Sunday, February 28, 2010

lily 2

A little bit further towards full bloom. The trouble with this sequence is that there is not - or is not, as yet, a whole lot to say about it. But it offers the opportunity to turn back to David Shields' Reality Hunger, and to one of the aphorisms, or miniature essays, under E, subtitled "reality". Which ought to make one's antennae quiver, given the direction of the whole book - maybe this is the important, key chapter? But why E? (R, which might have been a long time to wait, is for "autobio"). I'm tempted to find a reference to Georges Perec's La Disparition, which was written without the letter "e" at all, but that might be stretching it. Section 137:

"Why do you take photographs so constantly, so obsessively? Why do you collect other people's photographs? Why do you scavenge in secondhand shops and buy old albums of other people's pasts?
So that I'll see what I've seen."

But this, of course, isn't Shields at all, but Janette Turner Hospital, in The Last Magician. So one might rephrase this: in what way is a photograph a quotation? Why do you scavenge obsessively in other people's written works? So that I can see what I've seen...? Is this the nature of the intertextual? It seems to be not at all true of today's particular mode of taking photographs (with a macro lens, with a 550EX speedlite, extracting one little frame of lily) - this is what the lens sees, focused on one part of a flower: this is not what the brain registers the eye as seeing, for it scans backwards and forwards and gives depth to the image).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

a week of lilies

Coming up - a week of lilies. Or a week, rather, of this lily - I want to trace its emergence from day to day. This is one from the same batch of which I bought 24 or so for Christmas gifts for the English Department staff - and all through this semester, depending on when they started to water them, and how light their offices are, they've been bursting into spectacular blooms. So this should develop into white and pink stripes: rather than 13 ways of looking at a - well, wood pigeons, jays, starlings and grackles were the birds of choice outside today - feathered object, here will be five or six observations of an amaryllis.

Friday, February 26, 2010

not a tourist

and yet, very hard not to look upwards in New York today, on my way to a meeting (having been told way back in the late 70s that the way to recognize a tourist in New York was that she or he was always looking upwards, I've spend decades familiarizing myself with manhole covers and steaming vents and occasional shop windows). It was snowing, and snowing - 21" by the time that I left the city for a snowy, but less extravagantly snowy, New Jersey. NY was curiously schizophrenic in the snow - large flakes coming down, tree branches heavy with the stuff, like a schmalzy movie - and then definitely a day to look upwards, because ankle deep grey slush is far from appealing.

And I was nearly the victim of many flash bulbs - but failed to get the timing quite right. The building that I was in also houses the NY office of the Governor of New York - and David Paterson suspended his election campaign today, so the news media, complete with arc lights and doubtless many other implements of glaring illumination were parked outside.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

cocktail sticks

that once had lychees impaled upon them. I totally recommend Boi, a Vietnamese restaurant on E 44th St in NYC - not least for the Ram - boi - tini, composed of rambutan juice and vodka. And lychees. The content of these delectable drinks is not responsible, I swear, for the strange and tilted angle of this image - it's just not always easy to take photos in restaurants without calling attention to the activity, and looking like some gauche and goggle-eyed bridge-and-tunnel person. Which of course - in terms of transportation - one is, but it's good, for an evening, to pretend not to be.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

found art

On top of a free newspaper bin by the side of the steps up to New Brunswick railway station, here are various smashed frames, or forms, that seem as though they might once have represented something, but the elements (and this is even before the next, prophesized, Major Blizzard hits New Jersey) have turned them into broken, crumpled windows, or diagrams of edifices, or sheer abstract pieces that have given up the fight to mean anything. I haven't had much time to read further in Shields' Reality Hunger today (and should I be reading from the front? - which I will, when my time unfolds into a manageable expanse again - dipping in both seems like cheating, but also in keeping with his whole commitment to the fragmentary) - but I'll pluck out his comment (p. 166) that "Life is, in large part, rubbish. the beauty of reality-based art - art underwritten by reality hunger - is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) 'life as art.' Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like - can be - art."

Yes, of course, I know that he intended - surely - that "turned sideways" in a figurative sense. But of course I couldn't resist that literal challenge (and think this is an improvement), especially as this very choice of image depends on the recognition, and transformation, of actual "rubbish" in the first place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

cake, generically

Quite wonderfully, around three o'clock this afternoon, there was a shuffling outside the door of my office, and in came all the staff - all bar Cheryl, who was tied up with a visitor - bearing a just very slightly belated birthday cake (I didn't announce my natal day yesterday, but various people in the know from FB came by to wish me a Happy B, and the secret had escaped) - with my name piped in turquoise icing on the chocolate covering. And cards. And singing Happy Birthday. And asking me if we sing "Happy Birthday" in England - which of course we do, and it had never struck me to think we mightn't. Interestingly, though (meaning I didn't know this till I looked it up on Wikipedia), the melody is is an American one, written - or at least borrowed - by schoolteachers Patty and Mildred J. Hill in Louisville, KT in 1893 for the words "Good Morning to All," and their students - apparently - liked it so much that they changed the words when they then started to sing it at birthday parties. It appeared in Children's Praise and Worship in 1918, and Coleman's American Hymnal in 1933 (surely a bit lightweight for a hymn?). But when was it imported into England? I couldn't find anything that said: I must ask my parents (both born in 1923) if they remember singing it in their childhoods.

The cake was, in a sense, generic - but I'm also starting to think about the genre in which I write about it, about "Happy Birthday," about ordinariness, or the extraordinary within the ordinary - in part prompted by the present to myself that Amazon delivered today, David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (I'd forgotten I'd pre-ordered it was back in November - it was another good surprise of the day). 618 paragraphs, or sentences, or bits, arranged - yes! - under alphabetical headings: meditative, aphoristic - just about my favorite experimental style: think Benjamin (and yes, Shields' appendix does, indeed, lay bear the underlying tissue of quotations embedded in the loosely connected structure) meets Georges Perec. He's posing the question of what constitutes an appropriate literary form for the C21st century; keeps (but bear in mind I've only given it the most cursory skimming: I can't wait to read it properly) coming back to the advantages of the lyric essay. He considers Facebook and MySpace's utility as "crude personal essay machines" - he's thinking especially about the informational pages, the instant status updates. "Every page is a bent version of reality - too unsophisticated to be art but too self-conscious to be mere reportage. In this new landscape, everyone gets a channel. It seems to be the ultimate destiny of every medium to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator, which is at once democratic, liberating, exhilarating, bland, deafening, and confusing. User-made content is the new folk art" (p.94). Folk art? Is this the connection between my blog and "Happy Birthday," perhaps?

Monday, February 22, 2010


If ever a picture needed an explanation and contextualization, this is it. It looks like another entrant in an occasional series of bed pictures - but its curious lumpiness is a direct effect of the building work going on in our attic (where we seem to have grown a little square tower, like some Victorian gothic excrescence). For the cats have to be corralled all day, and have, by now, developed the habit of taking themselves up to the bedroom after breakfast. Only the noise was especially bad today (electric saws, hammers, staple guns, bad rock music), and we found that LucyFur had buried herself firmly and securely under the covers. That sleeping tabby mound on the far side is Lola - not exactly unperturbed, but at least daring to be visible.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

organic vegetable

One really can't tell what's going to show up from week to week in our delivered-on-a-Wednesday box of organic vegetables and fruit - mostly vegetables, since I usually make all my four allowed substitutions with the fruit. This handsome piece of produce is, supposedly, a butternut squash, but it is decidedly overgrown (I resisted the temptation of posing it with a couple of ripe mangoes, or other overly suggestive items of agricultural produce).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

after the gas station

I'd been planning on posting yet another - and more advanced - version of the squirrel climbing frame that now makes up about a third of the attic (and indeed, I found some acorns already deposited in there). But this bleak sign and bleak vista, on Raritan, aka Route 27, the main drag through Highland Park, was a completely irresistible piece of deadpan aesthetic. Yes, once there was a gas station here, which I patronized in preference to the Raceway down the street (which mainly I avoided because it was Raceway, and didn't trust their cheapness - though that may have been a mistake, since the very pleasant Sikh who works at R'way in fact is a dab hand when it comes to rushing to clean one's windshield). Now - well, goodness knows what's leaching into the ground, and down to the grey greasy Raritan at the bottom of the hill.

Friday, February 19, 2010

caught green-handed

...although what, precisely, the crime might be isn't easy to gauge. The only urban green terrorism in which I've ever taken part is making seed bombs: take a handful of wild flower seeds, and make up a paste with earth, and mix them together, and let them dry into a small cricket-ball sized weapon, and then toss, with feeling, onto a abandoned, but potentially fertile, wasteland. We did this with the vacant lot next door to Alice's house in LA, hoping, at the very least, to see a splendid new crop of hollyhocks after the next rains. Only, so far as we could see, nothing happened.

Alternatively, since this is on the side wall of Brower Commons, on College Avenue, maybe this is to indicate that somewhere within these walls, people steal lettuce, or broccoli, or large chunks of jello - that peculiarly American accompaniment to entrees that succeeded in both mystifying me and nauseating me when I very first came to the US.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

stepping into the sky

When I came home last night, I could hear a strange flapping in the wind - obviously something to do with the construction - so I went into the attic and ... and there was the sky. It felt as though I could walk straight out into air, and was terrifying (not least for what might come in, too - and yes, that is a little squirrel flexing its tail on the bough behind). In daylight, of course, I could see that there was still a safe amount of wall left - but one reason why it scared me so last night, I think, was that it reminded me of the first film I ever saw, Kidnapped - an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel - starring Peter Finch - in 1960. This would have been at the Lonsdale, in Carlisle - which became an ABC in 1962, and which now, alas, seems to be boarded up and empty. It was the first cinema in the city to be built for sound - in 1931 - it had lots of art deco features; it had a famous organ; I've just found a YouTube video that shows people queuing for the Beatles show there in 1963. What is most disturbing is how extraordinarily ancient this looks - and my parents and I had already left Cumberland, two years before, for London.

But when I went to see the movie with my father, I don't think the organist was there: rather, there was a pianist playing before the curtain went up (went up, that is, on the newsreel, and then the feature film - about penguins in Antarctica - and then the interval, when one could buy choc ices in silver paper from a woman with a tray round her neck. Going to the cinema involved a whole show, in those days). And then, quite early on in the movie, the scary scene, the one that's stuck with me - when David Balfour goes to stay with his uncle; finds evidence that his father may have been older than his uncle (in which case he should be the inheritor of the House of Shaws); his uncle sends him to fetch a chest from the top of a tower in the house; doesn't give him a light; and doesn't tell him that this is a deliberate trap - that the tower isn't finished, and the steps just end, in the pitch dark... He doesn't, of course...

I'd been hoping to find the movie on You Tube - it's not on NetFlix - not even available for ordering... but no such luck. I'd been wanting to test out Siegfried Kracauer's assertion, which is quoted in Laura Mulvey's Death 24x a Second (I'm reading about stopped instants, as part of my Flash! stuff) in which he claims that as someone laughs at old films, "he is bound to realise, shudderingly, that he has been spirited away into the lumber-room of his private self...In a flash the camera exposes the paraphernalia of our former existence, stripping them of the significance that originally transfigured them so they are changed from things in their own right into invisible conduits." Maybe, indeed, when I somehow find a copy of the film to watch, I'll find that in it are all kinds of sources for subsequent dreams and recurrent images. But in fact, it was quite dislocating enough just now being transported back, via film, to the streets of Carlisle in the early 1960s. And it felt so modern, at the time, going twelve miles into the city...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

interpretive reading

The greatest puzzle posed by the writing on a door on the staircase down to the basement in Murray Hall is whether or not these two imperatives are to be read in conjunction with one another, or not. For if one posits some logical connection, then a pattern of cause and effect - most likely allegorical cause and effect - is set up. "Watch your step" - the demand always to be cautious, to look before one leaps, swallow before one speaks, to keep an eye open for pitfalls (and I don't just mean worn treads on Murray's stairs), to be alert to the fact that the world is a dangerous place, to mind one's back, to be careful to whom one's talking about whom - yes, indeed, if one lives in such a world of hyper self-protection, one might well go crazy - or at the very best, lose all sense of one's identity. But if there is no deliberate link, then the officialese of the command that has been stenciled in bold lettering loses something of its force: it seems rigid, artificial - by contrast, the deliberate casual felt tip, the vernacular script adds a sense of authenticity to the smaller, more modest inscription. An aura of intelligence and education is lent, moreover, by the Greekness of the capital E (and then undermined, of course, by the dot on the capital "I," which I somehow long ago internalized as being a sign of illiteracy).

Or alternatively, "Lose Your Mind" could just be a warning as to what will happen if you go down to the bowels of Murray (though losing one's self, literally, in its maze, is even more likely) - an admonition against what education might do to you. For - and to prove it, I've just been typing out this deliberate gibberish without pause - one might learn a super-proficiency in close reading - but one needs to learn to think what to do with it, other than - as here - hope to entertain. To a great extent, that's going to be the huge challenge for those of us in the months and years ahead: demonstrate why what we do is useful, and not just fun, or self-indulgent, and seemingly pointless.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

turning the world inside out

is pretty much what the snow does - transforming the campus into a photo-negative version of itself. This label, however, doesn't come from someone determined to label this reversal of dark ground, but from the central stone of the war memorial, just protruding from the white. It's an odd phrase, though: wouldn't one rather say "a world turned upside down"? - or might that have sounded too like Christopher Hill's book on the English Civil War? "Inside out" sounds more careless or perverse than completely disoriented - like someone looking for a lost iPhone in a capacious purse, or trying to make a stain on a t-shirt invisible, or disguising the embarrassing logo on a plastic bag. It even sounds viscerally disgusting, like instructions for boning a chicken before stuffing it in some complex way. Do people speak, here, of their lives being "turned inside out," and hence revealing that which is meant to be invisible - a lining, a label - or by analogy, the raw emotions of dislocation and grief? I don't ever recollect hearing the expression. The words do stand, however, as a very satisfactory description of the effects of snow.

Monday, February 15, 2010

when icicles hang by the wall

off the bushes to the side of the house, just starting to drip away, in the early morning. But alas, this wasn't a harbinger of the end of the winter, because it's snowing again. I was thrown off my guard for a moment yesterday when my father - on Skype - started to ask after Dick blowing on his nail. Almost certainly he didn't mean the University president; the contractors are called Pat or Zack or Bob; the only possible Dick whom we know and who came to mind is on a farm in South Jersey, and may indeed be blowing hard on his hands right now, like the man in E. F. Brewtnall's 1886 painting, which is available (to my horror) in all manner of "real copies" to hang in your own home, chilly shepherds with flocks of sheep, damp snow weighing down tree branches, and an ominously heavy wintry sky being evidently more popular on some walls than they would be around here. It was unclear whether my father just dropped in a quotation by way of conversational padding, or whether rolling it out somehow elevates the weather into something literary and hence less available to complain about

Sunday, February 14, 2010


After yesterday's seasonal photocollage, back to the mundane - or at least to an image of frustration. I somehow don't think that work on our loft will resume tomorrow - not with yet more snow, or at least precipitation, of a wavering and uncertain amount due to arrive in the afternoon. The facts behind this image are the ladder leaning up against our snow-covered front porch, with some wooden structure - useful for getting plywood and insulation and the like into the loft - just above it. But I want to read something more complex into the steps that don't reach anywhere useful; into the presence of a rather futile and stumpy looking truncated wooden structure, and the rather dirty snow compacting in on its icy self - it seems to be inviting some kind of allegorical interpretation...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

victorian valentine

Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow… clearly, I’m not avoiding the kitschy pink, the flower petals, the cute kitties… I don’t normally post any of my composite works here – the Picture of the Day is hardly ever tweaked more than through moving the sliders or the lines around using Photoshop’s “levels” or “curves” functions. But ever since I saw the reviews of the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Victorian decorative photograph albums, where disembodied heads are stuck into prepared watercolor scenes, or playing cards, or arboreal family trees; or photographed figures are snipped out wholesale and set down, like collage, into rural scenes, I’ve had my eye on Valentine’s day.

This picture retains something of the collage, deliberately – a couple of hard edges between various discreet images – but I used blur functions, and overlays with shifting degrees of transparency, whilst working in, and moving around, about fourteen different layers – achieving a depth that it would be quite hard to do with ordinary collage. My only rule was that each cat would appear twice. But it was surprisingly hard to get the final composition quite right – I think I’ve just about nailed it – I’d printed out two different versions before I arrived at this one, and was kicking myself for not having wired up the laptop to a big editing screen first. All I have to do now is smuggle the 13x19 print down to the breakfast table…

Friday, February 12, 2010


icicles at the corner of the Zimmerli museum/art history department, above windows that - although this isn't visible here - are decorated with Valentine cupids and pink hearts that surpass kitsch. It's a slightly puzzling picture, in terms of how it's worked out. I'd taken a couple of bad-tempered shots of heaps of browning snow and slushy puddles on the way back from a trip to Starbucks, musing on the lack of care or money or both that renders crossing the road in New Brunswick somewhere between soggy and dangerous, and then was struck by the beauty - or so it seemed - of sunlight on ironwork and ice. But in fact, this also, despite the pleasing symmetry of diagonals, ends up looking rather grubby and urban, although I'm happy that the actual dripping from the icicles shows up, if one looks closely, making one recognize this as a snatched moment, rather than a mere record of a rather static corner of campus.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

ice maiden

Taken as a whole, the walk into Rutgers promised more than it delivered today: despite the beauty of the snow, I quickly started to loathe the people who hadn't conformed with Highland Park's edicts about snow clearance (303 S. 1st Ave - are you out there?) - and to hate even more vehemently New Brunswick, who hadn't thought to clear the footpath over the bridge, which was sixteen inches or so deep in snow, ice and slush.

But there were compensations - especially this wonderful sculpture on S. Adelaide - looking rather like an emaciated version of Margaret Thatcher decked out for Venetian carnivale (the lady's not for melting? certainly her heart seemed icy enough). These features had just melted enough for them to seem curiously blurry, especially given the contrast of the mauve ribbons and the splendid bling jewelry.

I don't know what the house number was - I should check - I think it was in the 70s, nor whether a professional sculptor lives there now. But it's certainly an area of HP with a good artistic heritage: for three years, from 1960-63, Roy Lichtenstein lived and had his studio at 66 S. Adelaide. He was teaching at Douglass College at the time - a period where there was an extraordinary concentration of important studio artists working and studying there - Allan Kaprow, for example, developing his "Happenings," Lucas Samaras, and George Segal - he of the life-sized casts of humans, arranged in social, or more frequently anti-social groups, who lived on a chicken farm in South Brunswick... I have no idea whether there's any aesthetic lineage linking this icy aristocrat to them, but she has much more in common with Segal's slightly uncanny figures than with Lichtenstein's brash pop art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

snow balls

I'm actually not sure what these are - I hope someone more attuned to North American horticulture will enlighten me... If they were in England, I'd say that they looked like plane tree balls, but I don't think they are - too spiky, and looking like a rambutan.

There was a lot of snow today - around 13". That, admittedly, will not sound a lot to sufferers in DC or Maryland, but it's a good deal for Highland Park to cope with, and our trees are bending in an ominous fashion. It's hard taking adequate photographs that don't look like every other photograph - submerged cars, people on cross-country skis in the streets, chilly ducks floating down the Raritan with snow on their backs, neighbors' snowpeople, etc, especially in the dull grey light - and yet, there's something compulsive about documenting The Great Storm of February 10th 2010, so I've ended up with all of these...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

what counts as a picture?

is the question that James Elkins is asking at just about this point in the lecture that he was giving this afternoon on "Visual Practices across the University" - suggesting the ways in which a course could be run for freshman that would ask about the place of visual culture in disciplines across the university, thus getting them to - to what? I wasn't quite sure about the answer to that - which is why I posed a question trying to get my own ideas clearer: to get them to think about the importance of looking, and how and why we look? to get them to understand different conventions - and that there are different conventions of both representation and interpretation? to get them to think about connections that may be drawn between disciplines? to stop them taking visual representation for granted? Or - and this is where my own mind went - to show how one can find inspirational or intriguing visual source material is surprising places? I particularly liked the simulations of what happens to the atoms in copper when under stress produced by Farid Abraham, which were beautiful enough to have turned me on to studying chemistry (if only I'd seen a movie like that back in chemistry class in VIF, I mightn't have turned to the distraction of making pen and ink drawings of test tubes, of the wire brushes used for cleaning out test tubes, of bunsen burners, of the view from the chemistry lab - and subsequently of things in the art studio, once I got turned out of chemistry class, and never took the O level exam in it. The problem was with gram atoms - I just couldn't get my head around the hypothetical nature of these pesky things - I wanted visual, not mathematical proof).

Probably the point of giving cross disciplinary lectures (and interestingly, no one asked Elkins about disciplinarity as such - has the moment to discuss it been and gone) is not to think about them as situations in which to take photographs, even if discreetly, with an iPhone... but if it's to ask questions that send one away thinking, I certainly came away with plenty - about what things are not picturable; about what counts as "interesting" in relation to the visual; about the occasions in which visual information is produced for lay people (like me) but isn't actually necessary to scientific inquiry. But above all, I came away realizing that I really need to know much, much more about how people actually process visual information, and how this kind of cognition differs from the verbal.

Monday, February 8, 2010

shot in the dark

Heading up the stairs into the under-renovation attic, I realize, this evening, that the electricity has been turned off up there. I could, of course, go and get a flashlight - but that lives in the bedroom, in order to check on DandeLion - the feral cat - who is normally under the bed. Since she was on the bed, I didn't want to scare her - and so my only immediate source of illumination was - yes! - a camera flash. So in order to see what work had been done, I quite literally just shot into the darkness, wondering what there would be to be seen.

Plenty of insulation, boards, wires... but also proof that one can take a perfectly symmetrically composed picture without planning a thing (this is deliberately uncropped, and I didn't know that the stepladder was there). It's a benign use of the flash; an arrangement of trapezoids; proof that objects are existing in happy alignment even in the pitch black - as though there may be serendipitous harmony, even when one can't physically perceive it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

cracking up

on the banks of the Mighty Raritan this afternoon, where the ice was crumpling up on the shoreline. For the most part, the water was flowing pretty fast down the river - but there were the odd thin ice flows, with Canada geese perched rather uncertainly on them, and the ice had clearly been thicker at some recent point.

This picture, of course, presents the cracked ice as if frozen (sorry) in perpetuity. But in fact this ice must move more quickly than tectonic plates: if one could sit there for the whole afternoon, as the sun brought the temperature above freezing, would one see it crack and buckle? For all I know, this photograph catches the moment before things shifted dramatically - but it plays on all the conventions of a stable, abstract geometry to be found in nature.

Perspectives do change, though - here's a new view from our attic... the old, heavy, scary fan has been removed, a new window inserted, and how we can look down on our neighbors from a whole different angle.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

some snow

but no Snowmageddon, here in mid-Jersey (pause for depressed thought: one hopes that Obama's major legacy won't be the coining - or at least the taking up and popularizing - of this word). The National Weather Center says we had a paltry five inches - paltry, that is, compared with the south of the state, or Philadelphia airport, which had 28 inches (how many job candidates are stranded in strange parts of the country? - for this is campus visit season): just enough, in other words, for it to look extremely pretty when we woke up, but not enough to debilitate everything. And enough for it to puzzle LucyFur, and for the arrival of Pete, our school student snow shoveler (we have a 4" minimum for his services - the stuff was so wet and heavy that we were very grateful for him today).

Friday, February 5, 2010

home on the range

Of course, no one picking up on that casual reference the other day to my buying another plastic pony in Target would expect it to be all that long before he appeared - quite definitely a "he," too - someone, back where they make the molds for plastic models, quite definitely cares about anatomical exactitude, to such an extent that this little Welsh Cob, section D stallion (for such I take him to be) reminds me, inescapably, of one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing moment of my life when, aged 10, I pointed out to a young man riding a rather handsome male horse at a local horse show (the Tally Ho! show of 1964, held in the Wimbledon Branch of the Pony Cub's paddocks, on ground that was subsequently built on by the Atkinson Morley hospital for nurses' dormitories, already, now, abandoned and boarded up) that his mount had something Hanging Down. I was worried by this long, snaky, rubbery protuberance. I wish I hadn't said anything.

This particular creature - made rather strange by pale blue spots, but one does really need a macro lens for them to shine out so - is staring at a shot glass that I bought at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. If I'd known when I was ten that I would be rescued from my embarrassment and transported to a life where I was actually driving across the state that was home to My Friend Flicka and, yes, Green Grass of Wyoming (never mind that last May this grass was still a just-emerged-from-snow dull brown), I think that I might have recovered more quickly from this humiliating experience.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

cooking the books

My office desk, just before graduate class today - The Odd Women, and a paper plate of just-baked Grasmere Gingerbread, for I was kicking off the class coffee break baking roster, and this is my fall-back pre-class recipe, because I can make it when half asleep at 6.30 in the morning, so long as I remember to soften the butter the night before. The recipe's from Grasmere, in the Lake District, where the Wordsworths lived, so I like to think of it being munched by William and Dorothy, striding round the local hills - though I doubt they had candied peel in theirs. OK, the recipe...

cream together

1/2 lb butter
1/2 lb soft brown sugar (that's 1 1/8 cups)
2 large tablespoonfuls of Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup (which is none too easy to find in the US: try, in NJ, Wegmans).

rub in
1 lb [4 cups] plain flour
a tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger

and add a small handful of candied peel (also not too easy to find. Wegmans, again. Whole Foods thinks that the preservatives used are too artificial, which isn't encouraging)

press down into buttered baking tin, and bake in 325 degree oven for around 45 minutes - maybe a little less. Don't make this any hotter - and lower still if it's a fan oven, as I found out to my cost at my parents on Christmas Eve, whilst producing something more akin to a bar of toffee. Sorry, consumers.

This recipe certainly bears no relation to Gissing's novel, which contains only the instructions for making hot gin - gin, plus sugar, plus hot water - which Gissing, doubtless recoiling from the experience of his first wife, describes (as someone in the class said) with all the fascinated revulsion of someone watching preparations for shooting up heroin. I once tried (strictly in the interests of research) preparing gin just like Virginia Madden in the novel, and decided to go straight back to tonic water.

But there is another literary - or at least academic - connection for the day. Having joined the Facebook group Save Paleography at King's London, I read up on the brief history of the paleography chair there - and was instantly reminded that its first holder was Julian Brown. When I was between 3 and nearly 7, and we lived in a castle in Cumberland (yes, that is rather an exotic phrase) the wonderful woman in the next door apartment - a gallery that joined onto our tower - happened to be Julian Brown's mother, Helen Wright Brown (an American, I believe, and also - something that very much stuck with me - a suffragette). Julian married Alison, from the Lake District (not from Grasmere, but from Sawrey - from a house next door to Beatrix Potter's) - and her family was the origin of the gingerbread recipe. There's a lot of potted personal history here - worth remarking, though, that Julian was also an influence on the very young Me because he had the most exquisite italic handwriting - no need of paleography classes to decipher his handwriting. But I was so glad that I had to take paleography as part of my qualifying exams for graduate work in Oxford - not just because it's been useful ever since when doing research in manuscripts, but it's left me able to read the most crabbed and weird and contorted of scripts that one encounters in everyday life. This may not be the most scholarly of reasons to support its continuance, but it would be a shocking blow to an essential research skill to let this chair perish.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

drive to work

...or, out of my car window whilst waiting at the lights at the top of S. Adelaide. In fact, it must also be the view from the funeral home there, and thus perhaps it's suitably bleak. If I'd grabbed my camera a few seconds earlier, the dog might have been scampering a bit more, but in fact, it's a pretty fair summation of the unalluring sight of downtown New Brunswick through the trees.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

a fine figure of a man

This guy is positioned somewhere between a Roman bust and an image from a muscle magazine - the kind of publications written about by Christopher Nealon in Foundlings: an image that quite self-consciously seems to belong to an earlier style. But he lacks the alluring, come-hither eyes of so many of the men in these magazines, with photographed or in drawings (at least to go by Nealon's evidence). Instead, he has the mean, pinched glare, and the turned-down mouth, of the kind of man you wish wasn't about to do some work on your car. Very New Jersey.

Generically, however, he belongs to the boxing ring - or at least, this is almost where I found him - at least, he - made of some kind of flesh colored foam rubber - was in a sports aisle in Target (yes, o.k., I was in those parts satisfying my desire for another small plastic pony). I wish I'd stopped to look for his alleged function - he looked unsatisfying as a punch bag, but could, I guess, have a certain usefulness in learning where to aim blows. I initially gave him added grandeur through filleting him from his position on a supermarket shelf and giving him a background of dark purple opulence - but in the end, pale mauvey-pink seemed much more fun, and gave him a whole different aura.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Of course, this is something of a gamble: it's predicated on an After - in, maybe, about three weeks time. In that case, it'll fall into a well known tradition of sequential photography: the pairs designed to show improvement, transformation, "civilization," in the case of, say, Native Americans before and after their late C19th boarding school experiences, or Barnado's home children when just rescued from the streets, and then after a month or so of cleanliness, tidiness, and education. Only as we all know, many of these latter pictures were total fakes (and I've always wondered what the time sequence in TV home makeover shows actually is).

This end of the attic, though, is destined to look quite, quite different (well, indeed, one hopes so). And I'm pleased to have remembered to have actually taken a picture before work starts - I was looking at our kitchen counter tops today (yes, I know, trendy black granite..) and thinking hmmmm - I can't even remember what was there four years ago...