somewhere there is a bar, or a café, or a common room where friends from our past are still sitting around, just like they always used to, into which we will one day stroll, after the passage of 30, 40, 50 years, and spend a pleasant evening catching up. So, how was your life? Except, these fantasy friends have had no lives, in your imagining, they have been in limbo, eternally frozen in time and waiting on your return, like the figures on Keats's Grecian urn.

I had a graphic demonstration of this recently. I have a very old friend from my schooldays, someone I've been exchanging emails with for some time, but whom I haven't actually met for something over 35 years. I was in London and walking through the South Bank when I heard someone call my name. I looked, but didn't know the luxuriantly-bearded geezer sitting on a wall eating a curry. When he called again, I walked over and demanded to know who he was and how it was he knew me. As you will have guessed, it turned out to be my very old friend; I simply couldn't recognise the fresh-faced lad I knew, the one whose features were still animating his emails in my mind, in the time-weathered figure in front of me. To be honest, I'm slightly amazed he recognised me; it's not as if I haven't changed a fair bit, too. It must have been the walk. The next day, I apologized by email for not having recognised him. Being the joker he is, he admitted it was very tempting to reply, "WTF are you talking about? I was never in London that day!"

It's probably a cliché, but true nonetheless, that all old people gradually become exiles, living further and further away from the country they knew in their younger days. Buildings and streets have come and gone; friends and relatives have vanished into the solipsism of age; they no longer even speak the language like natives. Time changes everything, and the face we see in the mirror is not the face we are remembered by. I'm beginning to suspect it's not even the face we think we see there. So, sorry, Bob, you're wrong: there is no trail back, and, to be honest, I'm very glad there isn't, or too many of us would be finding our way back there, and getting stuck in our personal limbo, clinging on to whatever precious dead things we think we left back there. No; as we used to say back then: be here now.

Shadow Factories

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

What Is Meta For?

I suppose it's pretty obvious, really, but it is remarkable how the arrival of a new word (or the repurposing of an old word) can consolidate previously fuzzy and provisional areas of thought into something so convenient and easy to handle that it quickly becomes a well-worn cliché. I remember one of my fellow sixth-formers around 1971 describing his negative reaction to reading hyper-literary writers like Borges or Pynchon. He said, "It's as if this book is carrying a big sign round its neck saying HEY, READER! I AM NOT REAL! I AM JUST A NOVEL!" At the time, I thought this one of the cleverest, most astute observations I had ever heard. Which, actually, it was. Nowadays, of course, he'd simply have said, "well, it's all a bit too meta", and we'd have quickly gone back to talking about girls and music.

It may have taken several decades to get to this point, but pretty much everyone now knows what "meta" means, and can recognise it when they encounter it (although, regrettably, this has not meant that we have stopped seeing books carrying a big sign saying "I AM JUST A NOVEL!"). Such a word, once established and even if widely misunderstood, democratises thought, and resets the limits of what can easily be thought about. My friend's observation in 1971 was the result of real thought and genuine insight, expressed in a vivid way. But if a 17-year-old reads Borges today and declares, "Meh, it's too meta for me!", that barely nudges the thinkometer needle. We have moved on.

Similarly, pretty much everybody now accepts some version of cultural relativism as self-evident. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any social or cultural issue; certainly, all knowledge is a construct; obviously everything depends on where you stand, who you are, and where you come from: it stands to reason. And so say even quite conservative commentators, who definitely weren't saying that not so long ago. With all due respect to proverbial wisdom, it turns out that what's sauce for the goose may well not be sauce for the gander. Who knew? Other than habitual gander-eaters, obviously. Why they have kept silent about this over the centuries is an interesting question.

When it comes to relativism there are differences of opinion, of course, even among those in the habit of thinking carefully about things – it wouldn't be relativism if there weren't, would it? – but there are also real problems of misunderstanding and misapplication as the broad-brush concepts get taken up by those who are, um, not in the habit. It's a problem, surely, when a sophisticated and nuanced relativism gets vulgarised into a reflex mistrust of so-called, self-styled experts: "Antibiotics? Inoculation? That's just your opinion, doctor! I demand herbal homeopathy!" And quite how vigorously the more exotic outliers of, say, identity politics may have been wagging the statistical dog (the one that answers to the name of Oddly Normal) is a fraught question. Clearly, when it comes down to it, no single person is ever completely "normal" [1], although – looked at through the other end of the telescope – that is exactly what most people, by definition, are. Paradox! Speaking as a left-handed short man with impaired hearing and anosmia, not to mention a strongly bibliophile orientation and extreme social-mobility trajectory issues, I think society still has a long way to go before my personal cluster of identities have been satisfactorily addressed. Why handedness is not at least as urgent an issue as sexual orientation is a mystery to me: how dare you presume I'm right-handed!

That matters that were once the subject of postgraduate seminars or exclusive to certain secretive subcultures can become the commonplaces of coffee-bar chatter only really becomes possible when the right words escape into the wild from the realms of jargon and slang, and either find a match with some new perception emerging in the collective public mind, or create an unanticipated new niche for themselves. The internet, by enabling us to eavesdrop on so many previously private conversations, has accelerated this process, ensuring a steady flow of linguistic novelties and their associated ideas into common parlance. Sex is an obvious example. I'd bet most people didn't even know [censored] was a thing before about 1980, much less something they might be tempted to try. Once the word is out there, however, previously unexpressed desires can quickly find a local habitation and a name. I admit I felt obliged to look up [censored again – where do you find this filth? Ed.] when I read the word for the first time last week. Blimey. It seems I'm still more innocent than I thought [2].

Art – and mainly literature, and in particular poetry – is the place where the nascent and not-yet-named most often get their first exploratory outings, triangulated by such indirect means as sound, rhythm, and metaphor. Through poetry individuals with especially acute antennae can tentatively grope their way towards something strongly felt but as yet unknown, bouncing language around the way a bat uses echo-location to "see" in the dark. That's almost a definition of what I would regard as "serious" poetry, as practised today by, say, Alice Oswald. You might say that the poet is engaged in a more sophisticated, self-motivated version of what you do when the doctor asks you to describe a pain, or the nature of your tinnitus. You know exactly how it feels or how it sounds – of course you do – but the available words are not a close enough match with your experience. You want to share with the doctor exactly how it feels, to communicate; it seems important.

But what comparisons can you reach for that capture the precise qualities of the various ringings and buzzings you hear, at different times, in different contexts, with your head held in various different positions? The steady background hum of a desktop PC? An overworked fridge on a hot day? A roadside field of crickets in August in southwest France? An idling motor on the street – probably a diesel van? – heard through the muffling and distorting extractor-fan vent in the downstairs toilet? Perhaps "that terrible screaming all around, which is customarily called silence?"[3] But I have learned that these are not questions that should be opened and mused upon in a medical context, that the consulting room is not a place for poetry, not unless you want some cruel and possibly compromising annotations to be made in your file. Too meta by half... "Intermittent buzzing" or "continual ringing" will do, you ridiculous hyper-literary hypochondriac.

1. There is the famous example of the US airforce jet cockpit designed to match "average" pilot dimensions, measurements which, it turned out, no single pilot possessed, and which were therefore leading to crashes and sub-optimal pilot performance. If you don't know about this, google "average pilot cockpit".

2. I was made acutely aware of the limits of my erotic universe when in 1973 a worldly-wise friend at university described to me what was going on in the gay clubs of New York at the time. They do what?? Good grief...

3, Part of a quotation from Büchner's play "Woyzek", displayed on screen at the start of Werner Herzog's film "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser". Trust me, never get literary with a doctor.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Beast from the East

We don't get a lot of snow down here on the Solent, so a proper wintry blast from some door left open in Eastern Europe is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it totally messes with the transport network. Had my partner not wisely decided to stay at home, the train she would have taken back from Waterloo broke down halfway back, and the passengers had to spend the night on board, with no food, heat, or lighting. Similarly, travellers on the New Forest's A31 were stuck overnight in their cars, because of jack-knifed lorries blocking the route both ways. And my daughter has been forced to spend an extra day and a half in Amsterdam with her boyfriend, all at the expense of EasyJet, because of a cancelled flight. It's tough all over.

On the other hand, what better way to have some fun, say, than to get an unusual photographic angle on some familiar landscapes? Or, for the young and reckless with their unbreakable bodies, sliding down any available slope on an improvised sledge? I particularly enjoyed the ironic juxtaposition of the artificial ski-slope in the Sports Centre – still in action, with its clanking ski-lift – with the surrounding acres of real snow, swarming with whooping snowboarders and sledgers.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Silly Old Stupid

Leaves from Mr. Hatt's Marvellous Miscellany

I have done quite a few stupid things in my life – at least three times I have come within a whisker of killing myself, including nearly walking off a cliff in Majorca in a sun-induced daze – but I think it's the stupid things I've said that really make me cringe. There have been rather more of those, too, and for some reason they tended to occur at work.

One gem of embarrassment that I recall quite frequently occurred while I was giving some induction training to a new recruit. She had never heard of the 80:20 rule, perhaps the most useful analytical rule of thumb I know. You know the sort of thing: 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the population, 80% of library loans are generated by 20% of the stock, and so on. It's not so much a rule of thumb as a profound insight into the workings of society, the universe, and everything.

Anyway, this keenly attentive young lady was duly impressed. Which is always a trap for the susceptible middle-aged man; I should have sensed the danger. But, like a true fool, I began to improvise upon this idea of proportions. Yes, I said, it's interesting, how certain proportions keep coming up when you analyse stuff. There's 50:50, of course, and 60:40. As well as 80:20 I quite often see 70:30, and occasionally 90:10... At which point, I realised I had covered the entire range of possibilities without adding anything by way of insight and hurried on to the next topic.

Then there was the period when, raising small children, I had trained myself not to swear by substituting nursery equivalents, using gritted-teeth endearments in extremis like "sweetheart" and "darling" (as in, "Put my silly old camera down, sweetheart, before you break it!"). I found this started to bleed over into my work life, however, which could get acutely embarrassing when, squashing annoyance, I began to sound like some theatrical luvvie: "You've entered the wrong code again, my darling! That's why your silly old terminal has frozen!" What a relief it was when my kids started to swear like troopers themselves, and I could finally uncork. Fucking hell! Although, it has to be said, this was not so much of a relief for my staff.

Sometimes, though, it can seem as if "stupid" and "embarrassing" have been brought explosively together by some internal, malevolent imp that lives, like a comedian of genius, one beat ahead of the action. Once, in front of a visiting class of 12-year-old schoolchildren, I carefully spelled out "DICK,HARD" on a computer screen, proudly showing off how our new library system could find any book, just by entering the first four letters of the title and the author's name. I have no idea what made me choose Hard Times by Charles Dickens on the spur of the moment. I hadn't even read the damn thing; still haven't. But, what? What's so funny?? Ah!  Ff... Heh... Silly old me!

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A Magic Shadow-Show

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
Now, that's the way to open a poem, isn't it? A noose of light! Words well worth memorizing, words to declaim at suitable (and unsuitable) moments, sound-patterns and word-pictures that roll off the tongue and embed themselves permanently in the mind. But, somewhere along the line, someone decided that because the world is often drab, disillusioned, and prosaic then "good" poetry ought to be like that, too. Which is a shame: it seems we're too sophisticated and worldly-wise today to make the effort to put heightened language in a worthy stage-setting.

Like millions of others, I have enjoyed Edward FitzGerald's rendering of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam since first encountering it, in my case as a teenager in a cheap paperback reprint with the ink-sketch illustrations by E.J. Sullivan reproduced very inkily indeed. And yet, like a lot of very popular things, the poem has had a low profile, academically, and I doubt it even counts as a "guilty pleasure" for most professional critics; they simply won't have read it, or won't admit to having enjoyed reading it.

It seems to have been the equivalent of Coleman Barks' renderings of Rumi in its day. That is, a massively popular blend of accessible-yet-contemporary verse with the vague-yet-visceral teachings of the more relaxed, mystical strain of Islam found in Persia and other non-Arab parts of the Islamic world, generally trading under the name Sufism. "Persia" of the 11th and 12th centuries is not modern Iran, of course; while we in the north-west were struggling out of the Dark Ages the Middle East was having its great flourishing of science, architecture, and poetry. I am not remotely qualified to comment on any of this, however, unlike an old college friend, who has turned into one of those improbable characters that populate the TV series Inspector Morse [1], and is now a Professor of the Art & Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean. As far as I know, he has not murdered or been murdered by anyone, but if Morse, Endeavour, and Lewis are to be believed [2], it is only a matter of time. It has been a while since I heard from him, it's true.

What I can safely say, however, is that the Rubaiyat has attracted some of the worst illustrations of any text, ever. Back in the 1970s, when I first started to haunt them, second-hand bookshops were still full of the cast-offs from the domestic bookshelves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain texts were particularly abundant, and would appear in multiple versions, sometimes in lavishly-bound "gift" editions (there was a peculiar taste for limp suede bindings at the turn of the century, for example). Often there would be illustrative plates, and in the case of the Rubaiyat, these were uniformly awful, generally sub-art nouveau or Beardsley-esque exercises in pure turbanned and pointy-slippered orientalism, that must have reduced someone like Edward Said to a perfect ecstasy of vexation (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had been a secret Rubaiyat collector, taking a peek every now and then to top up the level of his outrage). Even Arthur Rackham's version is unspeakably bad. I believe there have been something like 300 illustrated editions of the FitzGerald version, and I have yet to see one that didn't make me want to throw it across the room. Not out of any anti-orientalist discomfiture, but out of revulsion at the vein of twee sentimentality most illustrators seem bent on extracting from this Epicurean text. But, no thanks, I'm not intending to have a go at it myself.

By far the rarest edition of  The Grate Booke of Idiocie, 1564
(much rebound)

Second-hand bookshops, though? I have mourned their vanishing from our High Streets before (Book Abuse), but an aspect I hadn't considered is the way this limits a young person's view of the bibliographic past. Once, if you were a bookish type, and had the good fortune to live near a decent second-hand bookshop – one that covered the spectrum from well-read paperbacks to antiquarian rarities – you could form a pretty fair impression of the changing tastes of your forebears in both reading matter and in the various manners in which it could be presented. As in so many ways, my generation was poised at the tipping point between two worlds: one which had valued self-education through the medium of books (and, let's be honest, no other kind of education was on offer to most before 1945) and made inexpensive but robust hardbound editions of "classics" from the approved canon available to the mass market (think Everyman's Library, or Oxford World's Classics), and another which increasingly viewed books as a disposable medium for entertainment, like TV's dull-but-worthy older brother, competing ever more desperately yet unsuccessfully for attention. You could see all this bibliographic history arrayed before you on the shelves, in a full range of sizes, print-quality, and bindings, all aimed at attracting their different readers: centuries-old leather tomes, cheap pamphlets on brittle paper, gold-embossed full-cloth works of reference, novels wrapped in the distinctive dustjacket designs of earlier generations [3], not to mention the luridly erotic paperback cover-illustrations in the "three for a shilling" trays outside. To browse and handle the stock was to receive an education in literary and bibliographic taste, good and bad, and its close relationship with standards of education and the evolving mechanics of book production. As well as the occasional surprise, like the set of Edwardian pornographic photographs that fell out of a very well-thumbed edition of Swinburne in Thornton's, Oxford in 1973.

Now, sadly, the good local second-hand bookshop is yet another of those experiences that belongs to the past, and will most likely stay there. An online bookseller is simply no substitute. I was in Bristol over the weekend, and I was reminded of how, when I worked at the University Library in the late 1970s, a couple of times each week I would make a lunchtime circuit between three or four used-book outlets within a few hundred yards of each other near the University, ranging from the grand academic emporium of George's Bookshop (now a Jamie's Italian restaurant) to an upstairs treasure-trove of boxes and improvised shelves in a leaky loft above a shop on The Triangle. Today the only bookshop of any sort near the university is a tiny Oxfam charity shop, and nearly everything it has postdates the 1980s. You can learn nothing of bibliographic interest from this sad collection of chuck-outs other than that books are no longer a highly-regarded resource. Even (whisper it) by many libraries. A collection of e-books, of course, will leave not a rack behind, when the owner's little life is rounded with a sleep, and the house is cleared. Those texts are merely rented.

And yet, as it happens, the Oxfam Bookshop in Bristol's Clifton Village is one of our habitual visits when in town. After a mandatory takeaway sausage-and-fried-onion bap from Clifton Deli – they are so good, believe me – we generally wander in to see what has turned up since our previous visit. For a charity shop it's unusually well-sourced (lots of hardback review copies and a steady supply of poetry, for example) and we usually end up coming away with a few worthwhile purchases. Last time, I found hardback first editions of Geoffrey Hill's Tenebrae and Seamus Heaney's Field Work; not valuable, but much more satisfying to read than a paperback "selected". This time, I bought an Oxford World's Classics anthology of Modern Verse 1900-1950, full of the sort of rhymed, rhythmic poetry that has gone the way of tweed jackets and pipe-smoking. I'm reasonably well-informed about 20th century British poets, at least so I thought, but had never heard of most of the "thirty younger poets" thought worthy of being added, in 1955, to the enlarged second edition of an Oxford University Press anthology originally published in 1940. Sidney Keyes? Harry Leonard Shorto? Derek Stanford? Nicholas Moore? Michael Greening? And so on. All, in Browning's phrase, people of importance in their day, but distinctly minor also-rans as seen from 2018. But, as a fan of the Rubaiyat, I thought I'd give them a second chance. Why not, for £1.99?
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

1. I'm not sure whether Inspector Morse is known outside of the UK. Based on detective novels by Colin Dexter, as a TV series it pioneered the middle-brow, 100-minute-episode police drama with high production values, but became slightly notorious for portraying Oxford as the murder capital of Britain, with yet another academic or student dying and/or murdering another academic or student under bizarre circumstances every week.
2. "Endeavour" was the prequel series to Morse, and "Lewis" was its sequel, featuring Morse's Geordie sidekick, Sgt. Robbie Lewis. I'm a fan of "Endeavour", with its excellent attention to early Postwar period detail.
3. My birthday treat to myself this year was "The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970", by Martin Salisbury, a lovely production from Thames & Hudson that I found in the National Portrait Gallery bookshop.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Travellin' Light

OK, sorry about this: photo-gear post alert.

I know, I know... You really don't care about the means, just the end results, and you don't come here for annoying techie chit-chat (well, you must be rather disappointed if you do; listen, why not go and help Mike Johnston with his tedious GAS issues? Jesus...). But, as this is kind of an anti-gear gear-post, you can probably safely read on without compromising your standards too much. Although you may equally well be one of the 50% or so of my honoured guests who come here for the craic and the crows, not the photography. In which case, nothing to see here today, move on. Come back later.

I've just been clearing out a bunch of unused kit, mainly lenses, and shipping it up to Ffordes Photographic near Inverness to sell on (whom I recommend, by the way). It's slightly shaming, the way expensive bits and pieces can accumulate, bought during various short-lived enthusiasms, and end up unused in a cupboard; and I'm not even a compulsive kit-buyer. Despite tooling up at some point in the past, I never did get into macro-photography, or pinhole / Holga / LensBaby distortions, for example, and I abandoned the micro 4/3rds system pretty much permanently once I discovered the joy of X (Fuji's system). It's silly to hold on to those remnants of personal evolutionary dead-ends, especially when they're worth a few quid and could be of serious use to someone else.

But, in the process, I came across my Fuji X-M1 body, patiently sitting in a corner. Now, I originally bought it, second-hand and absurdly cheap, because it uses the same X-system lenses and batteries as my main cameras, has the exact same 16 megapixel sensor, but is tiny and light, especially when coupled with the 27mm f/2.8 "pancake" lens. Despite the lack of a viewfinder, I thought it would make an ideal travel camera, and was impressed by the quality of the images the combination of that body and that lens delivered, effortlessly. Put it on "auto" and simply fire away; every one a coconut. However, despite that,  I don't think I've used it since returning from our trip to Amsterdam in February 2015.

Why not? Well, unless you're on some kind of prime-lens hairshirt mission (which I have been, admittedly, from time to time) you really want a standard zoom when you're travelling (OK, when you're on holiday, let's bring things down to a sensible level). But, attach one of those to the X-M1, and all its advantages evaporate. Suddenly, despite its image quality, it's just a plasticky attachment on a big, heavy metal lens, without a viewfinder. Even the "cheap" XC 16-50 zoom (originally created, I think, as the XM-1's "kit zoom", and actually a fine lens) is rather too chunky. So I ended up buying a used Fuji X20, despite its much smaller sensor and ridiculous "optical" viewfinder, and happily accepted its "good enough" image quality as a holiday camera. The X-M1 had therefore lost its primary purpose, and ended up in the cupboard next to the Panasonic micro 4/3 stuff.

But recently Fuji have announced a "pancake" 15-45 zoom, which – if the specifications are to be believed – will be no larger and not a lot heavier than the 27mm pancake with a lens hood attached. So, rather than send the X-M1 body up to Ffordes with the rest of the unused equipment, I thought I'd hang on to it for now. If the new zoom really is that small, and the optical quality is up to Fuji's customary standards, it would make an ideal holiday combination. I very rarely buy new stuff, but just one of the more heavyweight lenses I'm selling on would pay for two of these new mini-zooms.

Also, I think I'm finally over the idea that a camera without a viewfinder is less than ideal. More and more, I find myself using the rear screen to compose, even when using a camera like the X-T1, with its superb electronic viewfinder. Not least because, being left-eyed, I have always had a problem with jamming my right-hand's thumb-knuckle into my right eye when using a viewfinder (try it), with resultant blurry vision after any lengthy squinting. I suspect the day when I could even be persuaded that a smartphone is an acceptable substitute for a camera may not be so very far away. We're not there yet, but the direction of travel (the holiday destination?) is obvious. I can't possibly afford or justify a current top-end smartphone, but give it a few years and everyone will be walking around with a pocket Hasselblad that also tells you the weather forecast and plays music.

So I took the X-M1 out for a couple of walks with the 27mm attached (I love that lens), and was once again mightily impressed by the quality of the images. As a piece of equipment, the body may feel plasticky and insubstantial, and it may be all of five years old, but there is really nothing to distinguish the photographs you see here from those taken with my X-T1; absolutely nothing. Besides, other than the 100g saving in weight, there is the crucial difference – especially when hanging around touristy places – between brandishing an aggressively professional-looking black camera with a heavy, expensive-looking lens and the invisibility granted by walking around with what looks like a charity-store remnant from the last days of film hanging round your neck. A few bits of duck-tape and, voilà, one-two-three, where's your breakfast? [1]

OK, that's quite enough about gear. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

1. See Kipling's Just-So story, "How the Leopard Got His Spots".

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ice-Burner Saga

The Hearth of Ice

In a tale told long ago, while winter winds blew bitterly cold, and the snow lay deep and crisp and even, and good children were already fast asleep, it is said there was once a hearth in a hall that burned with a cold, cold fire, kept heaped with glowing ice by unseen elvish hands. Which is pretty damned weird, even for a fairy tale.

Yes, yes, I know: why would anyone want a cold fire? And, sure, generally speaking, ice doesn't burn. Absolutely, undeniably true. But, suspend your disbelief, and stop fidgeting, and I'll tell you the story. Or some of it, anyway, as it's really time you were asleep. All will become clear. Clear as the pure, crystal ice of the far frozen north, where the Northern Lights play over the ceiling of the world like, um, the gods have left the fridge door open, or something.  Brrrr...

[Notes from Editor: Is this a story for children? If so, I think you should moderate the language? Just a bit? And must they be ravens, or crows, or whatever they are? Rather scary, I feel... Robins would be nicer! Or – here's a thought – what about cats? Everyone loves cats, and cat stories sell! Oh, and the publisher says that anything to do with matches is simply verboten where kiddies are concerned... I know, but... Other than that, it's simply marvellous!]

Uh oh! I think that's Old One-Eye, the Dangling Man, Frigg's Delight, Lord of the Fjord, Raven Ripper, Beard-Needs-a-Trim, Yule Fool, Skin-Smith, and many other evasive-but-chillingly-evocative pseudonyms! Now there's going to be trouble!

What's "flayed", daddy?
Um, skinned alive, darlin'...
Oooh, gru-u-uesomely grisly!
I know, and it gets even better, but I'm afraid that's all we've got time for. Lights out, now... Sleep well! Sweet dreams!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Drake's Drum

Fifty-five years ago young boys in Britain still routinely wore shorts, year round – grey flannel in winter, khaki in summer – until that rite of passage into adolescence when they donned their first "long trousers". This didn't happen simultaneously in any particular cohort – there was no mass re-bagging ceremony – but case by case. The first year classes at secondary school would start with mainly bare knees and gradually transform. It was a personal metamorphosis that required tact and good judgement: made too soon or left too late and you would risk mockery. Then again, you risked mockery for pretty much anything that marked you out as odd. The playground police never sleep.

Inevitably, this important sartorial transition was closely associated with that physiological change in the adolescent male known as the voice "breaking". For some boys this can be a rough ride, getting pitched unpredictably and treacherously from high to low from one end of an utterance to the other; a golden opportunity for more mockery. I was spared this torment, myself: never having really occupied the glass-pure treble register, my voice didn't so much break as erode into a sandy light tenor, where it has stuck ever since. Unless I have a bit of a cold, when I am gifted with an octave drop in vocal range, which is always fun until over-exploitation renders me completely voiceless.

A few years ago, on holiday in the Pyrenees, I had a summer cold, and kept catching myself singing "On the Road to Mandalay", in a ridiculous faux-baritone voice. Or, at least, as much of it as I could remember. The blog post I wrote at the time (Mandalay) linked Kipling, the popular music of the Time Before Rock, and various other themes I have often returned to in this blog. It's a good piece of writing and, re-reading it, I suspect there may have been a falling-off in standards around here in recent times. Although I think we all experience this sensation any time we look at some piece of our own work which is old enough to be seen objectively; that is, as if it had been made by someone else. Hey, he's pretty good! Whatever happened to that guy?

It happened again a while ago, around New Year. The voice, I mean. This time, it was fragments of another song that entertained me, one which had an even trickier tune than "Mandalay", but suited the growly register.  "Slung a'tween the roundshot, in Something Something Bay"... "Captain, art thou sleeping there belo-o-ow..." But why did I even know this song? "Drake's Drum", wasn't it? Then a memory rose up from the depths, of a hand-written, blue-duplicated song sheet, with "captain" spelled "capten", immediately followed by an even stronger memory of my fourth-year class lined up, each of us with a hand held out, while a furious gowned figure went down the line, whacking each extended palm with a ruler. It may sound terrifying, but nothing is more gratifying to a class of boys than a mass punishment for some individual's witty, well-timed transgression, owned collectively. I am Spartacus! No, I am Spartacus! Or, more likely, Fartacus in this case. The energy from the suppressed giggles could have powered all the lights in every classroom for a week.

Well, it was asking for trouble, expecting us to sing these stupid old songs. I think the idea was that they would be as familiar to us as they were to our more elderly teachers but, for boys born in 1954, they were as utterly alien as the oeuvre of Noël Coward or Gracie Fields. It was the same when I tried to learn the trumpet at school: the peripatetic music teacher assumed a tune like "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" would be as familiar as, say, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep", and thus act as an aid to reading musical notation. Wrong! Few things expose the gulf between generations as radically as the failure to find common musical ground. I expect there are teachers today amazed at the ignorance of a class that has never heard or even heard of Bob Dylan or the Beatles, and couldn't care less about their stupid old songs. Happily, they are now banned from beating children with rulers on that account.

In my time, however, the real generational gulf that was exposed was the idea that you could appeal to intelligent boys through wholesome, boy-scoutish stuff, whether it was songs about the likes of Francis Drake, tales of derring-do in the Empire, or even compulsory participation in team games every Wednesday afternoon. To the dismay of our elders, many of us had gone over to the dark side, and despised and mocked the tropes of manly fortitude. We found hilarity, not inspiration, in the very things that had stirred the would-be hearts of oak of previous adolescent generations. Our sympathy was for the Devil, it seemed; we rooted for the indians and not the cowboys, and took more pleasure in dumb insolence than in due deference.

It was partly, but by no means wholly, a class thing. A very old grammar school in a very small town on the Great North Road, one that had educated the boys of the local squirearchy for generations, had been overwhelmed by the building of a New Town and the much larger numbers of children from its newly deracinated working-class inhabitants, admitted purely by academic ability, not ability to pay. But, like so many such schools absorbed into the state system, it had also been confused by the social upheavals that followed WW2, further exacerbated by the change to comprehensive, non-selective schooling, which was happening during my secondary years. Suddenly, no-one was singing from the same songsheet any more, because no-one on any side – government or staff or pupils or parents – could agree what the song was supposed to be.

Most parents, however, were pretty sure that Drake's Drum, should it ever be beaten again, would simply mean more slaughter and pain for the many, yet again dressed up as national "sacrifice", and we weren't having that song again, now were we? And you might say the clatter of Keith Moon's much-abused kit was the ragged opening drum-roll of a whole new attitude among the young. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won't get fooled again.

But, no, these four pictures have absolutely no connection whatsoever with the ramblings above. I'm still just having fun with the Sketchbooks project, and felt like sharing a few more. There's no better way of exploring the potential of Photoshop [1] than to take some pencilled scribbles and then to see what can be done with them. Which is clearly rather more like making jewellery out of polished pebbles picked up on the beach than kicking your drums off the stage. But at my age, a few more steps back into the place where the light is brightest may not be a bad move.

1. The cut-down Photoshop Elements 10, in my case  I'm too tight-fisted to pay for the whole thing, and besides there is absolutely no way I'm going to sign up for Adobe's inertia-selling subscription model.

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...