Saturday, 23 September 2017

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

Hearing that the Soviet Union was developing miniature submarines, someone in the Royal Navy's top secret Weaponized Wildlife Unit* decided to start a programme to train kingfishers to identify and attack them. Only when the person responsible was informed that (a) "miniature" submarines were not that small, and (b) were unlikely to turn up in the freshwater situations favoured by kingfishers, anyway, was the programme quietly abandoned, and the birds released back into the wild. As a result, in the south Hampshire rivers near Portsmouth there is now a strain of unusually aggressive hunter-killer kingfishers, with a peculiar urge to attack the thermos flasks and drink bottles of riverside picnickers.

*  You may have heard of their "navy seals", or the controversial and lethal "blue blistering barnacles", now outlawed by international convention.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Lost Causes

Back in May, we visited Hinton Ampner, a local National Trust property, where I came across this out-of-place Roman-style bust on a plinth in a nondescript little structure like a bus-shelter in the grounds. It is not labelled or protected in any way, and I assume it is just a piece of low-value garden furniture from the NT's central bric-a-brac store.

At first, it was the incongruity that attracted me, but when I looked closer I became intrigued by the androgynous weirdness of the lop-sided face, with its odd hairstyle, apparently broken nose, and blank stare from a pair of mismatched eyes (onto one of which someone seems to have attempted to pencil an iris and pupil). Depending on your inclination, you might even say she or he is what the French call une jolie laide or un beau laid (literally "a beautiful ugly person"), expressions which lack an English equivalent, but which mean something like "an attractive person who defies conventional notions of beauty". A magnetic minger, maybe?

Of course, it could also simply be an atrocious and talentless bit of sculpture, on a par with a shop-window mannequin or that recent hilarious rendering of Diana (which, for me, does nonetheless seem to open a window onto that strange woman's blank soul). Naturally, I have been using this oddly compelling face in my picture-making. It seems to suit a certain sort of iconic presentation: Our Lady of the Squint, perhaps.

Like so many card-carrying pensioners, I am also a card-carrying National Trust member, although I find I am increasingly out of sympathy with that organisation. I could just about live with the gift shops, with their tea-towels and souvenir pens, and even the genteel volunteer "guides" lurking in every room like pub bores, but the NT's urge to restore, tidy up, interpret, and make "accessible" the historic piles of the aristocracy has started to destroy the very things that made a visit to such places worthwhile. For me, anyway, but then I am an incurable romantic with a taste for picturesque dilapidation.

All may not be lost. Apparently, Dame Helen Ghosh, who has been Director General of the NT since 2012, is to step down from that role, as she has been appointed as the new head of Balliol College Oxford, a slightly more exclusive club, of which I also happen to be a member. (The person in that role is formally known as the Master of the college; it'll be interesting to see how that plays out with its first female incumbent.) Who knows, it may be that her successor at the NT will share my taste for elegant disrepair, cracked windows and weed-grown pathways, but somehow I doubt it. As far as I'm aware there is no group that lobbies for heritage disrepair, no Campaign For the Dilapidation of Rural England.

My lost-cause relationship with the NT is exemplified by my dealings with their property Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey. Back in the late twentieth century, in what proved to be the last hurrah of my film photography, Mottisfont was a wonderful place to explore and document, especially its grounds surrounding the river Test, which were full of unexpected nooks and crannies as well as, admittedly, life-threatening trip-hazards and pitfalls. I developed a close relationship with the place and its management, resulting in an exhibition of my work, The Colour of the Water, that ran from March 2003 to November 2004 (described here).

Then, there was a change of philosophy at the National Trust, and of management locally. No doubt money needed to be made, targets needed to be met, boxes needed to be ticked; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will have been there, and suffered the clipboards and flipcharts of outrageous managerialism. No doubt, also, there were urgent repairs to be done. I have no problem with that: I've just had our leaking roof fixed, too. But then the improvers moved in, clearing out the nooks and crannies along with the trip-hazards and pitfalls, followed by the interpreters with their signage and primary-school-level history lessons, and then came the adventure trail and playground installers, and eventually the public-works artists, recruited by competitive submission for site-specific works emphasising the need for relevance to and engagement with the specified target audiences. More boxes to be ticked.

A few years ago, having revisited my Mottisfont material, I sent in a proposal for a new exhibition. Now, when I approached the previous estate manager he had invited me in for a chat, looked at some work, gave me out-of-season access to the grounds, and finally provided me with exhibition space and, very generously, offered to cover my costs. I like to think it was a win-win situation; not many exhibitions remain on show for over a year and a half, and I let them keep the takings from sales of a little catalogue I had made. In contrast, though, the new manager didn't reply at all until I prodded her for a reaction after six months' silence, and even then she merely explained that exhibitions in the new dedicated exhibition rooms were organised centrally and circulated to various properties by the Trust, and she had no autonomy in that respect. You would have thought that response would have taken ten minutes, not six months.

Interestingly, I've had a similar lack of response from Bateman's (Rudyard Kipling's house in Sussex, also run by the NT) when sounding them out about my "Puck's Song" work – six months now and counting – and presumably for similar reasons. Now, you get used to rejection (I've lost count of the commission submissions and exhibition proposals I have had rejected over the years) but the sheer discourtesy of such prolonged silence still rankles. It speaks volumes about an organisation's ethos, I think: nobody is so busy that they can't find time to dictate a brief letter brushing off some idiot's unsolicited enquiry about their bizarre art project. But a misplaced sense of self-importance and a blind adherence to the Mission Statement will do it every time.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


I haven't had much time for writing blog posts this week, but those birds keep on singing.

Monday, 11 September 2017

I'll Fly Away

You may recognise this particular bird from a photograph in a post from last year, External Topography of a Bird (Ventral Aspect), taken during a visit to London's Natural History Museum. In my little virtual workshop here nothing goes to waste, nearly everything gets used several times over. In fact, even in this apparently simple image there are twenty Photoshop layers, most of which use one of my photographs in some transformative way.

For some reason I am quite pleased with this picture. The feeling will probably wear off; it usually does. I find the best way to evaluate my work is to print it, keep it hanging around for a few weeks, adjusting it and reprinting it from time to time until it seems finished, then to put it in a stack and forget about it. If, when I come across it again leafing through the stack months later, it grabs me all over again, then I know it's a keeper. Not that I throw any of the others away, of course: nothing goes to waste, nearly everything gets used several times over...

Friday, 8 September 2017

More Birdsong

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge 
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover 
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge— 
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, 
Lest you should think he never could recapture 
The first fine careless rapture!

Robert Browning, from "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad"
Appropriately, I suppose, the looming face is that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Less appropriately, the "thrush" is actually a Redwing. Well, you have to work with what you've got.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Shine Of Your Japan, The Sparkle Of Your China

The most shocking thing about Walter Becker's death this week, for a 63-year-old Steely Dan fan, is to learn that he was only 67. Somehow those four years seem far shorter now – dangerously shorter – than they would have done in 1973, when I first heard Countdown To Ecstasy, which is, let's face it, probably the best album by any group ever. At 19, you assume that anyone even a little older than you is entitled to be responsible for major monuments of culture; at 63, it can come to seem unreasonable and unfair. "What A Shame About Me", you might even feel inclined to complain.

I didn't know it at the time, but the great thing about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker was that in 1973 they had already passed through the 1970s, glanced with disdain at the 80s, and been gifted the X-ray spectacles of some alternative future which rendered even the shiniest and prettiest people as transparently losers in the making, eaten up by ambition, chewed up by regret, and spat out by circumstance. Hey, it's a vision, and it's a truer one than most. It's certainly truer than any amount of the coke-fuelled grandiosity or faux-naive optimism more typical of the era. We're all gonna die, kid, so go ahead, waste your time and sell your soul while you still can, if you must.

Obviously, this is not a message that is to everybody's taste, even when set within some of the most original arrangements and solos in popular music. Some have called it cynical, but "cynicism" is a word that should be reserved for those who see ugly truths and nonetheless persist in selling us their pretty, palatable lies. Disenchantment, skepticism, and even resignation are better words; it's an imperfect world and, as the song says, even Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing. Admittedly, there is also a gamey note of what we might call nerd's misogyny – a rather too ready identification with the romantically-challenged and the creepy – and even, dare I say, a little racism, but I doubt most listeners to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" or even "Haitian Divorce" ever hear those songs for what they are; dramatic monologues or short stories that tell ugly truths set to a catchy beat. But there is also always questioning and rejection of privilege – I'm never going back to my old school – with just a little desperation sprinkled into the kitchen-clean mix...  Is there gas in the car? (Yes, there's gas in the car).

What a shame there won't be any more. But there probably wouldn't have been, anyway.

Oh, and John Ashbery died this week, too, aged 90. One of these days I suppose I may get around to finishing "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", but I suspect I will never get past that elementary error about the "right hand" in Parmigianino's painting. At least, I presume it's an error. Maybe it's a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us left-handers.  If so, it worked. Give me Bodhisattva any day.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Bean Counter

Back in May I responded to a question about how many elements go into a typical collage/composite with the post Frankenstein Formula. In it, I described the typical process by which I take the raw materials (usually my own photographs) and construct something new out of them – in that case the picture above – much like a composer playing around with riffs, chords, and little bits of melody.

What I failed to emphasise was the element of time. That original version was the result of one evening's work, using photographs taken on a couple of rainy Welsh afternoons in April. But the version below was made yesterday evening, and this is an image I have been tinkering with, off and on, ever since May. It has something, but has never seemed quite right. I think it's more successful now – I'm keen on that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic at the moment – but no doubt there will be further versions.

Now, if I were to make a realistic estimate of the time invested by me into this one image, so far, it would have to include those original afternoons in Wales (say, 4 hours), and then one evening of around 3 or more hours for each of the (so far) nine saved versions: say, 30 hours. I don't want to exaggerate the value of my efforts, but my garage charges £60 per hour for labour, and I'd be happy to peg my hourly rate around there. Which means that, setting aside the cost of materials and the cumulative cost of the skill-set I have acquired over the years, a basic cost-recovery price for a copy of this picture ought to be around £2000.

Of course, that's not the whole picture, so to speak. If I were to sell it as an editioned "multiple" of, say, 50 copies, I should probably divide that price accordingly: £40. But if I actually wanted to make a living from my sales – let's say the target is a modest £25,000 p.a. – and hope to sell just five such editions of 50 prints in a year, then each copy needs to make me £100 on top of that cost-recovery price of £40: let's call it £150 per print. But that is to forget that a gallery, typically, takes 30% or more of the sale price, so I need to add that on: let's go wild and call it £250. Also, print editions rarely sell out – it may even turn out that most people hate that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic – so a substantial "failure factor" needs to be added on. I reckon a price of £350 or even £450 for an unframed, signed, limited edition print is not unreasonable. Obviously, where your prices go from there depends on the name you make for yourself and the lifestyle you want to support: but the ambition to be able to sell somewhere between 50 and 250 pieces of editioned work each year at something north of £450 each ought to satisfy most people.

Why am I being so bean-counterish about this? Mainly because I was intrigued by the price-tags on the prints for sale at the Royal Academy Summer Show. Now, I knew my own prices were ridiculously low. Calculatedly so: I had every intention of selling a few prints to cover my costs, although I hadn't anticipated the first-day buying frenzy that quickly ensued. Obviously, it's an interesting question how many I might have sold at £350 each rather than £75, although it's a matter of simple arithmetic that (taking into account the RA's "30% + VAT" cut) the pecuniary benefit of just ten sales spread over the three months of the show at the higher price would be equal to an edition of fifty sold out in one afternoon at the lower. If rather less gratifying to the ego.

In the same room as my two pictures there were about 100 other editioned prints for sale, with prices ranging from the insane (Jim Dine woodcut, edition of 6 at £16,800 each) through the expensive (Tracy Emin lithograph, edition of 50 at £1,400 each) to the affordable (I regretted not buying a copy of "The Old Deer Park" by Martyna Raczka, edition of 100 at £180, or "Collecting on the Strandline" by Neil Bousfield, edition of 50 at £300, before they sold out). But the majority seemed to cluster between £350 and £750, and not a few of these seemed to be selling well, despite being by unknowns like me.

Which, as you can imagine, gave me pause for thought, and I reached for my calculator. Next time – if there is a next time – I may put these calculations to the test. We could certainly do with a new car (that £60 an hour plus parts to keep our 2002 Scenic on the road starts to add up). In the meantime, I have some more tinkering to do.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Self Conscious

My partner asked me to pass her my camera, so I did. Looking through my files later on, I came across this picture I didn't recognise of some old geezer, looking out to sea, with what looked awfully like my bag slung over his shoulder.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
Robert Burns, To A Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet, at Church, 1786

Wednesday, 30 August 2017


I've been laid low for a couple of weeks with some virus I must have picked up somewhere on our recent "holiday" visit to Bristol. It's been a strange way to spend the last official weeks of summer and, as so often happens, I am now about 90% deaf on one side, which is very disorientating.

Never mind, my energy levels are returning to normal, the best part of the year is just over the horizon, and it's been a summer to remember. A busy one, too, not least because of fulfilling the print orders following my unexpected 100% sales success at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, with a few more supplementary sales added on by that little flurry of interest in my work. As you might expect, this has been a classic illustration of the 80:20 principle, with 20% of the orders creating 80% of the work. And I'm still waiting to hear from two buyers, despite the various emails and voicemails I've left over the past three months. Some people just seem to vanish for the entire summer. Probably members of the One Percent...

Wednesday, 23 August 2017


At last, my copy of the reprinted edition of Nancy Rexroth's Iowa has finally arrived. Announced for publication in April way back in March, that release date has been revised five times since. No doubt there were production problems, but I was happy to wait. The original and only previous edition was published back in 1977, after all.

If you've never come across this much-imitated and influential body of work before, you may well find it of little interest. But if you have then, like me, you've probably been trying to get hold of a decent copy for decades. They're around, but forty-year-old paperbacks tend not to wear well, and the good ones are very over-priced. This University of Texas hardback reprint is beautifully done, and if you want one I recommend you get a copy as soon as you can: it's bound to sell out quickly.

So what's the big deal? Well, I think of Iowa as the photo-book equivalent of a cult album like The Velvet Underground & Nico, or Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, or maybe even more appropriately Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day. That is, a one-off gem produced before the wider world was ready for it, but which has subsequently come to exercise a deep influence on other practitioners, and whose rarity makes it much sought-after by collectors. The headline is that Rexroth used a plastic-lensed "Diana" camera to make her pictures: the whole "toy camera" aesthetic starts here. But more important is her deliberate use of lo-fi, repetitive means to evoke complex and fleeting emotional responses, a sort of antidote to the photographic obsession with cold technical perfection and single, stand-out images. In fact, virtually none of the photographs were actually made in the state named in the title: this book is an act of conjuration, the desire and pursuit of her own private Idaho Iowa. The book is also a model of how to sequence your work so that it can become greater than the sum of its parts.

Having made her seminal contribution, Nancy Rexroth vanished from the photographic scene, rather like Vashti Bunyan, only to re-emerge from a parallel life 40 years later to find that she had become famous in her absence. She now has a website here, where you can read about the book and see the whole of the work.

"Turkeys Advance", Albany, Ohio 1973
from Iowa

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Life on Mars

"Do y'like school, then, Michael?"

When I was small, this was the inevitable, ritual question posed by visiting older relatives. As I recall, this was usually pretty much the sum total of our conversation; in our family, "children should be seen and not heard" was taken quite seriously. Situated somewhere on the spectrum between "So, do you enjoy being assaulted with a stick?" and "I prefer tea, myself, but I can see coffee has its points", the question encapsulated the gulf between our generations, between those who survived the fag-end of Victorian Britain, and those who were embracing the benefits of the New Elizabethan Age. They had no more idea of what wonderful things went on in the child-centred utopia that was a 1960s New Town primary school than I had of the rigours of caning and shaming that constituted the schooling of the poor at the turn of the twentieth century.

It is astonishing to me, now, to think of the almost total transformation of society they had witnessed: from the precarity of a dark, damp, smoky world of horses and candles to the fair-rent security of a council house, lit and heated at the flick of a switch. It's not surprising they didn't say much; they must have lived in perpetual anxiety that the spell would be broken and it would all be snatched away, like Caliban's dream. But it also meant that I knew next to nothing about them, and one of my pastimes over recent years has been exploring our family history.

I recently came across this document. It is a page from the 1906 "Poor Law Union" book for the North Hertfordshire market-town of Baldock, which records the assistance, usually financial, given to the paupers of the parish. There, at the top of the page, are my widowed great-grandmother Mary Ann, my grandmother Daisy aged 12, and her younger brother Henry, 11, receiving 3 shillings and sixpence "weekly relief". Four older children had already left home, two of them girls not much older and living "in service" on a nearby farm.

I knew they had been poor, but this was pretty desperate. Mary Ann had not had a lot of luck in life. She had been disfigured in a domestic fire, but married an older man in 1882, a soldier turned farm labourer, who gave her six children in quick succession and then promptly died at age 50. The shame of living "on the parish" was considerable, and must have left its mark. Nonetheless, according to my father, Granny Mabbitt was a sweet, kind, and generous woman, with a knack for home-brewing (the two are not necessarily connected). I suspect that if you are gifted with the right nature, simple survival is reward enough in life. She lived to be 80, sharing a household in Letchworth for many years with another daughter, Alice, who had been abandoned by her husband to bring up their child alone. Between them, I imagine they were pretty much immune to any amount of small-minded gossip or scandal. Again, according to my father, his Aunt Alice was a good-humoured, life-affirming woman, and I am proud to carry whatever share of their genes I may have. I can also report that in 1941 at age 56 Alice married a man – a bricklayer, no less – of 39. The marriage certificate shows they were both already living at that same address in Letchworth. As I say, immune.

Granny Mabbitt

The stigma of poverty must surely also have affected the then "scholar" Daisy. But, if so, she too wore it well. She was by far my favourite grandparent and, as she lived close-by throughout my childhood, I spent much time in her company. In her youth she had been a bookbinder at the Temple Press in Letchworth (home of Dent's "Everyman's Library"), "mother of the chapel" of her trade union, an active Labour Party member and, in the years I knew her, the energetic organiser of the Stevenage "Over-60s Club", where she met her raffish second husband. It's amusing, now, to think that 60 was the qualifying age for membership of an "old people's" club, but you didn't expect to live long after retirement in those days. That's if you made it that far: having lost her father aged 50, Daisy's first husband, my grandfather, died at 59. In the course of my family-history researches, I was by turns astonished, alarmed, and encouraged to discover that my own father was the first man in my direct male line to live past 60; good diet, central heating, and relief from all-weathers manual labour make all the difference. Plus an infusion of those good-humoured, survivor genes from East Anglia into a stiff-backed Scottish strain did no harm, either, of course.

Daisy Chisholm at Hemsby, Norfolk, 1956

The truth is I did like school, most of the time, despite the bullying, the pressures to conform and adopt protective colouration, the tedious homework and rote-learning, and even the occasional caning (that was only outlawed in England in 1986). In fact, I could cheerfully have spent the rest of my life at school. Which, now I come to think of it, I very nearly did; some people do. I suppose I may simply have inherited that Mabbitt make-the-best-of-it gene – mustn't grumble! – but the really crucial factors were that our state schooling was free all the way from Janet and John to PhD thesis, that the education on offer was worth having, and that some truly talented, committed teachers really, really wanted you to take it and run with it. Most of which, sadly, is now becoming as historic in our state system as learning to write on a slate. But, if it turned out that taking exams was your thing, you could even end up at some preposterously elite institution of higher education, previously the preserve of the nobbiest of nobs – and some of us did – places so far out of the ken of your family that you might as well be talking about taking tea with the Royal Family, or life on Mars.

Which brings its own problems. Once in a while, the confusion of why and how I got here or what on earth someone like me is doing here, anyway, can overwhelm the simple pleasure of being here. Wherever "here" is. But it's then that I must remember to try harder to hear the distant cheers of my not-so-distant ancestors, celebrating the comfortable shoes, warm home, full plates, and the easy, interesting life their genes are currently enjoying. And not just theirs, and not just the ones residing in those of us who have scrabbled some sort of "result" from life, either. All shall have prizes! Well, all shall have shoes, at least.

You've never had it so good!
Southend or Margate, 1932

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Bristol City Museum

Dormouse Time-Traveller

On a rainy day – on any day, come to that, other than Mondays – Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery is the gift that goes on giving. Unlike a lot of municipal and national museums, its management have not decided that a collection of stuffed animals is a regrettable remnant of an unenlightened past, one where "naturalist" was synonymous with "sharpshooter". Even the Natural History Museum in London has seen fit to put apologetic notes in its cabinets, explaining that the ears are falling off the specimens because no-one these days would even think of bagging a replacement super-rare critter just so school-parties of ten-year-olds can stare into its unforgiving glass eyes.

Which is right and fair enough, but – as with so many bits of heritage loot and bric-a-brac, from statues of Cecil Rhodes to shrunken heads – the apologetic, exculpatory note seems unnecessarily wimpy to me. Yep, we done that! Nope, we ain't gonna do it again! Though we do reserve the right to play around with the bits and pieces we've still got in an entertaining and instructive way...

Birds on a Twig on a Wire

"Mr. Chopping, Taxidermist", by John Kinnersley Kirby

Wednesday, 9 August 2017



I'm having some time off, based in Bristol. Ah, an English summer! We visited Clevedon on the Bristol Channel on a bitterly cold, wet, and windy New Year's Day, and the only real differences this week were the lesser intensity of the rain, and the fact that I did not lose any sensation in my fingers when photographing off the pier.

Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire is a novelty for us, though. Inhabited by the same family for 900 years – you should see the state of some of the furniture – it is claimed that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for a Berkeley wedding, which is quite a boast. As castles go, though, it is at the bijou end of the spectrum: on a visit, Princess Margaret is said to have exclaimed, "Crikey, we could fit twenty of these into Windsor!" It is also where Edward II was imprisoned and met his unpleasant demise, allegedly at the wrong end of a red-hot poker. Ouch.

Berkeley Castle

Friday, 4 August 2017

Seek Alternative Route

Central Bristol can be a place where reality and a superimposed fantasy version of reality are hard to distinguish. Since Banksy's heyday the place has accreted so many layers of graffiti – skilled, semi-skilled, and moronic – that its vertical surfaces can resemble one of those repeatedly scraped and re-inked manuscripts known as a palimpsest.

But, hey, look! OMG, it's the real vintage thing, tucked away in a modest sidestreet in Clifton! You can tell, because of the protective sheet of perspex someone has fixed over it. Amazing, really, how quickly vandalism can be reframed as heritage. It's a shame no-one thought to put glass over the Viking runes carved into a parapet in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul sooner than they did. We'll never know whether Halfdan was making an ironic comment on the Byzantine politics of, ah, Byzantium or merely indicating that he, Halfdan, woz 'ere.

I do think the juxtaposed "long delays" sign is very witty, though, and whoever dragged it there deserves equal credit for their readymade marginal annotation to Banksy's illuminated Brexit commentary.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Old School

After so much fantasy and fakery recently, it's nice to indulge in a little straight photography. It was a lovely afternoon yesterday, and I went for a walk down through Southampton Common to the Old Cemetery, returning up Hill Lane past the King Edward VI Grammar School.

Strange to think, after posting his Dunkirk memories on Sunday, that today would have been my father's 99th birthday.

Sunday, 30 July 2017


Before the War
(bike: probably a Phelon & Moore Red Panther)

Following Christopher Nolan's film, there has been a lot of interest recently in that curiously mythic event of the summer of 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk, perhaps the "hardest" Brexit imaginable, and the epitome of the British love of a magnificent defeat. As it happens, my father was at Dunkirk, and in his final years I managed to persuade him to commit to paper his vivid memories of this and the rest of his military service as a Royal Signals despatch rider, which spanned the entire war, from France, through the Western Desert, and finally to India and Burma. As an independent agent, criss-crossing the landscape from unit to unit, an observant DR necessarily got a wider-perspective view of the war than the average soldier. I have extracted here the chapter describing his experience of Dunkirk in its entirety.

Chapter Four (Dunkirk) from: Memories of a WW2 Despatch Rider, by Douglas Chisholm. [ the full text, lightly edited by me, is available at: ]

Got back to base one evening to find Bill Asher had got a fire going with a dixie boiling ready to brew some tea. I took off my gloves and respirator and hung them on a gate post - suddenly there was a loud whooosh and a big bang, the fire and dixie went up in the air in a cloud of ashes and steam. I dived into a ditch on top of someone who beat me to it - there were twigs and leaves falling from the bushes on to my face, presumably from bullets or shrapnel. After a short while it quietened down and I went to get my gloves and respirator; the gloves were stitched to the gatepost by splinters of wood and the respirator was cut to ribbons - the haversack was in shreds and the carbon granules were dribbling out of the canister. I had to find the Quarter Master to sanction the issue of a new respirator; I don't think he was very pleased, it probably meant a lot of paper-work! I kept the gloves as a souvenir.

Riding through a village I caught up a convoy of French horse drawn vehicles, guns, etc., when we were jumped by several Stukas who started bombing and strafing. Soon there were dead and wounded horses all over the road, some trying to gallop away with overturned wagons.  The noise was horrendous, the screams from the planes as they dived, bombs, machine guns, horses screaming, French running in all directions. I was in a ditch trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, when a Frenchman joined me saying over and over "Oh, mon dieu!"; he had a nasty gash on his wrist and had no field dressing so I bound him up with mine.

Another time I worked my way to the front of a column of vehicles to discover they were stopped by level crossing gates. I sat there for what seemed hours, keeping a watch for unfriendly planes; I folded my arms along the handlebars and rested my head on them. I felt so tired, the next thing I knew I was lying on the road with the bike on top of me. I had fallen asleep!

Riding through places that had been bombed was hairy, there was broken glass, wooden door frames with large nails sticking out, roof tiles, bricks, all very unstable and liable to cause punctures.  I soon realised that being on a bike was not the best way of knowing what was going on all around, it was difficult to hear any but the loudest and closest noises and impossible to see what was happening behind, so I began to stop occasionally and listen; I also watched carefully the actions and reactions of anyone, especially if they were paying close attention to the area behind me. If there was any sign of unwelcome activity I got off the road as soon as possible, parked the bike, and  moved swiftly off the road at right angles to the direction of approach of the problem.  I fully agreed with the lesson rammed home by the instructors at Prestatyn: "the safety of the message is the most important thing", as that also implied my safety!

One raid resulted in me being covered in white dust which I assumed to be chalk.  It did not come off very easily, so I must have looked a strange sight. Later I caught up with some of the section just after dark. Occasionally it became as light as day, someone was firing parachute flares which hung in the sky for quite a while. I went into a small room at the rear of a building and in the dark managed to find a vacant space between some of the lads already asleep on the floor.  I thought the floor felt a bit bumpy, but a chance to get some sleep was most welcome. At first light I went outside, to discover that the room was a coal shed, and I was now covered in a mixture of chalk and coal-dust.

Refugees heading west away from the Germans were a big problem, they came in cars, buses, horse-carts, on horse-back, bicycles, prams, wheelbarrows, just walking, all spread right across the road going in the opposite direction to what we were going, and threading through the crowds was hard work. They were a sitting target for German bombers and fighters who just flew up and down the roads unchallenged. So some of the sights along the way were not very pleasant. Gradually, mixed in with the civilians I saw occasional khaki uniforms, they had no weapons or steel helmets, just mixing in with the crowds. Sometimes as the result of a raid there would be groups of bodies, men, women and children pulled off the road, perhaps under some trees and left there. After a time I suppose we just got to the stage when it became the norm and no longer felt involved in something over which we had no control.

During one of these strafes I felt a thump on my right leg just below the knee. That night when I took off my boots the right sock was caked with blood,  whatever hit me had gone through the very thin skin on my shin almost to the bone. Luckily I had a spare pair of socks and the wound was not painful and it healed quite quickly.

During the early days we were riding quite deep into Belgium, but slowly it seemed that we were not going so far, and units were moving west. We recrossed the French border near Poperinghe. As we moved back deeper into France I was detached from the Section, to work with a captain with several trucks with wireless and other equipment. The captain seemed to be in a bit of a flap, got his map out and said, "Go and see if we can get to this location along these lanes". I went and took a look, and told him, "We can get the lorries through, and there is no sign of enemy activity". Off we went, it was a bit tight in places, and when we arrived at the spot pointed out by the captain I got a roasting because the overhanging trees and bushes had scratched the paint on some of the lorries!

Soon the columns of refugees thinned out and there were practically no civilians, but more and more uniforms, some I didn't recognise, all without rifles. They took up the whole width of the roads, so it was easier to get up on the verges and have a bumpy but quicker journey. For the first time there were lorries heading in a northerly direction packed with British uniforms and looking lost. I kept getting asked, "Is this the way to Dunkirk?", and when I'd helped they went off in a hurry.

We began to see mixed groups of men from various regiments and different arms walking in the same direction as the lorries had gone, a fair number still carrying their rifles.

I was attached to a major with a wireless truck. As the messages came in we'd go off to find a unit, occasionally on return to our starting place someone would be waiting with a new map reference, always further north or north-west. The fields alongside the roads (which were on raised banks) were becoming covered with water, to make it more difficult for Jerry tanks. If bombs or shells landed in the fields up went fountains of mud and water.

One night we slept on the edge of a field under a hedge with the bikes out of sight from aircraft. We were woken at first light and told not to start the bikes, but to wheel them to the edge of a railway line, then at intervals carry the bikes over the tracks without any metal touching the lines, wheel the bikes a considerable distance, before being allowed to start up. We never found out why. Up to that time I had been wearing over my battle-dress a Barbour suit, it was warm and waterproof and although it was fraying on one leg from battery acid spillage caused when I'd fallen off a few times, I liked it because it was ideal when sleeping outdoors. But about this time an infantry officer advised me to stop wearing it because, being a greeny-grey colour, some of his chaps might mistake me for a Jerry and take appropriate action, so I dumped it.

While riding it was difficult to be aware what was going on all around - apart from the engine noise, trying to ride against the flow of men and trucks took a lot of concentration. I found that watching the column coming towards me gave early warning of a bombing or strafing attack; the column peeled off the road on either side like earth off a ploughshare. A Jerry fighter came towards us at ground level followed by a Spitfire. To stop the Spit from firing the Jerry flew straight along the road just above our heads - to our delight the Spit got his propeller under the Jerry's tail and slowly pulled up, forcing Jerry to climb or have his tail cut off. They climbed, one under the other until Jerry levelled out, the Spit followed, a short burst of machine gun fire, the Jerry tipped on his nose and crashed into a flooded field, burying the plane well past the cockpit. A great cheer went down the line of men who were by now back on the road, heading north.

Our next move was to the house of a smallholding just off the road. We could now see the cloud of black smoke hanging over Dunkirk and watch bombing raids on the town. The columns of men no longer needed to ask the way, all they had to do was head for the smoke. They were by now very ragged looking; occasionally a company of infantry would march by in good order, but not often. There was abandoned equipment everywhere, in fields and side roads.  I was amazed to see a field full of artillery and big ack-ack guns, it looked like hundreds of them, many of them had their barrels pointing to the sky, but the barrels had the ends blown out like the petals of a flower.

One night I was riding through a small village and was slowed down by an M.P. with a torch: there were hundreds of infantry men lying in the market place in orderly rows as if on parade - three ranks in perfect lines. I could only assume they were one of the Guards Regiments taking a rest before marching on.

I had scrounged a mug of tea from the crew of a Bofors gun when a twin tailed plane came into sight from the north, they got off several clips of shells before the plane veered away and disappeared. I said "I reckon that was a Lockheed Hudson, one of ours". They said for them every plane is unfriendly.

In training, Sherwood Forest (no, really)

In France
(bikes: BSA WD M20)

By now the journeys were getting shorter and more frequent, so every opportunity was taken to get a few minutes sleep. Petrol was obtainable by syphoning it from abandoned vehicles, the bikes stood up to the rough treatment very well. During one trip along a cinder track I suddenly found myself on my back, the bike several yards away. I hadn't heard a bang or seen a flash so I stayed where I was. Nothing happened so I checked myself over, my right elbow was very sore and the battle-dress sleeve torn and frayed a bit. Just below the elbow was a large graze, so I checked the bike - just a bent footrest and brake lever and that was that. I saw some RAMC blokes, they had a look and told me that I'd live and asked if it hurt?  I said no, and they said, "It will now", and they rubbed some sort of gel into the graze and I was sent on my way.

Digging a slit trench one day we unearthed boxes of .303 rifle ammunition in very good order, but dated from WW1, just about eighteen inches below ground.

A group of Artillery men stopped for a rest on the verge near us and I saw they were concerned for a young officer who had his great coat slung over his shoulders and looked "all-in". I went across and asked if I could help and noticed that a piece of shrapnel triangular in shape, each side about an inch and a half long was wedged vertically in the brim of his steel helmet, just in line with his eye, so I said, "That was close".  He said he wasn't worried about that, then showed me his right shoulder which was a mangled mess of blood and bandages. There was nothing I could do, and after a while they resumed their trek to Dunkirk. Later I wondered if they were the survivors of a group of four Bofors guns I had watched being bombed, machine-gunned and knocked out in a field earlier that day.

The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn't fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev's, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.

It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible.  I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water's edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn't have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.

I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult.  I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water - we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was dark when I got to the mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie. Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told "wait, make way for wounded".  Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us onto a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship. We were told to spread ourselves round the ship. I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre - the "Tynwald". I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France.

We arrived at Winchester station and were lorried to the Kings Royal Rifles barracks, given two blankets, and shown into a barrack hut where I got down on the floor and sank into a peaceful sleep.

After Dunkirk

Dad died in 2008. He was never one for going on about the war, but he had a terrific album of photographs that others in his unit had taken and which lived in the bottom of a bedroom wardrobe, which I used to pore over as a boy. I would insist on knowing all about the who, where, and what of those mainly benign images, and Dad would reluctantly revisit the past, no doubt redacting his memories somewhat for my childish ears. For boys of my age, born in the 1950s, WW2 occupied a similar place in the imagination to that held by Star Wars, say, or Lord of the Rings for later generations. It must have been hard for our fathers to have reality and fantasy brought together in a potentially explosive way, daily, in the form of comics, toys, and children running around the streets playing "army".

When they realised they were getting too old to look after themselves, my parents moved from Hertfordshire to Norfolk, to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. For the sake of some company, Dad joined the local branch of the Dunkirk Association, where men of like age and with a shared, unique experience could swing the lamp a bit over a cup of tea (men in their eighties tend not to drink pints). In this way he found himself at the epicentre of one of the darkest chapters in the Dunkirk story, the massacre of captured British troops of the Royal Norfolk Regiment by the SS at Le Paradis. This terrible story can be read here. Talking with these men, I think, shifted something in his perception of his own wartime experiences, rather like realising – 55 years after the event – what a close-run thing it had been at times, not just nationally, but personally.

For the first time, he began reading accounts of the war and attending Remembrance Day parades in chilly churchyards in Norfolk. And he asked me to find him a copy of this painting by Charles Cundall, which he'd seen on TV:

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Cundall

I bought a print of it from the Imperial War Museum, which he framed and hung over his bed. Shortly before he died, he said to me, "You know that painting of the beach at Dunkirk? It's not quite right, you know. Those great big clouds of black smoke? I'm sure they were blowing the other way."

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Sell Your Cleverness

It struck me recently that it has now been three years since I retired, and I haven't written any programs, scripts, or HTML pages in all that time. Not one. In a sense, of course, that is precisely what retirement means: you have stopped working, your accounts have lapsed, your administrator passwords have been terminated, and all the accumulated, undocumented knowledge you carry around in your head has been retired, too. Access denied! I can almost feel the empty space in my head where it used to be. But, still, I'm surprised: I had come to think of my modest code-cutting adventures as a core part of who I had become, and fully expected to continue them into retirement, perhaps even writing some apps for smartphones that would make me stinking rich.

But, no. Of course, I also haven't done any meetings, seminars, appraisals, training sessions, or conferences in that time, either. But I was never going to miss those aspects of a working life; who would? Conferences abroad are fun for a few years, but air-travel, hotels, and tedious afternoons in sunless seminar rooms quickly pall as you get older, particularly if you have to juggle childcare arrangements. I do miss the people, mostly, but then almost all of "my" people have moved on or retired, too. I think what I most sorely miss is the daily craic on the smokers' table* in the Staff Club at morning coffee-time, but then that pleasure had already come to an end years ago as the number of smokers (and "honorary smokers") declined, and then finished off by a ban on smoking indoors. Somehow, skulking in a corner out of the wind and rain is not conducive to life-enhancing gossip and banter.

But what about all that computer stuff? Do I miss it? All the operating systems, hardware configurations, and coding languages I learned, the systems and project management expertise built up over 35 years, or the highly-specialised data-handling expertise acquired? What will happen to the part of my brain that used to get such regular exercise? Well, I suspect it has already and quickly been occupied by another, more colourful part, suppressed for too many years, like a defunct office space eagerly turned into an artist's studio. Besides, if I'm honest, in my final years of working I found that coping with the constantly accelerating pace of change was making me anxious and unhappy. Working with IT eventually teaches you two profound life-lessons: first, that all your achievements are ephemeral, to be washed away in the next tide of change and, second, that nobody understands or cares what you have done, anyway. Instructively, after 30 years of service I received a perfunctory retirement letter from the central university administration, the main burden of which was to remember to hand in my keys before I left.

I suspect I may even be becoming a neo-Luddite. As I wrote in an earlier post, I have come to regret my role in the dumbing-down of university life, much as I enjoyed every minute it. What fun it was, to rise to the challenge of planning a major project, and what pleasure was to be had in meeting and overcoming all the technical problems thrown in our path! This, despite the knowledge that (repeat after me) your achievements are ephemeral, to be washed away in the next tide of change, and that nobody understands or cares what you have done, anyway.

But, when the basic strategic direction is wrong, all this counts for nothing. Or as the motto of my secondary school (not to mention the City of Edinburgh) has it, nisi dominus frustra:
Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it:
Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
Psalm 127
The planning and, um, execution of Stalin's gulags may have been perfectly brilliant, but history will award no prizes to those who actually devised and carried out such massively complex programmes of bureaucracy and logistics. Which does seem a little unfair. Although, even if Stalin had turned out to be one of the good guys, I expect history would merely have sent them the standard form letter, thanking them for their contribution, and reminding them to hand in their keys.

In the end, this is probably hard but fair. Cleverness unconstrained by wisdom may yet be the downfall of our species. Think of so-called Artificial Intelligence, which we might usefully think of as humanity's attempt to outsource its own most distinctive feature, perhaps best represented by that traditional cartoon of a man sawing off the very branch he is sitting on. Over my working life I have witnessed several waves of happily-employed, good, ordinary, decent people being made redundant and their lives rendered purposeless by clever technology. It sometimes seems that technologists will not rest until the last opportunity to enjoy a meaningful life through work has been eliminated. The advent of AI, of course, will be their final ironic triumph: cleverness itself will have become redundant! When, I wonder, will it dawn on those setting our strategic directions that the pursuit of efficiency, productivity and profits by automation and the elimination of expensive, fallible "human resources" is not the point: people are the point, and not the problem!

In the words of everybody's favourite 13th century Sufi mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī: Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment. You know it makes sense.

* No, not crack smokers, fool!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Perseverance and Challenge

I read this in a book review a while ago, and it struck me as an interesting insight into the way certain things have changed:
Though Hajdu doesn’t address this particular issue, he does pinpoint a subtle yet profound transformation digitization has brought about in many people’s listening habits, including his own. Consider, to begin with, what things were like in the pre-digital age:

'I remember buying the album Hejira in 1976, to use the example of Joni Mitchell […] and finding it tuneless and confusing. But, damn it, I spent a whole $7 on the thing. So I stuck with it, hoping to find a way to appreciate it and get my money’s worth. Within a few days, I did, and my taste expanded in the process.'

The situation is quite different now. With a streaming service at your disposal, you can skitter from one song to another (and not only within a single album) until something hooks you from the very start. Hajdu, by his own admission, does just that. Such an approach, he pointedly remarks, “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”

review by Rayyan Al-Shawaf of "Love For Sale: Pop Music in America" by David Hajdu (LARB 16 Jan 2017)
Setting aside the totally baffling reaction to Hejira –  tuneless and confusing? Perhaps he played it backwards? –  the general point being made is sound. Those used to be the keynotes of education, didn't they: "perseverance and challenge"? Even though you might forget every poem, date, fact, theorem, constant, and equation you had encountered along the way, the main takeaway from a solid education was that sticking to difficult tasks brought rewards that far exceeded those of more easily-achieved satisfactions. And, what's more, that is a true truth, universally acknowledged, copper-bottomed, and unconditionally guaranteed.

I knew my career in university libraries was coming to its end when our profession, in its over-eagerness to please, decided to smooth away as many as possible of those little difficulties that, essentially, constitute the real, actual educational benefit of using a research library. You know: learning how to look stuff up, determine whether it is relevant, and whether it exists in your institution, and if so, where and in what form, and if not, how to get hold of it. Above all, to discover the variousness of the world of books, information, and scholarship. Yes, it's inconvenient and frustrating that different catalogues, databases, and reference works all make different assumptions, contain different materials, index them in different ways, and deliver them in different forms and to different degrees of completeness, but learning to navigate these peculiarities is all part of the art of becoming a competent researcher. It's also a genuinely transferable life-skill: how to be indefatigable in the face of systematic bureaucratic obfuscation.

Or, so it seemed, until we decided the best way to serve our students and staff was to disguise and package up these many inconvenient differences – which still exist – into a one-stop automated vending-machine, capable of delivering instant gratification. Why, kids, you don't even have to know how to spell what you're looking for: we've taken care of that! Better, you don't have to get out of bed, as all the stuff on your reading lists is online, right here, ready and waiting! We've spent hours of staff time getting hold of all those reading lists, tracking down the copyright holders, and getting it all legally scanned and digitised for you. So no more boring note-taking and queueing for photocopiers! We've even made an app, so you can "research" your essay on your phone, and it's all so damned seamless, frictionless, and flavourless that you won't know or care whether you're reading a chapter from a book, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, a newspaper column, or a website put up by a 15-year-old as their school project. Spoon feeding? You're kidding me: this is more like force-feeding geese for foie gras...

Sorry, I'm ranting. Also, I should confess: although I did eventually take myself out of that picture because I was no longer comfortable in it, it was precisely me and people like me who, like willing but unwitting atomic scientists, wrote the code and developed the systems that made it all possible. What harm could it do? We had no idea how it would end! It was really good fun! We voz only following orders!  Sigh. In my darker moments, I suspect that some combination of the drive to save time and effort with the desire to be seen to be astonishingly clever will result in the killer app that finally sees off Western civilisation. My little satire of 2010 (on humanities education delivered as a placebo pill) comes to seem less and less far-fetched.

Isn't it interesting, though, how – in the days of the tweeting president and the instant dissemination of false "news" – those of us nominally on the oppositional left should find ourselves taking up what are essentially conservative stances towards things like research skills, attention spans, and reading and listening habits? I suppose there has always been a strong puritanical streak on the Left which, let's be honest, is precisely what has turned most people off. If your idea of the good life is a lively meeting to discuss housing policy, followed by an invigorating run, some green tea and a light, nutritious vegan supper, then an hour or two's reading and an early night to bed, then you are not so much out of touch with the majority population as a separate species sharing the same planet.

But it is important to learn how to tug away at the masks worn by the would-be manipulators of mass society, as they continually assimilate good things to bad ends. Look at how managerialism has co-opted the languages of community, mindfulness, and "personal development" and yet has created a precarious ant-world where people must learn to be corporately on message and to regard themselves as flexible, disposable human resources, lucky to be in work and always needing to justify their continued employment and, if necessary, to take one for the company. Job for life? Final-salary index-linked pension? Trade unions? So last century, grandad! Similarly, the glossiness and invasive ease of use of our "devices", coupled with social media and celebrity culture, have become the lubricants for a know-nothing, "price of everything" popularism that places no value at all on those old-fashioned virtues of perseverance and challenge. TL;DR!* After all, why bother to learn, to seek out, to question, to discriminate, to overcome lazy disinclination, when you are being hosed down with personally-targeted torrents of shiny, sexy, ephemeral infotainment all day, every day? Every hour spent learning irregular verbs or practising scales is an hour that could have been spent catching up with Facebook.

So, have we finally said goodbye to seriousness and difficulty? Many might hope so. As long ago as the book of Ecclesiastes, it was lamented that of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. And will the daughters of musick be brought low, and will there now never be another Hejira, in the sense of a coherent body of work from a serious artist, carefully thought through, and delivered without condescension to a minority audience? Well, of course there will! Except it won't be nine songs on a 12 inch disk of vinyl in a cardboard "gatefold" package. I look forward to it, although I do hope it won't come in pill or implant form**. But, be glad, for the song (and the making of many books) has no ending...

 * Too long, didn't read!
** ImplART ™ ... You read it here first! Just stick it in your sockART!

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Southampton Water

I have a strong association between pike and Southampton Water, or rather the marshy reed-beds where the river Test meanders into the brackish estuary, as somewhere in there is (or used to be) a keeper's cottage with a dozen or so pike "masks" mounted on the exterior wall. We passed it once on a walk many years ago, and I've been meaning and forgetting to go back there ever since. As I recall, some of them were huge.

And I knew I'd find a use for that St. George wheelbarrow, sooner or later.

Booth Museum pike, Brighton

One for the language-enthusiasts: isn't it curious, that nearly all fish names are singular in the plural? I have a hunch, though nothing more than that, that this has something to do with the names of creatures that can be hunted and eaten. Despite "rabbits", and no doubt a dozen other contradictory examples. Besides, I've a feeling that to say "there's half a dozen rabbit over there" is subtly but significantly different in intention from saying "there's half a dozen rabbits over there". Run, rabbit, run... (and, yes, don't tell 'em your name, Pike!).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Sleep of Reason

In making this latest series of composites, I keep thinking of the words that accompany one of Goya's most famous images from Los Caprichos, a series of satirical etchings: el sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters). They somehow seem very appropriate for these Interesting Times of ours, and I might even, um, appropriate them as the title for my own series.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Forty-Seven Memory Palace

I have mentioned several times the block of council flats in Stevenage New Town, in which I spent my adolescent years. After my sister had left home we moved, in summer 1968, to a two-bedroom, fourth-floor flat in this seven-story block, known variously as "Stony Hall, Block C" and "Chauncy House". It was the last home I shared with my parents and, in Neil Young's words, all my changes were there ("There is a place in Northern Hertfordshire..."). It was there that I went from being a lonely, obedient swot to a gregarious, rebellious swot. Well, you can't change everything!

After I, too, had left home (about as hastily as I could manage it, I'm afraid to say), my parents finally moved out of that flat in the 1980s, at first into a council-maintained old-people's bungalow then, as they grew increasingly frail, into a mobile-home in my sister's back garden in Norfolk (we were under oath never to call it "the caravan"). My increasingly tenuous connection with my home-town had finally been broken.

Driving up from Southampton to my mother's funeral in 2007, I thought I'd take a detour through Stevenage to get a look at the flats, and maybe take some photographs. To my complete amazement I discovered that the entire block had been demolished, and building work was already starting on the site. It was hard to take in: my bedroom, the theatre of so many vivid teenage dreams, fears, aspirations, and fantasies, had simply become an empty, dusty space, fifty feet up in the air. It was a scene you wouldn't dare write into a film, for fear of being accused of heavy-handed symbolism.

Being of an obsessive bent, in the years since I have continually attempted to recreate that flat as a sort of exercise in mental archaeology. In idle moments, drifting off to sleep or travelling on trains, I have carried out many walk-throughs of its layout and contents, to the extent that I could probably use it as a "memory palace"; a memory flat, perhaps, for a more modest mnemonic store of material. The door was here, it had frosted glass, no pebbled wire-reinforced glass, it was dark red, next to the wall of the kitchen which looked onto the walkway, and so on. Somehow, though, whenever I tried to put the layout on paper, it never quite fitted together. I tried working from the few photographs I had, but these were all of the front elevation, not the back where all the walkways, lifts, entrances, and rubbish chutes were. Periodically, I would carry out Google searches, to see if any new images or information would show up. Usually, I would draw a blank.

But, recently, I finally hit paydirt. It turns out that the University of Edinburgh maintains a database of UK tower-blocks, including the ones that are no longer with us. Their entry for Stony Hall a.k.a. Chauncy House was very informative, giving front and – finally! – rear view photographs taken by Miles Glendinning in the 1980s, and useful things like the name of the architects, and references to some articles written about it in architectural journals back in the 1950s, when the design of "social housing" was a hot topic, and racking plebs like battery hens was considered a decent solution to the housing shortage.

A quick check showed that "my" library did actually hold two of the journals concerned, and a descent into the basement (where disruptive and noisy refurbishment is taking place over the summer) put the relevant volumes into my hands. I couldn't believe my luck: there was a ten-page article in The Architectural Review for December 1952 that included fresh photographs, front and rear, and the thing I had dreamed of finding: an architect's plan of the layout of the flats.

The curious thing is that there is almost certainly no-one else in the entire world who cares about this in the slightest. The even more curious thing is that the perfect solution to my self-imposed problem had been sitting in my former place of work, undiscovered and patiently waiting, all along.