2017 — My Year in Photographs

I was going to create this blog post back in January. But I became so involved in editing one of my books, trying to get it ready for July, that I never did get around to writing this. Until now. I can hardly believe it’s September already.

Back in January, I thought it might be interesting to look at the photographs I’d taken during 2017, and select my favourite from each month. I did that at the time, and I’ve since reviewed them again while writing this post. Turns out, only two have been replaced in my affections.

January

In January, I had to pick my son up from Grateley station, in Hampshire. I arrived early, so thought I’d take some shots of the station platform and lights. I also caught a very bright Venus.

Grateley Station

Grateley Station — Sony RX10

February

In February, Lizzie and I went on one of our bi-monthly trips away. This time, we went back to one of our favourite places, the East Devon coast. Seaton, in particular, is liked by us. This photo was taken in the early evening, and catches two young people gossiping on the pebbly beach. There’s a cool winter feel to this shot I really like.

Seaton Beach

Seaton Beach — Sony RX10

March

March. The evenings were drawing out, the weather was beginning to warm, the farmers were harrowing and ploughing. Although not very wet, the tail-end of winter and the beginning of spring were damp, with many cloudy days. This particular cloudy day, however, looked fine with the stand of trees and the sheep. This photo was taken with an odd old lens, a Kaligar 52mm medium-format lens, which was mounted on a Sony A55 using a Fujita 66 to Pentax adaptor and a Sony/Pentax adaptor… The effect of the various crop factors was to make the Kaligar somewhere around 50-60mm on the A55. I had bought the lens on a whim for a mere £24. I sold it for a few bob more a few months later.

Large Copse with Sheep, Sony A55, Kaligar 52mm

Large Copse with Sheep — Sony A55, Kaligar 52mm

April

Halfway through spring. The nights are noticeably longer. The sunshine is feeling warm at last. This photo was taken on the way home from work one evening. I was aware that there was a traffic jam in Marlborough, so took a shortcut through Savernake Forest. I noted that the track was dusty, and that the sun was setting behind the trees. So I drove up and down the track before taking the photograph, to create a little hazy atmosphere…

Sun Through Savernake Dust

Sun Through Savernake Dust — Sony RX10

May

Spring is about to tumble into summer! Sunshine, long evenings and warmth. One thing I find fascinating is the routes of old roads. Salisbury Plain is crisscrossed by old roads, prehistoric, modern, early modern… probably medieval as well. One of these roads, the old Salisbury-Devises turnpike road, still exists, although its route across the Plain is maintained by the Ministry of Defence now, and is a gravel track right across The Black Heath. This heath is a high point of the central Plain and the road follows a ridge across it. The photo shows the old road as it enters onto The Black Heath. The building is an observation point for the military.

The Entrance to the Black Heath,

The Entrance to the Black Heath — Sony A99, Sigma 24-70 EX DG

June

In June, we took another of our bi-monthly trips, this time to Hele on the north Devon coast. This area — around Westward Ho!, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin,  Lynmouth, and Exmoor, is another favourite.  As we drove around some backroads near Combe Martin, we arrived at the top of a high down. The light was intriguing, so we stopped to take photos. I could see this interesting sea of green, a field  among trees, distant from where I was standing, so used the far reaches of the zoom to snip this shot from the wider landscape.

Near Combe Martin

Near Combe Martin — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600mm

July

In July I took a trip down to North Hampshire — in fact, what would have been South Wiltshire at one time — to visit a friend in Martin. We went for a walk on Martin Down. This was full of wild flowers at the time, including one I don’t recall seeing on Salisbury Plain, the rather lovely round-headed rampion.

Round-headed rampion

Round-headed Rampion — Sony A99, Minolta 50mm macro

August

By August, the weather had been dry for a while. The tracks across Salisbury Plain are a mixture of chalk (unimproved) and gravel (improved for use by the MoD).  The eastern Plain in particular has a lot of gravel tracks. When these tracks are dry, vehicles kick up a lot of dust as they travel along them. This can be very photogenic. In the photo below, two off-roaders were travelling along the track. I photographed the second of them through the hazy dust, capturing also the dust trail they had both left behind them.

Suzi Kicking up a Dust Storm

Suzi Kicking up a Dust Storm — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600

September

Back to the centre of Salisbury Plain again for September’s favourite. This is on The Black Heath, at the junction of two old turnpike roads. To the south, the road heads towards Salisbury; to the north a road heads towards Devizes, across The Black Heath; and a road heads north-west towards Market Lavington. The fingerpost in the photograph had only recently had its fingers reinstalled. For at least four years, only the post had stood here.

This day had been very stormy, with thundery showers and thunderstorms all around — in fact, I had chased a storm across Wiltshire, and you can see one of the photos from this chase at the head of this post.

Track Towards the Cloud

Track Towards the Cloud — Sony A99, Sigma 24-70 f2.8

October

As you’ll have noticed by now, a lot of my photos are taken on Salisbury Plain. You might also have noted references to chalk and gravel tracks. Some of these tracks do get quite tricky to traverse by mid-winter, and an off-roader becomes useful — even necessary.

For my needs, any off-roader has to fulfil three functions. It has to be small enough for Lizzie to drive — she is very wee; it has to be cheap, because we use our off-roaders as photography platforms, so we happily climb all over the bonnet and roof for better angles; and, it has to be decent off-road  — not Land Rover or Unimog proficient, just decent. An Honda HRV ticks all the boxes. It has slightly over-sized tyres for extra ground clearance, but I know which ruts not to drive in — I usually know a way around.

When I was taking photos one afternoon, I turned around and noticed the cool evening light on the battered old Honda, and thought it looked pleasing. I knew that the Sigma would take a nice photo of it.

Old HRV - My Transport Over the Plain

Old HRV – My Transport Over the Plain — Sigma DP2 Merrill

November

Autumn. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. I prefer bare trees to trees in leaf. This group of trees, one of the Charlton Clumps, is one of my favourite subjects. You will find many interpretations of this clump on my Flickr pages. This photograph was taken in the late afternoon — the light was nice, and the clouds all fluffy and lovely.

The lens was an old M42 mount 135mm lens, made or distributed by Cimako.  It only cost £5 and was actually very nice. I don’t know why I sold it on. (Well, I do really — an abundance of M42 135mm lenses in my bag).

Autumnal Charlton Clump

Autumnal Charlton Clump — Sony A99, Cimako 135mm M42

December

Into the final month of the year. Salisbury Plain attracts several species of rare or scarce birds. The wide open spaces, the relative peace and isolation (if you discount the odd passing tank or explosion), the tracts of treeless grassland, are enticing to certain birds. During the summer months, Montagu’s harriers and stone-curlews nest here. In the winter, hen harriers follow their prey south and quarter the grasses, hunting for meadow pipits and skylarks.

This female hen harrier favoured me with a relatively close approach in lovely late afternoon sunlight.

Winter Plain Harrier

Winter Plain Harrier — Sony A99, Tamron 150-600

And that is the story of my photographic year, 2017. What will this year bring?

(And here are my favourites from 2016)

 

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Review — “Discrimination And Popular Culture” — Denys Thompson (ed.)

Discrimination And Popular CultureDiscrimination And Popular Culture by Denys Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Discrimination And Popular Culture is an early entry into the study of popular culture, so is not beset by theory or post-modernism, and thus is an easy-enough read. It is a collection of relatively non-academic essays, published in 1964. Given the publication date, the essays reflect the popular culture of the early 1960s or even the late 1950s. Even The Beatles are so new they are only mentioned in a footnote. The essays have, therefore, little connection with cultural topics that would fascinate and inform subsequent studies of popular culture.

Youth culture is mentioned in a few of the the essays, yet isn’t given the prominence it would have in later books about culture. The essays seemed to grope for a structure or framework that would enable criticism of that culture. Youth culture pops up, unsurprisingly, mostly in reference to popular music and magazines. The swinging sixties, rock music, 60s film and fashion are notably absent. No David Bailey or Mary Quant here. For modern readers, the absence of photography and fashion as topics would be the most obvious omissions.

As the title suggests, the essays seek to address how consumers should discriminate between what is good and bad in popular culture, or between what is true or false. So, we have essays on advertising, film, radio and television, the press, magazines, recorded music, and design. The last essay in the book, on design, is a surprising inclusion, and feels like an odd-man-out; the essay doesn’t have the same emphasis on discrimination.

Discrimination is the underlying theme of the book. It is the method that enables popular culture to be analysed (and perhaps dismissed as frivolous folly). Discrimination is a matter of education, and this education should should start early. Discrimination between the “bad” and the “good” in newspapers, television, cinema, and so on, can be taught at school, it is suggested. And there’s a sense in which this indeed would be helpful, and the teaching of critical thinking at school is a topic for educationalists even today.

Critical thinking or good judgement as tools for discrimination can be useful for approaching newspapers, news magazines, or news and comment on television or radio. However, for more subjective areas, such as popular music, articles in say, teenage and music magazines, responses to movies, and so on, the use of discrimination sails perilously close to being simply a method to elevate high and denigrate low culture. For example, the essay on film discusses at length what is wrong with the movies The Guns of Navarone and Summer Holiday, while extolling the virtues of L’Atalante and L’Age d’Or — and while I’m sure the last two films are fine films, they are most certainly not “popular culture”. The medium might be popular, but the medium must be distinguished from artefacts of that medium. There are artefacts of the medium that are popular — Summer Holiday — and artefacts that are assuredly not, and are, indeed “high culture”.

Despite its age, the book can sometimes feel contemporary. This is partly because it talks about discrimination and education. Often, nothing seems to have changed. Newspapers mislead, or should be considered entertainment rather than news; television is banal; to make money, movies appeal to a wide audience rather than being the best art they can be; magazines for teenage girls concentrate on fashion and sexualise their readers too early; and so on. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. Replace some of the media discussed instead with the Web, phones and streaming, and the plaints sound familiar even now.

So – the two star review is not because the book is tedious or unreadable. It is, indeed, fine, it is okay. And because of the time at which it was written, you might find yourself gently smiling at such quaint turns of phrase as:

… this very same music, played at maximum volume in a youth club, would encourage a lively jiving session and a general atmosphere of exuberant vitality.

The essays are, however, unlikely to cause you to reappraise your views on popular culture, and for many readers with an interest in popular culture, will appear theoretically outmoded. Still, it is books like this that provide the underpinnings of cultural studies in the Britain, and so has historical interest.

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Review — “The Green Roads of England” — R Hippisley Cox

The Green Roads of EnglandThe Green Roads of England

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable little book, made more interesting by describing  areas local to me. Because I am local, I think I enjoyed the book a little more than a reader with no local knowledge might. I note this as the last couple of chapters — where the roads discussed were in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and east, and in Gloucester and north — weren’t quite as interesting to me as the early chapters, which centered around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset — the Wessex Ridgeway is closer to my interests than the roads to the east. If you don’t know any of the areas discussed in the book, you might find it all a bit overwhelming, as names of towns and villages and roads and hill forts tumble in succession — especially as there are few detailed maps within the text to act as a guide.

I feel maps are what the book sorely lacked. Yes, there are a few summary maps at the end of the book, but these aren’t large enough in scale to highlight details discussed in the book. The text is illustrated with pencil sketches of local countryside and plans of hill forts, but these felt superfluous. Yes, the hill forts might be important in helping assess the route of the old roads, but in a book that was short of maps, the sketches and plans seemed an unnecessary frivolity that diverted from useful cartography, no matter how basic.

I haven’t been able to find much about Hippisley Cox on the Web, so I don’t know his standing as an expert on roads, trackways or archeology; and a comment in the last chapter leads me to think he was an enthusiastic amateur. The interesting hypothetical tidbits he tosses into early chapters might, therefore, be entirely unfounded — however, they are, nonetheless, intriguing, and accord with some recent thoughts of my own.

If you are intrigued by roads, byways, and tracks, there’s much of interest in this book, particularly if you’re a native of, or a regular visitor, to the areas which Hippisley Cox describes. Was Avebury the hub of the southern, prehistoric road network? I’m still unsure, but it was fun to retrace some old routes.

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Review – “Antic Hay” – Aldous Huxley

Antic HayAntic Hay by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Antic Hay, but found its second half better than its first. The novel starts slowly, and when the protagonist, Gumbril, meets his intellectual and arty friends in London and thus introduces us to them, I almost despaired. Certainly, Huxley was a bright and intelligent young thing, and his friends certainly would also have been intelligent and intellectual and arty. However, when somebody tries to capture the essence of such situations they inevitably fall flat – what is charming, witty, intense and clever when you’re twenty-three, drunk and an Oxbridge graduate, can sound rather fey, precious and irritating when you’re sober and went to a red-brick university (or none at all!).

The novel is essentially plotless and episodic, but in the second half the episodes become more connected, and at last Huxley starts talking about people, real people, or at least the kind of people I might know. People who have relationships, and succeed or fail at them. The cyphers begin to develop into characters. Yes, it’s still a satire on the kind of people in the Bloomsbury set, but it begins to have more feeling, and I could empathise with characters.

In many ways this books is similar to Crome Yellow. But it is perhaps too long. There was a feeling that wheels were spinning a bit too much at the beginning. If this book had been as short as Crome Yellow, and had concentrated more on character development, then it might have been as entertaining as Crome Yellow.

Nonetheless, it was entertaining enough to keep me reading, and picked up just at the right point to prevent me dropping it.

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Review – “The Private Future” – Martin Pawley

The Private FutureThe Private Future by Martin Pawley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the first of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition.]

When Martin Pawley died in 2008, obituaries were quick to latch onto the seeming far-sightedness of The Private Future. This book of “social prophecy”, The Guardian said, provided evidence of “how penetrating Pawley’s vision could be”. It was, for The Independent “one of his prescient books”. Published in hardback in 1973, the paperback edition of 1974 has emblazoned on the front cover, “With all the force of FUTURE SHOCK” in an attempt to ride the coat tails of Toffler’s publishing wonder, a serious book of cultural analysis that became an international best-seller. The paperback of Pawley’s book was soon remaindered, however; I picked it up in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in 1976 or so.

The book contends that individuals in Western culture are becoming more private. People are becoming islands unto themselves as family and community broke down. What was the cause of this breakdown? Here, the book becomes less prescient, and instead fits into a general pattern of cultural analysis of the fifties and sixties. Among the causes are, of course, consumerism, and the rise of popular culture and the media that carried that culture – cinema, television and radio. “Can these shoals of anonymous commuters,” he wonders, “fed on sports reports and salacious advertising really be called communities? Are these thinly populated, fenced-off brick boxes really the homes of families? Do ten or twenty million of them amount to a society? Surely not.” (p.8) The tenor is very 1970s: “shoals of anonymous commuters”, “fenced off brick boxes”, “sports reports and salacious advertising” – against popular culture, against space, light and suburban homes for the masses, and reducing people to anonymous “shoals”.

Although The Guardian might regard Pawley as “prescient”, his critique is of the extant society, the future he foresaw was very much the now in which he was writing. The conditions for the his “private future” already existed – the future of his title would bring more privatisation and a further withering of community. This is not a vision of how the world would be for us, in our now. As Pawley notes “The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years… ” (p.16). And the society these changes have brought about – in which families have become smaller as children leave home and elders move to retirement homes or nursing homes, in which there are no connections with shop assistants, because ” with modern objects like fridges and freezers, [there is] no need to visit shops as often” – is the society of the 1970s in which he Pawley was writing.

The book itself is rather slim, 200 pages in the paperback edition, and is more polemic than penetrating analysis. There is no bibliographic information, and few references to other sociologists or hard data; the book stands or falls on the basis of Pawley’s insights, rather than evidence adduced from other sources. The books rambles somewhat – for example, because of the concentration on consumerism as a facet of privatisation, there is anti-capitalist rant, yet this somehow feels shoe-horned into the argument. The book is also sometimes contradictory – for example, you might wonder if Pawley desires the private future, rather than being against it. And is he for or against freedom and emancipation? You would think he would be for both things. Yet he rails against the washing machines and fridges that enable women more free time (and thus to work and to become politically involved) because they do not require somebody (usually, in the 1960s, a wife) to visit shops, or otherwise be involved in the community.

How prescient, then, was Pawley? How penetrating was his vision? Interestingly, both The Guardian and The Independent articles from which I have quoted were written after after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen then the power of social networks now? In 2008 it was easy to concentrate on headphones and the Walkman and the iPod, and view them as symbols of self-sufficiency, of inwardness, of privatisation. And yet, even then, we were already 30 years on from Pawley’s book. Some elements of his notions might have been true. Yet the idea that there were no longer communities, families or other social groupings seems a little misplaced. Certainly, some types of community might have declined – trades unions certainly, the nuclear family to an extent – yet, even in the mid-2000s, other communities had developed, some internet-based (chatrooms, newsgroups), some based around media and popular culture (people sharing discussions at work about television programs), some around formal and informal groupings in the real world (membership of the National Trust, for example). With more leisure time (because of those fridges and washing machines) came more time to appreciate nature, or history, or architecture, and to develop local communities based around these pursuits.

All of the above are, I feel, still true. Technology, capitalism, the individualist drive within us, the desire for freedom and liberation might well lead to the decline of some forms of community, but these things also lead to the growth of new communities and the re-organisation of others. The drive to feel part of a community, to be shaped by a community, to take part in community is still there within us, and is now partly driven by social media. Yes, this media is currently divisive, but it enables the creation of communities and cultures that shape and are shaped by us. Yes, it creates echo chambers, but what are these but the reflections of particular communities that still exist “out there” IRL, as we used to say (lol). And, yes, we might interact in private with the devices that enable these communities, as private individuals, but community still exists in these new forms, through these media, just as family continues to exist in new,  changed and sometimes radical, forms.

Reading The Private Future forty years on is not, then, to rediscover a hidden classic that explains the world as it is now. It is a book that attempted to explain some aspects of the world as it was then, a book that seemed unsure if it wanted to stop the process it foresaw or celebrate it. It is, however, in its own, dated, way, an interesting read. It is now a history of the way some aspects of the world once were, and might have become – a retro what-if for a world that quickly changed after the book was written to become something else, somewhere else with different people in it.

A two star review may seem paltry, but in the Goodreads world, that means I thought “it was Ok”.  And if you are interested in sociology, cultural studies, history or politics, and discover this book second-hand, pick it up. You might find yourself intrigued by what it was saying about the private then.

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Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it) – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]