Saturday, April 30, 2016

white poppies

To Theodore Payne's nursery - which specializes in native Californian plants - to buy, yes, some plants (and a blissful afternoon gardening, and clearing up some things in our front yard) - and dreaming of having spaces full of tall white poppies, like the ones that they have blooming all over the place ...

Friday, April 29, 2016


I'm back in LA for a couple of days for a couple of reasons - but one of them, I'm sure, is to admire the jacaranda trees.  Many years ago, I remember reading a pony book by Mary Treadgold called No Ponies -  set in France just after WW2 - in which there was a jacaranda tree in bloom.  I had absolutely no idea what a jacaranda tree was, but the exotic name stuck, and when I first encountered these glorious purple trees all over Los Angeles, I remembered instantly where I'd heard it first ... (and I just looked up Mary Treadgold, who had a fascinating career not just writing pony stories and other books for children, but was also a broadcaster for the BBC and, it turns out, an old girl of my school ...).  

Thursday, April 28, 2016

card index cabinet

You'll remember drawers full of little square cards, with library records in them?  Yes ... now repurposed as rather fetching sculpture, at USC ... it is very strange to think that to many, if not most of our undergraduates, this must be a historical curiosity, rather that a stack of what used to be everyday tools.

the useful tranquillity of woods

There are days - I know there have been many days - when I have railed against Trees, Trees, and More Trees surrounding me every day (no big sky of NM, no ever-seductive Los Angeles, no endless diversity of London or NYC, etc.).  But without the Trees (and hence the absence of much external distraction, apart from birds)  would I ever have Finished My First Draft?  Yes!!  Vindication for the last month of very very hard work (and the rest of the year leading up to this).  Sure, it'll need tweaking and massaging, but it's there!  It's the right shape!  Thank you, woods (and of course the NHC, sitting in them).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

more from the bureau of fading flowers

I'm getting the most I can out of these depressed tulips .... but again, nothing metaphorical: writing away!

Monday, April 25, 2016

the sadness of wilting tulips

No, nothing metaphorical here ... just wilting.  I bought these wonderful parrot tulips on Saturday - part of an urgent rush to decorate the apartment here in Durham before it was shown to a possible leaser - and they have, well, wilted.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

the desktop

Yes, it's a beautiful spring day outside, I know.  But I am determined - jaw-clenched determined - to have a first draft of this book completed by the time I leave for the airport, and LA, on Wednesday evening.  For the last month, I've been tapping out 1,300-1,500 words a day, like a little demonic writing machine.  Even if, like today, there seem to be too many of the wrong words, that will certainly be compressed and changed, they are words.  (The reason that this is a strangely truncated picture on the right-hand side is that the words on the screen, at that very moment, were definitely not ready for reading.  I should have scrolled down and displayed an image, instead).  What's more, the NHC is a curiously noisy place during the week, and at the weekend it's blissfully quiet, apart from the crack crack cracking of the glass.  So here I've been sitting, coffee machine just out of view over my right shoulder, trying to squeeze far, far, far too much about "The aesthetics of flash" - or whatever the last chapter ends up being called - into too little space.   Oh, and in case you wondered, the whole thing will clock in around 145, 000 words.  That's the length that my internal word measuring device always seems to write books.   Today, at least, I seem to have solved the problem of how to represent Work In Progress.   

Saturday, April 23, 2016

community herbs

A couple of weeks ago, down at the Farmers' Market, I was addressed by a couple of hijabed young women who wanted me to solve an argument: were those bushes rosemary, or not?  As you can see - in the middle distance - they are most decidedly rosemary, and flourishing.  I don't know, however, if like this catnip (and most other things) that are labelled, they are there to be picked and used, in small quantities, by the community; or whether they are there to educate us into what healthy herbs look like; or whether they are inspirational, or just someone's brain wave about what makes a nice bed in a communal space - I don't know.  I did, however, spirit away a sprig of catnip, hoping that DandyLion might appreciate the gesture.

Friday, April 22, 2016

candle flame

I wish I could remember why (on this dark, gloomy and wet day, with the least photogenic of lights outside) that I decided that I wanted to take a picture of a candle flame this evening.  It may have had something to do with working on my current and final chapter on (oh modest title) "The aesthetics of flash," which has had me thinking a lot about the extremes of dark and light - well, I'm sure it did, I've not done anything else all day apart from working on flash, other than ponder on why Prince made so little a positive impact on me, in England.  In other words, this isn't a memorial candle ... I didn't ever get beyond thinking of him as a shameless narcissist (yes, I know, I can see you burning this blog in effigy, even now), ever since (and in my consciousness, there wasn't a before) he drove a pink cadillac onto the stage at Wembley in the Lovesexy tour.  I missed out on giving him any credit for musical talent, disruptive sexuality, performance skill, hard work.  I'm not sure if this is a genuine case of national difference, and whether there are other English people of my generation who feel the same way, or whether I just wore blinkers - I didn't give him much more attention than thinking of him as some sham glittery imitator of Michael Jackson.  So I'm genuinely baffled by my inability to register him as now, it would seem, absolutely the rest of the world seems to have done.  And I offer up apologies to any and all who I might hurt by coming clean on this - I'm just puzzled  by all I seem to have missed.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

another day, another orchid ...

Retrieved, this evening, from Raleigh, where I'd taken her to brighten a visiting grad student's hotel room ... going out to dinner, and hearing about her week in the archives, made me look forward enormously to being back in LA next year ... 

The purple spots may not look like rain drops, nor tears, exactly, but they're not an accidental choice of color, either.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


This afternoon and evening at the National Humanities Center, a conference on 1927.  I'm still not quite sure why 1927, other than it came out of a couple of people's lunchtime conversation about the overlap between their work (and indeed, their papers - Martin Berger on The Jazz Singer and Tim Carter on Showboat, both talking about race in these works, were fascinating).  I talked about Siegfried Kracauer's "Die Photographie," an essay that always wriggles away from me when I try and look at it carefully, so it was really good to sit down and work out what he was saying in it, and what matters: his interest in the proliferation of images at the time; his concern with vernacular/domestic photography; his consideration of the difference between photography and memory, and the relationship of both to history.  I was so struck by his ambivalence towards photography - and yet, he's so pioneering in his determination to take photography as something that provokes thought, and that one needs to be continually interrogating, in order to see what work it's actually doing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

mural of plenty

... on my drive home, on Chapel Hill Road, a block or so up from the Co-op, is this terrific mural, representing some kind of cross between a Farmers' Market and a state fair.  It's on the aall of somewhere called The Cookery, which looks like a trendy space to let, rather - disappointingly - than somewhere selling food, or even pans, or even large pumpkins.  I couldn't dredge up anything on line about the mural itself, so please enlighten me, if you know!

Monday, April 18, 2016


Sometimes thistles are metaphorical.  Sometimes they're not.  Take your pick!  Choose your own approach to thistles!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

sculpture and history

NC Museum of Art, in Raleigh - a terrific museum in its own right - has hugely grown its sculpture park since I was last there.  OK, it didn't have the pristine rural quietness of the state park that I was in yesterday - the roar of I-40 was rather too present - but it was a great space for walking, with sculpture popping up over a wide area.  I didn't know there was a Yinka Shonibare here, called Wind II (2013) - which doesn't give much away - one of his transnational scraps of fabric turned into something very large and solid.

This is part of a whole grove of chairs up trees, Tom Shields' Forest for the Chairs (2013) - found chairs (in thrift stores; by the side of the road - a man after my own heart, given my own, infrequent Abandoned Chairs series) which are fixed to trees, and left to decay and disintegrate in the weather.

And this, Martha Jackson-Jarvis's Crossroads/Trickster - built at an actual trail split, and a tall, tall obelisk.  She calls the shattered bricks "time capsules" - they come from the Polk Youth Correctional Facility (which used to be on this site), and they have carnelian stones and Italian tiles pressed in between them.  I had to dig around a little to find out why, but she's drawing on African and African-American traditions of adorning gravesites with broken plates and crockery.

It's very much a sculpture park, that is to say, that looks to the history of NC.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Eno River

The Eno River seemed to call out for a late Victorian treatment - or maybe I just look at a lot of Victorian photographs.  It's pretty good in springtime color, too ... just about 9 miles out of the center of Durham is this beautiful state park, where the trail I took took me down to the old pump house (and dam) that used to supply Durham's water.  The river came complete with turtles sunning themselves.  There were curiously few people here, given what a perfect April day it was - I thought it would be packed, and instead of which it was all birdsong and running water.  After yesterday's owl cam (and one of the owlets flew off, this evening - a triumph for him/her, to use those wings, but I felt bereft), I thought some real live nature was in order.

Friday, April 15, 2016

voyeurism (and owls)

I've been staring at my screen again all day, and sometimes, yes, that means staring at the chapter that I'm writing, and sometimes it means staring at baby Great Horned Owls.  These are on a webcam - two webcams, indeed - trained on a nest on Skiadaway Island, Georgia.  Have a look!
Look quickly! They are getting ready to fly - they're 42 and 45 days old, which means that their wings are developed enough - they're just starting to practice, stretching those wings out and flying across the nest. Periodically their mother drops off something tasty, like a mouse, and sometimes hangs out with them for ten minutes or so (I watched them eat a mouse as I ate my own breakfast this morning).  It's horribly windy there - I worry about them ... but this afternoon they did the sensible thing, as you can see in the top picture, and closed their eyes and slept.

I have a long standing relationship with owlets.  When we lived in a tower of Naworth Castle, in Cumberland (when I was between the ages of 3 and nearly 7), another tower - Lord William's Tower - had a priest's hole - a secret chamber under Lord William's Library where a Catholic priest would hide, if he needed to, after the Reformation (amazingly, I found a video of this on-line ...)
When I was six, I remember being taken by a neighbor to look at that very windowsill in the hole that you can see in the video - which had a big owl's nest on it, with some little baby owls.

It's ironic that I should be writing about paparazzi, and the invasive nature (once again) of flashes, and unwanted intrusions by cameras, when I keep checking in to a surveillance feed ...

Thursday, April 14, 2016


You know the feeling - I know some of you do - of getting out of the car in the evening, and finding that you're missing an earring?  Always a favorite earring - it never seems to happen with one that one feels indifferent about.  But I kept my fingers crossed - and yes, this morning, there it was sitting by my desk.  I'd taken them both off yesterday when Skyping in to a department meeting, and wearing headphones - and with headphones one, those spiky bits stick straight into my high neck.  Phew.  I bought these earrings in London, by Waterloo Bridge, opposite the South Bank, and I'm super fond of them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Dear Durham.  If you are going to decide to dig up and re-surface my route home, please could you give drivers some notice of this before we find ourselves in a very, very slow line of bad-tempered traffic?  Thank you.  Yours sincerely, a temporary commuter in your city.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

the prudery of North Carolina?

So I order a copy of Nan Goldin's I'll Be Your Mirror - a big exhibition catalog from 1996 - and what do I find when the copy turns up from NC State library?  That someone has cut out all the penises with a sharp exacto knife.  It's not that I needed to see them - whether in the sense of not needing to see pictures of penises on a wet Tuesday afternoon; or feeling that it wouldn't be worth it for research, since they haven't been spectacularly illuminated by flash, or taking into account that I have my own copy of this book back in LA.  But how does one account for this mutilation?  Censorship, or wanting to possesses some stray genitalia?  Or is it part of an art project, like that carried out by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, who back in London stole and cut up and collaged and re-made a whole lot of books from the local public library between 1959-62?  I have a sense that it's probably not a reenactment of the latter, alas, but I appreciate the cut-out effect achieved on the page.

In case you're wondering, female parts are entirely left alone by the knife.  But there isn't a penis left in the whole book.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Waiting in front of me for the train to pass, in Durham ... I wouldn't perhaps have given so much thought to the driver's occupation if I hadn't been negotiating some fine distinctions this last week or so, as I write a chapter on ... on what, exactly?  On flash and vernacular photography, as opposed to Professional Photography ... but the problem becomes how to distinguish between amateur and professional, or what a professional does when they're not taking photographs for money, and then between "serious amateur" and ... and what?  "Snapshooter," or "snapper" were useful terms a few decades back, somewhat pejorative though they were.  And that's before I take national difference into account.  So "photog" - over and beyond the fact that they are probably committed to taking photogs - I'm not going to assume I could be more specific.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

after the wind

It was very windy yesterday - I was at the NHC writing, and there was a leaf-blower trying to clear the walkway outside my office, which was the most futile possible task under the circumstances.  On my way home I saw that this great chunk of tree had blown down - so out walking this afternoon, I went to investigate.  I wasn't the only one: I don't know about the human, but the dog was called Emma.

I'm not sure why the tree is so rotten inside - I think cankerworms - little bright green inchworms - only eat the leaves.  Very many of Durham's trees have bands of burlap and plastic across them to try and trap the cankerworms - the bands are covered in sticky stuff and today, anyway, they seemed to be working - large quantities of the critters were getting stuck.  I'd been wondering for a while why so many trees were wearing belts, but some notices have gone up now that explain this ...

Saturday, April 9, 2016

chard (and fabric arts)

If I were into fabric dyeing and layering, I'd look to create a soft sculpture that mimicked the bunches of chard in the Farmers' Market this morning (a curiously windy affair, with objects whirling into the air off craft stalls, and placards blowing over, and at one point a wooden traffic barrier skittering off on its own down the street).  Something about their stems makes them already look as though they're slightly, deliberately fraying.  Or maybe I should be crocheting a set of bobbly asparagus tops?

Friday, April 8, 2016

when an orchid isn't an evasion

I was trying to describe my blog to a couple of people at lunch today, and was talking about the challenges of always writing publicly - all the things one cannot say.  I explained that my friends know that if they see a picture of a flower, or maybe, say, of a cat's paws, that there's been plenty going on that day that - think contentious department meetings, say - I simply can't write about.

But this isn't true, today - to be sure, the orchid is more enticing than Chapter 9, but it's also a lovely subject in its own right.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

a small bright cloud

I do wish I had a more interesting photo to offer up - but the truth of the matter is that all I've really looked at today is my screen, a fellow-fellow giving a public talk, and the car park sky at the end of the day - and the roads in front of me, and now, the Rachel Maddow show, to be sure.  So before it went out of the rapidly fading sky, before the day disappeared, I caught it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

more felt

I told you there'd be some more of Sharron Parker's work ... this is one of my very favorites, and in its square form, it looks flatter and less like an escaped dressing gown than this ... Called Copper Traces II, it's one of a set of eight and it looks like the copper carbonate that forms on top of copper as it oxidises, thus turning it an inimitable blue-green that, yes, is the patina-color of the heading at the top of this blog.  To turn copper green quicker than naturally happens?  Well, you could paint it with dilute sulphuric acid if you had some to hand, but if not, Miracle Grow and water works transformational wonders.  That way, you can get your copper to look just like deeply dyed felt ...

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

capturing the light

There's usually an exhibition hanging on the walls of the NHC.  We've just had some peculiarly unremarkable still lifes - fruit, vases, mugs, table tops - you know the stuff.  Very mid C20th.  But now some wonderful fabric art has appeared, by Sharron Parker - deep dyed felt pieces that aren't quite flat, but aren't quite sculpted, either.  This is a close up of a diptych, Capturing the Light II, that - apt name - is hanging outside my office, and I'm greatly looking forward to its company - and that of many of the other pieces - for the rest of my time here.  For more of Sharron's stuff, see her website: - but I doubt that this is the last time I post an example of her work here ...

Monday, April 4, 2016

Duke Gardens

There was a strange ping and hiss on my iPhone this afternoon, and it was a weather alert arriving - for possible frost tonight.  Actually, it looks more likely tomorrow night, but I thought that it made good sense to go and see Duke Gardens, before something very bad happened to all the blossoms (and yes - because I'd met my self-imposed writing quota for the day, and it seemed like a good reward).  So - meet some tulips, rhododendrons, and daffodils ...

Sunday, April 3, 2016

photographing weeds

The last ten days or so, my drive to work has been made unbelievably beautiful by festoons of wisteria everywhere, climbing up trees and through undergrowth.  Everything's draped in pale purple (although when I pass my favorite bank of flowers, there is, unfortunately, nowhere safe to stop). There was one particular wisteria arbor that I'd seen pictures of and wanted to find - of course, it's at the Biltmore, and I'm not going back to see it.  But in searching for this location, I came across what was, for me, shocking news - this wisteria - wisteria sinensis, Chinese wisteria, to be exact - is an alien species, invasive, unbeloved by many, like kudzu or water hyacinths.  It weighs down trees, and so causes them to snap in ice storms; it provides lots of little climbing ropes for black snakes or raccoons to raid the nests of native songbirds.  We shouldn't, in other words, like wisteria.  OK, I get it.  But I've always loved it in its domesticated form, and it's hard for me to relinquish this ...

Saturday, April 2, 2016

cardinal red

I went over the UNC campus in the first instance to hear a lecture by Andrew Hemingway about Turner and (to a lesser degree) Byron, but also to go to the University's small but perfectly formed arboretum, where every shrub, tree and wildflower that could be in blossom was in blossom - even if it was still faintly raining, it was still a terrific sight.

Even more vivid, however, was the little cardinal, who posed - I swear deliberately - for me as I was walking through the campus (a campus that never ceases to impress me for its architectural seriousness and coherence).

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fool

One of the National Humanities Center's most endearing features is that at the outset of the year, you're given your own mug, with your name on it, which (providing that you've remembered to bring it into the kitchen the night before, so that it can be washed) is hanging on a hook, waiting for you to put coffee in it in the morning.  This morning ... when we turned up, all the mugs were facing the other way - logo outwards; our names towards the wall ...

I'm always very suspicious of April Fools' Day, expecting someone or something to trip up my gullible self.  But this was a brilliant manoeuvre on someone's part - it worked on us all equally - although it was amusing enough observing the less suspicious, who didn't know the date, and couldn't work out what was going on.  They obviously didn't wake up to read the Guardian on how the Royal Family had decided to intervene on the Brexit issue, putting forward Prince Philip, with all his Greek connections, as their most plausible European diplomatic voice.