Sunday, 1 February 2015

On the Wall

It was a  cold, crisp first afternoon of February today, so we decided to drive over to Mottisfont Abbey, knowing that there is a photographic exhibition on there at the moment, which is as good an excuse as any to get inside when the cold gets too much.  So we made a perfunctory tour of the grounds -- a lot more repairs and renovations seem to be under way -- and headed gratefully for the gallery.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was amazed, on stepping inside, immediately to recognise the work of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, two of my personal favourite artists, both of whom work in the territory of "camera-less" photography, and whose books I have collected for some time.  However, the initial excitement was followed by a gradual disenchantment.  On the wall, the work was considerably less impressive than it is on the page, and for the usual simple reasons:  it is too big, and uses ugly, shiny paper.

Now, to an extent, Derges and Miller are stuck with their end-product, which is generally a one-off resulting from a unique interaction betweeen the natural world (or, in Miller's case, light sources) with light-sensitive materials, and these processes may well require the use of tough but ugly, shiny paper (I have always hated Cibachrome with a passion).  Digital technology -- scanning, for example -- could overcome this problem, but they presumably have chosen not to make use of it.  Fair enough.  But the other photographers in the show have no such excuse. Images from (I presume) medium-format colour negatives which would have had fullest impact at about 10 inches square on a semi-matte paper have been blown up to several feet across on a glossy, reflective paper stock that screams, "this is just a photograph!"  I hate that.  Especially when the price tag is £950 (so cheap!  The Derges and Miller items were £10,000 each...).

In fact, I am aware that I am feeling a certain  level of disenchantment with photography in general.  There's simply too much of it about, and too much of what gets shown (and the way it gets shown) is not to my liking.  By contrast, a small room of portraits in another room of the Mottisfont gallery, all made with pencil, charcoal, and paint, were really engaging: even the bad work (and, boy, was some of it bad -- hands are clearly very difficult to get right) has expressive, eye-pleasing qualities that reward close attention.  The fact that all the marks have been put there purposefully by a human hand and eye, albeit with varying degrees of skill and intention, counts for a lot.

Critics of photography as an art medium often say that it's too easy, and too mechanical.  There is some truth in that.  Consider either of these two images:  taken around 3:00 p.m. today on a digital camera, with single clicks lasting 1/250th of a second, I had processed and printed the files to my satisfaction by about 19:00, and then made the small JPEG versions incorporated into this blog post, which was written this evening, and which probably took the longest.  Job done!

Frankly, I'd feel dishonest, charging £950 for a print.  Obviously, 30 years of experience and eye-training went into those clicks, and my digital processing and printing skills are excellent, drawing compliments wherever they are seen -- probably another 15 or more years of experience there.  So maybe £750 would not make me blush, were anyone ever prepared to pay that much (did I say I sold not a single print at my last exhibition?  And at a tenth of that price)...  But compared to painting or drawing the same scenes -- which I probably could not do, to my own satisfaction -- that's a very short time indeed from seeing to final product, with very little labour.

Which may explain why I've been fiddling around with pencils, pens and paper recently, and spending too much time gawking at stationery-porn sits like Cult Pens ...  Although I'm acutely aware that Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, later in life, after a career of unparalleled achievement in photography, hung up his cameras and returned to his first love, painting and drawing, saying, "All I care about these days is painting -- photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing".  Needless to say, HCB's paintings and drawings are awful.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Outside Looking In

Ferdinandeum library, Innsbruck

In my thirty years as an academic librarian, I have had the privilege of visiting quite a few magnificent libraries, either as a guest or by showing my access-all-areas On Her Majesty's Bibliographic Service wristband *.  I have gaped in envy at the Wellcome Institute's cash-rich plushness (the only library I have ever visited with its own logo printed on the vinyl dust-covers of its microfilm readers), been enchanted by the Harry-Potter-central-casting-leather-bound perfection of the Natural History Museum, and clanged through the shabby-chic recesses of the London Library and the old British Library stacks, with elevated walkways and shelving assembled out of slotted and perforated cast-iron sections (intended to maximise ventilation and penetration of daylight in the days before electricity), as if kitted out by a steam-punk IKEA.

So it was with a certain poignant foreshadowing of my imminent civilian status, back in the summer in Innsbruck, that I found myself outside looking in, peering through the glass partition separating a gallery of paintings in the "Ferdinandeum" State Museum from the comfortable and well-appointed Tyrolean State Library.  I was fascinated by the portrait of a bearded woman apparently wearing Comanche warpaint, hanging on the wall behind the researchers, until I realised I was seeing the superimposed reflection of another painting hanging on the facing wall [note to self:  maybe it's time to start wearing those glasses?].  The clients themselves were hunched in the international body-language of concentration, oblivious to each other and the idiot with a camera grinning at them through the glass.

There is an interesting portrait project for someone, probably not me, to capture the assorted states of rapt absorption, distraction and repose that people adopt when at work in a library.  Various photographers have done "people reading", from André Kertész to Steve McCurry, and there's a superb collection of anonymous photographic postcards on that theme, compiled by artist Tom Phillips from his own collection (now deposited in the Bodleian Library and published by them, ISBN 978-1851243594 **).  But "library readers" would be quite different.

In fact "library sleepers" might be even more interesting.  In a university library at exam times, students are always to be found slumped in various contorted poses over piles of books and notes at all hours of the day, sometimes with amusing notes pinned or glued onto their backs.  Not, I hasten to add, by library staff.  Or, at least, not as a matter of policy.

British Museum
I remember when this was all books...

It's only when you're finally permanently outside an institutional setting of any kind -- a school, an office, the police, a government department, or a library -- that you realise quite how crazy the long-term inmates invariably become. Which reminded me of this:

My former place of work has five floors, linked by a main staircase, a back staircase, and a lift.  One morning, I had to go from my office on the entrance-level floor (confusingly known as "Level 2") to take a copy of Puck of Pook's Hill I had on my desk back up to the top floor (Level 5).  I'm always in need of exercise, so I usually take the stairs.  That day I felt particularly badly in need of exercise, so I first went down to the basement (Level 1), and went up to Level 5 from there, using the back staircase.

I replaced the Kipling on the shelf.  It was the Puck volume of the Centenary Edition, published in 1965, with identical graphical dustjackets in a typically early 1960s design.  Soldiers Three in the same edition caught my eye, so I took it off the shelf and went back downstairs to my office, this time via the main staircase.  After a while I realised I probably didn't want to borrow it after all, and that I should probably return it immediately.

Just for fun -- I'm easily pleased -- I repeated my previous journey i.e. down to Level 1, and up to Level 5, again on the back staircase.  I replaced the volume, but for some reason took down another, Plain Tales from the Hills, and again went back down to Level 2, again via the main staircase.  Back in my office, I wondered: what if I were to immediately return this volume, too, by the same route?  How many times would I have to repeat the procedure before anyone would notice that I had just passed by in the same direction, apparently holding exactly the same book? (But, in fact -- ha! -- not the same book at all).  It struck me that this was a piece of conceptual performance art in the making.

Conceptual art is all about self-imposed rules and constraints; it's the Higher OCD.  So: what if I were to repeat this for all the volumes in the set?  There were only 23; what a pity there weren't 24...  Twenty-four being a magic number, instantly conferring significance; it might even be an ironically oblique way of marking our upcoming move to 24/7 opening hours.  I should probably find a different set of books, one with twenty-four volumes, ideally larger in size and with even more striking but identical dustjackets.

Some other refinements were probably needed.  Did it matter whether anyone spotted what was going on, or was it enough that the procedure was carried out as planned?  If so, would I be more noticeable if I ran, or did a funny walk?  Perhaps the thing to do would be to arrange for a Keystone Cops-style squad of Security staff to pursue me ineffectually, until ... yes! ... a white-coated team with a strait-jacket waylaid me, noisily and publicly, during the twenty-fourth iteration!

But, in an Ono-esque gesture, I merely wrote this project down in my notebook, rather than carry it out.  Of course, in the way of all such conceptual art, who's to say I didn't do it?  What difference would it make?  Does anyone care what is actually inside Piero Manzoni's tins, or whether Tracey Emin ever actually spent a single night in that bed?  It did briefly occur to me that it might be worth submitting my idea to a suitable body for funding; it could become a useful supplementary income stream, and at the same time open up a new avenue of self-expression.  But in the end I decided the best course would be to retire as soon as possible, before anyone realised quite how mad I had finally been driven.

* "Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to enter freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such access as may be required, with no jobsworth nonsense about opening times, public holidays, and the like. Don't make Us ask twice, yeah? Cheers, ER."

** In fact, there's a whole series of these Tom Phillips/Bodleian themed postcard compilations, all worth a look -- I particularly like "Bicycles" and "Fantasy Travel".

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lots of Laughs

Last Thursday afternoon, I went for a walk across Southampton Common.  The morning had been bright, cold and crisp, but the light started to fail quite quickly -- the picture above was taken at 14:34, the one below at 14:54.  Bizarrely, there was no frost anywhere except at this one spot, wedged between a path and a stream.  There were even patches of ice where small puddles had frozen, too: it seems I may have stumbled over the single coldest location in South Hampshire.  No doubt when the next Ice Age begins this will be the starting point for a glacier.

Mind you, according to the weather-folk, the next Ice Age will begin on Wednesday, and it seems it's already sweeping into America's East Coast.  Wrap up warm, guys!

Any talk of snow at this time of year always puts me in mind of the last Great Ice Age, the mid-to-late 1960s, when rough beasts stalked the land, and the ground was deeply, crisply, evenly covered beneath what must have been at least several inches of snow.  Playing around with the new BBC iPlayer Radio app, it was a pleasant surprise to find that episodes of a show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again are being re-broadcast on digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra.  Now, back in that last Ice Age, this was an innovative radio sketch comedy programme, a sort of pre-Python prototype.  It was very popular with some of the boys at school and, as with Monty Python later, breaktimes would be enlivened by the enthusiastic retelling of the previous night's feast of skit, wit and repartee.  Not having grown up in a "speech radio" household, I never did hear any of this show myself, and my memory of it is entirely second-hand.  So, I thought I'd have a listen, for old time's sake, and chose an episode at random from May 1966.

I was amazed, but not in a good way. The very first thing I heard was Bill Oddie assuming a bad generic "Jewish" accent, à la Fagin, as a booking agent handling Beethoven, although I suppose it might have been South African.  Are South Africans strongly associated with entertainment management? Not really... The cringe factor immediately went up to 9.  A few sketches later, we had Graeme Garden doing "Tales from Shakespeare, by David Pushoff", and the cringe factor went off the scale, and I had to stop listening.

I doubt David Kossoff is much remembered now, except possibly as the father of Paul Kossoff, the il-fated guitarist in the rock group Free, but his distinctive, avuncular storytelling style, with its kindly, sing-song Jewish inflections, was once a staple of British children's entertainment.  In the parody, Graeme Garden plays up the Jewishness for comic effect -- lots of "Oy! Oy!" -- and the wholesome-sounding audience laughs the laughter of "recognition humour".  Yes, Jews do have a funny way of speaking, don't they?  Ah yes, I've heard about Jews and their mothers!  That's funny, too, isn't it?

Now, clearly, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden are not, and were not, bad people.  They simply reached for whatever comic tools came to hand.  There was a fashion in the 1960s for dark, even "sick" humour, as an antidote to the bland and hypocritical pieties of an older generation, with the result that anything and everything was suddenly -- and confusingly -- fair game.  The boundaries of offense and "poor taste" had become blurred.  But this programme did remind me, uncomfortably, of the innocent, reflex racism that I grew up among and adopted, which I touched on in an earlier post.

Apart from staples like Jewish jokes (meanness with money), Irish jokes (stupidity), and "nig-nog" jokes (grotesque physical features), our white English schoolboy argot was suffused with casual, almost unconscious racism.  You would complain that someone had "wogged" your pencil, or that a friend was "jewing" their bag of sweets.  Inevitably -- with hindsight, incredibly -- the first black boy at our school was dubbed "Wog" Walters.  Homosexuality was, of course, even more beyond the pale of acceptability, and any hint of effeminacy was bullied mercilessly.  In retrospect, the playground atmosphere was pretty toxic, and the few representatives of those mocked and despised minorities must have walked in fear and held their tongues.

It's a obvious fact that nearly all comedy sparks off of our prejudices and preconceptions.  I watched a Frankie Boyle recording for the first time the other night, and was, well, surprised at the level of hostility he unleashes; I was even more surprised at the readiness of his victims in the audience to offer themselves up, and to laugh along.  Finding oneself funny can be a saving grace, but allowing oneself to be stereotyped for comic effect by others -- or, worse, to collude in that stereotyping -- is surely always a step in the wrong direction.  It's never really worked for Jews, has it?  I recently heard a female Asian comic quip that "brown people don't do camping".  It got a big laugh.  But, "brown people"?  Really?

The problem is that, as someone once said, most of us don't really have a sense of humour, but do love to laugh.  A good comedian knows how to give an audience permission to laugh, through the shape and rhythm of their patter: one ... two ... three ... laugh now!  But the content of the material is nearly always about Us putting Them back into their box.  With honourable exceptions, few comics ever get beyond the contemporary equivalent of, "Jews, they have a funny way of speaking don't they?  Ever noticed that?  Oy vey!" [Laugh now] ...

I mention this because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  We're all Righteous Among the Nations these days, of course.  Who wouldn't have risked torture, imprisonment and death to rescue or hide Jews fleeing from persecution by a government we had somehow, in an inexplicable lapse of judgement, voted into power?  Who wouldn't have endangered their career prospects to speak up against the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, even though from 1933 onwards acquiescence was simply a matter of obeying the law?  Not us, I'm sure.  [Laugh now]...

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Spider on the Wall

Of all the images I brought home from Innsbruck, I think this is one of those that have pleased me the most.  That strange spidery sunburst on the wall is the shadow of a cupola on top of the circular gallery, distorted by the angle of the sun and the fact that the wall onto which it is projected is itself curved.

It must be a fairly predictable sight, but whether it has been photographed before I couldn't say.  I like the way the figure on the right appears to be flinching away from the apparition, like Little Miss Muffet, and the way the panel on the left and the portion of the projection on the floor break the symmetry of the "legs", not to mention the way the polished parquet floor reflects the whole thing.

Choice! Though I say so myself...

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Salty Bread

You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

Of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Descending and ascending others' stairs.
 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XVII

It is the fate of most of us to go through life without touching the sides.  Whoosh!  There it was, gone.  Was that it?  I'm afraid so...  Next!  Yet, although only an exceptional few ever make any lasting impression, there are still places -- maybe not in the glare of the spotlight but also not quite in the outer darkness -- where unusual, interesting, fulfilling lives can be led.  But you may find that those places are not marked on the map handed out to you at birth, and you may need to become a bit of an explorer.

This, in Britain at least, has always been a matter of social class and education. "Class" has become unfashionable as a way of describing oneself, and the organisation of society.  The idea that you are to any degree defined and constrained by your origins, or that mobility between classes does not simply correlate with an increase or decrease in disposable income, is at odds with the more marketable idea that everything is a matter of choices, of elective lifestyle.  That the choices available to you might in themselves be defined and constrained by your social origins is never part of the sales pitch.

I think I've become more class-conscious as I've got older.  That is, it has become more obvious to me that, despite meritocratic claims to the contrary, you are as profoundly and permanently marked by your social origins -- high, low, or middling -- as by, say, race or gender.  It doesn't seem that way when you start out.  Whatever circumstances you have been born into, if you have been gifted with intelligence, creativity, and perhaps a little originality, your early life is all about your own personal exceptionalism.  Sure, most of my friends are doomed to repeat the ordinary, dull lives of their parents, but me, I'll never fit in, because I'm different!  But the thrill of exploring the territory of your own unique "difference" diminishes, when the realisation dawns that the price of trying to escape the gravitational pull of your origins will be never to feel fully at home anywhere else, either.

Banal as it sounds, I tend to feel this most on Saturdays, when I go to do the weekly shop.  I can choose between a number of supermarkets, depending on what we need and what mood I'm in, ranging from the downmarket anonymity of a Tesco superstore (situated off a dual-carriageway like a customs post to Nowhere) to the upmarket calm of a Waitrose in nearby market-town Romsey (which shares a carpark with a country lifestyle store where you can buy riding tack and hen coops).  In either of those stores, however, I wander the aisles, thinking, "I bloody hate these people...", whether it be the hyper-obese matriarchs in mobility scooters shrieking at brattish children, or the deluded snobs of rural Hampshire, happily paying those "reassuringly expensive" prices.

There is a smaller supermarket I use more often, situated in town near to the University, where I know I will meet a series of people I have worked with over the last 30 years, many of whom are long-retired, and hungry for a chat. The frequent stops mean the shop can take twice as long, and there is something unsettling about watching the wizened husk of a former professor of Rocket Science shuffling along absent-mindedly with a basket of cat food.  Laudably, the shop employs several shelf-stackers and trolley-retrievers on a "care in the community" basis, including a woman who sings and laughs constantly in a rather demented way and at the top of her voice.  In the wrong, uncharitable mood, though, the undertone of despair beneath the forced jolliness of her constant cackling and warbling can take me to a very dark place by the time I reach the checkouts. I often end up stuffing the bags in the boot of the car with a strong sense of relief: let's get out of here!

Most often, though, I use a large Sainsbury's in a nearby estate built in the 1960s on the top of a gentle hill, which has an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in.  There, although I know nobody, I know everyone, and they know me.  It's a pleasant feeling.  It's got a lot to do with body language, and choice of clothing.  These are "my" people, from my class of origin, living lives that -- with a little less awareness of difference -- would have been mine, and sometimes I can experience a deep sense of peace, simply pushing a trolley among the plumbers and builders, the primary school teachers and nurses, the postmen and electricians of the skilled, aspirational working and lower-middle classes.  And yet, of course, I am never now more than a weekend visitor, passing through.  Like thousands of others before and since, I left town at the first opportunity, never to return, becoming yet another displaced person, exiled by education.

So, wherever I happen to shop, it seems, I will drive home with the salty bread of exile stowed in the boot.  Which, let's be honest, is much nicer than the white sliced Sunblest of my youth -- though perhaps not as nice as a fresh-baked pain de campagne from a proper French boulangerie -- and I couldn't eat anything else, now.  Although getting the bags up and down all those stairs is becoming a pain.  Maybe it's time I signed up for online grocery deliveries?

On reflection, maybe not.  I'm still sufficiently a product of my origins to be embarrassed by the sight of an Ocado van pulling up outside.  So, who's gone all posh, then?

Museum staircase, Innsbruck

Monday, 19 January 2015


Finally, I am able to get out of the house for sustained periods, and went for a wander up on Twyford Down yesterday.  Like me, these two heifers were enjoying the last rays of the sun on a bright but chilly afternoon.  Although, unlike me, they weren't looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea.

As an image it's hardly to be compared with a Beethoven late quartet, but nonetheless I'm put in mind of the dedication of the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132, the extraordinary String Quartet in A minor:
Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart
(Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode)
Of course, in Beethoven's time, recovery from illness and medical intervention was rather less guaranteed than it is today.  Anyone who talks sniffily about "so-called progress" or regards the advances of empirical science and medicine as mere constructs is an idiot.  That such idiots should find a platform within institutions of higher education and be paid salaries out of the public purse is one of the wonders of our age.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Innsbruck Revisited

Given the dearth of new photographs in recent weeks, I have taken up a long-postponed task, and have been taking a closer look at the files I brought back from my residency in Innsbruck during summer 2014.  It's interesting, what a difference the lapse in time can make.

The immediate standouts that got used in my blog posts, and were reused in the "blog book" I produced last year (A Tourist From Mars) still mainly work for me, I'm glad to say, but others have begun to come to the fore, now the actual experience is receding into memory, and I am able to see them with a more objective eye.  In particular, there are many images I dismissed previously as "untypical outliers" or, at the other extreme, as "too like my other work".  Some of these are much more interesting than they appeared at first glance, and reveal some consistent threads in my approach I wasn't conscious of at the time.  Amongst other things, I was clearly obsessed by the way the intensity of the southern sun in June reveals colour and texture in the plainest of walls.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure how much further effort I will put into this.  As I have said about other isolated sets of images -- our yearly visits to Wales at Easter, for example, or what amount to "holiday snaps" taken on other short visits --  they tend either to lack enough coherence, to be too few in number, or to cover too limited a part of the year to make a considered, coherent series in their own right.  There was initially some talk of a possible further exhibition, but on current showing this seems unlikely.

I actually have no idea how the summer exhibition was received, as I haven't heard a single word about it, positive or negative, from anyone since returning home in June, and must conclude that it was less successful than hoped.  In particular, there seem to have been no picture sales at all this time, which is both surprising and disappointing.  I have to say I thought it was a pretty good show, and that I managed to produce some outstanding new work from a brief 10-day residency in an unfamiliar location, but, too bad: if we waited on other people's opinions and responses, we'd never do anything worth doing.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


I'm not normally keen on photo-books that are compilations, and I have also generally been less than impressed by the photo-books produced by publisher Thames & Hudson.  Somehow, despite their track record in art publishing, they don't seem to get photography.  Their books tend to be too large, too glossy, and aimed at too broad a segment of the market -- they always remind me of cookery books.  So you can be sure I'm impressed by the compilation made for Thames & Hudson by William A. Ewing, Landmark : the Fields of Landscape Photography (ISBN 978-0-500-54433-4), because I'd recommend you get a copy if you have any serious interest in contemporary landscape photography. 

The weakness of compilations, generally, is the attempt to be comprehensive.  If you include a little of everything, it's very hard to make a satisfying whole, with an unifying sense of taste, design and intention. Any book which is simultaneously an academic overview and a "sampler" aimed at beginners is pretty much doomed, unless the compiler's taste is exceptional, and the underlying motivation of the publisher is clear.  There are any number of poetry anthologies, for example, which simply re-shuffle the same old selections, or which showcase the compiler's own poor judgement.

This volume is outstanding in every respect.  I suppose I would say that, because this is the selection I would have made myself, apart from the fact that I had never before come across the work of about 50% of the contributors, but wish I had.  There's no "landscape porn", no School-of-Charlie-Waite, but page after page of outstanding contemporary photography, including a number by that brilliant photographer known only as NASA.

It's not cheap, and it's quite bulky, but if you've got any Christmas gift tokens left over, you could do worse than buy yourself a copy.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Whatever Did Happen to Yorick?

January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman deity, noted as the god of revolving doors, with special responsibility for the safe return of goods to their shop of origin after the gift-giving season.  Traditionally, offerings to Janus took the form of credit notes, rather than cash.  January is thus a time for refunds, swaps, reviews, fresh starts, and subscription renewals.

It's also a time for simultaneously looking back, and looking forward.  Don't try this at home.  In fact, here is some excellent advice, which I wholeheartedly endorse: never go back, never dwell on the past.

But, as you take the sharp January bend into a new year, it's impossible not to glance back and find yourself wondering about the trail of wreckage you have left behind, not just in the previous year, but in all the preceding years.  With the turn of each successive year, the view of the past does seem to improve, like the view back down a mountain road of hairpin bends.  What most of us see down there is the strewn debris of a lifetime of broken resolutions, missed opportunities, abandoned projects, and poor choices.  Reason enough to refasten one's gaze on the road straight ahead once more.  This time, it will be different!

Nonetheless, around this time of year I often catch myself in a retrospective mood, thinking, "I wonder whatever happened to So-and-So?"  No matter how fortunate you have been in your friends, or how assiduously you have tried to keep in touch with each other, some will simply have vanished from your life.  All it takes is a change of address, some mild "musical differences", or a significant fork in the metaphorical road.  Oddly, it seems to take a special effort of imagination to realise that you have vanished from their lives, too.  I think most of us nourish a narcissistic fantasy of walking back into a certain place -- it might be a pub, or a cafe -- where all those past acquaintances sit waiting in a state of suspended animation for our return, like Norm Peterson walking into Cheers.  Yay!  So what have you been up to for the past forty years, man?

It is the B-side of this fantasy that, just as our lost friends remain Forever Young in our memory, so too do we in theirs.  Which is weird.  Especially when you think quite how much you have changed, both in appearance (argh) and in your beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. I don't know about you, but I was an idiot when I was 20.  I cringe with embarrassment when I think of some of the things I thought, said, and did, back then.  That there are people out there who still think of me as that posturing buffoon, unaware of the wise, caring, sober-sided-father-of-two citizen I have become since, is both amusing and appalling.  No wonder so few of them have stayed in touch.

Mind you, they were mostly idiots, too.  They are probably equally embarrassed, and rightly so.  I'm thinking mainly of the ones I knew in that youthful dreamtime, at university, when everyone still had their full unspent allotment of unrealised potential and the world was -- for the lucky, talented few, at any rate -- an enticing board-game of unmade choices.  Everyone was still a contender.  The dice were still in the cup.  While we're waiting for the game to begin, why don't we all experiment a little?

It doesn't take long for that to change, though, once the dice have rolled, and the snakes and ladders of life begin.  Paths immediately diverge.  In my case, tagged as an incorrigible hedonist, rarely rising before noon, seldom sober, and ironically something of a stranger to the library, I became less-than-essential company to the career-minded majority in a college noted as a launchpad for eminent public lives.  Toxic, even.  I didn't mind: it made it easier to spot the like-minded souls.  As someone once said, the dancers will inherit the party.  And what a party it was!

 Your blogger attempts "May You Never..."
 Balliol College JCR bar, 1973 *

Naturally, in a few cases, and naming no names, there has been no need to wonder, "Whatever happened to Wotsit?" because various Wotsits did become public figures, rarely out of the media spotlight, or perhaps choosing which way to direct it.  They're welcome to it:  it's a grim spectacle, following the ups and downs of the career, listening to the party-line opinions, and watching the mask slowly and permanently fix itself to the face of someone you once knew.  You can only hope they thought it was worth it.  There are no January refunds or returns on those sorts of life-choices.

But, at least you can say: Look, there's that Yorick on the TV again!  I knew him, Horatio, when he used to rock'n'roll!

* Actually, "Home Ranch", by Thomas Eakins, 1892, reversed laterally to get the guitar the right (wrong) way round (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Thursday, 8 January 2015


You may have hoped to see here some photographs of the Hoegh Osaka cargo ship, which was deliberately stranded on the Bramble Bank just off Calshot in the Solent, because of a sudden list that developed as the massive vessel left Southampton port -- loaded with 1,400 cars and JCB vehicles! --  on Saturday.  Sorry about that...  I'm still pretty much tied to the house following my surgery before Christmas.  It's deeply frustrating.

So, here's one I made earlier, with a cargo vessel a little south and west of where the Hoegh Osaka now is, having been refloated and towed to a position out of the main shipping lane between Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and Lee-on-Solent.

A very old joke:

Q:  What is brown, wet and steaming and comes out of Cowes? 
A:  The Isle of Wight ferry.

That one graced many a Christmas cracker, until ferries stopped either being brown or steaming.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Galette des Rois

Our French neighbours across the road invited us over for a traditional French Epiphany celebration, involving the consumption of champagne (mais bien sûr!) and centering on a galette des rois ("kings' cake").  This latter is not a celebratory cake in the British mould -- a grimly dark slab of burnt dried fruit, mixed with oddly spiced floor sweepings, bound with lard, laced with alcohol, and concealed beneath artex marzipan and icing -- but a really tasty bit of patisserie, filled with frangipane like a giant round croissant aux amandes, into which a single fève (bean) has been baked, rather like the traditional sixpenny bit in an English Christmas pudding.  A decent galette des rois, it seems, comes complete with a paper or cardboard crown to put on top, which is a bit unsettling when you first see one.

In the most traditional observance, the youngest person not yet incapably drunk gets beneath the table and calls out the names of those present, to ensure a random distribution of slices.  I'm not sure what happens if certain names get called twice, but -- as all the younger members of the party were rushing around like rugrats on a sugar high, and no single adult was entirely sure of everyone's names -- this element was dispensed with, anyway.   The "bean" is a little plastic figurine nowadays, so we were warned not to bite recklessly into our slices, in case we were the lucky recipient (having signed the traditional French waiver-form concerning liability for dental work).  That person becomes King for the day, wears the crown, and ...  well, we never quite figured that bit out, either.  It was a nice, convivial evening, and we were happy to have taken part in this little entente cordiale.

I tend to get my Epiphany mixed up with my Pentecost, and that's not the champagne talking.  Having been brought up in a Baptist-Agnostic household, I never really understood all those mysterious feasts that used to be printed in tiny type in diaries.  All a bit high church, rather too smells'n'bells.  Of course, for our ancestors, that was the year.  You planted and sowed, gathered and reaped, paid rent and renewed your Reader's Digest subscription by the calendar of feasts and holy days.  Candlemas, Ascension, Annunciation, Twelfth Night...  Each brought its reassuring round of customs, obligations, and associations, not to mention plays about cross-dressing twins.

Take the all-important "quarter days". In England, Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas; in Scotland, Candlemas (2 February), Whitsunday (15 May), Lammas (1 August), and Martinmas (11 November).  These were when rent was due, and servants and field-hands were hired at fairs; serious, memorable, life-changing occasions when people from scattered villages would congregate en masse in market towns.  Mind you, the 18th century calendar reforms, when we switched from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar, rather wrecked all this hallowed continuity.  There were riots:  "What do we want?"  "Eleven days!"  "When do we want them?  "September 1752!"  One consequence is that in Britain we still pay our taxes on 6th April, rather than 25th March, because 6th April is "old" Lady Day.  I'm hopeless with dates, work it out for yourself.

I forgot to mention:  in the south of France, apparently, the equivalent cake is called gâteau des rois, and "is a torus-shaped brioche with candied fruits and sugar."  Now, that's an invitation I couldn't refuse!

More of a candied bagel, but...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Song Lines

Have you ever noticed how many people -- perfectly normal, intelligent, and otherwise observant people -- never bother to listen to song lyrics?  Or, if they do, consistently mishear or misremember them?  The word "mondegreen" was coined in 1954 to describe those garbled lyrics that people thought they had heard: you can read about it here.

This is something we're all prone to, and sometimes for good reasons; I've lost count of the times I've looked up the lyrics to, say, "Brown Sugar", only to wish I hadn't, only to forget them again, only to speculate once more what a "Cheshire queen" might be.  But not to care at all about song lyrics! To someone like me -- who recalls a large percentage of the lyrics to pretty much every song on every album I've ever owned, plus a huge passive corpus of songs I didn't even know I knew -- this is utterly mystifying, and at times deeply frustrating.

Do you recall the Wondermark cartoon I linked to a few posts ago?

It depends entirely for its effect on knowing the lyrics to "Winter Wonderland":
In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say, "Are you married?"
We'll say, "No, man --
But you can do the job
When you're in town..."
It must be maddening, to produce something quite so economical, witty and off-the-wall as that cartoon, only to elicit the response, "Huh?"

So, I'm pretty sure I am not alone, though the crowd standing with me may be rather small, compared to the proportion of the population who are blind, deaf, or dumb to song lyrics (estimated at 93.6% by the OECD, 2010 figures).  And yet: there is no word to describe this condition.  Unbelievable!

So I thought I might make one up.  My first thought was mondegroid, given that the existing coinage covers at least part of the syndrome.  To be sure, until this post was posted, that word did not exist on the entire internet (at least, that part of it not lurking under rocks and invisible to Google).  But it does seem an ugly word, with some unfortunate undertones.  Also, chronically mondegroid people are a minority: the majority of sufferers have no regard for song lyrics at all.  Incredible, I know, but there it is.

Now, this is not the same thing as an indifference to music, as such.  As it happens, that does have a name, though not a very good one:  "specific musical anhedonia" (nothing to do with disliking South Pacific or Guys and Dolls).  Obviously, there is no reason why anyone indifferent to all music should care about the words of any particular song.  But, paradoxically, many sufferers of lyric indifference syndrome are genuine music enthusiasts.  They love songs, but have no more interest in understanding the lyrics or knowing who wrote them than in separating out the bassline or counting the beats between cymbal crashes.

The word dyslyrical seems already to have been coined by a few people on the Web as a synonym for "mondegreen", but I think it matches this syndrome better, and I'm tempted to appropriate it.  It does fit in nicely with the various words for tone deafness, such as dysmelodia and dysmusia.

But, it strikes me that the problem is really the other way round.  When 93.6% of the population share a tendency, the word for that is "normal".  As ever, the Normals go about their normal business undescribed; only minorities and the Eternal Other get labels stuck all over them.  There is no need for a word meaning "the inability to play the piano to concert standard", or "the ability to pronounce the letter R perfectly well".  What we do need is a word for that minority who have abnormally sticky ears for songs, whose brains reverberate with rhymes, melodies and rhythms like a busy hive of song-bees, or who stash away lyrics like song-rats or song-squirrels.

Looking far back in time, back to the days of the epic oral tradition, the ability to remember and sing large amounts of wordage was essential if your job description was "bard".  A bard who resorted to tum-ti-tum, or could only ever remember the first verse was unlikely to eat very often, though skilled improvisation was a matter for applause, and extra mead.  It may be that our 6.4% of the population (2010 figures) carry bardic genes: it was a trade that did tend to run in families, after all.  Steering away from obscure Greek words like aoidic, perhaps someone possessing that trait is not so much a songsmith as a songherd? Or, in a more modern idiom, a songpiler or perhaps even a wordhouser?

But it's not just a matter of passive memory.  Other characteristics and sub-categories quickly come into play, once you start thinking about it.  A coinage with real legs needs to reflect a worldview, to capture an attitude as well as a meaning, not just plug a semantic gap.  Above all, it must feel good to use.  Combining or twisting existing words is not the only way to do this, but is often the most effective in a world where no-one understands Latin or Greek any more.  It also helps if you can identify a concrete characteristic, or something that throws an ironic light on the subject.

For example, many LPs and CDs included a wordsheet.  The sort of person who might take the trouble to read the lyrical small print is a major subspecies of the beast we are trying to name.  Nothing would persuade me to coin a word like wordshit (though I have known a few of those), but nerdsheet and word-nerd have a ring to them, and wordsheet-wizard has definite potential. Fot the more annoying individuals, I'd propose chorus-borus, or word-wally.  Or what about credit-bard or insertovert for those who add obsessive attention to an album's personnel and production details into the mix?  For those with true total recall, perhaps lyric-savant would do?  My last throw -- for those of a truly archival tendency -- is a mashup of "lyrics" and "antiquarian", with a hint of "librarian": lyriquarian, or possibly lyriquary.

The proof of the coinage is in the usage, of course.  Let's see...

"Of course, the dyslyrical majority cannot understand why lyriquarians get annoyed when..."
"Wordsheet-wizards will agree, when I say that Led Zeppelin are leaden-footed thieves, lyrically."
"Only a mondegroid would say that.  And only a nerdsheet would spot the Steely Dan reference there."

Hmm, maybe none of the above, but that's as good as I can get it.  Let's wait and see if any of these escape into the wild.  If you have anything better to offer, of course, you know what to do.

But, on reflection, a small but significant subset of readers -- those who shared my Stevenage youth and ventured into the Undercroft Club on Friday evenings around 1970/71 -- will surely acknowledge that the best possible coinage for a person obsessed with lyrics and band personnel would be a Duncan (a true word-wally, if ever there was one).

Lyrical gold... Limited edition...
A ghost of Christmas Past

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year's Day

Hibernating bikes (sorry, Andy S., look away...)
For many years, it has been my custom to venture outside on New Year's Day, whatever the weather, and try to take at least one decent photograph.  We always used to take ourselves off somewhere fairly remote for New Year until we had children or, more accurately, until the children came to realise it was not actually compulsory to be stuck hundreds of miles away from their friends, in what is often the dreariest week of the year.  So, in recent years, I have generally simply gone for a walk.

This year, I made a token excursion into the back garden.  The weather and light were abysmal -- a heavy blanket of cloud and rain driven up from the south by a blustery wind -- and I'm still feeling beaten up by a couple of hours yesterday spent with "my" consultant (though I'm beginning to suspect our relationship is asymmetrical, and I'm really just "his" patient) who was clearly bored to be at work on New Year's Eve and decided to run me through all sorts of uncomfortable procedures.   Hey, it passes the time.

So, here's one I made earlier, on the 28th -- close enough for jazz -- which seems to capture something of the nature of the season.

Amazing, how I got that owl just right...  Beautiful plumage.  The empty cans are nice, too.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Sturm und Drang

Frost and fire. Back garden at breakfast time...

In what is practically the only photo-book review of any seriousness that I can recall seeing this year in the Guardian (Landscape and Industry, by Michael Collins, Dewi Lewis 2014, reviewed 27/12/14), Ian Jack quotes the photographer on why he insists on a naturally soft, diffused light in his photographs: that "pale, English light" helps avoid "any impression of sentimentality or drama that would be created by saturated colours or stark shadows."  Later on he quotes Collins on how photography is "the visual art par excellence because it is wholly about looking.  There is no mark-making.  Everything is observed."

This is a very familiar credo.  I think Jem Southam (a photographer for whom I have the highest regard) may have been its original British practitioner, back in the 1980s, and he has had many followers and imitators since.  In its way, it's our native version of the arguments of the New Topographic movement in the States.  Obviously, I respect the impulse to avoid "landscape porn" for whatever reasons, especially when it allows for -- in Collins' words again -- the intrusion of "unsolicited, unimagined and unwelcome" details.  Photography "can show you the things you couldn't make up."  All true.

And yet...  I do wonder about this phobia for sentiment and drama, this dismissal of "mark-making" and simply making things up.  Poor old painters, eh? Such fools!  No wonder so many of them have chucked the brushes for concepts and video installations.  But, after a good run of 30 years as one of several art-photo orthodoxies, I'm afraid I'm now seeing a doctrinaire puritanism at work there, one that is reflexively and rather pointlessly self-limiting and self-deprecating and which can be, dare I say it, rather drab.  I am reminded of a previous Christmas post, A Day Like Any Other Day.  Is it really such a very superior strategy to stand aloof from the playpen where other so-called "artists" are splashing about with paint, making marks with pencils and charcoal, and hanging out some all-too-human emotions where everyone can see them, for contrast and comparison?  What once seemed necessary now seems a bit tired, a bit timid.

For a contrary view, here's Duane Michals:
...the essential point being that photography is an art but by and large as it is practiced by most photographers, will be remembered as a minor art because it lacks the essential ingredient of all major arts which is invention. Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing. I feel the more a photographer intrudes into the photograph, the more he creates. But people expect less from photography than they do from the other arts. They’re quite happy to simply reproduce someone’s face and they assume that that represents the person and if that person looks attractive, so much the better. It’s the most democratic of all the arts in that anyone can take a photograph or has had their picture taken; so accessible that we don’t demand as much and that’s what makes me angry.

Duane Michals, interviewed in Bomb Magazine, 1987
This is clearly an argument that will never be won, either way, but the pendulum is always swinging, and I sense it swinging towards Duane at the moment.

Now, as it happens, my new toy this Christmas is a wireless Wacom "Pen & Touch" graphical tablet, which is superbly responsive to variations in applied pressure, enabling one to gratify that pesky impulse to make expressive marks and muck about with paint and pencils, but without any concerns about cleaning up, leaving the tops off tubes, or running out of paper.  Crikey, pleasure without compensatory pain...  To what decadence might it all lead?  However, pace my more photo-purist readers, I fear there may be rather more of "making stuff up" around here in future (visually!) than heretofore.

Besides, avoiding a bit of Sturm und Drang at this time of year is close to impossible, and why on earth would you want to?

None-too-quiet sunset at Blackpits Copse

Friday, 26 December 2014

All The Way

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years!  Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

There's a nice discussion of this poem, written by Hardy during WW1, by Adam Newey of the Guardian  here.  Somehow, the fact that it was composed in 1915, when disillusion with the war had begun to set in, and the casualties to mount, adds another layer of depth.

On a different but not unrelated seasonal note, here's one of my favourite Wondermark strips, from 2011:

The current one is pretty good, too.  To get it, you'll have to have heard "Winter Wonderland" enough times without blocking your ears or screaming to know the lyrics intimately...  A Big Ask, I know.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Certain Poor Shepherds

We're shutting down for a few days, but will be back, probably some time around the New Year. 

Having played one several times in primary school nativities, I have always strongly identified with those "certain poor shepherds", watching flocks or washing socks by night, depending on which authority you follow, to whom the angelic Annunciation is made.  What a story, and what a night to remember, though I imagine the poor guys had trouble getting anyone to believe them...  No, really!

Talking of authorities, it seems the exact wording of the angelic message as recorded in Luke's gospel is disputed, and hangs on a single Greek letter.  I'm surprised either angels or shepherds spoke Greek, but there we are.  Pedantry aside, I think I much prefer the (possibly) erroneous version, familiar from the King James Bible: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men".  I'm never sure why supreme beings seem to have such a need for praise, worship, exclusivity contracts, etc., but some of that peace and good will would go a very long way just now.

To all readers of this blog, may I wish you the very best for 2015!   Special thanks to those of you who have taken the trouble to comment, on or off blog: it's very much appreciated.

Monday, 22 December 2014

For External Use Only

I was looking through some digitised local newspapers dating from the early part of the last century, and was struck by the amount of every page taken up by advertisements, seemingly randomly mixed into the columns. To a modern eye, accustomed to more varied typography and clearer conventions alerting the reader to the different kinds of content on a page, it was very confusing.

In particular, I kept coming across advertisements for a medicinal product called Zam-Buk, cunningly disguised as news articles -- "Man replaces own head after unfortunate sawmill incident, using ZAM-BUK embrocation alone!" -- the sort of thing that, nowadays, is required to have the word ADVERTISEMENT (or, better, MADE-UP NONSENSE) printed prominently along the top.

I had never heard of this substance before, but a quick excursion onto the Web showed that a lot of people have.  In fact, it would seem that, for a certain subset of the population, it has long been an indispensible part of the British way of life.  Apparently people have been reattaching severed heads with Zam-Buk (or, more commonly, healing cuts and grazes and soothing sores) for 100 years or so.  Who knew?  I certainly didn't.  It's basically an all-purpose antiseptic ointment (or "embrocation", to use its own evocative term), a commercial version of the sort of pre-NHS hedge-witchery that might once have got your granny burned at the stake.  In fact, one of the original ingredients, sassafras, is now banned by the EU, which is sort of the contemporary equivalent of burning at the stake.  This brand of medicated goo is still in production, and can be bought in most chemists, but (psst!) if you want the hard stuff with the original formulation, you can still get it in South Africa.

It's the real thing!

This made me think: how brand-loyal families tend to be!  And also: how much these brands depend on that loyalty for their survival, passed on from generation to generation, like a religious denomination or a football team. When it came to magic embrocations, liniments, and the like, we were a Germolene family.  Others swore by Savlon, or by TCP, but I think you would rarely find more than one such over-the-counter salve in any single family medicine cabinet.  And cough remedies!  Veno's, Vicks, Zubes, Benylin, Collis Browne's, Hacks, Fishermen's Friends...  Endless choice, but once a path is chosen you tend to stick with it, and other paths become, in effect, invisible. In illness and affliction, there is comfort in familiarity.  Zam-Buk?  What the hell is that?

The same goes for foodstuffs: we ate Heinz beans, never Crosse & Blackwell, always drank Brooke Bond tea, and never Typhoo, Tetley, or any of the other half-dozen major brands regularly stocked.  Frozen foods?  Birds Eye, always, never Findus or ... whatever other brands there might have been. In fact, unfavoured brands or untried products might as well not have existed.  Most families are built on habit, and unexamined habits are only a short step away from blind prejudice.  Remarkably, my father had never tasted Marmite in his entire life until I developed a liking for it as a student (what is university for if not this sort of reckless experimentation?).  I brought a jar home; he found it truly disgusting.  And, as I have written before, I have yet to encounter one of the elusive, but presumably numerous, households that keep the likes of Fray Bentos in business, with their tinned pies and processed meats still stacked on shelves in every supermarket.

Of course, since the 1960s there has developed a significant counter-culture of supermarket "own brand" rationalists.  "It's the same thing!  You're just paying for the name!  It's all made by the same people, anyway!"  Oh, really?  What can you say about such people, with their insensitive, incurious palates, and reductive inverted snobbery?  As a child, I could tell proper Heinz beans from their own-brand travesty in a split second, even when my poor cost-conscious mother had secretly resorted to spooning them from a Sainsbury's can into an empty Heinz can in advance of heating them up.  Similar skirmishes were fought with my own children over various cola and soft drink substitutes.  I know... It is out of the spurious sophistication of such spoilt-brat choices -- between subtly different chemical brews of sugar, inverted syrup, stabilisers, flavour enhancers, E numbers, modified cornstarch, wotsinated glooperol, etc., etc. -- that our consumer culture is made.  We are the sultans of sweeteners, the gourmets of goo.

It all somehow reminds me of the thread in that strangely Homeric film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where George Clooney's character, offered Fop brand pomade, repeatedly insists he is a Dapper Dan man (Dapper Dan being a fictional but entirely credible hair-care product).  This culminates in the surreal moment when the Mississippi floods, inundating the landscape, and saves the key characters from a lynching; dozens of tins of various brands of hair pomade swirl by in the floodwater, suddenly irrelevant, now the single remaining choice is death or survival.  Our heroes survive, clinging to an empty coffin.  I expect the Cohen Brothers were trying to tell us something.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Stitch in Time

Needlework is a bit of a lost art since nimble-fingered girls found a thousand and one better ways of passing the time, and patching clothes and darning socks went the way of washboards and boilers.  I rather like this cartoonish mermaid with her mirror, a detail on one of the many old embroidered "samplers" kept in the Goodhart Collection at Montacute House in Somerset.  Getting a useable photograph was quite tricky, hand held, as the faded threads and fabric are kept behind glass in very subdued lighting, for obvious reasons of preservation.  This one is 17th century, I seem to recall.

Inevitably, some extraordinarily skilful examples of embroidery have turned up in the Ring Hoard.  This one -- rather faded, scuffed and threadbare in places now -- must once have been a feast for the eye, and displays stitchwork of a quality that is practically supernatural.  Very small, very nimble fingers would have been essential to create the elaborate, finely-worked patterns, not to mention superhuman patience and concentration.

A modern restorer's colour reconstruction of a segment of this intricately-worked piece looks like this:

"Intricate" is barely adequate as a description.  It positively invites pareidolia, the brain's irrepressible tendency to find significant forms (such as faces) in random patterns, especially where a high degree of repetitive symmetry is present, as here.

In the days before TV or Nintendo, a pleasant winter's evening might have been wiled away, sat near a fire with a pipe of something stimulating, exploring the endless figurations and recombinations revealing themselves in the flickering candlelight.  Though a restless night, broken by disturbing dreams, may well have followed too close an examination.  There is a distinct sense that those tiny nimble fingers may not have been altogether human, not entirely benign.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dear Me

My eyebrows were raised, when reading a piece by John Berger in last Saturday's Guardian Review section ("Language can't be reduced to a stock of words...", 13/12/14, p.17).  In it, he makes several quite debatable points about the nature of translation and of linguistics, but what really stood out was this assertion:
Consider the term "mother tongue".  In Russian it is rodnoy-yazik, which means "nearest" or "dearest tongue".  At a pinch one could call it "darling tongue".
Now, I revere John Berger, whose TV series Ways of Seeing on BBC2 in 1972 blew my young mind.  But this is utter bollocks.  The Russian expression rodnoĭ yazyk  (in a more conventional transliteration) does not mean "nearest" or "dearest tongue", as he suggests. The various Russian words with the common stem rod have as their primary meanings "family", "birth, origin", or "sort, type". The verb rodit', for example, means "to give birth"; rodina is one's native land; rodinka is a birth-mark. So, rodnoĭ yazyk is one's native language, the language one is born into, or your "mother tongue" in our gendered idiom.  In fact, in grammatical terms, rod is Russian for "gender".

So, where on earth did he get this from?  Maybe there's a Russian idiom for "family" that is  conventionally translated as "nearest and dearest"?  Looking it up in the dictionary, I see there is an idiomatic usage of rodnoĭ which is given in English translation as "my dear".  But the dear-ness here is illusory; it's surely kinship that's being invoked, and the expression (which is probably as dated, if not as camp, as "my dear!") is perhaps more like addressing someone as "Bro!", or even "Blood!" ...  But I'm out of my depth here.

Ironically, this is exactly the point that Berger wants to make, that language "cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases".  Quite so.  And high-end translation is never a two-way process: once a poem has been reworked into a set of functioning approximations and equivalents in another language, it can't simply be reverse-engineered back into the original.  Though you can have a lot of harmless fun in Google Translate doing exactly that.

I did email the Guardian, pointing out the error, but it seems they have no time for such pedantry.  But, please, let's stamp out this bizarre factoid before it escapes into the wild.

[The illustrations are from a bound book of fortune-telling cards in the British Museum, which can be seen here]

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 1914 / December 2014

In Monday's post concerning blog statistics I wrote that, in contrast to my own self-indulgent ramblings, "my father's reminiscence of his experiences at Dunkirk is of great interest to military historians specialising in vox pop accounts of WW2, and has led to some interesting correspondence".  Remarkably, something very similar has just happened, and on the very next day.

I never knew my paternal grandfather.  He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born.  By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me.  Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been.  My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts.  In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I possess; taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop.  Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard.  Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.

Recently, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation.  Nothing remarkable there.  But -- and this is remarkable to the point of improbability -- in the process of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment.  That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire.  Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914.  Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?

"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm

Unquestionably, it is.  I have been asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family, so I will describe it.  Six cheerful-looking men in uniform -- boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps --are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group.  From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack.  Seated front and centre is my grandfather -- his face and prominent ears are unmistakable -- legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache.

For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap -- five foot eleven inches* -- and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he's three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant.  Behind them stands another NCO -- the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes -- grinning broadly.  He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away.  The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks like agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.

Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation. 
So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled.  They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago.  As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments.  By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".

Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare.  Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915.  That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries.  That one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it...  This is an astonishing thing.  Not least because it creates a fresh link between two blood relatives, exactly 100 years apart: you might say it's the ultimate Christmas card.

Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story.  A lot of attention has focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches.  By Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be had not yet become the cynical war of attrition and mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder floundering in muddy trenches of popular imagination.  The idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command.  The ground was firm.  The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter -- like my grandfather -- had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers.

So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914?  If anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scouts member, and a keen all-round sportsman and athlete.  It's a nice, romantic idea.

The War Diary is silent on the matter, and unfortunately does not indicate which Companies had moved back into support, and which were in the trenches.  It does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day, however.  This is unlikely to have involved football.  So, if there was a temporary seasonal truce on that part of the Western Front, it didn't last very long.

Of course, this is the self-same Christmas that has become synonymous with self-deluding military optimism.  "It'll all be over by Christmas!"  Oh, no it won't.

* One of the great disappointments of my life was failing to get DWC's "tall" gene, and getting indomitable Nanna C's "short and squat" gene instead.  Of their three sons, only one got it -- not my father -- and he went on to become a policeman.

Monday, 15 December 2014

An Incomplete Picture

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

One of the more frustrating things about running a blog (at least, if you use Google's Blogger service) is getting a reliable count of how many people are actually visiting your site, and which pages they are viewing.  Blogger's own inbuilt statistics are deeply flawed, because
  • They don't show a total for people who land on your "root" page -- i.e. the latest posts, which is the vast majority of visitors -- only for those who hit a particular post
  • They include visits from "bots" and automatically-placed malicious links posing as visitors
  • They exaggerate the numbers of visits to each named post by a factor of at least 2
The result is (a) an unhelpful inflation of the visitor numbers, and (b) unrealistic totals for some posts which are actually rarely visited by real people but which have somehow got themselves attached to malicious links and bots.

If you install Google Analytics, the statistical picture is a lot more accurate, if also quite humbling -- far fewer real people visit your site daily than Blogger would have you believe.  Weirdly, though, if I look at my all-time Top Ten most visted posts, the totals are greater in Google Analytics than in Blogger, which would indicate that Blogger's inbuilt stats are even wonkier than they seem.  Here's a comparison:

According to Google Analytics:
Way out in front is "/" i.e. visitors landing on the current page of posts, and not any particular post, at a cool 91,497.  Setting that aside, the Analytics Top Ten for those landing on a single named post (usually via a keyword search or a link) looks like this:

  1. Slip Sliding Away                   2,176
  2. Whatever happened to Donkey Jackets 1,487
  3. A Miracle of Deliverance            1,447
  4. Tears In the Stop Bath              1,427
  5. Remembrance Sunday                    838
  6. White Crows, Black Swans...           742
  7. Songs are Like Tattoos                511
  8. The Next Village                      490
  9. Flying Ant Day (2011)                 483
 10. BSA M20 Motorbikes                    405

According to Blogger:
There are no figures for "/" in Blogger.  The Blogger Top Ten looks like this:

  1. Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets 1,681
  2. A Miracle of Deliverance              989
  3. Slip Sliding Away                     781
  4. Remembrance Sunday                    757
  5. Old Stuff                             683
  6. Pigeon Post                           627
  7. Peter Goldfield                       587 (#18 on GA)
  8. Flying Ant Day (2011)                 559
  9. Red Trousers                          466 (#16 on GA)
 10. Walking the Dead                      357 (#14 on GA)

Unfortunately, only the Top Ten are shown in Blogger, so I cannot say where a post highly-placed in Google Analytics but missing from Blogger's Top Ten, e.g. "Tears in the Stop Bath", is ranked in Blogger.

So, there's a broad overlap, with generally higher counts in Analytics, but some intriguing anomalies, most of which are certainly due to robotic non-visits inflating the counts in Blogger -- "Pigeon Post" and "Old Stuff", for example, neither of which even makes the top 50 in Google Analytics.

But the main (and, I suppose, obvious) lessons are, first, that the biggest numbers for individual posts happen where the subject matter is of quite specific interest to certain constituencies of search-engine users, and, second, that many of my posts will not have satisfied the seeker.  Donkey jackets, for example, are clearly an item of current interest, but my wistful post about my nostalgia for old coats must have been of zero interest to most of the 1,500 people who stumbled over it, presumably trying to find where to buy one.  By contrast, my father's reminiscence of his experiences at Dunkirk is of great interest to military historians specialising in "vox pop" accounts of WW2, and has led to some interesting correspondence.

However, still at Number One by some margin in the most reliable statistical source is the post from 2009 "Slip Sliding Away", which happens to contain some mild incidental accounts of canings in my primary and secondary schools in Stevenage, and is linked to by a site specialising in the history of corporal punishment, in all its painful manifestations.  Oh, well...

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford