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January 05 2018


The Dark Is (Re)reading

Later thoughts on The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

I first read TDIR around the age of thirteen, pulling it off the shelves in an English lesson mainly on the strength of the cover. I loved it then, and went on to read the rest of the sequence (except the first, which seemed unrelated in spirit and intent). The fifth book, The Grey King, was a particular highlight; one of those novels that becomes inseparable from its setting ever after, in this case the murky slopes of Cadair Idris and the dark waters of Talyllyn beneath it.

I tried rereading TDIR a year or two ago, again at Christmas, but abandoned it midway almost immediately after Christmas Eve. I made another attempt this year, inspired by #TheDarkIsReading on Twitter and, while I finished it this time shortly before returning to work in the new year, my interest once again mostly evaporated with the Christmas brandy. I think the rural setting and evocation of a family Christmas are marvellous and have a strong appeal in the December run-up, but I found the story itself comparatively less enthralling. The fantasy element has lost its appeal and Merriman Lyon  seems laughably portentous in his every sombre pronouncement. The linking of magic with landscape and nature is intriguing, although I'm not inclined to entertain any pagan guff about it. But the major events of the book itself did not keep me gripped as they did before, and I finished it feeling vaguely dissatisfied and somewhat annoyed that I hadn't found time to read something more adult as well or instead. Indeed, having vaguely thought about carrying on to re-read TGK (which admittedly is probably a stronger story), I ultimately decided to forego it. I'm sure thirteen year olds today would still be enraptured by it, but the experience confirms - in my case at least - that a grown-up should steer clear of childish things.

January 02 2018


A quick breakdown of 2017

Books read: approx. 12, of which Simon Bradley's "The Railways" (which I actually began in 2016) was the best, followed by "Electronic Dreams" by Tom Lean, which I read immediately after. Nothing since has grabbed me in the same way, although the Attlee biog I'm currently reading ("Citizen Clem") may yet be up there. Visited Waterstones today and could find a reason to take against almost everything I picked up, which is not a healthy sign.

Albums bought: 28, approx. half new releases and half back catalogue. Best overall was Affinity's self-titled 1970 album (although bonus track "Eli's Coming" was the standout cut). Nothing in the new releases was consistently great but I'll mention "Sleeping Through The War" by All Them Witches, "Paper Parachutes" by Ninet, and "Heathen Hymns" by Galley Beggar in dispatches, plus Betsy's album for some decent bangers - albeit all singles - and the "One Way Glass" compilation I got for Xmas. "Tales of the Riverbank" by Dancer was the most unexpected and rewarding discovery (thanks, Clive), along with the best moments of Hooverphonic.
Biggest disappointments were "The Tower" by Motorpsycho (not awful but they've retreated to their comfort zone - lead track "A.S.F.E." sounds like something ZZ Top came up with and then rejected for being too banal) and, once again, "To The Bone" by Steven Wilson (for an album built on his alleged love of pop music, it is singularly devoid of great tunes).
Biggest disappointments that I passed on (thank ghod for track previews): weak followups from QotSA, Royal Blood and Haim, and the long-awaited yet eventually unappetising debut from Paul Draper.

Gigs: 1, and it wasn't great but meant I finally got to tick "saw Trevor Rabin play live" off my bucket list.

Photos taken: probably around 3,000, of which under 500 made it to some kind of finished, uploaded state. On the plus side, this included several sets that comprised some of the most consistent and personally pleasing shots I've ever managed, such as the ones from Pembrey beach and Aberystwyth, plus the architectural studies around Cathays. Think I might finally be getting the hang of this, and it gets easier once you figure out what you're interested in and can start filtering out everything else. It's not about the gear obviously, but the Panasonic GX80 is finally everything I wanted from a camera and was a pleasure to shoot with every time I used it, which makes a difference when it comes to motivating yourself to get out with it. I made an effort to relax my working methods this year and began uploading camera JPEGs edited on mobile in Snapseed instead of fussing around with endless titivating of RAW images in a full-blown editor. On the latter side, I finally put some effort into switching from AfterShot Pro to Darktable, and now believe I may be able to bugger on with Linux for a few more years instead of throwing in the towel and buying a Mac or Windows laptop. Oh, and I finally bought a colorimeter and profiled my monitor display. Didn't make a radical difference but it's one less thing to blame for poor output. On the downside, HP no longer supports my monochrome printer and there are no equivalent models in the same bracket.

Films: I don't count them, but Thor: Ragnorok was easily the most insanely entertaining movie I watched all year, and The Last Jedi its polar opposite. GotG 2 and Spiderman were good, but their appeal didn't last much beyond one viewing. Paddington 2 was faintly annoying in its determination to remain oblivious of anything slightly unpleasant (i.e. non-middle class) about modern Britain, but you can't help indulging the resulting fantasy utopia when all about you is brexit. Most pleasant surprise was Tomorrowland, which we watched via Netflix on New Years Eve and was rather better than critical reviews had led me to expect, despite a fuzzy ending. (I'd like to name some more cerebral fare at this point, but I'm struggling to recall anything else - I guess "Their Finest" was pretty good because Gemma Arterton is well fi... oh, darn it.)

TV: After seeing all the raves, I gave in and sampled Detectorists, determined to hate it, and it's ... pretty wonderful, to be fair. Not as great as the more hyperventilating comments have it (The Unthanks? No Thanks) but difficult to take against, although to call it a comedy is to oversell it. It's never as laugh-out-loud funny as you'd hope (there's a 20mph car chase and that's literally the sum total of that particular joke, although the ongoing gag about Sheila's homemade lemonade never fails to please), but it's always warm and kind, no moment is ever brutal or grating on the viewer and the characters are consistently likeable, all of which are apparently rarities in 2017.
W1A, also sadly reaching an end, was like Detectorists with more cruelty but better jokes.
Stranger Things 2 was most of what we liked about the first series, with the novelty appeal missing on this second encounter being somewhat offset by the (alas, transient!) presence of Sean Astin.
The Crown continues to be capital-G Great in almost every aspect of casting, delivery, dialogue, photography and direction.
The Defenders was...well, it was. Just teaming up Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock would have been enough, and everything else beyond that only detracted from it.
Tried again with Doctor Who - fresh start and all that - but couldn't stick with it owing to nil sympatico with the most recent TARDIS team, although I did return for the finale, which was...OK, at least until John Simm took off his wig. Looking forward to welcoming our new female timelord though; less so the new showrunner.
I'm still missing Hinterland badly; Un Bore Mercher isn't a substitute on the evidence of the first two episodes.
In the "wouldn't touch with a bargepole" stakes: GoT; Handmaid's Tale; anything of more than ten episodes on Netflix and anything the Guardian raved about.

December 21 2017


The Dark Is Rising chronology

Purely for my own reference, to get this straight:
  • 20th Dec: Ch. 1, Midwinter's Eve
  • 21st Dec: Ch. 2-3, Midwinter's Day, The Sign-Seeker
  • 23rd Dec: Ch. 4, The Walker On The Old Way
  • 24th Dec: Ch. 5-7, Christmas Eve, The Book of Gramarye, Betrayal
  • 25th Dec: Ch. 8, Christmas Day
  • 26th Dec-4th Jan(?): Ch. 9, The Coming of the Cold (opens on 26th but immediately elides an indeterminate number of days before they appear to head to the manor for shelter on 4th Jan)
  • 4th Jan: Ch. 10-12, The Hawk in the Dark, The King of Fire and Water, The Hunt Rides (overnight, culminating at dawn on 5th)
  • 5th Jan: Ch. 13, The Joining of the Signs

November 18 2017

November 09 2017

November 08 2017

November 07 2017

The New Book of Snobs by D.J. Taylor Ade wants to read The New Book of Snobs by D.J. Taylor

October 25 2017

October 21 2017


Yesterday I went to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff for a lunchtime talk by David Hurn on his Swaps exhibition, currently showing in the museum’s newly-opened photography gallery. (It’s an excellent and illuminating display, incidentally; one of the few chances outside London to view prints by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Elliot Erwitt and many other gifted photographers.)

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IMG_20171020_130209.jpg There was an impressive turnout for a midday event, and the auditorium was almost full. David Hurn in person was enthusiastic, amusing, enlightening and exactly light enough for a lunchtime interlude without patronising his audience or neglecting to inform. His talk was entitled “Collecting Bus Tickets”, in a conscious effort to demystify and play down his achievement. The accompanying slideshow picked out highlights from his collection of work by other famous photographers gained by his habit of exchanging prints, or else featured key images from his lifetime - including the endoscopy of his bowel, included to demonstrate that we can’t be too precious about photography and because it had saved his life by pinpointing the exact location of a cancerous tumour that was successfully removed by surgeons a few years ago. Another memorable highlight was the image of the Soviet soldier buying his wife a hat in Picture Post, which changed David’s life and set him on his eventual path because of the moving parallel he drew with a moment from his own parents’ lives.

However, I did feel that a couple of his observations were off base. On a minor note, his opening remarks that “the family album” was the most important possession for most people probably betrays a traditional understanding of domestic photography that no longer holds true and arguably hasn’t for some time. I can take his point that family photos may hold enormous sentimental value, but the notion of them still gathered physically together into a canonical book seems a little quaint today. I have albums of pictures from one or two notable holidays and a large one holding photos of the first year or so of my eldest daughter’s life - plus several hundred more of both my children still loose in the sleeves from the lab, which will most likely now never make it into an album unless I get bored in my retirement. In the event of a fire, I’d struggle to put my hands on any of them and it probably wouldn’t occur to me to try, nor the folders of negatives and slides, the backup disks or, most critically, the fileserver hosting all the raw image files of the last fifteen years. I’d be saddened by the loss of this archive of my life, but at least I’d know the important images themselves were still available to view via an Internet connection - held by Google and Flickr (probably Facebook for most other people). The family album, in its traditional sense - has that truly existed for more than a minority of families after about 1990, let alone in the age of smartphones and cloud storage?

The other remarks that similarly failed to recognise how the world has moved on were his slightly frustrated complaints that “photography students don’t swap prints”, as he has always done, aimed mainly at the many students from the local arts courses in the audience that day. “Are you really not interested in the work of your fellow students?” he asked plaintively. I think this viewpoint privileges two possibly outdated concepts: the primacy of the print; and possession of the physical representation of a piece of visual art. I’ll caveat here that I don’t know how photography students work today and whether they print a lot. But the notion that they have no interest or sight of the work of their contemporaries must be preposterous; I’d challenge you to find any generation more aware of the photographic exploits of their peers. They may not be swapping actual prints, but they are certainly liking each others images on Instagram, pinning them on Pinterest, curating them on Tumblr and building up an entire linked ecosystem of the Commons based on their own images and those of their friends. How much photography students do this with each other’s work, I’m not sure, but I know for a fact that Newport students at least are following and retweeting their mutual accomplishments on Twitter. It may not ever result in another tangible personal collection as valuable and important as Hurn’s own “Swaps”, but it is nearly all publically and globally accessible for those looking.

Incidentally, do you find yourself, like me, pinning endless wonderful images on Pinterest but never actually going back to review and enjoy your boards? You’re not alone - David confessed that most of the prints he received, other than the ones he elected to hang on his walls, went into sleeves and archival boxes, and were never viewed again until now. If nothing else, one enormous benefit of David’s generous bequest to the museum will be the opportunity for many more people to assess these images as a group and draw new connections between them and the development of photography as a whole in future. The first fruits of this process will be the museum’s next exhibition once Swaps is over next Spring, highlighting the work of female photographers. David himself will be in conversation with Martin Parr (who has just opened his own foundation in Bristol to further the artform) at the museum in February, an event I unfortunately won’t be able to make but which will be a great evening for those who can.

October 20 2017

October 19 2017

Back alley, Emily Road
Aberystwyth, Wales
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