Thursday, 30 April 2020

Daily photos no. 22: Baby, it's cold outside

OK, we're still in the winter of 2010 and it's been a cold, clear, properly snowy one: I remember going for a stroll with some Cuban students who'd never seen snow before - they were entranced. I'm a cold weather person: it makes me feel alive, whereas any temperature above 20C gives me the complexion of a lobster, the energy of a particularly lazy sloth and the relaxed attitude of a disturbed rattlesnake. Which is lucky, because the first thing I did when I moved into my draughty ex-warehouse flat was take out the useless, expensive storage heaters to give myself more wallspace for book shelves.

I took these with my little D40 from the top floor of my then office building before taking a stroll in the snow. My city has a reputation for being an ugly ex-industrial dump (not entirely unjustified) but parts of the city are as you can see, packed with tree cover, and there are some excellent parks too. The wintery conditions really brought this out. I now live somewhere under those trees, and I can tell you that they're not so apparent from ground level!

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Daily Photos No. 21: Up Where The Air Is Clear

These were taken on the Malvern Hills one bitterly cold, clear, wintery day in December 2010. It was just Neal and myself, unusually, and we got the earliest train we could manage to give us time to walk the entire length of that lovely spine of hills before darkness fell. Once up on the hills we saw lakes of morning mist lower down and the snow highlighted the patterned land. Birds of prey circled lazily in the cold sun, and we chanced upon a secretive meeting of Morris dancers out to mark some significant date. It was clearly a private event - no onlookers or organisation beyond a president - and one or two of those in blackface were a little freaked out by the appearance of a camera. w

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Daily Photo No. 20: Going for Gold

Sometimes photo opportunities just present themselves, and this one was pure serendipity. The Staffordshire Hoard was a huge collection of jewellery and decorative detailing stripped off weapons and other designer Anglo-Saxon goods, mashed together and then stashed in a hole in south Staffordshire. My friend's dad was in the same club as the finders, and had apparently identified the field as a likely candidate in the past, but never got round to exploring it.

The Hoard occasioned a lot of local pride, provided a lot of publicity and opportunities for history education - West Mercia's political importance and Anglo-Saxon history became the source of a lot of contemporary political discourse (especially depressingly during the Brexit debate), but also reminded the people of what's a very poor, post-industrial area that they mattered. This shot kind of summed up the contradictions and tensions of Stoke-on-Trent - enriched by coal, steel but also the highly-skilled labour of the Potteries, then abandoned as global capitalism moved on.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Daily photos No. 19: Circles

My friends and I are largely (though not exclusively) child-free and car-free. Quite a few of us like walking and have an interest in the layered, half-forgotten histories of these islands, the bits still to be found tucked away in quiet corners of the countryside, or grassed over because they don't quite fit the Anglocentric narrative of upper-class English domination, Celtic obeisance and the inexorable rise of Britishness. We also love trespassing because we're all fans of the Julian Cope and The Modern Antiquarian, Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside The True Levellers' Standard Advanced and resent the enclosure of the commons whether for agri-industry, bird-massacres or golf. Especially golf. Mike Parker's brilliant book on the construction of Powys as a green desert is particularly important to me, as are PJ Harvey's White Chalk album,

RS Thomas's poem 'Afforestation'

and Kirsti Bohata's superb chapter on Welsh responses to the Forestry Commission's erasure of local communities in the post war period, 'The Battle for the Hills' in Postcolonialism Revisited: Writing Wales in English

The Map Twats, our loose collective, regularly went out for walks, subject to the vicissitudes of the British railway system. Dan always had a map and a prehistoric site or interesting flora in mind, and we invariable ignored him and got lost, but there was always a pub at the end. My friends are also quite photogenic. These are from a trip to Corndon Hill, Mitchell's Fold stone circle and Lan Fawr on the Shropshire/Wales border - frequented usually only by hippies and buzzards.

In heroic pose

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Daily Photos No 18: If you can treat those impostors just the same…

Mr Randall is one of the best referees around, and also a leading Trotskyist union activist. 

Just managed to get the moment the point landed

Curtis Miller overlooking Curtis Miller

This is what defeat feels like
Fencing photography is really hard. The lighting in sports halls is dreadful, and you can't use flash because it would dazzle people wielding weapons at high speed. The speed of action means you need a very steady and and high-end kit to get anything useable, and I had neither for quite some years. Competitions could last several days, good shots were there and gone in a thousandth of a second, and it's hard to differentiate between people wearing near-identical equipment. Also, I was never there as a photographer - I was snapping away whenever I had a chance. Added to this, the rules around photography in youth sport keep changing. As a part of the child protection group within the sport, I understood why, and what had to be done, so it was just part of the context.

Nonetheless, I gradually learned to find a decent shot. Action is always happening, though my photographer's head and fencer's head were often in conflict: the most dramatic action is usually the worst fencing. Ideally, you want to hit someone without them realising you've moved a muscle - very much not what the camera wants. Very often, the best sporting shots aren't the moments a point is scored, but the seconds afterward: the elation or the horror. Beyond that, there are the moments of ending an stress that emerge over the course of a long competition. I was backstage at the London Olympics (some shots coming up in a few days) and regret not being allowed to photograph the most private moments. The call room was pretty much designed to generate panic: whichever fencers were on next had to be in this tiny space, eyeballing each other, for 20 minutes before they came out. Popping in for something one day I saw one man with his nose in the corner like a naughty child, while his opponent quietly vomited into a coffee cup. A few minutes later, one had an Olympic medal round his neck. So that was one photo I will only ever have in my head.

These ones are from the UK School Games in 2010 - very much apprentice shots, but also full of memories. I don't have children, but every couple of months I'd find myself looking after, coaching, refereeing or escorting large bunches of them, from every class, area, school and background. Some were loud and confident, some were quiet and terrified, some were champion escape artists, some charming and some dreadful human beings, but spending any length of time with them was always a privilege, and I always appreciated the bubble-like atmosphere of living with a group of strangers for maybe a week of high stress before leaving and perhaps never seeing them again, or bumping into them and their parents at other events and reliving a sometimes very edited version of it.

Victory and defeat side by side

'Negotiating' with the referee

More victory and defeat

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Daily Photos No 17 - The North

One of the odd things I did over the years was the UK School Games, a multi-sport Olympics for school-children which travelled round the UK for a number of years. It started under Labour, was cut down and eventually abolished by the coalition mostly because it was a Labour initiative. There were a painful couple of years where the corporate sponsorship dried up, then it died a sad death.

In the meantime, it was a great opportunity for up-and-coming sports stars to represent their countries (England, Wales, Scotland and either NI or Ireland depending on whether the individual sport was cross-border or not) and experience the pressures and joys of a properly-organised event. I did a number of roles - welfare officer, team manager and a few other things. It always meant a few trips to different areas of these islands in the planning stages, wearing truly hideous polyester fr days on end, sleeplesss nights, sporting, emotional and physical trauma and triumphs, intense friendships and always good photo opportunities.

I might dig out some of the sporting shots later, but today it's just a few from Newcastle and Gateshead, where the 2011 Games were held. I'd never been there, and was stunned by the architectural grace of Newcastle, the geography of the twin cities and the brutal charms of Gateshead. I took these on the way to a meeting to check out venues a few months beforehand.

Detail from a hotel doorway

Classical-style ironwork

Demolition of the Gateshead car park Michael Caine throws someone off in Get Carter!

The Sage through a bridge

The Tyne Bridge

Friday, 24 April 2020

Daily photos No. 16: finally some cats!

No ideological or aesthetic point to make today. I just like textures, small things and cats. These were in my mother's garden one day in 2010. The cat is the most recent of a long line of eccentric, charming feline murderers we acquired from the neighbouring farm once my cat-hating grandfather died. He used to like the beasts until one killed an entire roof-ful of sparrows in his garage in 1972. I can see his point, and cat-disdain was pretty much his only character flaw, so I'm willing to give him a pass. The cats had to share space with free-range guinea pigs, feral rabbits and chickens, as well as cope with my youngest sister treating them like dolls, pushing them around in a pram. They were very patient.

So: finally I add some cat content to social media.

She's 34 next week…

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Daily photos no 15: Rural rust

I took these up by Coomasaharn Lake in Co. Kerry. Long a resort for tourists thanks to the Victorian railway network, Kerry has been seen as a romantic location: breathtaking mountains, sublime scenery, rural simplicity, a space away from the cares of cosmopolitan life. That's not changed - there's a floating population of Germans, British and various others on the West Coast (such as Donovan) who want to understand the place as standing in opposition to the values of industrial, globalised Western civilisation. A wetter Goa, perhaps.

This is, of course, nonsense. The landscape is as man-made and post-industrial as any other; the lives of those living there are as full of care and stress as any other place; romance and sublimity are privileged perspectives held by those who can turn up for a couple of weeks for leisure before returning to their normal lives.

Kerry is littered with abandoned cottages and smallholdings, as are many counties. The population of Ireland has still not recovered to pre-Famine levels, while the combination of hunger, imperialism, land ownership laws under the British, geology, capitalism and dreadful governments often meant that simply abandoning an unproductive farm and emigrating for a life of manual labour in England, the US or elsewhere was often the best option.

There's an ethical aspect to photography, and I do worry about the dissonance between the aesthetic attraction of decay and corruption and the stories they represent: ruin-porn, as it's known, could either be a voyeuristic replacement of the lives encapsulated with mere aesthetic effect, or a memorial to and recognition of those lives. I haven't quite settled on a view yet, but I do recommend Barthes's Camera Lucida and Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Daily photos 14: Shadow

I've always liked modernist and brutalist architecture for the starkness of the shadows they cast, especially when there's some contrast with the surroundings. These two were taken on the stairwell outside my old office on a snowy day in 2010 and under a bridge by my old flat. Early steps as I got the hang of using an SLR and using monochrome, but looking back, I'm still quite pleased with them. Click to enlarge.

In other news, I haven't mentioned what I'm reading to pass the time. Apart from PhD chapters, plagiarised undergrad essays and book drafts for an academic publisher, I've been reading Big Novels and Tom Gauld's Department of Mind-Blowing Theories, his new collection of cartoons from New Scientist. There are some on the space between good research and splashy research that could have been inspired by conversations at my workplace, while this one also reflects my life as a literary critic with a family. 

I loved Dan Simmons' Hyperion, a space opera obsessed with the life and poetry of the short-lived poet Keats. I'd read one of the later novels in the sequence a few yeas back and thought it was OK, but the first one is epic, clever and genuinely profound. I've already mentioned Aidan Higgins' Langrishe, Go Down which is still in my mind. Jim Crace's Arcadia was very enjoyable too: a tale of masculine achievement and failure amidst the bustle of a city - richly symbolic but also an impressive piece of world-building and one with considerable sympathy for the lives of women in patriarchal societies. Now I'm 700 pages in to Trollope's The Prime Minister. I read a Trollope or two every year they're always huge and all-encompassing. This one has two plots: the travails of Prime Minister who (unlike his wife) is too honest, mentally fragile and intellectual to effectively wield power in a corrupted society and a coalition government, and the story of a woman who falls for the Wrong Man. Emily makes a mistake and clings resolutely to it for the sake of her honour; the Duke's wife, by contrast, blunders around for the best of motives and continually makes life difficult for her devoted but undemonstrative husband. 

It's a wonderful read, and there are no interminable hunting scenes for a change, but the anti-semitism is just pervasive. Ferdinand Lopez is The Wrong Man because he is probably foreign and has no family history. Trollope cleverly gets us on Lopez's side initially by putting the bigotry in the mouths of crusty old people who don't understand the modern world like Emily's father, who says that Ferdinand isn't a gentleman, doesn't sound English and may well be a 'swarthy son of Judah'. The rest of the plot is devoted to bringing us round to Mr Wharton's point of view by demonstrating that he's right. Though he may or may not be Jewish, Lopez is the son of a travelling salesman, he works in financial speculation (badly) and has no concepts of love, honour or honesty: all the tropes associated with Jews in the 19th-century. So it's one of those novels I admire for its technique and abhor for its attitudes. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Daily photos No. 13 - In Cars

I can't drive. The opportunity didn't present itself when I was a teenager, and the expense and inconvenience combined with an early environmental conscience to stop me learning later on. It would be useful to hire a car now and then, but I've got into my mid-forties without needing one, thanks to living in a country with good public transport, the occasional kindness of friends and my love of cycling. I do find some cars and their infrastructure visually appealing however (though the close up view I got when being hit by one last year was more visceral than aesthetic). These photos were taken within 200 metres of my old flat one evening in 2010, when I was playing with focus, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. (Click on them to enlarge). 

Traffic lights reflected on a textured wall

Car moving past resurfacing work

Negotiating the lights