Sunday, 31 May 2009

The redemptive qualities of art?

Things remain difficult. One person's mood has wildly swung back to positive from some pretty gloomy depths - a good illustration of how the act of expressing certain ideas causes them to be lifted, a common psychotherapy effect of course. It is almost as if nothing happened previously.

But for me, these events do change things, and I don't just swing back in the same way. Indeed, the manner in which such swings occur is, itself, one of the main negatives of this process for me - I tend to view the negative mood was more authentic in some way.

For the last few days I have sought some refuge in art, of all things. I have been working my way through Richard Long's "Walking the Line", deeply impressed by the range of locations mentioned and how it is clear that to live such a life is more in keeping with my own philosophy of life than those of most other people. In the evenings I have been working on some photos from our recent trip to Wales (the forest photos uploaded previously). I am not really that knowledgeable about Photoshop but I have been working my way through some of the bits I do know, tweaking brightness and contrast levels, adding a slight grain where there was none before, and so.

Six have been printed out on glossy photo paper - with the printer set at highest quality, resulting in each print taking 15 minutes. The results are far above my expectations. Some of the most beautiful pictures I have ever taken. I have framed them and am now planning where best to hang them. I have even sent one to a photo print shop in Oxford where they can print an A3 copy, and am very excited about getting this back in a few days time.
The picture sent to become A3 sized - actually not my favourite initially, but the framed A4, heavily-processed print is wonderful in my view

All this produces the expected response that I have been wasting my time again, but I see the time I have spent on this as a life-saver and as providing a way to feel a bit better going forward. The redemptive power of art I expect . . . . .

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A mixed few days . . . .

The last few days have not been good, coinciding with some wild mood swings (not from me) and a number of difficult moments. These events always seem to come out of the blue, but also seem to reflect deeply held greivances that presumably bubble unseen under the surface at other times (perhaps most of the time).

The key issues remain ones of "philosophy of life" (broadly conceived). In particular, what one should aspire to as the goal of one's life. A few years ago I reached what I took to be a major point of transition and viewed life going forward as being based on very different foundations to that which it had been based on up to then. But I have been shocked to find that this view is not shared and that other, strongly-divergent views seem to have precidence. These include views that can only be categorised as based on "status" or "materialism" in some sense, and they are views that I don't share, nor have ever done so.

But what does also come to the fore at such moments is the vastly different histories that it is possible to hold about broadly the same events. More than anything else I have come across, these histories demonstrate the idea of "incommensurability" - narratives that purport to cover the same ground but are so wildly different as to form no basis for comparison of views.

What does this mean going forward? In the past, such "crises" have led to one of us adopting a particular view and the other opposing it. But I have to admit that I can no longer see a way to oppose the obvious conclusion.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Victor Blasjo's Amazon Book Reviews

Several emails have been circulated from people on my course about the possibility of a PH400 revision session. There is little indication of what exactly this might consist of, but something has been scheduled for the afternoon of June 3rd featuring Miklos and Peter. I, of course, will not be going.

One response that has just come in about this is from Victor who has suggested that we all swap notes and any other thing we have of interest. And in the spirit of this process, Victor has given us a link to a page on the Amazon website where a whole series of book reviews that he has produced are posted. 26 pages of reviews, perhaps five or six books per page - that is a prodigious amount of reviewing!

And the contents is extremely interesting. Of the people on my course, Victor is, in many ways, the most interesting of my peers. Clearly deeply fired up about the subject, he has a huge number of interesting views. I have little doubt that he could go on to a really interesting academic career, subject to controlling his tendency to dismiss in a rather off-hand manner those views that he doesn't accept.

Many of the themes we have discussed are covered in his reviews. A clear fascination with ideas of beauty in mathematics, our shared love of Kepler, and so on. It is clear that his analytical skills and critical comments are considerably above the level that I manage - clearly seen from his responses to the handful of books that I have also read.

Initially I had thought that the entire 26 pages of reviews referred to our course, but eventually I spotted that they go well back before our course into his undergraduate course (in mathematics). So he has been posting these reviews for nearly five years! Despite my slight disappointment that this was not all just this years work, I am deeply impressed with the quality of his work. Very thought provoking as I ponder on what study I am going to do over the summer.

The website link to his reviews is URL=

In the spirit of Victor's gesture, I have been thinking about circulating my own revision notes - 94 pages on the themes that interested me most, plus a stack of essay plans. But not sure this is a great idea. I will ponder on it over the next few days.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Is the weather finally changing?

Most of the last week or so has been fairly unpleasant weather. One of the main things about having an allotment is that you become much more attentive to the weather. No work has been done for a few days but today we finally avoid more rain and I can spend an hour or so there late afternoon. Lots of prep work still needs to be done - the sort of work that really should have been done last year. But today I did at least sort out the next planting strip - number 6 of 15. So lots of beans and peas to plant out in the next day or so.

Some sunshine this evening. I was sitting watching a DVD about the artist Andy Goldsworthy when it suddenly occurred to me that really I should be outside, taking advantage of the first sun for days. So a few photos were taken in the bit of sunlight left. I particularly like the third.

Such a cliche - rapeseed and blue sky!

The field opposite our house

From the path where the badgers live

Some of the trees we planted last November

Monday, 18 May 2009

Thoughts on writing and future studies, work, etc

A few weeks ago there was an article in, I think, The Guardian, in which various writers discussed the actual practice of writing. This was prompted by a novelist commenting in an interview that, for him, the best thing about writing was the money. This was held to be suitably low-brow to prompt the paper to interview a handful of other writers, which revealed a range of interesting views. Many views were negative, which has rather set me thinking. My own experiences of writing stuff for my course has also caused me much thought.

Then there was Alain De Botton on the radio discussing his newest book which, he says, has, like all his previous books, taken him three or four years to write. More on this book below.

So while looking round the smaller Oxfam bookshop in Oxford, I was greatly surprised to stumble on a book that seems to precisely cover these questions, Alison Baverstock's Is there a Book in You? Plans to study this in depth over the next few weeks

This all arises as I contemplate what I might do going forward. I have one year of my MSc to go, during which I intend my focus to switch to more written work. I have to decide whether to apply for a PhD to start in October 2010. There was a substantial article in The Independent about the current structure of PhDs in the UK - with the rather nice title of "What's up, Doc?" This comfirmed a view I had picked up that many more PhD students already have their thesis topic set when they start their course. Not the old way of work for a couple of years then pick a topic. This is the main reason why the four year thesis has become the norm - very few go on longer. And it also noted the greater professionalism of PhD students - treating it much more like a full-time job, 9 to 5, . . .

I am currently thinking that my preferred thesis topic would be on the changing historiography of Kepler over the past 100 years - the move from the mystic/scientist portrait, to the more unified portrait. There is still so much Kepler material to look at. And though Tycho has had a number of new biographies, Kepler hasn't. So my PhD would be the prep to write a full size book on Kepler. I would guess that this would be a 6/7 year task.

But can it be done given current circumstances?

I have been reading Alain De Botton's new book for the past few days - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is a really excellent book, fitting beautifully into my thoughts on work as previously developed from reading Tom Hodgkinson and Jerome Segal. The tone of the work is quite unusual and I am really interested in whether this will be maintained throughout the book.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Reading Richard Long

In the gaps when I am not working for my exams, I am making slow progress through the Richard Long book that Linda bought me last weekend. I have been immediately taken by the long distances he seems to manage each day on his "walks" - 30 miles seems to be the average. Would it make a difference to how one feels about his art if he travelled a shorter distance?

But I am still pondering on what to make of the art itself. Clearly it is about the meeting of man and nature in some sense, and by the temporary marking of that interaction by some sort of sign. Yet the works assimilate back into nature the moment they are finished - if it can really be said that they ever really seperated much. Some much of it is away from the viewer of the art - yet there is a sense in which the information provided does allow the viewer to imagine the circumstances in which the work was created (and even what it might have looked like)

Consider the work "Crossing Stones" from 1987 which "consists" of just the following statements

. . . . . . . . . . . . A stone from Aldeburgh Beach on the east coast carried to Aberystwyth Beach
. . . . . . . . . . . . on the west coast
. . . . . . . . . . . . A stone from Aberystwyth Beach on the west coast carried to Aldeburgh
. . . . . . . . . . . . Beach on the east coast
.. . . . . . . . .. . . A 626 mile walk in 20 days
. . . . . . . . . . . . . England Wales England

Or the work "The Same Thing at a Different Time at a Different Place" from 1997 that consists of just the statement:

.. . . . . . . . . . . A Stone brought down from somewhere on a past walk placed on the summit of
. . . . . . . . . . . .Snowdon for a time during a five day walk in North Wales and carried down to
. . . . . . . . . . . .be left somewhere on a future walk

Very perplexing art indeed!

Another example of Richard Long's art - "A Line in Scotland, Cul Mor 1981"

Not much allotment progress . . . .

After two days of strong winds, which cut my willingness to work outdoors to less than an hour a day, followed by a day of heavy rain, we finally have a damp and grey day into which I am happy to venture out.

One immediate positive development. I met Patrick, our neighbour opposite, this morning. He is working hard (with help) on their field ("paddock") and was about to burn loads of wood. As luck would happen, I was just passing when he was out there and he is happy for me to take as much of it as I'd like. So I have sorted out various pieces, including four complete crates that are, in effect, ready made compost bins. Not clear though how I will get the stuff to the allotment.

More stuff has been eaten, probably by birds, so more netting needed. I am not having much luck growing dwarf beans so far - they seem to be the birds favorite. For some reason, they are less keen on sweetcorn which is left undisturbed.

Some things growing - the first courgette to venture outside and half a bed of sweetcorn. The latest bean eating is behind the wire mesh
But grass is certainly growing back quickly - it is only a few weeks since this was completely clear. The delay building the fences stopped it being cleared

Best crops so far - spinach and pak choi (note the net)

More heavy weed growth - the rhubarb is somewhere in here

This is the repeat of the "before" picture from a few weeks ago

And this is it now - so some progress is being made. Red currents and gooseberries are doing very well. Even the new fruit trees have started to get leaves on them - not sure if they will crop this year though

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

More land art & new music

In between the constant exam-based reading, I have managed to fit in a quick read of Michael Lailach's "Land Art" - one of those small Taschen guides to art movements. And I have started on Richard Long's book "Walking the Line". Whether it is just that I am working so hard at the moment or not, I have really caught the land art bug again.

A few weeks back I talked briefly about the 10,000 hours to acquire expertise as suggested by the book Outliers. I suspect that this extends to land artists. But I am tempted by the idea of making something like a Richard Long work. Hopefully one week soon after my exams, I will manage a few days away in the Lake District wild camping - maybe then I could have a go at doing a little art.

Some new music featuring heavily as I work at the moment - various albums by Ash Ra Tempel, the German band mainly active during the 1970s. I can't believe that there first album is so good - that and an album called "heavy Water" from the late 1970s. Tremendous stuff.

And someone has unloaded a dozen Peel shows from 1967 to 1984 on one of the website I regularly find intersting stuff on - so that should be a real treat as well.

But now more land art - as the pictures are so good!

I have the feeling this is a Goldsworthy piece

And these definitely are Goldsworthy

And this might be Goldsworthy too

Monday, 11 May 2009

Richard Long Exhibition - London

An article on the land-artist Richard Long appeared in the Independent a few days ago. Apparently he is going to be having a show at Tate Britain from June onwards. This is very exciting news in my view, though I had up to now believed that he was the sort of artist that wouldn't be able to have shows. This turns out to be incorrect

I first came across Richard Long when reading a lot about "Land art" after this had been featured in Robert Hughes's excellent tv series "The Shock of the New". This had included a long sequence on Walter De Maria's "The Lightning Field" and the whole idea of land art had really got me hooked.

Walter De Maria, Lightning Field, New Mexico, 1977

Some years later, Lee Renaldo released a solo cd "Amarillo Ramp - for Robert Smithson". Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" is another of my favorite pieces and I was really tempted to go and see it when a draught a few years ago briefly allowed it to re-appear. Is it still visible?

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, Utah, 1970

Richard Long made his art around a series of walks and the art he created on these walks. Much of his work is, like Goldsworthy's, rather fleeting. It is often located in remote areas and might not even look like art if you happened to stumble across it. I found this entire concept deeply satisfying. Art that no one will ever see - like the Chinese musicians who played in forests to no audience, or Han Shan's "Cold Mountain Poems"

So I have been re-reading some books on Land Art and, as an anniversary present, Linda bought me Long's "Walking the Line" from the art bookshop in Oxford.

What a treat - I can hardly wait for the London show

Perhaps Long's most well-known work - "A line made by walking"

A circle in the Andes

A circle in Nepal

A circle in Alaska

Six circles in a forest

Thursday, 7 May 2009

21st Anniversary

We are marking our 21st anniversary with a nice meal tonight and a trip to see the new Star Trek movie this weekend. Linda was out most of today teaching her instructor course. I have had a pretty quiet day. Still doing 6 hours work per day for my PH400 exam, but with the weather remaining cold, I haven't done much at the allotment lately. So a short trip to Oxford this morning and then lots more reading - oh, and I made 4 creme brulees, my newest speciality desert.

Non-academic reading remains Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and Mark E Simth's "Renegade" - both excellent. Music has been two new live recordings of the Yonder Mountain String Band, Boris's "Feedbacker" and the slow working through of the Rasputina discography that I downloaded a while back.

Newest downloads - the complete Fall discography and 54 albums by Johnny Cash (inspired by Huw's favorable comments)

"A Random Blast from the Past"

April 15th 1982

I crashed the car today - that sounds rather macho, but isn't because the crash was 100% someone else's fault. I was driving Huw home from Bone's. We drove up the main road and letched at Sarah Phillips from behind, then went round the clock tower and back down the main road so we could letch at her from the front. Then off down Queen's Road and right, into Siddley Avenue.

On cornering near Willoughby Avenue, a gas van that had been coming to a halt at the junction suddenly pulled straight out in front of us. I couldn't miss it and we were shunted across the road, through someone's garden wall, coming to a halt on their lawn. I remember the windscreen shattering but then the next thing I remember is standing outside the car talking quite calmly to someone. Someone called the police, and it was soon after that I felt blood gushing from a deep cut on my head. Soon afterwards we are taken to Warwick hospital where I have 14 stitches in my head. Huw was unscathed

Later this evening we met up at the pub. Huw had been seen in the ambulance and was surrounded by concerned females. I, who had been lying down on a stretcher and so not seen, got far less sympathy. Not fair at all in my view - even though I have the major head wound.

So the car has been written off and Dad is already planning what sort to get next. My suggestion of an MG has not been accepted


Still the only car crash I have ever been in. I can't remember who Sarah Phillips was, we obviously rather liked her though.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Weekend work

A bank holiday today. Oddly enough, Emma still has lectures at college. And extremely rarely, she has sent me one of her econometrics papers to have a look at. It is a dense and technical piece and I am only able to contribute because it is about smoking and I know lots about that from my days at Imperial Tobacco.

There are loads of people at the allotments today - including Dave the Builder who is plumbing in new water supplies to his end of the allotment. This involves digging a narrow trench two spade widths deep, something that takes him more or less all day. He offers to plumb in a new tank for us if we do the digging. Not sure if I will be able to persuade my neighbours that this is a good idea.

Saturday's work has resulted in some cleared areas and a dug up area big enough for four of the trees. It has been back-breaking work to get to this stage and even with today's work I am not optimistic of getting the remaining trees in very soon (which is not good for them at all)

And there is loads of work to do with planting out that is getting left at ther moment - everyone around me has loads of new stuff going in. I am suffering from allotment envy

Today's "before" picture - not as effective as if I had taken it before doing the fencing, building the gate or brush-cutting and digging the spot for the fruit trees

Hardly deserves the phrase "after" - three fruit trees planted, staked, manured and protected from rabbits - two cherries and a pear
Now this is a proper "before" picture. Lots of new year growth to the east of the polytunnel. Somewhere in the middle there are two current bushes and a gooseberry. Hopefully this will inspire me to clear this area soon to produce the "after" picture

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Contact with Huw after 20 years

To much surprise, I received an email from Huw Davies a couple of days ago. I had sent him a message via the Friends Reunited website back in mid February and had probably not expected to get a reply. But there it was. One or two emails later and we had arranged to talk on the phone during today.

It is nearly 20 years since we last met and I had some concerns as to how it would be to talk after all this time. He was, without doubt, my best friend when we were in the sixth form and it has often been a source of regret to me that we lost touch. He rang mid morning and despite my worries, everything went really well - indeed it was almost like old times talking together.

It is possible that we may have talked for close to two hours. I am not planning to say here in detail what it was we did talk about, but it covered what might be taken to be the usual things one would cover in such conversations - what we've been doing all this time, who are we still in touch with, etc. But there were also a number of other points that have, I hope, very much reestablished our friendship. He may be coming over to the UK in a few weeks time so I will try to see him then in Kenilworth. Failing that, a trip to Frankfurt might well be on the cards.

There is no doubt that it means a great deal to me to have Huw as a friend again - my only concern is that he heard I was trying to get in touch because Andrew Belgrove visited him and knew about this blog (as I mentioned him in an earlier entry and he had done a google search on himself). I should check I didn't write anything unpleasant about anyone in that previous entry!

And one bit of sad news - apparently Joanne Styring died in her early 20s. She was the second girl I ever kissed - on a memorable night at Kenilworth Rugby club in October 1979

In case Huw is reading this, here is a diary entry from many years ago

A Blast from the Past!

Tuesday January 5th, 1982

Went to see Huw this afternoon with the book on Genesis I bought last year. He is very bored and is already considering returning to Portsmouth early. He is also planning to come to London on the 14th and we have arranged to meet at St Catherine's House for lunch. Belly came round to Huw's around 3:00 having just got up. We are planning to go to a party tomorrow night at Stable's night club. I am planning to drive and take everyone else.

Belly said he had seen Sue Steven last night, as had Huw. I wish I had! Huw say's she is into sugar daddies at the moment - "every actress should have one" apparently. Huw seemed less enamoured with her than in the past - I'm sure I wouldn't have been. Huw kept making jokes about how Sue claims to have been out with a famous director and how she'll probably be in panto this time next year - "Puss in Boots" would be very suitable we all thought.

Kevin rang this evening from Darlington and is hoping to come down tomorrow and stay till the weekend


Huw and I failed to meet in London the following week - instead that day I saw John Kenneth Galbraith lecture at LSE

We did go partying at Stables that next night - apparently I tried chatting up Julia Braithwaite while my diary reports that Huw pursued "Laura" - would that be Laura Robertson? My diary doesn't say. Apparently he failed to score before he thought the party went on longer than it did and he had been taking his time.

Sue Steven was a year older than us and had worked with us at the Bear and Ragged Staff. She had left Kenilworth in January 1981 to live in London and hopefully become an actress. She was one of the most stunning girls I have ever met. Rather memorably, a group of us made a short film during the easter vacation of 1980 and Sue played the female lead, with Huw as her suitor. It featured a great scene shot on the traffic island in the middle of town and remains my only director credit. I was quite good friends with Sue and she is, even today, the person with whom I have had my longest ever phone call - 3hrs 25mins. As we often said afterwards, we would have been better off just going round to see each other. I have no idea if she ever got anywhere as an actress

The Kevin referred to is Kevin Bornstein, an American who I was good friends with throughout the Sixth form and who (very importantly) got me the job I had at the Bear and Ragged Staff at that time. He stayed for four days before having a night at Huw's. I didn't see him and again till 1989 and haven't seen him since.

Day at LSE - important developments

A trip down to London for the first time in a while. My current walk from Marble Arch to LSE takes me the back roads route past the US Embassy and numerous fund management companies - probably hege funds in the main. Through Soho, via Camisa's deli and settled in the library around 9:30.

I had expected the library to be relatively sparsely populated. Surely now that classes have finished, most student would stay at home and work? But this is definitely not the case and by about 12:00 the library was virtually full. Despite having my ipod to listen to, in the end I was not that happy working in this environment. But I did achieve my main goal - to complete a PH400 exam paper under something like exam conditions.

Then to Student Services to enquire about the position re the PH404 exam. It is not possible to do the paper at a different time this year so the choices are to return from Spain for the exam or defer till next year. I have been gradually drifting towards the second of these choices and have obtained the necessary forms this morning. After all, PH404 is my favourite course and this choice might give me the chance to see some of it again next year - or at worst, another year to add to my reading on the subject.

So that is a major effect of my day - I have a form to fill out and various signatures to obtain. A couple more days to wait till the exam timetable is confirmed and then I can decide what I want to do

Back home late afternoon and I watched a couple of episodes of a cooking programme based around the cook's allotment ("James Martin Digs Deep") which featured a recipe for Creme Brulee. This is my new target dish and I will be preparing four portions tomorrow, assuming I can get a chef's blowtorch. It has been some while since I have tried a new dish, but I am beginning to think about what to do with the expected crop surplus that hopefully will arise over the summer.