Monday, 16 October 2017

Little Altars Everywhere



When I was a young boy of 8 or so, a whole gang of us used to run around the streets, woods, and empty spaces of our little bit of town, mainly playing shoot-em-up games that went on for entire summer days, until, by some mysterious telepathy – none of us owned a watch – we were all "called in" for our tea*. We were probably the last generation to play unsupervised in streets still relatively free of traffic, and without constant parental worry about "stranger danger". Grazed knees, bruises, and the odd chipped tooth were the marks of days well spent, not neglect or abuse.

That was us, the boys. The girls, too, played all day, but had their own mysteries. There were elaborate skipping games with chants passed down for who-knows how many generations, and self-induced trances of make-believe that animated dolls and soft toys, and – well, actually, I have very little idea what they were up to, in those giggling, shrieking gatherings. Occasionally, though, when laying an ambush in the woods, or looking for a tree to climb, you might come across a solemn little group of girls gathered around some tiny corpse, generally a bird, which they were ceremonially burying, covering the site with grass and flowering weeds, and marking it with an improvised cross of twigs. Who knows what sort of hedge-witchery was being rehearsed there, but it always made a deep impression on me.

Something of the sort may lie behind these bird altarpieces I have been making. Dead birds do have a strange quality about them; that something so nervily restless, so ready to fly away, should have become so still, such that the beautiful subtleties of the plumage of even the plainest bird lie open to close inspection. And, if you dare to handle some dead thing, how oddly light they weigh in the palm, as if made of some paradoxical substance like polystyrene rather than flesh, bone, and blood. It's not surprising that people have always reached for bird metaphors when trying to account for death and the flight of the "spirit". One fine day, I'll fly away...



* For non-natives: "tea" is how Brits from the lower social strata in the south of England refer to their main evening meal. "Dinner" is the midday meal, as in "free school dinners". It was a primary marker of my giddy rise through the social ranks when I started, rather self-consciously at first, to refer to "dinner" as "lunch" and "tea" as "dinner" (although in this classless bohemian household, we tend to refer to "what we're having to eat this evening"...).

Friday, 13 October 2017

Solent Soul Suite



For some time, I've been intending to produce a series of works that have something to say about Southampton and the Solent region. Now, I have strong emotional connections to various locations – most obviously North Hertfordshire and East Anglia where I grew up, Oxford, Norwich, Bristol, and parts of London where I studied and worked, and various habitual holiday destinations such as mid-Wales and Dorset – but I have actually spent most of my adult life in Southampton. I moved here at the age of 30 in pursuit of a job in 1984, and have been here ever since. In fact, since 2014 over half of my life has been lived in Southampton, and yet I would never think of the place as "home". Indeed, I rarely find myself thinking of "my" city as a place at all.

Why? Because, despite its location, size, population*, and historic and economic importance, it seems to lack the strength of identity that other, comparable cities have. It is certainly no Liverpool or Glasgow, though it probably once might have been; it is not even a Brighton, or a Winchester, smaller places with stronger characters. It has more in common with those large, long-established but anonymous dormitories around London like Reading, Basingstoke, or Luton: endless streets of Victorian housing, 1930s semis, and could-be-anywhere estates and high-rises shading into a town centre ruined by insensitive post-war development and hermetic shopping malls dreamed up in some architect's office in London.

Of course, places like Liverpool and Glasgow are like this, too, but have nonetheless built and kept something extra: let's call it a soul. So why, then, have I stayed here so long? As an old friend bluntly wondered out loud recently. The best answers I could come up with were:
  • Having got a decent job here in 1984, I ran out of ambition when our son was born in 1991.
  • I wanted to give my kids the experience of growing up in one town, something I had (and valued), and my partner hadn't.
  • We could afford a house here, but not in more congenial places within commutable distance of London like Winchester. (My partner's London-based career took off just around the time mine stalled; I usually say her star was on the rise, but mine chose to stay in bed).
  • It's situated within range of interesting South Coast landscapes, and is not Portsmouth.
  • Did I say it's not Portsmouth?
  • Inertia. Inertia. Inertia.




Part of the problem is the isolation of the city as a whole from its main source of prosperity, the port. The docks are like a thin, hard shell, a few hundred yards deep at most, formed around the city like a chemical reaction where it makes contact with the water, and sealed off on the landward side by railway lines and high, razor-wire topped fences. You could be forgiven for not even knowing the docks were there, were it not for the clusters of gigantic cranes that can be seen from miles away, and which loom at the end of any street heading downhill towards Southampton Water. Another clue is the endless traffic of container-lorries and car-transporters heading in and out of town from the motorway (apparently more cars are exported from Southampton than any other port in the country). Oh, and then there's the sudden dearth of taxis at the railway station when one of the big luxury cruise-liners is in port.

So, my self-imposed challenge is to go in search of Southampton's Soul, and render it pictorially. I'm already pretty sure straight photographs like these won't do: few things are as visually unstimulating as hundreds of identical cars parked in orderly rows, awaiting export, although stacked containers do have a certain something, and just look at those amazing heaps of scrap. No, this is going to have to be a full-on digital collage job, triptychs and all.



* Around 250,000, strictly speaking, although the whole "South Coast Conurbation" adds up to about 1.5 million.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Greatest Hit



For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this image (which I had the good fortune to show at the Royal Academy this summer and which I called Golden Wasp Game #7) has proved exceptionally popular. All fifty copies of the RA edition sold out on the first afternoon of the Summer Exhibition, and I have been fending off demand for further copies ever since.

However, because I had promised copies of the print to various people, I decided to make a separate, unlimited "Friends & Family" edition, which is what you see above. This version is smaller (image size 20cm x 15cm on an A4 sheet), is signed but unnumbered, and has a rather natty red signature "seal" at bottom right.

If you would like a copy, I will be selling them until Christmas for £50 plus post & packing (£6.50 in mainland UK). Just send me an email (my address is in the "Since You Ask" profile at top right), and I will invoice you. On receipt of payment, I will send you the print, fresh from my very own Epson inkjet printer, and defensively packed in a clear bag between corrugated cardboard sheets within the finest rigid envelope known to humanity.

If you should happen to prefer its RA companion, Golden Wasp Game #3 (below), then that, too, is available in a "Friends & Family" edition, at the same price. Should you fancy buying both of them, then that will be £90 plus post & packing (£7.50 in mainland UK).


Sunday, 8 October 2017

Something Even Grander



With a little more tinkering, I think this is better. I was alarmed to discover, however, that the full, multi-layered Photoshop file is now slightly over 1.5 gigabytes in size. Now that's grand.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Something Grand



Printed at 300 dpi this thing would be 120cm x 58cm: it's quite big. Properly framed, it would be even bigger. In fact, by my standards it's monstrous, and way beyond the capacity of my A3+ printer. But I either had to choose between those two kingfisher pictures, or put them together somehow. The idea of a triptych seemed an obvious way to do it.

If you think this picture is a little strange, either in concept or in execution, bear in mind that Hieronymus Bosch's famously weird Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, designed to be used as a folding altarpiece. I used to have a poster of the full triptych blu-tacked onto my teenage bedroom wall – believe me, in the 1970s Blu Tack was a really exciting new innovation – and it probably exercised more influence on my imagination and subconscious than I'm prepared to admit. The Bosch, I mean, not the Blu Tack, obviously.* I love the fact that, when closed, the reverse sides of the triptych's outer panels combine to show an image of a flat, foggy world spellbound within a translucent bubble, rather like those plastic balls in vending machines that contain toys, sweets, and other gimcrack delights.

All I need now is a patron prepared to have the thing manufactured on an appropriately grand and luxurious scale. I'm thinking a hand-made hinged frame, and gold, lots of gold. It's at times like these that one truly feels the absence of the deep and generous pockets of the mediaeval church. Thanks a lot, Martin Luther!

* Although only now do I realise that I've used a repeated blob of BluTack for the border of the central panel... Thus worketh the subconscious mind.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Home Alone

From: "Co-parented by popular culture: why celebrity deaths affect us so deeply" by Michael Hann, Guardian 18/9/17:
In effect, those born in the 1950s and 1960s were the first generations to be co-parented by popular culture. They were the people, who as Bruce Springsteen put it in No Surrender, “learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”. They drew life lessons not from fireside chats with parents, but from David Bowie or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. They were entertained not by parlour games, but by The Generation Game. When they wanted to understand why they felt as they did during adolescence, they didn’t speak to their families, they listened to the Smiths, or whoever answered their particular need.
   They did so in homes in which, often, both parents were absent much of the time. Millions of kids spent more time with pop stars and film stars and TV stars than with their parents. (Not for nothing were the children’s TV presenters of the 1960s and 1970s usually presented as surrogate parents, like John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd on Blue Peter, rather than the matey older siblings of the late 1980s and onwards) They were also the first generations for whom adulthood was deferred, by the expansion of education, by the postponement of marriage. There was no pressure on them to loosen their bonds with the people they had grown up listening to or watching.
Yep, that's me (but delete "The Smiths" and "The Generation Game" and insert, let's say, "The Kinks" and "Monty Python").  You, too?

I'll never forget those dark winter afternoons around 1965, coming home from school to an empty house, and turning on the TV in anticipation of a daily dose of The Magic Roundabout. It was great! I believe the sociologists back then called us "latchkey kids", and feared we were prone to behavioural problems, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. As if! No, that was all strictly for the weekends...

Latchkey chicks

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Genuine Imitation



These are disturbing pictures. Why? Because they reveal to me just how far I have strayed from what once seemed like the One True Path.

I was looking through the image files hanging around on my antique iPad 2, bought second-hand back in 2012, and which I have been using as a convenient "media consumption" device ever since. Back then the screen quality was a revelation, and it's still pretty good by most standards, but the device only has 16Gb of storage, so periodically I look for unused apps and data to delete in order to free up some space. As I was swiping through the images I saw these two, and thought: now those are a lot better than I thought at the time I made them.

As you can probably tell, they are the result of the sort of app-driven instant effect that everyone loves (whatever app it was I can't recall and it is long gone). The Web's image-sumps like Flickr are full of them: imitation Polaroids, fabricated faded snaps, simulated glass-plate negatives... In the first rush of iPad enthusiasm I downloaded some photo-manipulation apps – they're so cheap! – and had a go; I thought it was fun but the results seemed way too easily won, and I moved on.

In the meantime, of course, I have become a bit of a forger myself, and this has affected my judgement. Or rather, it has altered my judgement; I like these now, in an uncomplicated way. I think I am probably sufficiently removed from the ease of their making (talk about "You press the button, we do the rest"!) to see them purely as pictures and, well, they're rather nice, even if they are still "fake" in some sense.

I've a feeling this is confirmation that I'm not really a "photographer" any more. Or at least not the sort of photographic purist who would automatically sneer at a shortcut to an interesting result. What, after all, is a photograph, when compared with a painstakingly hand-made sketch or painting, if not a convenient, instant shortcut to an interesting result?

The great advantage of sticking to the One True Path – the way of authenticity, of quality, of skill – is that it makes moral judgements so much easier. Like, say, a vegan, you can always neatly position yourself on the angels' side of any debate. The trouble is, it also means rejecting most of the technical developments of recent decades, despite the fact that approved "authentic" art practices clearly include techniques like screen-printing, lithography and engraving which, in their day, were themselves innovative technical processes intended to facilitate mass production. Having become obsolete for their original purpose, they nonetheless have pictorial qualities that are attractive to the "artisanal" picture-maker. They are also quite laborious, difficult to learn, and involve the use of expensive, hard-to-obtain kit, which always adds virtue to any artistic endeavour. See the darkroom v. digital debate.

Therein lies one of the dilemmas of our contemporary world, which finds expression in many ways, but which boils down to those eternal questions of authenticity, quality, and skill, and the value we put on them. In what way is a hand-crafted chair that costs £6000 a better chair than a factory-produced item selling for one percent of its price-tag? Is a hit record made by a singer using pitch-correction software and synthesised instruments a work made by the "artist" or by the producer, and is it "real" music? What is the value of a bought degree, or one earned using essays from an essay-bank? If it makes a company's products significantly cheaper, and thus available to the mass market, does it matter that they are made in sweatshops in the Third World, or by robotic manufacturing processes that have put thousands out of work? Most difficult of all, Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

Essentially, these are questions that have been around since the Industrial Revolution, but intensified by mass production and "mass" democratic societies, and brought to urgency by globalisation and IT. When is the real thing the wrong thing? Is the best the enemy of the good? If everybody has something (e.g. clean water) does that devalue it, or merely create a niche market for a more expensive, bottled version? If only a few super-rich people can afford hand-made goods, does that make them an intrinsically regressive social evil?*

Most of us have no choice in these matters, of course: I mean, six thousand pounds for a single chair? The one I'm sitting on right now is quite real enough, thanks. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't like a classy chair, or to buy my clothes skilfully tailored to fit (if only!); as the saying goes, if wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Sadly, there will probably never be a William Morris-style utopian socialist future, where every household sits down to a meal prepared from fresh, organic, and locally-sourced ingredients on chairs handcrafted in the workshop of a skilled artisan. Even if, ironically, that was once-upon-a-time the only world anyone knew. Most of the world's population today, I'm sure, would settle for recyclable plastic furniture, clean water, and at least one nourishing meal a day, even if it came pre-packaged and included some kind of meat-substitute. Which doesn't mean they wouldn't like to get their knees under a table at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.

You might say this comes down to the difference between a fake chair and a fake chair.  You can quite happily spend the evening in your snide Eames lounger, but nobody will ever try to sit on a fake chair without regretting it. So, these pictures may not be quite what they seem, and may have been made with less labour and skill than their appearance might suggest, but they are pictures, without a doubt: you can sit in them, so to speak, with complete confidence. Whether or not you value the experience is another matter, and entirely up to you.

And notice how I've written this whole thing without once using the word "skeuomorph".
But I'm a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I'm just backdated, yeah...
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth
The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south **
And now you dare to look me in the eye
Those crocodile tears are what you cry
It's a genuine problem, you won't try
To work it out at all you just pass it by, pass it by.
The Who, Substitute

* I mean the goods, not the people, though the same goes for both, obviously.
** If anyone can provide a convincing explanation of this baffling line, I'd be very surprised.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Showtime!



Tropical birds are ridiculously colourful, aren't they? It's not as if jungle vegetation is any colour other than standard-issue green, and tropical tree-trunks are much the same sober shades of brown and grey as any oak, ash, or thorn. A European robin's "red" breast (actually, more the ochre-ish russet of tinned tomato soup) is, allegedly, the splash of colour in the dreary frozen wastes that promises the return of summer. Possibly; if we're lucky. Up here in the north we regard a goldfinch as, well, a little over-dressed, but tastefully so. The green woodpecker (possibly my favourite non-crow bird) has a slightly daft but dapper get-up. But parrots are the flamboyant Hawaiian shirts in nature's wardrobe. They're not hiding from anything or anyone; parrots are out there, loud, and proud, baby! Pay attention, check the feathers, it's showtime!

Monday, 25 September 2017

Nothing Can Be Done

Lynne Truss (she of the semicolon, Oxford comma, and wry humour) has published one of the best tributes to Joni Mitchell I've yet come across. It's particularly good because it's a view from down here at fan ground-level, and hits the spot for me because – being English and 62 and state-educated – it seems she could easily, with a little bit of geographical adjustment, have been one of the grammar-school girls I knew back in the 1970s who turned me on to that sublime oeuvre in the first place. The actual BBC broadcast (linked in the written piece) is even better. Go on, give it a listen.

Ah, those girls! If there's one thing I regret, and would change if I could, it is the way we boys, so often, behaved towards them. I imagine adolescent boys have covered their yearnings and softer feelings with casual cruelty since the dawn of time; certainly, we did. Though never with the studied, sustained intensity we reserved for each other. All the same, I am appalled, now, when I think back to some of the ways we behaved, and some of the hurtful things we said. And, what may be worse, some of the kind things that went unsaid and undone.

It's too late now, of course, and nothing can be done. A good many will be grandmothers, now, with a lifetime of experiences that far outweigh any ancient memories they might retain of the smart-mouthed, loutish teenage boys they once knew, who were always more interested in entertaining their mates and establishing pecking orders than in reaching across the gender divide. Which was, it must be conceded, a more considerable barrier in those days of customary single-sex education.

This came home to me recently, when I lit upon the website of a "girl" I once knew – now a woman of 62, of course, hard as that is to imagine – who, like me, has made a late-start career in art-making. I was going to email her just to say, "Hi, remember me?", but then realised that, even if she did, it would be a 17-year-old me that she remembered, and she might not necessarily be delighted by the memory. I'm not that keen on him myself. Better to leave it alone.

What idiots we can be! I think about this any time I see some young fool tormenting a girl whose attention he craves, but can think of no better way of getting it than to be persistently annoying, like a wasp at a picnic*. I suppose, as Joni Mitchell says, all we ever really wanted was to come in from the cold. But what strange, self-defeating ways we boys have of asking to be let in. Age may bring wisdom, but how much better to have had just a little more of it back then.
Must I surrender
With grace
The things I loved when I was younger
Must I remember your face
So well
What do I do here with this hunger

Oh I am not old
I'm told
But I am not young
Oh and nothing can be done
Don't start
My heart
Is a smoking gun
Oh and nothing can be done

Joni Mitchell, Nothing Can Be Done

* As I recently pointed out to a friend, wasps are not unfriendly, as such, just socially awkward and quick to take offence. Plus, of course, they are equipped with a ready capacity to hurt. Repeatedly. Not unlike adolescent boys, then.

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

Chorus



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

Percentages



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

Iowa



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

Summertime...


 Clevedon

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

Dunkirk


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: http://www.soton.ac.uk/~mic/Dad ]

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."