Archive for the ‘Personal Insights’ Category

Breaking in America

Friday, January 11th, 2013

As the Bettakultcha debate about mainstream gathers pace this Gentle Ihor’s Devotion track suddenly seemed prescient …

12 Breaking America

Slate, sugar and slavery.

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Penrhyn castle

Inside Penhryn castle

Penrhyn Castle in north Wales. Another monument to the inequalities of an industrialised society.

We were stopping in a large caravan site during a weekend break and it invariably had an entertainment centre. These are like a microcosm of any high street in any large town – fast food outlets, amusement arcades and a sizeable venue for evening entertainment. And like any well managed tourist attraction where you have to pass through the gift shop to get to the attraction, so it is with these entertainment centres that you have to pass through the amusements to get to the hall with the live entertainment.

For me this is like some barbaric initiation rite where I have to run the gauntlet of deafening white noise, gaudy lights and negotiate the obstacles of somnambulist people who, presumably, failed the rite and as a result were doomed to spend eternity there.

On this particular weekend, a band was on that did tributes to sixties bands. They were comical and irreverent but maintained good musicianship. The crowd and myself enjoyed them hugely.

At one point in the show, the band wanted the audience to clap or wave their arms in unison to the music. Now I used to have an attitude of ‘you don’t seem to understand the deal I did at the door; I’m here to be entertained by you, so dance monkey boy and entertain me‘. On this occasion however, I had an insight into what was really happening.

The band were inviting the audience to participate in the fun. The division between entertainer and audience is an artificial one and a definition of television; this was live entertainment – interactive, inclusive. Most of us have forgotten how to participate at a large event. We watch television at home, isolated from everyone else. This live band were reminding us that this was not television, this was more fun, it’s a party to which we are invited.

How sad I reflected, that in our culture we have to wait until we are invited to participate. And so unused are we to participating, that the entertainer has to demonstrate to us, like a teacher instructing a simpleton, what to do in order to have fun.

Why do we visit museums?

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Knighthayes Court image

On a recent break, the weather was so wet my family and a friend decided to visit a couple of National Trust properties. The odd thing about these grand properties is that they were, to all intents and purposes, identical. They exhibited the same layout, furnishings and oil paintings with pompous looking nobles staring out of them. One had clearly copied the other. My learned friend and photographer, Neville Stanikk, who came along with us, informed me that other properties he has visited as a National Trust member, were also clones of the two we had just seen. We suspected that the majority of these land owners had no original ideas of their own and conformed to a groupthink mentality within their elitist circles. Neville also told me that he has seen this phenomenon persist today in a lot of the grand private houses he photographs for estate agents.

“They have no personality to them at all. The furnishings and decorations are strictly what is fashionable and what their friends have.” he told me.

But I digress. As I surveyed the historical artefacts in the castles (most of which seemed to be merely a desperate statement of their wealth) I suddenly thought, ‘what am I supposed to do with this knowledge, why do we visit such places?’

My first answer was recreation. Let’s see something we don’t normally see. Then I thought of Austwich and the holocaust museum. Is that recreation?

My other answer was historical curiosity. Let’s see how they lived. On closer inspection though, there was very little historical detail to be had from these properties. The overriding impression to come from the visits was just how desperate these people were to make a statement of their wealth and thus how poor their imaginations were. It begged the question, ’should such intellectually impoverished people have such privilege?’

My final answer was education. Let’s see how we can learn from our past mistakes. Clearly, this is the reason for the holocaust museum, a reminder so that such an atrocity can never happen again (at least that is the hope).

And so, as I left Knigtshayes Court, I had learned from the experience. I realised how obscene the concept of inherited nobility and wealth is. It doesn’t make any sense at all in the light of modern science (I dare say it made no sense in its day either if the concept had been debated honestly enough). It was as if I had just left the holocaust museum. I could see how a system was so badly flawed that it allowed those in power to commit massive abuse and corruption without censure and it was my job to do what I could to make sure it never happened again (of course, I am not suggesting that corruption and abuse are inevitable, but we only need to work from the maxim; absolute power corrupts absolutely to see how things can go astray).

So now what?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

We are currently having some building work done on the house and have reconfigured a couple of the bedrooms. It was fun seeing the project come together but by far the biggest buzz was from envisioning the potential of the rooms. I paced the bedroom areas and imagined where the furniture would go and therefore where the electrical sockets should be placed. It then occurred to me to move my home office into a different room. The ideas began to expand into larger and larger scenarios.

We have lived in the house for ten years now and this is the only bit of structural work we have undertaken. During those ten years we got used to the house; it was just a place to camp and leave our stuff. Now, it has become an interesting puzzle to solve once again (I remember when we first moved in it was fun deciding who and what would go where).

There is a statistic somewhere which shows that people move house on average every seven years. I can see why this is. After seven years, any novelty of a new house, location, job etc. has worn off and people subconsciously ask themselves, “So now what?” Their answer is to move house and start the process over again.

I suspect this restlessness is inculcated into us by a consumerist society. We buy the latest blu-ray player and watch television in high definition. Once the novelty has worn off and we realise that the content of television is still the same old crap, no matter how high the definition is, we return to the silent, nagging question – so now what?

This is why economic growth is vital to the consumerist model. Without it, it forces a re-evaluation of the question ’so now what?’ because implicit in the lack of economic growth is the understanding that the ‘what’ can only be less than what it used to be. If you think about it, this nagging restlessness is just like any other addictive drug; we get a high of novelty which quickly wears off and so we need another dose just to maintain a tolerance of the unsatisfactory life we have fashioned for ourselves.

Instead of asking, “So now what?”, perhaps we could ask, “So now where?” and concern ourselves with the only question worth considering – how should we live?

Seize the day

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Decades ago, on a school trip to London we visited an airport. In the gift shop I bought a felt badge which needed to be sewn onto a garment. The badge showed a passenger aeroplane and proudly announced the name of the airport. It was a fine badge.

So fine was it, in fact that I deemed my current anorak unworthy of such a badge. I decided I had to wait until I had a coat which matched the prestige of such an emblem and the badge was carefully stored in a drawer somewhere. Of course, time passed and no superior garment was ever purchased.

As an adolescent I did have an anorak which I adorned with military emblems and anti war symbols (I was more interested in the graphic design than any political ideology) and the airport badge had now become too childish to sit alongside these hard core images. Eventually I realised the time for the airport badge had passed and I would never utilise it.

I still have that airport badge, still in its cellophane wrapper. It is still being carefully stored in an old suitcase in the loft. I keep it as a reminder. There is no point cherishing anything. No point waiting for the future. Things pass, times change, we die. There is only the now. Everything happens in the now.

I must remember that.

How to write good

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

A pottery class was divided into two groups. Each group was told they were involved in a competition with the other group. One group was told the winner was the group that produced the best pot. The other group was told the winner was the group that produced the most pots. Guess which group produced the best pot..

Deciding to become a writer is probably the biggest mistake most novice writers make. They probably admire certain writers and imagine that one day they might become as good or as famous as them. They might even try to emulate their style or story structure.

The truth is, you simply are a writer, but a not very good one. You don’t decide to become a writer, you decide to make a living from writing.

For a writer, having an extensive vocabulary or using vivid metaphors are useful tools to have in the box but the overarching strength of any writer is their authenticity. If you are true to yourself and to what you believe in then all the other accessories of writing – grammar, structure, detail – will naturally follow with practice. Some people attempt to learn the artifice of writing before they have something to say or a story to tell. As a result they have to bolt their writing skills onto a borrowed idea and the result is a Heath Robinson contraption which no-one believes in and raises a smile with its attempts at sophistication.

I know all this because I went through the process. I tried really hard to become a good writer and the harder I tried the worse I seemed to become. It didn’t matter which big words I used, they couldn’t hide the fact that the message was still missing.

Then one day I was involved in an unpleasant incident which proved both painful and revealing. It occurred to me that writing about it might prove cathartic. However, the memory was still too raw to allow the thing to writhe about the page naked and bruised so I decided to drape some modesty cloths over it and dress it up as a piece of fiction. It was to become my first short story which possessed a life of its own. The words wrote themselves, hot and vivid.

The incident concerned a fearful encounter I had with a street beggar. I had gone on an evening walk to try and clear my head. The beggar was unusually aggressive, and shocked by his attitude, I broke down and wept before running away from the man whose words chased after me.. “I only want to buy some fags! No need to be such a big baby about it!”

The shame was the spur. I told the story pretty much as it happened but with the extra clothing in the narrative. When I had finished, it was a bittersweet moment for although the story was painful to write, I knew it had a life of its own.

I gave a copy of the story to a fellow student who lived in the same halls of residence as I did, to get his opinion. Half heartedly he took the story from me and said he would look at it sometime.

The next morning he approached me at breakfast and told me how much he had enjoyed the story. He had only intended to read the first few paragraphs he said, but then got involved in it and read the entire story in one sitting. When he said that, it was like a precious gift he had given me. Because I grew up then. That’s when I knew what good writing was about.

One of two things happen after that; you either keep on writing to hone the rough diamond you have unearthed, or you don’t. Or maybe you just keep coming back to it like a dusty musical instrument you neglect to play for months at a time. The thing is, the improvement comes from the doing. The more you write, the better you become. You can’t help it. But always, at the heart of the work, is authenticity.

So the potters who created the most pots also produced the best pots. They couldn’t help it.

You can’t tickle yourself

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

While entertaining at a wedding anniversary recently, I was listening to the music in the background which was a compilation of 60’s and 70’s music. On came ‘Voodoo Chile’ by Jimi Hendrix and an immediate Pavlovian response of pleasure rippled through my body. I gave it my slightly divided attention (I was still caricaturing at the time) and appreciated the brilliant textures and harmonic movements in the piece.

Wow. I thought, this is sensational! How come I hadn’t noticed just how good it was before?

On the drive back home, I got out the cd that had Jimi Hendrixs’ greatest hits and played Voodoo Chile’ again on the car sound system. I must have heard this track hundreds of times and when I played it in the car, it was as I remembered – OK.

That’s strange I thought, why did it sound so good when I was working in the room?

The answer, I reasoned, must be like tickling. When someone tickles you, it’s unbearable because you don’t know where they will go next. But if you try tickling yourself in the same places… nothing happens.

I remember when I would spend hours as a youth drawing in my parents’ home and playing records to keep me company. As I was relatively poor, I only had so many records so I knew them intimately. My brother would then ask if he could have a turn on the record deck. He would have a few records of his own but a lot of the music he played would be what I had played earlier. I noticed then that when I had no idea what song was coming next I enjoyed it all the more. It was the unexpectedness that made me appreciate the song anew.

I suspect a lot of things in life are like that. If you engineer an outcome, it is as you expected; but if an outcome is unexpected, it is almost like experiencing it for the first time again. Is this why an unexpected bargain is more pleasurable than a fiercely negotiated deal?

Why is the human mind so fickle?

Photography, old school

Monday, February 9th, 2009

small image of snow scene

Photography is so easy today; just take a picture on a digital camera and view your results in seconds. Usually, you get a perfectly exposed, pin sharp image.

Take for example the picture above. From seeing the picture, taking it, transferring to my computer, adjusting it in Photoshop and having it ready to upload to my blog took all of fifteen minutes. My tiny camera even has a ‘night time landscape’ option so there was no need to guess a long exposure.

Compare this to the days of film. I remember when I used to shoot on black and white film with a brick of an SLR camera. Everything was manual apart from the exposure meter which suggested the correct setting in reasonable light (it didn’t work in low light). This meter had to be first calibrated according to the film speed used in the camera.

Once I had taken a picture there was no instant review of images. I had to wait until the entire film was used up which sometimes could be several weeks as film was relatively expensive and I couldn’t afford to fire off an entire roll on just one subject. To see anything at all I first had to process the negative.

Patterson developer kit

This entailed hand winding the film back into its cassette and then transferring the film from the cassette into a developing container – a process fraught with all sorts of dangers. For a start it had to be done in total darkness to avoid fogging the film. In a house, this meant the operation was done either under the bed covers or in the cupboard under the stairs. Then the tricky bit was feeding the film into a plastic wheel with a one way transport mechanism. This was as nerve wracking and as important as an adolescent fumbling in the dark trying to unhook his first bra (worn by her, not him). The film could easily get caught on the transport mechanism of the wheel resulting in creasing or even tearing of the precious negatives. Once in the light tight developing tank, the wet work could then be done.

The chemicals used had to be mixed to the correct concentration and prepared to the correct temperature. This usually entailed setting up a lab in the bathroom with several spare thermometers to hand as almost invariably you were tempted to mix the chemicals with the thermometer itself and so occasionally break the damn thing. Then the development had to be timed (a complex calculation taking into account speed of film, temperature etc.) along with regular agitations of the film, stopped with another chemical, fixed with yet another chemical and then rinsed for twenty minutes or more in running water (luckily, this was in the days before I had a water meter). After that, you could take a peek at the wet negative. This was an exciting moment as it was only then that you discovered whether you had exposed correctly. If you had not, usually your entire film of thirty six images – the maximum you could fit in a standard SLR camera – were either ‘thin’ (under exposed) contrasty (over exposed) or just plain blank (fortunately this never happened to me).

You then had to dry the negative in as dust free an environment as you could manage, which was difficult to find in a domestic house, and so the bathroom was pressed into service again and the negatives would be hanging next to the tights. When I later encountered at art school special drying cabinets for films I discovered they eliminated a huge amount of dust noise.

And that was only half the process! Then you had to print the negs, a process which required a darkroom (a light tight room dimly lit by a reddish light), several chemicals, running water, special photographic paper and an enlarger which basically took the photograph again! Guess which room in the house got commandeered for this stage of the process. No wonder everyone in my family were filthy, they never got the chance to wash.

If you had a poor lens on the enlarger, the expensive lens on your camera was made redundant. Again, any chemicals had to be at the right temperature and an exposure had to worked out for the contrast on the negative and the grade of photographic paper which varied in ‘hardness’ to accommodate different contrast ratios in the negative. A contact sheet had to be made first so that you could assess which negative was worthy of being blown up. Generally, I was lucky to get one or two images out of thirty six that made the grade.

During the exposure of the paper, a certain amount of dodging and burning could be performed on the image. This is where the photographer would move a light blocker (sometimes specially cut to fit a required area on the image) over the paper to either emphasise of knock back a shadow or highlight. The length of time one kept the blocker over the image and how much ’shake’ one applied to it (to avoid hard edged emphasis) was down to experience. Dodging and burning was an art in itself. A dust free environment was also best for printing as dust motes were effectively light blockers during the printing process and would produce ’snow’ in the finished print.

Then the black and white prints had to be washed in running water and then dried. Finally you could admire (or despair) at your photography.

It’s weird I know, but I seemed to derive more enjoyment form the old process than I do today with the digital cameras. It is almost as if the amount of effort expended is proportional to the satisfaction gained. If something is too easy, it has little satisfaction to offer.

Its like mountain climbers. They don’t have to climb the mountain and they certainly don’t need to go on foot to get to the top. They could do it using helicopters or hang gliders but there is this concept that it doesn’t count unless they have expended a lot of effort to do it. This concept is purely arbitrary as it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, you could argue that the only criterion that must be observed, if argued logically, is that climbers must attempt the mountain naked as any equipment is deemed to be using technology and makes things easier. And why just naked? For real enthusiasts, maybe they could agree that only one hand can be used in the climb or maybe blindfolded. It is really only about challenging yourself and reminding yourself that you are alive.

At the other extreme, the logical conclusion of business success is achieving everything that you set out to do. So once everything is achieved, you do nothing, sit back in the sun and… die basically.

Okay, I accept that digital photographer has allowed the photographer to concentrate more on the final image but digital photography doesn’t improve a photographer’s eye.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if they brought out a camera that had a ‘talent’ setting and which instructed you where to stand, where to point, when to wait for the best moment etc. and everyone took belting images. Then in Photoshop, there is also a ‘talent’ filter which processes the image into the optimum everything. At what point do we admit that the picture is not ours and actually belongs to the programmer of the software? At this point we might as well just let some talented photographer take pictures for us to enjoy. Would we admire the images less because we knew it required very little effort to achieve them? I think we would because we only admire that which we find difficult to do ourselves. It is the struggle that is important, the achievement is just the icing.

The journey is the destination.

The meaning of life

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Instead of asking, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ask, ‘how can I make my life more meaningful?

The buck starts here

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

You are a member of a small island group of people in the Pacific ocean living simply and sustainably. Your ancestral stories go back several generations. Living is fun and fulfilling.

Then one day you notice the sea has come further up the beach than is usual. Over a few years the sea level has risen alarmingly and during storms the houses nearest the beach always flood. Your island is only several metres above sea level at its highest point. At the continuing rate of rise your entire island will be under water in a couple of decades.

If this was a result of natural phenomena you would just shrug your shoulders and adapt as best you can. But if you knew this was the result of some strange race of people living on the other side of the world doing things to the environment in an utterly careless way, you would be appalled, disbelieving, angry…

So now you are a member of a large island group of people living a complex and unsustainable life style. Life is not much fun but it is tolerable. Then one day you notice the media is full of stories about the rising tide of debt and how it has risen to levels not seen before. Suddenly a fierce financial storm threatens to drown your island and everyone living on the island starts bailing debt as fast as they can. Many drown.

Then you discover that this tsunami of debt was the result of some strange race of people living in America doing things to the financial environment in an utterly careless way and you become appalled, disbelieving, angry…

But then, in the aftermath, you learn that the great expanse of sea between America and here is actually no barrier at all and that, in fact, you are part of that strange race of people doing things so carelessly to the environment.