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.