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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Grant Museum

Back around 1980 I was a postgraduate student at University College London, and spent a lot of time that should have been spent studying just wandering the backstreets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, where the Old, Weird London was still in evidence. The area was crammed with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, musical instrument repairers, record shops, specialists in umbrellas and walking sticks, and the kind of strange little outlets that sold sex-aids or surgical prosthetics (often hard to tell apart). It's all gone now, replaced by coffee-shops and upscale eateries. Apart from that umbrella shop.

However, in all the time I spent mooching around at UCL, I somehow failed to notice the Grant Museum of Zoology. In fact, despite searching the Web a number of times last year for potential "museology" sites, it was only a few weeks ago that it came to my attention. It's remarkable how something like this can hide in plain sight: I must have walked straight past it dozens of times. In fact, in trying to find it yesterday (not realising it had been moved from its original site in the confusing warren of buildings and infrastructure that is UCL's main site) I walked straight past it yet again on my way to Gower Street from Warren Street tube.

It was worth a bit of pavement-pounding on a very hot July day, though, even though it was dimly lit and I'd forgotten to bring my 60mm macro lens. So, despite the fact that the photographs are not optimal, I couldn't resist knocking together the two composites above last night. And, I mean to say, where else are you going to find a jar of moles? Seriously: a jar full of moles! Ah, the world we have lost...

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Birds

I'm currently feeling enthusiastic about a new series of composite pictures I've been working on, provisionally called"Birdsong". To an extent they're just another reworking of the images I compiled last year under the theme "museology", but a bit more "meta", I suppose, in that they're pictures about pictures of birds. But I've been having fun finding different ways of framing and reframing my original photographs of stuffed specimens from various museums.

Who knows? Maybe another hit like this year's "Golden Wasp Game" is about to emerge, maybe not. Talking of which, I heard this week that both of my pictures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition have now sold out their editions of 50. How about that? I really didn't expect that outcome (I know, I know, my son has already made pointed reference to "hashtag humblebrag", whatever that means).

Mind you, that is a lot more invoicing, packing, and trips to the Post Office than I'd bargained for. I mean, have you seen the size of a box of 100 rigid A3 envelopes (not to mention the price)? Then there's the occasional expedition to the bank, as I've actually received a few payments in the form of a cheque, which now seems incredibly quaint. That may not sound such a burden, but there is now only one – one! – branch of the HSBC bank in the entirety of the city of Southampton where such antediluvian curios can be paid in. It seems "three miles away" is now considered to be "conveniently near you" if you will insist on making us handle your gold nuggets, actual grimy cash, promissory notes, and banker's drafts.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Flying Weasels

You know summer has arrived when the weasels take to the air. Why? Just for the fun of it, it seems, the little thrill-seekers.

But, wait, is that a bubble they're floating in? And might one of those slightly odd-looking swallows cause it to burst? I think you can see where I'm going here...