Wednesday, September 30, 2009

the C20th, in ten inches

It's not been the kind of day in which it was easy to be out and taking photographs ... but for the last 24 hours I've been fiddling away with this, like a kind of digital doodle, putting together a blog header for the blog that I'm starting for my "Changing Britain" course, in a hopeful attempt to get my students to participate a bit more ... (one might say not teaching at 8.10 a.m. would be more effective than a nifty image, and I'd go along with that, but some things aren't changeable...).

So here we have - from left to right - a Spencer Gore painting of Hertfordshire, factories creeping over the landscape; a women on a 1st WW recruiting poster; an autochrome of post-Victory celebrations in 1919 in Piccadilly Circus; Woolf; the Jarrow Hunger March; George Orwell at a BBC microphone; London in the Blitz; the sleeve to Abbey Road; the Notting Hill Carnival; West Indian immigrants disembarking from the Windrush; the Sex Pistols, and a Martin Parr photo of a largeish lady sitting under a Union Jack. There! The C20th, in 1o inches.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

mine street

I haven't been able to find on the web what, exactly, was mined in or near Mine Street, New Brunswick (maybe copper?): I think that if it was an enterprise that involved extensive underground tunnels this house would probably have fallen into it by now. I was on an expedition to look at the outlying houses that are occupied by the English Department, to see what can be patched and mended and propped up and guarded against raccoons (I learned that one reason for the strange plywood boarded up holes in the ceiling in the building that houses my own office, in Union St, was that they had put a trap up there - I thought, indeed, that the noise of energetic raccoon sex had diminished of late).

My first Rutgers office was in Mine Street, and the house still seems to reek of dank depression, to me - I don't think just my own, in 2001, for it surely had some utterly miserable inhabitants within it before its academic appropriation. The greenish stained glass, and the nearly elegant fireplace in a front room - it could be lovely, but the period tiles are a seedy yellow - give a very bilious air to the whole building. And this is intensified by the creepers that actually make their way through the window frames and into the rooms. Since, outside, the house has a little turret, the whole effect is very Grimms Fairy Tales - as though it could be lived in by malevolent, non-princely frogs. Union Street, in an amphibious parallel, bears a new sign outside announcing that it is inhabited by a Toad (yes, as in Parp-Parp!). Sigh.

Monday, September 28, 2009

ivy towers of academe

I think it not at all impossible that the ivy will grow up outside my window, and proliferate, and immure me in the Chair's Office, given the amount of time that I spend in there. What is truly scary (and I do apologize for two buggy postings inside a week - this is not the result of some new obsession, but in today's case something that's been revealed courtesy of the camera lens) is all those little brown nasty thingies moving around on the air roots, or whatever the clingy ivy tentacles are called.

These are not nearly as horrific as what appeared on my computer screen yesterday, though. It's wonderful being able to Skype my parents every week, and see how they are doing, and get their cat to ignore our cats, and to see the house in which I grew up, and so on. But yesterday they were rather oddly perched on the settle in the dining room (that's an old north of England word for an old, hard seat - like a cross between a pew and a bar bench and a non-padded sofa). It turned out that this was because my father had found Bugs under all the rugs in the kitchen and dining room - 8 mm whitish wriggling things, massed. So the rugs were up, and airing, and the floor swept and cleaned and airing. I suspect Indian Meal Moth larvae -but the critter looked Huge - maybe bigger than that. I know, because he brought us a wriggling specimen in a baggy to observe. This was truly unpleasant, and left me with some reservations about Skype bringing unmitigated pleasure.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Today was the first time I've ever been in Rutgers's Kirkpatrick Chapel: built in 1873, it was curiously familiar. Designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, it doubled up as the Rutgers College library for a couple of decades - but its resemblance to a temple of learning didn't give it its familiarity: that came from its strong echo of Victorian Oxbridge college chapels. Indeed, it was very like Mansfield Chapel, complete with the same genre of portraits of rather severe and grumpy nonconformist divines that hung around that institution.

The occasion was a memorial celebration for Richard Poirier - someone about whom I felt as though I knew and understood a lot more by the end of the afternoon than I'd picked up on from a rapid course in reading his prose, and from variegated anecdotes. I'd hoped that - as a kind of compere, or continuity announcer, or however one would describe my chairly role - I wasn't doing him or those who knew and loved him a disservice - but even more than this I'd been troubled about how to pronounce his name. The NYT obituary seemed to be wonderfully helpful there, pointing out that it rhymed with "warrior" - which worked well... until Alice pointed out that my UK pronunciation didn't quite match up with her American enunciation. All that I could say on this topic (in a relieved tone) by the end of the afternoon was that there's more than one US way of pronouncing "warrior."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

rule of thirds

first, take three cats ...

No, that's not quite right. I was trying to explain the rule of thirds in visual composition earlier today (one going back to at least 1797 as a prescription for landscape imaging - divide your screen/canvas into three equal parts horizontally, three equal parts vertically, and try and make sure that everything that you want to draw attention to comes at one of the intersections - and, if possible, think of yourself as filling the space with, say, one thirds land, two thirds sky...). Of course, this works - not least because, conventionally, we're used to seeing and admiring so very many compositions that have been made, consciously or otherwise, using these very proportions. Our eye gets used to the pleasure that they give in a visual artifact.

But. The eye may also get bored with the predicable. I was writing out a version of this, and immediately and typically started to feel contrarian - not just towards the rule of three, but towards the very conventionality of the rectangular box (viewers of this blog will know that in any case, I often favor the square, or sometimes a tall or a long angulated space). So... luckily (from the top) Emmett, Lola, and LucyFur were crammed together in a kitty bed, hoping that maybe the radiator just by it might get turned on sometime soon. Of course, their heads are, like it or not, bisecting the circle, in thirds...

Friday, September 25, 2009

peared down

Walking up Graham Street this evening, these are unmistakably a sign of the year's decline, hanging heavy on their tree - as is the just starting to look golden evening light. It's also the end of another long week - the kind that raises the blogger's paradox: what does one write about if one can't write about all the issues (almost all of them related to the business of the chair's office) that fill most of one's mind, most of the time? And when I go for a walk in the evening, what I want to do is to empty my mind out: these pears, therefore, will have to stand for some kind of brave attempt to make a stand against blankness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

piped music

One of the striking things for me about re-reading Mrs Dalloway - we've moved onto this in our Mon/Thurs class - is noticing how much use Woolf makes of sound. I always tend to remember a book (like most other things) visually, but in fact Woolf pulls in all the senses - touch, and smell (though she's not all that interested in food, which tends to carry negative connotations - think Miss Kilman lusting, in vain, after the small pink cake), and the sounds of the absolutely everyday: Clarissa knows that she's home from the cook whistling, the typewriter clicking (I've always wondered who is doing the typing - does Richard D have an un-introduced typist?), the swish of a mop, the clink of silver on a tray.

And the "tapping; knocking." We have tapping, knocking, in the basement in Murray - I heard this yesterday, when I was an inspection tour with various people from the School of Arts and Sciences and Facilities, looking for Mold (which indeed we found - black and dry, black and wet, bright green and energetically flourishing). Or, if not tapping and knocking exactly, more like a gurgling click. Impossible to photograph, of course (though Woolf, rather like the Italian Futurist Russolo, trying to do the impossible in painting Music, does write of spirals of sound). But what had caught my eye was the fact that someone had labeled this with their frustration: "This thing makes such an annoying sound! How many centuries old is it anyway?" A good enough question...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


to Adrienne Rich, who read at Rutgers this evening - or more precisely, read at Douglass College, where she taught for three years in the 1970s. For me, one of the highlights of this evening was being privileged to be at a small dinner party there, with Rich and others reminiscing about this time - which, in turn, reminded me very strongly of the women's college background in Oxford where I was a student around the same time. Rich read both from her last volume, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, and (which I liked better - more of the terse, angry, committed, poignant voice that I so strongly associate with her) some new poems. But this photograph, for me, is spoken to by a line in the first poem of Telephone about "Secret codes of skin and hair". Although I've ended up posting a relatively conventional portrait (book-signing, although one could always pretend that this was her engaged in a more imaginative form of composition), I spent some time cropping and wondering about posting little segments of forehead and hair, of ear-lobe and neck - in other words, the quiet, unnoticed private areas of a person: not what one would focus on if one were talking to them; not what one would oneself (I imagine) focus on if one were looking in a mirror, but parts of a person that are both public and exposed, and yet, because unregarded, often surprisingly, disarmingly, intimate (like looking at the back of someone's knees). And yet, to be playing around with facial segments in this way felt surprisingly invasive, as though the picture of the body part was somehow far more stolen than commemorating the public, performative face.

I was, it goes without saying, absolutely overwhelmed, grateful, and overawed to meet someone who's been such an inspiration - in human, intellectual, compassionate, justice-seeking, feminist, poetically-moving terms ever since I first read her, way back, indeed, the 1960s - though I didn't know then, of course, how much everything that she was to go on to write was to resonate round and round my consciousness, and how influenced I would be by her passionate commitment to memory, history, seeing, and feeling.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


One very good thing about having a macro lens - even using the macro lens, as here, on a point and shoot - is that one can tell that these are ants, not termites. That's because (and here's the one rule I know to distinguish them) ants go in in the middle, as though they've been cinched tight for London Fashion Week, whereas termites are straight and solid all the way down, presumably needing all the space that they can get for the wood that they've just chewed up from your house.

To be honest, I thought that they were ants, because when we first looked at this house, about four years ago, these things - the big ones, anyway - the savage little red ones look new, to me - were swarming in exactly the same place at the side of the driveway, and we went into fast orbit, termites being a little too familiar from Los Angeles. Close up and personal like this, they look decidedly unattractive - maybe with the macro that I have in Santa Fe, I would be able to rhapsodize on about their iridescent wings, their delicate antennae? - for the closer that one gets to insects, the more strange and beautiful they are (witness Alex Wild's photographs, especially the extraordinary emerald green, black, and orange stripes on the front of a horse fly).

Monday, September 21, 2009

urban jungle

We do not, of course, have large triffids growing up the back of the house in Highland Park - but the leaf reflections make it seem so. We brought all the house plants out on the deck during the summer, hoping that this would prevent them drying up an withering indoors: of course, it was so damp and humid that they've flourished (and, if we're not careful, stand in dishes of water that are a breeding ground for mosquitoes of horse-fly dimensions). And it's still warm enough to eat out, and the candles and light have been illuminating the back of the house quite strikingly.

The candle illumination falling on Alice's hand is a wonderful example of a Barthean punctum - one of those photographic details that pierces one with its poignancy (that's me hitting the alliteration button as I paraphrase Camera Lucida, seemingly) - but that would miss its force completely were it to have been an intended point of focus from the get go. Because of course I was concentrating on the giant leaves (propping camera on deck fence, taking alternative view with it resting on plant pot, etc - the tripod is in my car and I couldn't be bothered to go fetch) - and not at all sizing up what else might be illuminated.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

dirty old river

must you keep rolling, Flowing into the night... only the words of the Kinks'
Waterloo Sunset certainly didn't refer to the Raritan, and there's something about this river that completely fails to have the grandeur (or history, which may be related) of the Thames, even if it shares a certain greasiness (beautifully captured by Roni Horn, in Some Thames). Although Horn's work is predicated on the notion that flowing water is at one and the same time a continued same, and always changing - points that could just as easily be made about the Raritan as the river flowing through London - I doubt that the same dense, rich cultural range of reference could be appended at the bottom of the frames - offering banks to photographs that otherwise have none. There is, she points out with a sinking heart, our school song, "On the Banks of the Old Raritan;" there's the literary/cultural journal, founded by Richard Poirier, named after the river; there's... The Lenape used to live on its banks; the name comes from an Algonquian word meaning "stream overflows" (it was certainly muddy and smelly enough down there today); it's designated unsafe, still, for swimming and fishing, despite recent efforts to clean it. But that's about the extent of my cultural and literary knowledge: not enough to sprawl along the bottom of an image that shows the River Dorms in a deceptively picturesque light and offer very much resonant commentary.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Happily, it's a fairly rare occasion that I think I've taken the Picture of the Day, come home, download, and find that it's way out of focus. But. So - what's left, but to look around one's desk - and find, on this occasion, a cocktail, and the bottom of a desk lamp. "Cocktail" might be a rather grandiose name for a concoction, involving a blender, of some fruit - I think once soused in cointreau - frozen in the freezer, some blackberry flavored vodka, and half an orange. I suppose that - by some outside stretch of the imagination - it might be said to be Rutgers red. Also happily - the subject of my failed photo probably isn't going anywhere fast. In many ways, today's picture very much vindicates one major goal of taking pictures for this blog - looking around one, and seeing what's there - and so, even if I seem shackled to home and department in NJ right now, that in fact turns into a pretty good challenge.

Friday, September 18, 2009


is what the red label says, sitting on the packing crate in the garage that was used to ship a very large photograph from Los Angeles to Highland Park. Fragile is pretty much my state of being at the end of a long, long week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

LGBTQ/QA balloons

in the multi-purpose room of the RU student center, which doubtless would have looked more festive, less sickly under the neon lighting, if I'd used a flash at the multi-initialled reception this evening (the last couple are Questioning and Allies: maybe it should be extended next year to A/A, for Asexual, whilst one's adding letters). But I didn't, because I took this during a short talk by the guest speaker, the admirable Jeff Sheng, whose portraits of lesbian and gay athletes were on display. The theme of the evening - apart from celebrations and introductions, and welcoming first years - was gay/lesbian athletes, and the particular challenges they face in coming out - I hadn't previously known of a whole site full of gays - especially - and lesbians in sport, Outsports - which now I look at it seems to be a curious mix of support and news and athletic beefcake. But it was also the 40th birthday of Rutgers's queer student organization - Cheryl Clarke beautifully introducing a small bit of history - the Rutgers Student Homophile League was founded in 1969, by Lionel Cuffie, just post Stonewall, and was the first post-S'wall queer student organization in the country. It was a most excellent event - bookended, in good Rutgers fashion, by watching two RU buses collide with each other on a corner beforehand, and the Woe and Death to All Homosexuals guy with a placard parading up and down outside as we all left.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Sometimes, I find myself just sitting in meetings and thinking - o.k., if I were to take a photograph of this - and I couldn't take a picture of the people themselves - what would the picture be of? This is good visual training (the same technique works for - what would I paint? what would I draw? - and the answer isn't always the same in relation to each medium. Sometimes, if very bored, I actually start doing the drawing... But today I was - although in a very long meeting - neither bored, nor in a position to start turning my environment into black and white cross-hatching in my notebook. Nonetheless...there was still a part of me (that is, I suppose, my eyes) that kept coming back to the possibilities inherent in the generic white-ish plastic blind; the muted greys and fawns (very Gwen John), and the very pleasing irregularity of the one bent-out-of-shape slat. So no - I didn't get out my camera mid-meeting, but crept back into the room around 5 p.m., when there was no one around to wonder why on earth anyone should be taking a photograph of, apparently, nothing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

think of the kitchen table when you're not there

A day in the Chair’s office can mean, alas, precisely that, a day in the chair’s office, with too much business to move away from it except to the bathroom; lunch a packet of cheese crackers left over from the Department’s welcome party (I’ll do better tomorrow: there’s some cold beetroot curry – made with coconut milk, that looks and tastes a lot better and less weird than it sounds. I just need to remember to take it in). And it wasn’t even until I was on the way home that I remembered I hadn’t yet taken a photo; and somehow I couldn’t quite bear to do so in Stop & Mope, where the customers were their usual bizarre selves (Alice quite right pointed out that it would need Diane Arbus to do justice to many of the inhabitants of Highland Park. There was a particularly bad tempered elderly lady in the car park outside S&S today, who cursed – happily in a language I couldn’t understand – at my Obama sticker, probably apprehensive that our President was about to have her up before a death committee. Typing that I realize that I haven't ever stopped to consider whether there was a residual holocaust fear behind some of these crazed right wing objectors to their mythic version of the health care plan, which does give me a moment's pause about the visceral base on which fear builds).

So that leaves me with – well, with what? The kitchen table: a good fall-back position to find something photographable – and also a good photographic challenge in its own right: find a slightly different angle on something familiar. Kitchen tables came up in class yesterday as an example of that very Bloomsbury group question - is something there is you can't see it? I was talking about the opening of Forster's The Longest Journey, where a group of Cambridge students sit around discussing whether a cow is in a field whether one's there to look at her or not. "It was philosophy," Forster explains, possibly with one of his habitual selfmocking digs at his own seriousness. "They were discussing the existence of objects, Do they exist only when there is some one to look at them? Or have they a real existence of their own?" And by the time we get to To the Lighthouse, Andrew tries to explain his father's philosophical research to the puzzled Lily by saying that it's about "Subject and object and the nature of reality...Think of the kitchen table when you're not there" - as though that phrase will stand in as a reference point for a whole philosophical debate. I loved to think of the kitchen table when I wasn't there, today - above all, in the sense that I was looking forward to getting home to it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

still beknighted

This sullen form seems much more convincing as a knight than yesterday's tacky object - though he's far from red. The silver knight stands at the exit of the Rutgers Club, presumably to exhort valor and fortitude from those who've just attended a two-hour Academic Leadership Session. My sense of the medieval, though, received a booster in a positive - rather than cynical - direction this morning, though, when one of my 8.10 a.m. students, Emily K, recited from memory the first 20 lines of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and did so quite beautifully, and with a stunningly convincing accent (without putting on the Special, I-am-Now-Reciting-Medieval-Poetry voice beloved of some of my former Oxford colleagues). And this reminded me that not only did I really enjoy medieval literature, but that what I most liked about it had nothing to do with knights and jousting and quests and holy grails and other things beloved by both Tennyson and Monty Python, but I loved the sense of quiet tragedy that it could give: the sense of the world's brittleness and fragility and transience. Because of this Chaucer, for me, is at his best not in the Canterbury Tales, good fun though they are, but in the amazing Troilus and Criseyde. Here's Criseyde musing on the friable nature of happiness, which itself is a highly unstable state. Either one recognizes that it may change and pass, or one doesn't: if one doesn't, she maintains, then one can't really be happy. But what (Chaucer's getting us to consider) does happiness mean, if built up within it is a sense of its mutability?
      `O brotel wele of mannes Ioye unstable!
       With what wight so thou be, or how thou pleye,
       Either he woot that thou, Ioye, art muable,
       Or woot it not, it moot ben oon of tweye;
       Now if he woot it not, how may he seye
       That he hath verray Ioye and selinesse,
       That is of ignoraunce ay in derknesse? 

I have the feeling that Rutgers-style knights don't seem much troubled by such sentiments: maybe I'd feel more
sympathetic towards them if they were more like Criseyde's (temporary) partner, Troilus - who ends up deeply
unhappy, since joy (and, alas, Woman) proves transient indeed.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

knightly headgear

This complete monstrosity was sitting in Lowes, in Piscataway, wanting someone to give it - and its two friends - a good home, a snip at 49.99. I particularly like the label of "fragile," for I'm not sure whether this refers to the state of the 1:1 football team, or the heads of the students we saw celebrating Saturday's victory as we drove through New Brunswick last night, or by extension, the profits in a very empty Lowes. (Fragile the object itself certainly must be - look at the dubious stability of that strip of white glue at the bottom of the helmet). Scarlet, obviously, from the school's colors - it was to have been orange, after the Dutch) but scarlet was cheaper and easier to obtain (hmmmm - sounds like RU was true to form back in 1869). And Princeton were stocking up on orange (though I don't know about tiger stripes) around then. Initially, the mascot was to have been Chanticleer, the fighting cock - as in Chaucer, etc. But the Scarlet Sportspeople got fed up with being thought of as Chicken, so the Knights was adopted as the official mascot/name in 1955, thanks to a student poll. I wish it was something more covetable in mascot form - there's nothing much that's simultaneously brave and cute about a knight's helmet. Yesterday's defeated Howard bisons would be much easier to support, when it comes to buying mementos - I really haven't much sympathy with tacky false medievalism of this sort.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

pinata time

the etiquette of taking photographs at parties where one doesn't know more than a couple of the people attending is a hard one...which camera to take? (opt for discreet minimalism)...which people to point one's camera at? (Not easy - I might, indeed, be a relatively successful portrait taker of people whom I know, but when it's people I don't, it always looks like social satire). It's a surprise party - so, yes, of the moment that we all troop upstairs from the basement, clutching the pinata (which oddly, never got smashed) and startle the birthday boy - but for some reason, that just didn't work - I thought I'd pressed the shutter at the crucial moment, but no. So... here's the easy, opt-out option: birthday celebratee (Happy Birthday, Ben!) with Alice.

It was, in any case, a bad-tempered photographic day...I'd selected a photo for Ben - highly pertinent to the "Art of Writing" theme-of-the-year; had it all ready to print - and it wouldn't. Realized that having installed Snow Leopard, I'd somehow disabled the R2880. Tried to reload driver. Tried to reboot driver. Copied photo onto computer that didn't have Snow Leopard. Printer, by now, was not only sulking, but flashing orange lights with a menacing synchronicity. And by then, I was running out of time, badly, and had to write a note to fit in the (rather tasteful) frame - but I felt decidedly let down by high-end technology.

Friday, September 11, 2009

old man gloom

At this time of the year, the idea of piling all one's negative and gloomy thoughts together and burning them up in one great pyrotechnic flourish is a great idea. This is what happens at the burning of Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom, who gets burned in all his 50' high effigy, surrounded in fireworks, chanted into destruction by people going Burn him! Burn him! Burn him! in Santa Fe the weekend after Labor Day, as part of the Fiestas de Santa Fe (lots of mariachi bands this year, since it's Santa Fe's 400th birthday). He went up in flames last night.

Unfortunately, it's far too dank and wet and - well, gloomy - to attempt anything like that here in NJ, and this is the nearest thing to live flames tonight on our dinner table. The emergence of the dinner table (yes! it was still there!) from under piles and piles of books from LA, and many Displaced Objects (a color photo printer I rarely use; a china lamp shaped like a cockatoo; a tray full of miscellaneous nails and screws and possibly live, possibly used batteries) is a matter for celebration in itself, and indeed, an act of banishing negative thoughts - at least the kind that pertain to the unpacking of large cardboard boxes. Hence, not just dinner-by-candlelight, but the somewhat Japanese effect of the chrysanthemums in the background - a far cry from 20,000+ people crammed into Fort Marcy Park, baying for the blood of the gloomy giant. I really plan on witnessing this, some time...

Thursday, September 10, 2009


we don't want to have to wait. What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now! It's very good to see our students involved so actively, and demonstrating outside Brower, and being covered by TV camerapeople. But it also got me wondering about the origin of chants at radical rallies. The first of these obviously comes from "2-4-6-8 - who do we appreciate?" which seems to be American in origin, and imported into England and chanted at football - i.e. soccer - games from the 1920s. The second? I'm not so sure. It certainly goes back to the Civil Rights movement ("What do we want? Integration. When do we want it...?...) - but other than that, I don't know. It's transportable (from my European experiences...) into other languages (though something to the rhythm of ter-da, ter-da, ter-da-ter-da-ter-da is more common): "deux-quatre-six-huit" doesn't quite work the same way. But nothing that I've ever done at a political rally beats the experience of marching round St Mark's Square, in Venice, singing "Bandiera Rossa". The trouble is, I can't now remember why...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

the institutional table

I've always liked Lynne Cohen's pictures of empty institutional spaces - I like the really empty ones even better than those that are inhabited by the half-lives of crash text dummies and mannequins. It always seems as though something bad - and probably violent - is about to happen in them.

Nothing bad, I hope, is about to happen here - even though the pulled-together tables do look somewhat like a medical operating surface. Rather, nothing is happening at all - a different kind of dread, when it's 4.15, the tables are in the Plangere Writing Center, and one's Departmental Welcome Party - which, as Chair, I'm hosting - is due to kick off in fifteen minutes time. Yet the arrival of wine and soda and cheese and chips and salsa - and then people - is not the kind of activity that this room seems to be inviting, and it has this in common with Cohen's interiors: it's menacing in its very blandness. [The tension, thankfully, was relieved about fifteen seconds later - and the party was up and running dead on schedule. Phew.]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

a (iconic) zebra

In our Changing Britain class today, we were discussing Icons of Englishness - and the class members brought in some perfect examples, from Doctor Who to pictures of Lifeguards (those guys outside Buckingham Palace, not things to chew), from Princess Di to the sleeve of Abbey Road, from the reconstructed Globe Theater through the Houses of Parliament to a tea bag. I didn't even need to go to my emergency stash of YouTube recordings of "Land of Hope and Glory"... (though I did use John Agard's "Alternative Anthem," when we were on the topic of tea and kettles).

Coming back here this evening, though, I thought how very little there is around me that represents Englishness in any obvious way. I don't mean in my literary choices, or even in the presence of Victorian paintings - but stuff that's truly representative of - well, Englishness (which raises the question about whether or not tourists are more likely to be drawn to stereotypes of a country or region than people who live there...). The nearest I could find were my Staffordshire figures, made in the English Midlands in the mid C19th, and including this piece of exoticism, a zebra. He probably references circuses and traveling menageries from the time (indeed, I did once hear a very specialist paper on Staffordshire Zebras when at a conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, which, so far as I remember, tied them in to Hard Times). And I know that the zebra must date from post 1850, because (a quick bit of on-line research tells me), before that date, potters used a mold of a horse, including the horse mane, and painted it with black and white stripes; post 1850, a more anatomically correct mold was used (hmmm - maybe this is a hybrid? if I were showing you more than the hindquarters, you'd see he has a zebra head and stiff standing up mane, but this looks like a horse tail, to me). But I think that the very idea of zebras in mid C19th English pottery (and, indeed, possessing an antique china one) happily references something that our discussion of English characteristics took us towards today - a kind of national pride in the quirky and eccentric.

Monday, September 7, 2009

not just a handsome set of whiskers

although, indeed, they are spectacular. This is Emmett sprawled - no, handsomely poised - over my notebook, helping me finish off a piece that by now I should have written what feels like years ago. But I'm more interested in the little landscape hanging behind his head: a blue and ochre view of a French valley by my old French teacher at school, Monique Boudier, who died last year. It's not easy knowing what to hang by one's desk so that one sees it every time one looks up (the other side there's a northern New Mexican tree of life rug by Gloria Montoya, which is easier to explain), but this picture is there for a number of reasons: the quiet European-ness of the landscape; the fact that Mlle. Boudier managed to instill a reasonable French accent in me over the six years that she taught me; my still-lingering guilt at crossing swords with her in my final year about how French literature should be taught (I still think I was right, but I needn't have been so self-righteous about it, and I ended up being temporarily banished from school with the polite fiction was that I was suffering pre-exam stress).

More than that: Monique Boudier was a flamboyantly femme lesbian - never without her heels and lipstick - the partner of Julie Darby, my geography teacher, who was her tweed-suited and knitted-knee-socked opposite. I am baffled to this day about the messages sent out by the couples among our teaching staff (mine was an all-girls school) - certainly, their existence as couples was openly acknowledged, at least by us - but they seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the various sexual orientations of their girls. Ours was a rigorously hetero-normative environment: we were being groomed for a future as professional woman, yes, but always with the assumption that there would, somehow, be Men in the picture. Such things as crushes, as swapping bras with other girls (four of us crammed in one toilet cubicle? - not the most erotic of scenarios, in retrospect), as more serious relationships, were simply not Mentioned (beyond the fact that we weren't allowed to put arms round each other: "not natural"). Nor, I think, did it cross most of our minds that whatever these older couples got up to had anything whatsoever to do with sexual desire, as we understood it, nor were they ever objects of fantasy (I might have thought differently if the - apparently non-coupled - Miss Macdonald hadn't gone on leave with mono, shortly after getting me hooked on E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class).

One girl from the year above me - who's now a psychotherapist - published a fervent denunciation of the school's silencing of lesbianism in our old girls' magazine a few years back. But I think I see it with more sympathy: I don't know what the experiences of the staff couples had been, and what prejudices they'd faced; I don't know how far they thought they were trying to protect us, or, for that matter, their own jobs. But I do know that Monique Boudier taught me much more than French, although I didn't register it at the time: she offered up a wonderful feisty, non-sterotyped example of just getting on with being who one is - including following one's artistic drives as well as everything else - and that's as good a reason as any to keep this picture in my line of view.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

the killing wall

Ostensibly, a tranquil early Sunday morning view of the first landing on the stairs, sun filtered through the blowing pine trees outside and making flickering shadows on the wall. But what are those dark marks? If you look closely - if you zoom in - you'll see that the wall is blood-smeared - and from the bottom smear protrude a few remains that make it very hard to tell whether the original creature was a mosquito (fat with my blood - and there are many of those) or an unfortunate moth. Now I know what those kitty-thuds in the night were.

These things are a parable (as George Eliot would say). I'm very much aware how un-politically engaged my writing here has been - as if uncoupled from anger and pain and negative feeling, despite being daily moved and enraged by so much - today, the video by poet/activist by Andrea Gibson, "The Pursuit of Happiness," (many thanks to Patti Digh for posting this to FB), and the NYT story about children facing the new school year whilst homeless, and that's for starters. Such interventions and reporting makes me wonder why I spend my time looking for pretty patterns of light on the stairs. So the image of insect-cide stands - albeit, to be sure, in a self-mocking way - for my knowledge of the cruelty and violence that's out there. But at the same time I stand by my belief that we do also need to look for the unexpected or unlooked-for instances of beauty and visual pleasure that are out there, all the time - or we're sunk. Little chance of rescuing my street cred from such a Pollyanna-ish statement, of course - but it's a reminder that my purpose in keeping this daily blog hasn't been to go out and hunt down my subject matter, but to keep to the challenge of noting what's in front of me, and then seeing what happens as it interacts with prose.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

the crack in the sixties

the crack in the glass of this framed poster has been there a long, long time: it's opaque for a centimeter or so on either side of the fault line, and what was once masking tape holding it together has lost its glue, and has started to peel and curve off. But it has all the iconic properties: the more-or-less rainbow background, the tripod of the peace sign (the CND, or Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament sign, as I think of it); the faux-art-nouveau lettering of Love; a hand suggesting openness (or for all I know, palmistry); another one - maybe, but not definitively, meant to be African-American, pointing forwards - both of them looking like escapees from Renaissance frescoes; and some stray arrows, linking Peace together (why?), that look to me very like those later adopted as a symbol by the Anti-Nazi League.

I hadn''t realized about the existence of this poster until I unpacked it today - that is, I may have seen it before, but not registered it, stacked up in the sauna, that wonderful LA depository of things that one's never going to throw out, but maybe not use, either - and it seems a peculiarly poignant object, in its state of fragile disrepair. Forty years on (as we keep being reminded) from Woodstock (and so, only ten years from its half-century - one darkly wonders if so many 40-year rock and counter culture milestones are being celebrated because rock lifestyles didn't establish very good foundations for longevity. But what moves me the more is the tenuousness, and yet tenacity of all that idealism and optimism - now most visible here, in Highland Park, in the distilled version that arrives the other side of this front door once a week: the ordered-on-line box of organic fruit and vegetables.

Friday, September 4, 2009

further enlightenment

or, looking closely at lights. This lamp use to be in the hallway in 962 N Hoover Street. Now it's in our downstairs - what would you call it? In England, it would be a cloakroom; here I guess it's a bathroom, despite a total absence of bath; our painter labelled it the powder room - in there, anyway, where one has plenty of occasion to look at it (when, that is, one's not reading Weird N.J.). For years, I've thought of it as - and referred to it as - the dragonfly lamp. Only now I see it's a butterfly, and even the base, which I'd taken to be unequivocally of the infraorder Anisoptera (clearly I'm influenced now by having heard a program on the BBC Today show about a concert of songs about or mimicking insects), isn't a dragonfly at all - it's just that the lamp stem curves up like the dragonfly's thin tail.

I found a good reminder not to take lamps for granted, today, in the collection of photographs called New Londoners, that came out of a project run by PhotoVoice, and which I was looking at for possible materials to use later in my "Changing Britain" course. These are pictures that have all been taken by young refugees, asylum seekers. One of them, Mussie Haile, from Eritrea, provides a picture of a very ordinary ceiling light, and writes "I haven't seen this before. A bulb with protection. When I was in my country, there was no electricity in the countryside where I lived. Even in Asmara I never saw a bulb with protection like this." The whole collection manages to be a display of ordinariness and the more or less exotic seen side by side - and thus functions as an instant reminder that one person's ordinary is another person's strange and foreign.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

where there is darkness,

light. Under the stairs. Even with our new, sleek, pale mouse-grey living room, it still manages to look like brothel illumination. Not that (except via movies, etc) I'm particularly familiar with brothel interiors, but I always used to be fascinated by the red lights in red light districts that shone above doorways (in Cardigan Street in Oxford, before it was largely demolished; in Soho; visible from the overground Metro in north-east Paris, where Algerian immigrants stood outside in long shuffling lines; and in Amsterdam, only there the women were on show as well, sitting on gilt chairs in front of red velvet curtains - though of course the more popular women were represented by their absence, the empty chair left occupying the space. I don't have a clue whether EEC regulations have succeeded in doing away with such blatant display). "Always used to be" - I think that's best glossed as a teenage phenomenon on my part, and one that I can't quite figure out.

There's little ambiguity about a red light shining in a seedy area of town, unlike the origins and use of the prayer of St Francis - so-called - from which this blog heading comes from (no mention, alas, in it of St F's penchant for animals). If the saint was active in the C13th, the prayer can't be traced back before 1912 (in France). It's subsequently been adopted in all kinds of ways: by Mother Teresa (check: good); Desmond Tutu (check: good); Bill Clinton (goodish); Nancy Pelosi when becoming speaker (good); Alcoholics Anonymous (good and useful for many); Margaret Thatcher, on coming back from shaking hands with the Queen when becoming Prime Minister (bad, bad, bad). I'm not at all sure what to make of the fact that only one person in today's (alas, this time, non-photographic) undergraduate class owned up today to knowing who Thatcher was: what I do know is that reducing C20th British history into 20 minutes turned into a display, on my part, of such startling blandness that the Iron Lady herself would have had no sympathy with it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

school equipment

Probably my favorite thing about the beginning of the school year is new stationery - new notebooks, new pens, new equipment - I don't think that's changed since I was seven.   There's nothing like an empty lined exercise book to make one convinced that this time, one's going to take all one's notes in an inspired and organized manner.   No wonder that I was deeply struck by a passage in David Lodge's early academic novel, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965) in which a penniless student stares into the window of a stationers' shop near the British Museum (in those days, the British Library used to be in there too - when I was a grad student I loved the dome of the Reading Room, with all those great authors inscribed round the rim who, as Virginia Woolf famously pointed out, don't include a woman among them).   And he thinks that if only he could afford all those file cards and folders and pens and other tempting treats, he could write his dissertation (I think I may have a similar relationship, these days, to computer programs that promise to organize all one's to-do lists for one...).

Someone can't have liked their crayons, though.   These were crushed and broken into the dampish - still - earth outside Murray Hall (a left over from Monday's festivities)? and have a sadly abandoned air - they look rather like spent fireworks.   They reminded me, too, of Arthur Rothstein's famous dustbowl picture of a cow's skull - famous not just because it suggests desolation and barrenness, of course, but because he moved it from some grass to this parched and cracked earth.   For I could have gathered these, and some other similar mutilated crayons together, and probably put together an even more suggestive composition - but I remembered that skull, and didn't.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

head to head

It would be possible to claim this as an image of conflict, or confrontation, or at the very least, battling with the new semester.   Maybe.   But these goats actually belong to the how-does-one-get-the-house-straight domestic theme; the question of what constitutes a sufficiency of loved objects and what constitutes one tchotchke too many (not a word in my vocabulary before I came to the US - I guess in the UK one would call them knick-knacks).

These animals are not getting weeded out of the flock.   The goats and sheep tend to cluster in the kitchen (I date my fondness for them to my first stuffed toy, Charley Lamb): this particular wooden pair, clacking backwards and forwards on their wooden base, were brought back by my father from Romania, where he spent most of 1968-69 - I think; living in a smart hotel in Budapest, and negotiating endlessly with the government about such things as the building of a hydroelectric dam, which they were trying (unsuccessfully) to pay for with large loads of tomatoes.   I remember having dinner, once, at the Savoy (highlight: a very flashy Baked Alaska), with my parents and a man who I think was the finance minister - something shady - who apparently spent most of the meal with his hand on my mother's knee - she didn't like to shake it off, or bite it, or whatever, in case she interrupted high level international civil engineering dealings.   The goats used to live on the kitchen windowsill at 20 Hillside and I haven't a clue why they are not there still: nonetheless, I'm very fond of them not just because of their chunky folksy wooden capriciousness, but because of the link to that windowsill that they represent.