Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Blue Suburban Skies


Hill Lane

On some days, the light, the weather, and my mood find a perfect alignment, and pictures are everywhere I look. Luckily, this camera [1] was in the right mood, too. Trust me, cameras are capricious devils, and may decide not to be co-operative on the nicest of days. Half of the art of photography, IMHO, is keeping your cameras sweet, which – assuming you have more than one (polycamerous?) – means taking each of them out regularly, in an equitable rotation. They notice these things, cameras, and are prone to sulking.

Pewsey Place

Such blue, suburban skies... Now, if forced to choose a side of that peak-Beatles double-A-sided single of 1967, my preference would always be for "Strawberry Fields", but whenever I hear the piccolo trumpet solos on "Penny Lane" I am transported back to the summer months of 1967, which is a pleasurably bittersweet sensation. There were some perfect, baking-hot days with pure blue skies that year, and I was free to do pretty much whatever I wanted, but I was also very lonely. A couple of years earlier we had moved away from the part of town where I had spent my first decade; this, combined with the transition to secondary school, meant that I had no friends living nearby. Then my much-loved older sister left home under a bit of a cloud, and my parents – both of whom were at work all day – seemed suddenly to age [2], and became rather unavailable, emotionally. 1967, as it turned out, was also the last summer we were to spend in a house with a garden. Stevenage council used to be quite flexible about tenants moving around within the New Town, especially if it freed up family-sized houses, and so – this latest house now having become both too large and rather blighted by unhappy associations – we moved to a two-bedroom flat. Which would, in fact, be my fifth, final, and probably happiest address in town.

So, that trumpet's shrill perfection – so reminiscent of swifts and swallows exulting high over the rooftops in a clear blue sky – evokes one 60s latchkey kid's long summer holidays, pottering about or simply wandering the streets, free but alone, with a door-key and a half crown in his pocket to buy a chip-shop meal at midday, or maybe get a bus into town. Just some ordinary boy, checking out the passing scene, noticing things, invisible as a cat or a crow. Which, now I think of it, is still pretty much how I like to spend a day, whenever I get the chance. Minus the pie and chips, of course, and with a camera for company. Talking of which: Now, let's see, whose turn is it today?

Hill Lane

1. A Fuji X70, a very nice camera and something of a rarity, as Fuji stopped producing them quite soon after they were introduced, apparently because Sony suddenly stopped manufacturing the sensor used in them.
2. They weren't yet 50, though a sixties 50, which was rather older than 50 is now... I was amazed (and alarmed) to discover that no male forebear of mine had lived to see 60, although reassuringly Dad did make 89. It is one of those paradoxes, that one never seems to become older than one's parents or teachers.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Cultural Quarter


Southampton Guildhall Square
(seen from within the new Hansard Gallery)

A lot of time, effort, and money – really lots of it, £30 million is the usual quoted figure – have gone into developing a new "Cultural Quarter" for Southampton, which is now pretty much complete with the opening of the re-located John Hansard Gallery. We have always had an outstanding City Art Gallery (that's it, in the picture above, or rather, it's within that collonaded building, the Guildhall and Civic Centre), but it seems to have been felt that something more needed to be done to counterbalance our reputation as the Shopping Centre and Clubbing Capital of the South Coast. You know, raise the tone a bit. So, some of the town-centre blight created by the West Quay shopping mall around Guildhall Square has been tidied up and opened out, and on a sunny day you could almost be somewhere ... other than Southampton. [1]

The new Nuffield Theatre was opened back in February: we went to see the specially-commissioned opening production, Howard Brenton's Shadow Factories, about the distributed manufacture of Spitfires in Southampton during the Blitz. I wish the theatre well, but its subsequent productions have not tempted me back. Facing it is the new John Hansard Gallery, also originally located on the University campus, where it occupied a building hidden away in an obscure corner that had been built to house a large tank of water modelling the tidal movements of Southampton Water. In fact, the Hansard had initially been a photographic gallery, where I saw four exhibitions that had an enormous influence on me (by Thomas Joshua Cooper, Josef Koudelka, John Goto, and Richard Ross) and where I even showed some of my own early work in a group exhibition of local photographers.

Director Stephen Foster developed the gallery away from its narrow photographic brief into a major space for contemporary art but, being on a campus miles from the city centre where parking is next to impossible, it never got the "footfall" it deserved. I used to know Stephen, as we sat on some committees together (he also took a polite interest in my work, several times giving me some useful advice [2]); the move into Guildhall Square was both his pet project and a major source of frustration. It has taken many years of headaches and false starts to bring off, and Stephen has now finally retired. I made my first visit into the new gallery – new location, new management, new everything – on Saturday.


It is certainly a wonderful improvement in terms of space, with four large, high-ceilinged galleries, not to mention media suites and workshop spaces, although it is all a bit South Bank, beige and white and chrome in the classic modernist gallery style. Regrettably, they've decided to open with a show of Gerhard Richter, than whom a more rigorous test of one's sympathy with the outer reaches of contemporary art practice it would be hard to imagine. I confess I don't "get" Richter at all, and didn't get the impression that any of the other visitors that afternoon did either. It's baffling, emperor's-new-clothes stuff, but his reputation and standing in the art world couldn't be higher, so what do I know? Other than the fact that his work bores me, with its repertoire of charmless signature moves. But: visitors there were, nonetheless, in a steady trickle. It was hardly like the sharp-elbowed crowds around the Andreas Gursky photographs at the re-opened Hayward Gallery in London back in February, but compared to the echoing void of the old gallery it was very encouraging. I sincerely hope they've got some real crowd-pleasers in the pipeline, so as to establish the new venue in the local mindset, but – knowing something of the way gallerists think about their curatorial mission – I fear there will instead be a series of rebarbative, mainly conceptual shows that will simply serve to reassure the local populace that art, after all, is not intended for them.

 Yep, it's meant to be blurry

It seems to help if you wear the right hat

These are actually woven tapestries (not woven by Richter himself, obvs).
I don't know about you but I find their facile mirrored symmetry
deeply annoying... Same with Gilbert & George's recent work.
Such a lazy use of digital tchnology.

1. Although any long-term Southampton resident standing within "Studio 144" (holding both the theatre and the gallery) will always also be standing within the ghost of the old Tyrrell & Green department store.
2. I wish I could say this included "Don't give up the day job", but I don't think that possibility even occurred to him.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Riparian Ramble



I'm in Bristol at the moment, having delivered some pictures for an exhibition in the Deepest Cotswolds; more about that later. I thought I'd get some odd looks, handing over a well-wrapped package from one car boot to another in the car park at Gordano Services, but that's the sort of place a motorway service station is, isn't it? A classic post-modern nowhere place, where everyone is in transit, and normality is in permanent suspension.

I took a walk this afternoon along Bristol's Portway towards, beneath and beyond the Suspension Bridge, another liminal place, where the constant traffic fills the air with noxious fumes. I've probably shortened my life by a whole ten minutes, but it's an interesting stretch of road, with some incredible Georgian and Victorian riverside architecture marooned by the needs of modern transport, and it's the best place to see Avon River mud when the tide is out.


For some reason crows like to play along the muddy banks; I expect they're just curious about what has washed up today. This one had a go at pipe-walking, but had a tumble halfway along. Argh!



[N.B. I've edited these on my laptop, which is why the colours, etc., may look a bit odd].

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan



I almost forgot to say: on Sunday evening last week BILL FRISELL was playing at the Turner Sims concert hall on the Southampton University campus and, naturally, I was there; in fact, the Prof bought our tickets in our favourite seats (left of centre, four rows back) way back in January as a birthday present. Accompanied by just Thomas Morgan on upright bass, he was playing what looked to be a standard Telecaster, plus an array of foot-operated effects; it's the first gig I've been to where audience members went down to the front during the interval simply to gaze reverently upon a single guitar and a set of pedals.

Obviously, it was brilliant. I've written about Frisell before, and have nothing much to add to what I wrote there. But, not having seen him play live before, I was struck once more by his Jekyll and Hyde personality. For a Guitar God, he might easily be mistaken for a particularly reticent music-shop assistant when not actually playing. Whereas the likes of, say, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page look and dress the part (I bet they even wear leather pyjamas), Bill Frisell ... does not. But once he straps on that guitar he becomes an avatar of whatever deity supervises and inspires supreme musicality and effortless invention. Wow!

In one particularly spellbinding passage in the set played after the interval, they moved through Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" to, of all things, the "Goldfinger" theme. Actually, "Goldfinger"  – once you disassociate Shirley Bassey's voice from it, which is not easy to do – is a wonderfully restless melody, with some unmistakable hooks and just the sort of scope for verging-on-parody twangy guitar that Frisell loves to play around with. In fact, there's another, nicely sleazy version by Dave Douglas (on his album A Thousand Evenings), where Guy Klucevsek's accordion really brings out its histrionic cocktail of tango and gypsy flavourings [1].

If you need an introduction to the man and his music, I see a video by Emma Franz, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, has recently been released (there's a nice trailer at the link), but there's plenty available free on YouTube and many of his albums are available on Spotify. My personal recommendations would be Blues Dream or Good Dog, Happy Man, but if you like inventive interpretations of familiar tunes, then Songs We Know (a jazzy "standards" collaboration with pianist Fred Hersch) or All We Are Saying (his John Lennon covers album) are hard to beat. And if you really want to challenge your ears, why not try his venture into modern classical, Richter 858? This is a musician with range, with depth, with mastery and an unmistakable personality, but with absolutely no leather trousers and a truly lamentable taste in jackets.


1. No, not that sort of Tango, idiot. Though I'm sure there must be some Tango-based cocktails.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Realpolitik


Berlin: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Since my visit to Berlin in March, the subject of antisemitism has been on my mind, not least because the Labour Party's woes in this regard have been figuring so prominently in the news. I've also been watching Simon Schama's thought-provoking Story of the Jews on BBC TV. This is difficult territory, not least for a Baptist-heritage goy like me. Frankly, and despite – yes! – some of my best friends being Jewish, I have very little idea of what it means to occupy one of the wide range of identities included within the definition of "a Jew". I am sufficiently naive in this regard – "ignorant" may be the better choice of word – that I have generally been unaware that any particular person might be Jewish unless they chose to tell me as much. Whether such ignorance counts as lack of prejudice is an interesting question. The witty title of Steve Cohen's booklet from 1984, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, is apposite, I think.

I grew up in the artificially white, working-class environment of Stevenage New Town, where the Jewish community was, to the best of my knowledge, very small. Indeed, I think I'm right in saying that there was no synagogue in the town until 2009, and that even now it is not a permanent building, more of a community organisation. Which is strange, when you consider that the bulk of the initial population was made up of Londoners displaced by the bombing of the East End in World War II, where the Jewish community was large. I don't think the situation in other New Towns like Harlow or Crawley was much different, either; no doubt there's a thesis there for someone ("Antisemitism, self-exclusion, or self-improvement? The missing Jews of London's New Towns"). Certainly, the names in our classroom roll-calls were relentlessly Anglo and Irish, and the number of children excused morning assembly on religious grounds – it was a compulsorily full-on Christian occasion in those days, with bible-readings, prayers, and hymn-singing – was negligible.

Consequently, amongst us children, such antisemitism as there was existed pretty much as an "empty signifier". Lacking any obvious representatives to lend it substance, "Jewishness" was reduced to some unpleasant expressions around meanness ("Oi, don't jew those sweets") which, on the racism spectrum, were on the same mildly thoughtless level as the use of, say, "wog" to mean "steal" ("Who's wogged my pencil?"). The word was just playground patois, and might as well have been spelled "joo", though it was doubtless derived from real anti-Jewish sentiment in families back in East London, and hurtful and confusing to any Jewish children who did happen to be around. However, it is also the case that these were expressions never used at home, if your parents were as liberal-minded as mine. I was roundly told off if I brought them into the house, and instructed never to repeat them. But ditto "ruddy" (does anyone say that any more?), "bloody", "shit", and the rest; in a respectable household you maintained two parallel languages, home and away.

The home environment was clearly the key. The lad who for a few years was my closest friend at secondary school was, I later realised, a racist, and a well-versed one, too. As well as the tune, he knew all the words to the racist song, so to speak, and it was, I'm ashamed to say, fun for a while to sing along. After all, few things are as enjoyable as an intense friendship in early adolescence, especially if you have previously been a bit of a loner, as I had, and friendships create their own inward-looking parameters. It's no excuse, but in the absence of any actual black people's feelings to be hurt, it seemed harmless enough to improvise entertaining wickedness together on the endless set of formulaic racist tropes my friend was able to supply. It was only later, when I was more aware of the dark places I had been exploring so thoughtlessly, that it occurred to me to wonder where on earth he had been getting this stuff from. In those pre-internet days, race-hate material was as difficult to come across as pornography. The suspicion had to be that, whereas my parents had steered me severely away from any hint of prejudice, his had not only encouraged it, but must have educated him quite thoroughly in its ways. Bigots are not born, I'm sure, but made.

To return more specifically to antisemitism, it is obviously a more complex syndrome than racism, pure and simple. No-one, as far as I know, has ever accused Jamaicans or even the Japanese of anything as baroque as being self-indicted Christ-killers, of murdering children in sacrificial rites, of running the secret financial backing of a centuries-long conspiracy aimed at global domination, or any of the rest of the persistent, prefabricated nonsense that informs systematic antisemitism. Having watched Simon Schama's TV series, it's hard to know which is the more interesting and urgent question: why Jews, quite specifically, have attracted such unwelcome attention, or why this virulent persecution across time and space has had such perennial appeal to so many varieties of non-Jew. Again and again, since ancient times, Jews have been expelled from some temporary home, then invited to form a community within someone else's borders, have flourished for a century or two to mutual benefit – despite exclusion as less than top-drawer citizens – only to find themselves persecuted and ejected yet again when their host's mood and politics changed. As someone points out in one of Schama's programmes, it's not paranoia when people really are out to get you, and the impulse behind Zionism is easier to grasp and sympathise with when this world-historical cycle of enforced uprootings is laid before you as the case for the defence.

And therein, it would seem, lies Labour's problem, and also the intractable problem facing the Jewish community. That is, the existence and real-world behaviour of an actual Israel, an embattled Zionist nation which, having tasted serial military victory over its neighbours, took a reactionary lurch in the direction of the religious right, morphing in the process from eternal supplicant to sand-kicking regional bully, a far cry from the secular socialist idealism of its early years. Or, if we look at it another way, the Left's long romance with the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed Palestinian people has had unforeseen real-world consequences, not least some awkward alliances with uncompromisingly radical Islamic groups who wish to see Israel wiped from the map. On the Left, it is conventional, and convenient, to distinguish carefully between being pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and – perish the thought! – anti-Jew. And yet, infuriating as it can be when even the BBC covers the fraught issue of "antisemitism in the Labour Party" without ever mentioning members' principled opposition to illegal Israeli land-grab "settlements" or their support for the self-evident justice of the Palestinian cause, it's hard to know what sort of real-world political position Left anti-Zionism really represents today, now that Israel has been a political and geographical fact for 60 years. Which makes it so much easier for various Jewish groups to elide any anti-Israeli sentiment or talk of a powerful "Zionist lobby" into accusations of simple antisemitism.

It is equally infuriating that Labour now has a leadership that appears hamstrung by its own heritage of oppositional idealism – dare one say its shibboleths? – and which is consequently forced to shoot itself repeatedly in the foot, for fear of pointing the weapon at its dubious friends and allies elsewhere. I can't imagine Jeremy Corbyn really is an antisemite (although that title, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, does pop into my mind again), but he appears not to see that he seems to have an awful lot in common with some people who clearly are, and unless he does something positive about this, the entire Labour Party – the Labour Party, FFS! – can and will be tarred with that brush until, oh, let's say, he is forced out of office, there is another Militant-style purge of the party membership, and the Blairites regain control of "their" party. Which some might see as a Zionist-inspired conspiracy scenario (uh oh...) but is surely just a demonstration of precisely the sort of cynical opportunism that real politicians must engage in if they want to win, rather than merely signal their virtue to the like-minded.

Does Jeremy Corbyn want to win? I'm not so sure that he does. To show automatic solidarity with the oppressed – the famous opción preferencial por los pobres of Latin-American Liberation Theology – becomes a guiding reflex after a while, a way of making sense of the world, as well as a confirmation of one's own sense of secular moral justification. To be in power in the West is, by that definition, to be one of the Bad Guys. To be in opposition is, similarly, to be on the side of the angels. It's a reflex that can blind one to appearances, however,  (a.k.a. "the optics"), and makes it impossible to engage with the sort of dirty Realpolitik that forges strategic partnerships with unpleasant but useful oppressors. So, does an unbreakable habit of opposition to Israeli policies and their supporters in the West make Corbyn look sympathetic to real antisemites? Does this bring his party into conflict with some powerful currents of influence? Might this lose them the next election, and might this outcome suit the purposes of certain ambitious people within his own party very well? Quite possibly, I imagine him concluding, but so be it: principles are at stake!

But, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have said when Stalin joined "The Allies" in 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, thus changing the course and outcome of WW2,  "If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons". Corbyn, I suspect, could never bring himself to do that. Which makes him a good man, but an awful politician.

Jewish section of Southampton Old Cemetery

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Crow Spotting



It can be frustrating to find yourself in front of a good picture, but without the kit that would render it to best advantage. This has often happened to me, as I have always preferred to walk about with as little impedimenta as possible. I've never been one of those guys with a hundredweight of "just in case" gear slung over a shoulder, and increasingly I find I'm inclined to take just one lightweight fixed-lens camera out with me on speculative walks, which in my case usually means a wide-angle "28mm" equivalent. Inevitably, this means missing (or at any rate having to "re-see") any shot where a longer lens would be more appropriate. Too bad: my hit-rate is high enough to live with it.

These two are typical examples. In both cases, a bird was sitting on top of a gravestone, a crow and a magpie, about five yards away. Corvids are bold birds, but also cautious: get much closer than that, and they're off. In fact, the magpie was up and in the air even before I pressed the shutter. What you see here are both major crops from a much larger frame. Which is a pity, as it means that although they're fine for blog purposes they'd never enlarge satisfactorily as a full-sized print. At "native" 300 dpi resolution these are 20x15cm prints at best.


But I like them, nonetheless, and I'm sure I'll find some use for them. I particularly like the bold blur of the magpie flashing through the scene, and can you see the carved olive (?) branch next to the real vegetation on the crow's headstone? No? Try this, then:


It may be a tiny crop (about a 5x5cm section of a 42x28cm image at 300dpi) but I have no complaints about the resolution. In fact, hmm, I wonder if that might be a young rook, rather than a crow: fully-fledged, but before the characteristic "rook pattern baldness" has set in around the bill? Next time I'll remember to ask.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

A Little Red

A little red goes a long way. Turner, famously, added a small red buoy to a seascape he was showing at the 1832 Royal Academy Open on "Varnishing Day", upstaging Constable's nearby work, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Constable seethed, "He has been here, and fired a gun". Well, he painted a red dot, John, to be fair.


On one of my recent lengthy perambulations about town, I happened to encounter these three examples of "red in a picture". Like most long-established towns, Southampton's highways can get a bit sclerotic where early 21st century traffic meets early 20th century suburban road layouts. Especially around the Common and up in Shirley, where the traffic to and from the General Hospital and the Hollybrook Cemetery has to squeeze through various traffic lights, pinch-points, and blind bends, with ambulances and hearses imposing their very different senses of urgency on the flow. I'd never seen a horse-drawn hearse before, though, and managed to grab a couple of shots of the spectacle as it passed by. The, um, occupant, was in one of those new wicker coffins, so it was clearly someone with a sense of style.


A victim of the recent wave of retail closures, the Toys'R'Us outlet in the town centre has now reverted to what, I suppose, it always was: a characterless barn with a car park. Strange to think that, 20 or so years ago, it was often the site of one of my regular weekend tasks, piloting small children through its stacked, warehouse-style shelves in pursuit of something suitable to spend their pocket-money on (what, in family parlance, became known as the "weekend present"). I find it hard to imagine how this intensive (and occasionally interminable) hands-on quest could have been replaced by online shopping, but then our pocket-money hunts were in the days before children were equipped with smartphones. I used to think Toys'R'Us was a bit soulless, compared to the "proper" toyshops it was driving out of business, but ordering toys online and having them delivered to the door? That seems pretty cold to me, even if the choice is wider and the prices are cheaper, and it is more convenient for parents who are, apparently, too busy to make time to go shopping with their kids. In the photo, I like the way the touches of red in the Toy'R'Us logo have been semi-obliterated by the pink blossoming trees, ditto the red digger obscured by trees, parked in the adjacent municipal yard.


Of course, you can also have too much in-yer-face red... The decrepit Bargate shopping mall in the town centre – right next to Southampton's main, yet most baffling tourist attraction, the "iconic" Norman Bargate – has now been closed for demolition and redevelopment, and someone has decided that a nice bright red would be an enlivening touch on the site hoardings. Ouch. Not so much firing a gun, à la Turner, as letting off a broadside salvo of red.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Gigantic Arabs



One of my favourite blogs is Some Landscapes, written by Andrew Ray (a.k.a. Plinius), which should be a regular port of call for anyone with an interest in landscape and landscape-related art. Andrew is very well-informed, writes well, and is wide-ranging and generous in his discussions of current exhibitions and the work of contemporary landscape artists as well as the artists and writers of the past, not least those of China and Japan, areas in which he appears to have a special interest.

One of his recent posts concerned the heartfelt complaints confided to her journal by Marie Bashkirtseff, a talented painter of Ukrainian extraction living in late 19th century Paris, lamenting the way conventional expectations of the behaviour of a respectable young woman placed an intolerable constraint on her ability to move about freely in the locations she longed to paint. It's an interesting post, but what caught my eye was his remark that a passage from her diary entry on 20th June 1882 is rendered slightly differently in two different translations. In one, by A.D. Hall (1908), it reads:
So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!
Eh? In the other, by Mathilde Blind (1890), the "gigantic arabs" have been translated as "gigantic vegetation". Which is odd, to say the least. As I know a bit of Russian, I was curious to learn what word had led to this confusion. So, having established that her "real" Russian-style name was Mariia Bashkirtseva, I managed to track down an online text of what I took to be the original of her journal ("dnevnik" in Russian), here. When I found the relevant entry, I was puzzled to see that the ambiguous passage had been omitted. The entry ends, "Итак, остается оплакивать свой пол"; that is, "So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex". No dreams of Italy and Spain, no Granada, no giant arabs, nothing. Which was intriguing, and also made me begin to suspect that there might be something a little racy going on here that had been edited out, as well as perhaps clumsily bowdlerised by those early translators.

The most accessible fluent Russian speaker I'm aware of is Stephen Dodson of that other estimable blog, Language Hat (no relation). So I took the liberty of dropping him an email, wondering (a) whether he might have access to a fuller edition of Bashkirtseva's Dnevnik, or (b) if not, what Russian word might possibly be translated as either "arabs" and/or "vegetation"? Stephen replied that he couldn't help, not least because, in fact, it seemed the original text was in French, Mon Journal. Ah.

I discovered that Bashkirtseff's Journal had been through various editions and redactions, as Marie had died very young of TB, and her family had sought subsequently both to maximise the monetary and minimise the scandal value of her written legacy (not to mention falsifying her age, to make her seem more of a prodigy). This was starting to look complicated – no French edition appeared to be available online – and, to be honest, less interesting, and certainly not worth a trip up to London to visit a library with a substantial 19th century French collection.

But, as a last throw of the dice, I had a look in the catalogue of "my" library [1] and was amazed to find we had an abridged edition in French. Not only that, but – despite having shrunk from the original 16-volume job down to a single pocket-sized volume – the entry for 20th June 1882 was there. Now, I have no idea how close this edition abrégée (Paris: Nelson, 1938) is to Marie's original diary. She may well have indulged in a little exotic erotic fantasy on the 20th June, which her editors discreetly bowdlerised. Given the nature of her complaint about the treatment of young ladies in the 1880s that would be ironic, n'est-ce pas? But here is the mystery passage, as found:
Donc, il n'y a qu'à déplorer mon sexe, et à revenir aux rêves d'Italie et d'Espagne. Grenade! Arbres géants, ciel pur, ruisseaux, lauriers-roses, soleil, ombre, paix, calme, harmonie, poésie!
Which translates exactly as above, apart from the crucial ambiguous phrase, which turns out to be, bathetically: arbres géants, "gigantic trees". So it seems one translator, Blind, had a wooden ear, but the other, Hall, made a bizarre slip of the sort my teachers would have called "a howler", or possibly even of the sort we have come to know as "Freudian".


1. Despite having retired, I think dedicating 30 years to the maintenance and flourishing of an institution entitles one to a degree of "ownership". More prosaically, I do also have a reader's ticket.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

In A While, Crocodile



I wasn't really sure why, but I've been quite keen on working up various new versions of this picture, based on a preserved crocodile I encountered last year in the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée in Paris. I was already quite pleased with it back in January (What a Croc), but I kept tinkering away, and this is just the latest version. I've tried putting it in a proper mount and frame, and it looks even better (mind you, most things usually do). But I did wonder why it seemed to speak to me with such a strong voice, and why I felt compelled to keep returning to it.


Then I remembered this:


Duh. Of course... This photograph will have been taken around 1972. That is the 18-year-old me, posing in my bedroom in our family's flat, on the 4th floor of a seven-storey council block that was built around 1950 and demolished a decade ago. But that plastic crocodile hanging in the window behind me, bought on a visit to Whipsnade Zoo around 1965, has survived many subsequent changes of location (though it has lost much of its tail along the way) and has been a constant companion ever since. I suppose you might say it embodies the way the alchemical fantasies of youth can endure into the more mundane realities of late middle-age. Even when lacking most of their tail (something the Paris croc has in abundance).

But what kind of idiot holds on to a plastic crocodile for over 50 years? This kind.


Friday, 27 April 2018

Spring Rain



One of the best vantage points to observe the arrival of spring is the kitchen table of our flat in Bristol. Situated on the Bristol side of the Avon Gorge, we have a beautiful, commanding view over the river towards Leigh Woods on the south-west side. The leaves and blossom are just emerging, and each species of tree still has its distinctive shade of green. I can (and do) sit for hours, just watching the ever-changing spectacle outside. You can see the showers of rain coming up the Gorge and passing by as if they were scenery on the stage of a toy theatre.

Here are two cards interpreting that arrival. The words are by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), probably my favourite haiku poet:
The spring rain:
A little girl teaches
The cat to dance
I love the fact that his pen-name, Issa, means "a cup of tea". Now there's a good idea! Why not?



Thursday, 26 April 2018

Four of a Kind




The metamorphosis from (mainly) charming toddler through (often) sullen teen to (always) sophisticated young adult seems to happen in the twinkling of an eye when observed as a parent, but it can take an eternity actually to live through what are probably the most intensely experienced years of anyone's life. Typically for my generation, I have relatively few photographs that record my own progress – thankfully, probably – but modern kids must be the most heavily documented in history. Although, given the ephemerality of electronic media, this may, in time, prove to be an illusion.

Our lives may be very diverse, but it is uncanny how similar most family albums are. I imagine the same goes for today's vast smartphone souvenir and selfie bank. You get the same occasions, marked in much the same way, recorded again and again by photographers with much the same idea of how to do it. There are exceptions, however: I remember Peter Goldfield commenting once that Martin Parr was the only person he knew whose album included pictures of his own children crying, sulking, and throwing tantrums. I liked this idea in principle but, when it came to it, I had to admit Parr had set the bar of steely-eyed originality a little too high for me. Besides, and call me a deluded old fool if you must, but I like to think that, in our family, such occasions were sufficiently untypical and so fleeting as not to warrant documentation.



Monday, 23 April 2018

A Knave and a Queen



Oops, I almost forgot what day it is. Happy birthday, Will, from the Knave of Wasps!
As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store,
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
  Look what is best, that best I wish in thee;
  This wish I have, then ten times happy me.

Sonnet 37
Perhaps not one of his best efforts, but I love that Shakespearean precursor of "some or all of the above" in there. I wonder if they had multiple choice forms in Tudor times? Wouldst thou prefer to be executed by (a) beheading (b) hanging (c) evisceration (d) cutting into pieces (e) burning (f) all of the above? Odd, how many high-profile executees seem to have chosen (f).

Nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, the text on the card below reads, "The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new". It's a quote from Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich, that encapsulates pretty much everything that is wrong with contemporary education. The job of this particular queen, a member of the despicable Michael Gove's despised "blob", is to try and put that right.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

A Pair of Kings



I was at school with these two gents and, despite some ups and downs and occasional lengthy gaps in communication, still count them among my friends – my "elective family" – fifty years on. Both are accomplished musicians, and men of strong opinions and good taste. I think you can probably tell this from the nobility of their visages and bearing. Two worthy kings.


Friday, 20 April 2018

Full House



You may recall an earlier version of the image above which I posted in 2015. Yes, that is indeed me photographed five years ago, before losing a lot of weight and finally remembering to take off my Christmas-cracker crown. I called it "King of Fools", which seemed appropriate [1]. It was just a bit of fun, but I found the concept interesting, and it lodged itself in the back of my mind; essentially, the inverted pairing of a "court" card, plus associated playing-card paraphernalia. So, a while ago I started playing around with portraits of friends and family to produce a little set of similar "cards", all variants on the same format.

One thing this exercise revealed to me was quite how reluctant most of the people I know are to be photographed: I had to make the most of the few suitable "portraits" I could find, which were very thin on the ground. It's curious, in what is supposed to be a "selfie" culture, obsessed with the self-image, that I mainly seem to know representatives of the most camera-shy subset of the population. To an extreme degree, in certain cases. I can never decide whether this is due to vanity, love of or need for privacy, some sort of atavistic "soul stealing" thing, or just a reflex curmudgeonliness. Probably "all of the above" (yes, looking at you, Nick B.). Whatever the reason, I seem to have an extraordinary collection of pictures of people grimacing, glaring, blinking, flinching, fleeing the scene, or offering various apotropaic hand and finger gestures.

This reminded me that, back in the 90s, there was a corporate fashion for displaying galleries of staff portraits in open public view – more like "mugshots", really – with the intention that the relevant person could easily be identified (as if staff spent their days hanging about anonymously in public areas, hopefully waiting to be recognised and of use to someone). The real motivation behind this, of course, was to show an open and friendly institutional face towards clients and customers: this is us, here we are, we have no reason to hide! We did try this in the university library at Southampton, but it was never popular – it seems many people dislike their own appearance, quite rightly in some cases – and in the end it was abandoned, not least because it exposed the younger, more attractive members of staff to unwanted attention from our creepier clients. It seemed some of us, at any rate, had good reason to want to remain anonymous.

When I retired in 2014, I decided to draw up a list of all the members of staff, past and present, who had worked for me in one capacity or another, and was surprised to discover there had been over 50 of them. Quite a few had gone on to greater things – in fact, our most recent University Librarian had been one of my team in her younger days – but I found it hard to put faces to a surprising number of those names. I wished I had thought to make a photographic record, perhaps in the form of periodic "team photographs". It would have been easy to do, but I didn't, and it's obviously not one of those things you can do in retrospect. But the fun I could be having now with those fifty-plus faces... That's a whole deck of cards!

Anyway, I'll be dealing out a few more of the cards I have been able to make over the next couple of posts, not least because I'm going to be away from my workstation a lot: the weather has improved dramatically, and there are places to go, people to see, etc. I will be moderating comments, however, so do let me know if you think I've laid out a winning hand, or if you think I should fold on this game.


1. The banner carries a runic inscription, to be found below a window in Bristol Cathedral, which is said to mean something like "man is but a heap of mouldering dust", which, if nothing else, is quite a good description of a hangover.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Long 1968


1967/8

On the radio the other morning I half-heard a discussion of various books relating to post-War France, and in particular les événements of May 1968. Three things registered out of the pre-coffee haze. First, the concept of a "Long 1968"; that is, that the "spirit of '68" was played out over a rather longer period than a single year. Obvious, really. Second, that 1968 is as long ago now as 1918 was then. Even more obvious – even I can do the mental arithmetic – but thought-provoking, nonetheless. Third, the image of that very strange man, the future conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, then a student, observing the riotous action in the Paris streets below from the safety of his girlfriend's apartment, and concluding that whatever was motivating them down there was the opposite of what, henceforth, would motivate him. I was also amused by his classically-conservative concession that, back then, student radicals were cut from a finer, better-educated cloth than today's student radicals. Which is true, self-evidently.

Ah, 1968. At the time I was 14, and probably had rather more in common with Roger Scruton than Daniel Cohn-Bendit. That is, I was a British grammar-school boy from an "ordinary" family, whose ideas and aspirations were increasingly at odds with those of his parents, a common condition in 1968. I don't think it is overstating the case to say that there have been few, if any, times when the gulf between generations living under the same roof has been greater. Watching the TV, my parents were appalled by everything that exercised such a strong pull on my developing adolescent desires: the revolutionary politics, the "mind-expanding" drugs, the loud music, the casual sex, the general urge to overturn the safe and cosy suburban world and build something new, young, colourful, and authentic.

Naturally, at 14, I had no real ideas of my own; even the most specious and shopworn stuff was new and exciting to me, particularly if it angered or upset my parents. I had no real idea of the difficult 50-year journey they had travelled, from 1918 to 1968, and why the safe, cosy, "straight" post-war world might have such a strong appeal for them. They seemed dull, conformist, and uninteresting to me [1]. They rarely left our flat other than to go to work, do a weekly shop, or visit family, and had no obvious interests beyond whatever happened to be on TV. I admit I had long nurtured ungrateful "changeling" fantasies. But also, already by 1968 a lot of the allegedly counter-cultural aspects of pop culture had been safely commodified and accommodated: I loathed the floral-shirted, kipper-tied types that appeared on TV, peddling a de-clawed sub-psychedelia, acceptable to my parents' generation because at least they were polite, neat and tidy, and playing a recognisable game of "fashionable young things". As the 70s arrived I was feeling an obscure all-round discontent that wanted to express itself in transgressive noise, dirt, scruffiness, and intoxication, and revelled in rejecting expectations and opportunities (mainly at school, the only arena of action open to me: in the classic Groucho formulation, I didn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member). My friends and I became regular under-age drinkers in certain tolerant pubs, and hung out as the self-styled cool, intellectual fringe at local youth venues. When the atmosphere at home became too stifling, I enjoyed nothing more than leaving the flat and going for long, aimless walks, the more uninviting the weather the better. Yes, I was a teenage Situationist in Stevenage.

Although, actually, I had no idea what a Situationist was. Or of anything much, politically. When I saw the news on TV, I saw rioting students all around the world: France, America, Japan, Germany, Czechoslovakia... It seemed like there was a world party of unrest and anger happening out there, and I couldn't wait to join in. Why and what anybody was actually rioting about was anybody's guess: I imagined that they told you about all that when you became a student. It looked like fun. Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against? What've you got? So, becoming a student was the entire horizon of my worldly ambitions. Not some "varsity" bod with a college scarf and an ironic teddy-bear, obviously, but a full-on, long-haired, dope-smoking, acid-tripping, rock-throwing, protest-marching, soixante-huitard with attitude. Unlike Roger Scruton, I concluded that whatever was motivating them was precisely what, henceforth, should motivate me.

Oxford Examination Schools Occupation 1973
© 1975 Fiona Thompson

It bears repeating that when, after a year out, I did eventually rock up at university in 1973 I was still a clueless, small-town stoner, with an unattractive and largely unexamined package of ideas about politics and life. It is probably true to say that I had absorbed what few ideas I had from a combination of rock lyrics and late-night banter with friends, leavened only by the texts I had studied at A-Level, some influential teachers, and a few cult books at the wackier end of the spectrum. My worldview spoke more of a close study of Sticky Fingers, Aqualung, and Every Picture Tells A Story than any acquaintance with Marx, Trotsky, or Lenin, none of whom I had read.

But, by pure chance, I found myself in a hotspot of the Long '68. The collegiate structure of Oxford University means that each college is a little self-contained planet, with its own atmosphere and life-forms, and at Balliol College in 1973 it seemed that everyone who was anyone was a member of some far-left group with a rival, subtly-different plan for toppling the established order. I may not yet have grasped the essential differences between Trotskyist, Marxist-Lenininist, or anarchist visions of revolution, but it was clear I was up for a lark and almost immediately I found myself at the conspiratorial core of no less than two occupations of university property. Result!

The first was a rather casual mass occupation which proved to be no more than a couple of sleep-deprived nights spent crashing on the extremely hard floor of the Examination Schools. I recall singing folk-songs with David Aaronovitch [2], then a Communist Party member, only to be harangued by certain female International Marxist Group members who found the lyrics sexist, a word that did not yet figure in my vocabulary. But the second was an invitation-only invasion of the Indian Institute, a university administrative building, by a soi-disant revolutionary vanguard, which was ended almost immediately with a certain amount of brutality on the part of the university and the police, and resulted in the ending of the university careers of several of my new comrades. Personally, on being ejected from the building, I ran through the police lines like a rugby wing-forward in pursuit of a loose ball, and not long thereafter began to reconsider the idiocy of what we were up to.

In short, for me, the Long 1968 ended on the afternoon of Wednesday, 13th February 1974, a few days after my 20th birthday. My political views had been changed, radically and permanently, and I had made some lifelong friends, but I really wasn't about to sacrifice my hard-earned university career as a spear-carrier supporting the factitious efforts of a few public-school revolutionaries, who had read their Marx, to instigate their own private May '68. I had no Plan B: to be a student was still the sum total of my ambition. So I decided to concentrate on the hedonistic part of the student formula, and ease up on the rock-throwing part. It hadn't yet occurred to me that some book-studying might be a useful element to add in.

Amusingly, one of my friends from that era once informed me that my unasked-for and unwanted candidature into one radical groupuscule had been rejected, on the grounds I was a "piss-artist". Which was entirely fair. Although, ironically, a few years ago I discovered that several contemporaries assumed I had been a member of that same group all along, simply because several of its members so regularly found my college room a congenial late-night stop-off (a room which, I also later discovered, had formerly been occupied by Howard Marks). Well, the long march through the institutions would have to start sometime, but not yet, O Lord, not yet.

1974/5
There are a number of distinguished people in this photograph, but
a three-term mayor of Baltimore is, for all the wrong reasons, 
easily spotted towards the back...

1. The fact that they were also kind, supportive, tolerant, and always willing to give me the benefit of the doubt didn't occur to me until it was far too late to atone for years of arrogant and boorish behaviour.

2. Aaronovitch may not be well-known outside the UK, but here he has become a fixture in the media firmament. For two terms, he and I were good friends, but his ambition and my hedonistic tendencies took us in different directions. Then he was "sent down" for failing his first year exams and, in those pre-internet days, we lost touch until, carrying the NALGO union banner at an anti-Thatcher demo in 1979, I spotted him covering the event as a journalist. We exchanged a few words but I was clearly not the story and he had a job to do, and, it has to be said, his memories of Oxford were probably less than positive, having been regularly denounced as a CP "Stalinist" by all and sundry. So he went off in search of someone more important, and we have never spoken since. Although every time I hear his voice on the radio I am transported back to 1973.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

On A Clear Day


Logged hillside at Shaky Bridge

Standing stones, ley lines, wholefoods, handicrafts, UFO-watchers, eco-warriors, stoners, shroom-pickers, smallholders, artists, students of the weird and wonderful... On a clear day, you can see the 1970s.

 Recumbent stone on Bryn-y-maen

Alien spacecraft on Bryn-y-maen 

Recumbent stone on Gilwern Hill

Quite what all these standing stones, recumbent stones, tumuli, cairns and hillforts are doing up here – apart from giving some purpose to a muddy ramble, and making Ordnance Survey maps look more decorative – is an interesting question. Most of them are glacial "erratics" with a very different origin to the local geology of schists and mudstones, and appear to have been dragged (or levitated by extraterrestrial technology) into positions of significance. My theory is that these are megalithic roundabout markers, controlling traffic flow along the ley lines when the climate here was more Mediterranean, and driving and droving therefore correspondingly more chaotic (come on, have you ever tried to drive sheep through central Rome?). Other, less climatist theories are available.

 Alien spacecraft component

What can it mean?
(it means a cat's-eye is missing from a road somewhere.
Though how it got on top of Gilwern Hill is a mystery.)