Tuesday, April 29, 2008

of groynes and oysters

Tuesday 29th April: It’s raining in Whitstable, Kent. The Essex coast of the Thames estuary has disappeared, but these groynes on the flint shingle beach are still doing their bit to protect the up-coast Seasalter native oyster fishery from the effects of longshore drift. Groyne is one of those mysterious and slightly amusing words that doesn’t make much sense when you are standing next to an uncompromising wooden hulk. As a child I'd regarded groyne as a transitive verb meaning "to scrape children." On the other hand, longshore drift is simply sand or shingle shifting along a the coastline with prevailing wind or wave action – which can lead to more serious erosion or silting-up, or some spectacular natural creations

Wonderfully, longshore drift is sometimes also known as LSD. So, voila, we have groynes protecting native oysters from LSD! Long may that be so at Whitstable! Can you imagine?

Monday, April 28, 2008

this fluffy blue sky

Sunday afternoon, 27th April: a woodpecker drumming rather persistently on a dead tree-trunk in the woods nearby; a handful of blackbirds singing across the valley; a solitary intent blue butterfly; the late Ibrahim Ferrer singing “Dos gardenias para ti;” a half-decent barbecue wafting by; a glass of chilled Australian chardonnay; a flurry of pink cherry blossoms, some deliciously warm sun; and this fluffy blue sky. Not the time for work, nor the Joan Didion I'm supposed to be reading...

While elsewhere in Cornwall there are orioles, hoopoes and bee-eaters - stragglers...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

wyverns, dryads, some clowns, and a trio of war vets

At first I had the clear idea that this blog was a record of 'past and future memories'. It would be a passive dip-in-dip-out cache of my musings. Imperceptibly at the time, things gradually began to change. The blog has taken on an existence of its own, demanding to be fed, and, weirdly, almost creating its own content. This may sound far-fetched, and it is too early on a wet Sunday morning as I first write this, but the rock-fall of childhood brief encounters that follows here was palpably encouraged by the blog...

a wyvern on a Leicester roofWyverns were common in the Leicester of my childhood - they were all over the place, from the city's omnipresent coat of arms, on buildings, the names of businesses, cars, a pub, a school even. It still seems odd to be so celebratory about a creature so associated with war and pestilence (both rather significant for large parts of the last few thousand years) should have been re-invented apparently to symbolise power. As a child, they were just dragons. I was uncaring whether they had two or four legs, or whether they came from Rome, Wessex or Lancaster. All dragons are dragons.

Leicester's fantasies continued with The Dryad, which was a wonderful crafts company not a demure wood nymph secreted in an oak in nearby Charnwood. The Dryad prevails even though I wasn't involved in the crafts as it supplied all the schools with all their art and crafts needs. And while I hated going shopping, except for food and at Christmas, I positively loved The Beehive - a Silver Street fabrics and millinery store that had a wonderful overhead cash railway system.

a screen-shot of BBC's testcard FI have a nagging feeling that I may have been introduced to Nicolai Poliakoff (aka Coco the Clown). Least I am certain that I was once in enforced close proximity to him. No, it was nothing against the man behind the mask, or in his case, the feet inside the size 58 shoes, it was just that I had a slight fear of clowns. While I suppose I thought that Coco was funny as he was the butt of all the jokes, it was the Whiteface straight-man he worked with that disturbed me most. The haughty demeanour, the white face and neck, the extraordinary hermaphroditic costume, the dreadful white leggings and shoes, the saxaphone and the white cone-shaped hat were just too much for the young me. Children are supposed to like clowns, aren't they? Well, no. It seems that coulrophobia is quite common - many children were disturbed by Bubbles the Clown who featured on this BBC's testcard for 30 years...

Whereas much to the concern of whoever was walking me through town on an unrewarding shopping expedition, I was fascinated by a trio of old men who 'performed' in most weathers by the side entrance to Lewis’s, Leicester's largest department store. I have a feeling that they may have been war veterans as their performance was so, well, unimpressive, and society wasn’t given to tolerate ‘begging’ at the time. Indeed, many houses had signs on their gates, ‘no hawkers, circulars or fakirs’ though we always seemed to buy onions from the man with the stripy shirt and beret who came all the way from France on a bicycle each autumn... Whatever, one very scrawny man wearing a white vest would occasionally lift a dumbbell; another, who may have been an amputee, would simply move up and down by flexing his knees; while the third, seated and wearing a suit, played snatches on a glistening ornate accordion. I so wanted to hear a complete tune. They all worked out of sync and had an other-worldly look of circusness about them.

Then there was Brucciani's ice cream sodas... Meraviglioso!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

seeing in the dark

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced total darkness. The nearest would have been behind sealed doors in a film-processing darkroom; even then there was an ultra-soft light coming from a large analogue timer. I suppose I could have turned my back on it, but I always knew it was there. And the oddest thing about working in a black darkroom is that it always seemed much better when you closed your eyes.

There’s no chance of real darkness outside in a town, and there’s too much light pollution for it ever truly dark in England, even in the loneliest of places. Cloudy nights disperse light over huge distances, while on clear nights the moon and stars are light in themselves.

Asteroid 253 Mathilde is one of the darker objects wandering around out there in our solar system – the darkest are light-sucking black holes. She dwells in perpetual motion in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, never closer to Earth than 140 million km, never further away than 630 million km. I prefer to call her a she - I really would have called him a he if his name was John or Trevor - as her two ugly alternative names "1949 OL1" and "A915 TN" reduce her to an it. Even with the best will in the world she has a rather lumpy pock-marked mass with one enormous crater giving her the impression of being squeezed in the middle. Her vital statistics are 66 by 48 by 44 km. And saddest of all, it is likely that she is composed of rubble, leading her too close to cartoon abuse for comfort. One imagines that if she knew she was the subject of ridicule she would set a course to Earth to prove the point that rubble-or-no, I'm still a very big asteroid and you're about to become history! Mathilde is 6 times larger than the probable size of the asteroid that created the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico, and is associated with the K-T Extinction - the demise of the dinosaurs - about 65 million years ago.

So why am I going on about a black heap which keeps herself to herself and is all-but invisible? Well her invisibility is the point, she’s very dark – darker than charcoal. Though she was discovered in 1885, she’s only recently visually entered the public domain when this composite image was produced by a spacecraft in 1997. What fascinates me is that NASA has the multi-spectral cameras to create such a full tonal image of an object that is so light-absorbing. Whatever...

Poor Mathilde may also be tetchy about her craters - the 23 largest are all named after coal-fields... The largest of her craters is in this image and is called Ishikari, after Japan's largest coal-field. It's 6km deep and 30km across - a tad smaller than London. I mean, would you tell someone their nose was the size of Detroit? It's really like poking a tiger in the eye! Astronomers really should get out more, or in this case, at least check the real story behind why Mathilde is "Mathilde"!

So the image of Mathilde really was seeing in the dark...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

halted states (3)

This presents a different set of issues. It is a ceramic plaque produced by Saskia when she was 5 or 6. Looking at it with the knowledge of what it depicts is challenging in itself, but it must be mind-boggling for anyone coming to it for the first time even to begin to figure out what is happening in the embossed image.

The four "cartouches" on the right, partially joined by curving lines, are flowering shrubs in our front garden. The large central cartouche (three dots and a square) represents a porch, immediately above which is the tiled roof of our house. Top left is a dormer window, and the two complex cartouches bottom left are almost certainly flowers in plant pots. As she is right-handed, one imagines she started on the right-hand side with the flowers in the front garden, gradually running out of space as she progressed leftwards and upwards, running out of space before she "got to" ridge of the roof and the chimneys.

The halted state here is a child's rather wonderful, complex view of her home, locked in terracotta.

Or not, as the case seems to be! It appears that I was some years out, and mistaking the project with one which Gwen did. Saskia corrects me "It was an art project. We all had to design and make a town scene. The circles and squares are windows and doors in the buildings, with two sky scrapers at the back. There are a few houses in the distance on a winding road out of the town."

Mmm, there's a lesson here!
Never mistake a schematic for a figurative!

treacle toffee

Saturday 19th April 2008: Saskia cooked a Gordon F Ramsey dessert for us yesterday (the day before she was officially awarded her BSc(Hons) Mathematics and Computing). A sort of upside-down cheesecake. It was delicious, but one of its tastes worked so hard to take me back to what and when I couldn't be sure. Then it dawned on me, maybe better to say that it evening’d on me.

Instead of the normal biscuit/butter base, this cheesecake had a crumbly toffee topping. There was something in the cooked sugar that kicked-in a tastebud memory of my grandmother’s bonfire night black treacle toffee. I don't have her recipe as I never saw her make it.

The photo is of my grandmother and her son, c 1914...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

something came into my house this morning

coloured light patterns on a white wallTuesday 15th April 2008: This light came into my house briefly this morning, maybe for less than ten minutes.

It's a camera obscura effect of light passing through the narrow gap under a door into a darkened space. It may be a multiplied image as there is a chrome carpet stay under the door. The green stripe is a snake, the yellow is carpet, but I am unsure of the source of the other colours. It was a very sunny morning, and this was a beautiful, most welcome fleeting visitor...

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye." Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943

Monday, April 14, 2008

halted states (1)

lava rock from VesuviusIn its current form, this rock was created between 18th and 23rd March 1944 on Mount Vesuvius. It had existed in a more liquid form for quite a while prior to that, and in reality it is as old as the Earth. It is literally in the halted state of solidification and cracking caused by cooling and subsequent moving of its parent lava flow. Conceptually, it is a snapshot of a random moment in the history of Vesuvius. It was collected by Gwen in June 1993, and photographed by me last week.

quartz-like rock from GavarnieThis second rock sample cannot benefit from such precise dating. I can tell you exactly where it was collected (just below the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie, Cirque de Gavarnie, Hautes-Pyrénées, France), when it was collected (September 1992), and by whom (Gwen); but it wholly resists the precise forensic dating of the Vesuvius rock. However, it is no less interesting. The surface shown here has the appearance of having once been liquid, and in contact with another surface that had also been liquid or flexible. The reverse side reveals that the rock is actually a rather heavy quartz.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

seeing stars - an expedition into the familiar

asteroid moon, Petit PrinceFriday 11th April, 2008: It is wonderful to discover the name of something that you have lived with since before you were born.

Bob gave an enchanted monologue today about her vision of a future for our two merging colleges. She talked about those abstract moving shapes and colours we sometimes look at after closing our eyes for sleep, and how these random images eventually coalesce into more vivid dreams.


Most times we do not bother to look at them, obscured by familiarity, phosphenes are as effectively invisible as the walls and furnishings of our dwellings, as noteworthiless as walking home, our hands, our favourite mug, and the scene outside our bedroom window. But sometimes we do look at this lightshow and invariably this looking will lead into sleep without a trace. Phosphenes are entoptic (not of the eye), like dreams, and memories...

As with many familiar things, there is more to phosphenes than initially meets the eye. They can be mechanically enhanced simply by applying light pressure to a closed eyelid; and cartoon ‘seeing stars’ can easily be induced by sneezing, standing up too quickly, or by a light blow to the head. And they can be magnetically, electrically and drug induced to greater glories.

It has been suggested that non-figurative Neolithic imagery may have been produced by shamans who enhanced natural phosphenes with hallucinogens. Such naturally occurring drugs would have been readily available to a pre-Google elite who knew where to look. Resulting shamanic trances would empower phosphene-derived images with meanings unknowable today. It seems that it is also possible that the physiological creators of phosphenes have been with us since our earliest human forms, that we may even share them with apes, maybe even other higher mammals...

There are two other phosphene inducers that rather tidily link up some previous blog concerns. “In a survey of 59 astronauts, 47 noticed phosphenes sometime during spaceflight. Most often they were noted before sleep, and several people even thought the light flashes disturbed their sleep. The light flashes predominantly appear white, have elongated shapes, and most interestingly, often come with a sense of motion. The motion is described as sideways, diagonal, or in-out, but never in the vertical direction. Although it is clear that they are related to high-energy particles in the space radiation environment, many details about them are still unknown.” Seeing stars in space…

And in a truly wonderful coincidence, neutrons generated in particle accelerators also trigger phosphenes in the human visual system. Dragons, even…

Thank you, Bob, for introducing me to phosphenes!

The time-lapse image is of the asteroid moon 45_Eugenia-01, in orbit around the asteroid 45_Eugenia. Discovered by a terrestrial telescope in Hawaii in 1998, and originally based on Napoléon Eugène (1856-1879), Prince Imperial (also known as Le Petit Prince), the only child of Emperor Napoleon III of France and his Empress consort Eugénie de Montijo (1826-1920). The unglamorous S/1998(45)1 was officially renamed Petit-Prince in 2003 in honour of St Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, 60 years after the book was written.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

suddenness may well happen - dragons, even...

a stone frog on a pebbleFalmouth, Wednesday 9th April 2008: (you may wish to skip this one) I was thinking about my childhood struggle to find the precise moment of 'halted state' that lay between being awake and being asleep (previous blog) . Then there was a moment this afternoon when I could hear blackbirds, hedge sparrows, chiffchaffs, wrens, goldcrests, robins, linnets and goldfinches all singing at the same time, yet as soon as I focused to one individual, the others were blurred into a general chorus. OK, this was the expected consequence of focusing. But when I focused on them as a group, I could hear them all as identifiable individuals singing at the same time. The group simultaneously realised and comprised the individuals.

This got me round to thinking about an awake/asleep duality – in the sense that there is actually no single point in the transit from being awake to being asleep. Rather one moves from being awake, to being awake-and-asleep, to being asleep-and-awake, to being asleep. Like crossing a horizon – a shifting visual phenomenon straddling the terrain between two points in a landscape. Or just as aunt Hilda had explained – the crepuscular period between daytime and night time, which starts by being more daytime and ends by being more night time. Or the gradual shift from green to yellow, or orange to red. It is not a gateway from one space or state to another as I had originally thought (I’d even had an idea of what the gate may look like - the old creosoted gate to the allotments near my childhood house in Leicester). These are subjective, not binary states.

“There is a threshold in the structure of the physical world the crossing of which destroys the experimenter civilization before its presence may be recognized by other intelligent life in the universe.” This is a very liberal reworking of Fermi’s paradox which relates to the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. The quotation came from a discussion group on an article in the International Herald Tribune about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The article related to a law suit raised in Hawaii aimed at stopping CERN from “switching on” the LHC, citing that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a "strangelet" that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called "strange matter." Even more emotive was, “the LHC might make dragons that eat us up.” The doomsday predictions seem to be closed fantasies, while the original Fermi paradox was an open question. The binary and the non-binary.

And from this sublime to the a ridiculous - the original article printed in the European edition of the IHT (31st March 2008) featured a rather wonderful typo that I am sure appeared in a similar article by the same author in the same newspaper in 2007...

In Mayan cultures, frogs were seen as linking heaven and earth through their appearances in rain (which came from heaven). They provided a point of contact between two continua. This one came from Bogotá and now lives with other collected stones and shells in my living room.

Monday, April 7, 2008

falling asleep

an illustration of man-traps from The Natural History of SelborneI had dozed for a while on the sofa yesterday having re-read some Selborne. I knew this sleep was a bad idea, and sure enough, there was a big gap last night which I filled by plodding towards the end of a novel set in the Black Death. On the way back to sleep, wistfully (maybe) as a reaction against the unseasonal snow over the rest of England, I recalled a childhood summer.

I think that I was eight. I was staying over at my grandmother’s. It was a very warm summer's evening and I was still awake, irritated. There was too much light, too much life pouring in through my windows. I simply could not get to sleep while everyone else was out and about. An aunt had come to see why I was still awake. I clearly remember asking her, "why can't I remember falling asleep?"

"Because you haven't been to sleep yet."

"No, not just tonight, why can I never remember falling asleep?"

"Well, it's because when you are asleep, you are asleep. You can only remember some of your dreams from your sleep, and maybe then for only a short while after you have woken up."

Aunt Hilda commanded both awe and fear in me – she was a Spiritualist. She spoke with the dead. My child-logic informed me that of all people, she must have an answer to this kind of question. Though I was unsure why I had come to this conclusion. "No, why can't I remember the last moment before I go to sleep? The moment in the middle of being awake and being asleep"

She frowned and smiled. "It's not that simple. It's not like the difference between morning and afternoon - midday by the clock. No, it's more like the difference between daytime and night time - you can watch that happen, but it is impossible to say exactly when night time begins, even though it's just a matter of light and dark. And Ah! If you remember that moment you are trying to find between being awake and being asleep, you may never wake out of it, or so they say."

I knew that she was trying to calm me with her commonsense-logic, nearly as much as I was really annoyed by the things that 'they' do or 'they' say. Yet this simple statement shocked me to the quick. Why should remembering a single moment do this? How could this be? Wasn't it dangerous to leave moments like these lying around for children to find? But, how could I remember something if I never woke up, if the future was held back in the present?

"How, why?" I pursued.

"Well, maybe it's because you would be neither awake nor asleep. We should be one or the other - we can't be both at the same time can we? But being neither may be very serious, a long way away from the rest of us, maybe even in another world, another time, another us." She was wise but didn't really have a solution that I wanted to hear. And I was worried that 'another us' meant her spirit world. I read myself to sleep with my comforter, St Exupéry, maybe something like:

'Then you don't remember. This is not the exact spot.'
Another voice must have answered him, for he replied to it:
'Yes, yes! It is the right day, but this is not the right place.'
(from The Little Prince, Antoine de St Exupéry, 1943)

aunt Hilda, sometime in the 1920s or early 30sI do not believe that we ever spoke of it again, though I continued to try to map my nightly falling without any success. It was almost as if the soft seduction of falling proscribed its memory, that observation somehow interfered with the actual falling; that the falling knew that it was being observed; that having passed through, the gate to consciousness was firmly closed behind you, and though you could still catch sight of all that lay there, it was impossible to recall any of these experiences. Perhaps I was also afraid of the consequences of success.

This is a photograph of my aunt Hilda, the spiritualist. And guessing by the clothes, it was probably taken in the late 20s maybe early 30s. Despite appearances, she is not Miriam Margolyes.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

owls in fog

St Anthony's lighthouse, CornwallFalmouth, Friday 4th April 2008: It was foggy this morning. Just foggy, no cloud cover above. People-sounds were stifled. The diminutive foghorn across the bay was muffled and barely audible. Birds didn’t seem really bothered about being heard. But the fog was burned away by mid-morning and all got back to normal. It was only the previous evening that a BBC programme (Coast) had informed the world that British foghorns had become silent. It’s a shame they hadn’t checked this out with Trinity House really, as they would have found some interesting facts...

I lived in Loughborough for a year as a student – a town blessed with dense winter fogs and operatic summer thunder. At the time, some lowlife had fly-tipped an old slate quarry in the town with a large amount of something that was decaying alarmingly. Trains arriving from the south were welcomed with the polite graffiti, “Lufbra smells!” Loughborough's local meteorology was largely due to its lying under the mass of Charnwood Forest to the west, on the large plain that stretches east from Leicestershire to the North Sea. Good and bad weather (and smells) just sit there...

Kaz also lived in a town like Loughborough, and she recalled - one Autumn evening I pulled back the curtain and rubbed the misty condensation from the window only to see that the fog had thickened to a dull grey-orange glow that took over after just a few metres from the building, blotting out everything beyond. A magpie moth emerged heavy-winged from the fog, flirted with the illuminated window and returned into the greyness, apparently disappointed with the unproductive encounter. The trees that hosted the irritating huh-hoo-huh calls of collared doves by day and chatty owls by night were cloaked and silent. ‘I wonder what the owls do on foggy nights when even they cannot see their way about; how can they find their way home if they're caught out by a sudden fog? Do they get stressed and incapable of sleep away from the security of their roosts? Do they get grumpy if they cannot hunt for food? What do they think about - can they think at all?’

Gilbert White wrote, "the white owl does indeed snore and hiss in a tremendous manner; and these menaces will answer the intention of intimidating: for I have known a whole village up in arms on such an occasion, imagining the church-yard to be full of goblins and spectres. White owls also often scream horribly as they fly along; from this screaming probably arose the common people's imaginary species of screech-owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons." (The Natural History of Selborne, 1788)

Earlier that same evening, Kaz had taken a safe short cut back home through a largely empty car park. She found herself in a bewildering world of dancing sprites as spectral entities scattered from the ground as she stepped towards them, descending in undulating flight just metres away. The evening light was breaking down her vision into a bittiness that only seemed to support values of grey to black - there was no colour and no white. The initial shock of the sprites, which still had her heart beating fast, was not diminished when their twittering and bobbing in flight and on the ground gave them away as wagtails, in fact it became all the more fascinating to cohabit their secret evening world; and like a child absorbed in kicking her way through fragrant piles of crisp autumn leaves she ambled slowly through the car park putting up wagtails until, en masse and without any obvious signal, they departed to their evening roosts: so, smiling and curiously refreshed from her sojourn with the birds, she resumed her journey, albeit from a distant corner of the car park.

South Pacific - a family reprise

my mother as KatinkaWhile rooting through some old family documents, I found an undated newspaper clipping with a picture of my mother in the eponymous role of Loughborough Amateur Operatic Society’s 1939 production of Katinka. No, I hadn’t heard of Katinka either, but…

Katinka: first production 1915; music by Rudolf Friml: book & lyrics by Otto Harbach. The plot: out of a sense of duty Katinka has married Boris Strogoff, the Russian ambassador to Austria. Her real love is Ivan Dimitri, an attaché. Ivan's American friend, Thaddeus Hopper helps Katinka escape and hides her in his house. When Mrs Hopper becomes suspicious and angry, Hopper pays Arif Bey to conceal Katinka in his harem. By error, Mrs Hopper is placed in the harem. At a Viennese café the principals are all gathered. When a lady named Olga announces she is Boris' lawful wife, a happy ending follows, apparently...

And if you think that story sounds hard to take, consider the 1958 movie version of South Pacific: the Solomon Islands in 1943, a French planter, Emile de Becque (played by an Italian), has the hots (Some Enchanted Evening) for a rather naive ("I could say life is just a bowl of Jello") US Navy nurse from Little Rock called Nellie Forbush (played by Mitzi Gaynor, who changed her name from Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber). Nellie falls for the Gallic charms of this “Wonderful Guy”, but gives him the cold shoulder when she discovers he has two children whose skin colour is clearly not French ("I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair". However, the USMC wants her to persuade de Becque to work as a scout on a nearby island occupied by the Japanese (sounds like a holiday, eh?). He is to be accompanied by the ‘dashing’ Lt Joseph Cable, who has fallen for a (“Younger Than Springtime”) Polynesian (played by a Vietnamese), but is worried by her ‘strange shaped eyes”!!!. Cable also has a number of secret admirers in the beach laundry. Liat’s “mother” is the barrel-shaped Polynesian (born in New Jersey) Mama-san, Bloody Mary, who lures Cable off to the pleasures of Bali-Ha’i ("Someday you'll see me floatin' in the sunshine") and some “Happy Talk” in a volcanic hot tub with her underage daughter. Well, to cut a 3 hour musical short, Emile gets his Forbush and Joseph doesn’t return from scout duty... But while all the serious stuff is going on, the comedy is provided by glistenly homoerotic cross-dressing marines who fail to convince that aren’t really very happy with each other as it is thank you very much with songs like “There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame”, who collectively run a laundry on the beach and who really are the ones who are "as corny as Kansas in August"...

Rather scarily, in a critically hammered 2001 TV version, Nellie Forbush was played by Glenn Close. She was 54 at the time, and didn't have a strong reputation for playing naive young Southerners...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Eleanor of the dust

Douglas MacEnnis is an almost forgotten Scottish pioneer of photography. The family wealth from trading with Norway and Sweden enabled him to devote considerable time and energy to creating the photographic image of Edinburgh that the city liked to promote – nothing but affluence and refinement.

The family's trading links had given MacEnnis a passionate interest in things Scandinavian (as had his father, who had given Douglas a middle name of Søren). But in 1896 his wife and daughter were tragically killed when masonry crashed through their brougham on the way to see Ibsen's 'The Wild Duck' – MacEnnis suffered head wounds which seem to have left him permanently brain-damaged. To friends he had become “depressed, introspective and highly imaginative”, but the trauma had left him time-locked in that summer of 1896. He was also seeing things invisible to others. He took to making photographs of subject matter that most would have considered worthless of attention as they were excluded from his hallucinatory vision. What appear as planar surfaces of rock, beach and ice to everyone else were seen by MacEnnis as portraits of a young woman called Eleanor. The most enigmatic of these images appears to be a perfectly exposed photogram of naturally distributed household dust. It is still unclear how this image was produced. The real identity of Eleanor also remains a mystery.
Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896; by Douglas MacEnnis 1899
MacEnnis self-published “Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape” in Edinburgh in 1899, shortly before slicing his wrists with a photographic plate. The book actually contains 31 images. ‘Portraits’ that would have bewildered its contemporary audience as merely photographs of nothing, but which can now be seen as quietly exquisite examples of early abstract photography, wildly at odds with the conflicting photographic ideologies of the time. The images are all dated as MacEnnis' time-locked summer 1896. It is believed that only one copy of the book is extant (in a private collection in Argentina). Very few examples of Eleanor images are in circulation.

It is worrying to note that Dr Relling, one of the main characters in The Wild Duck, has the with-hindsight prescient line, "deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness." Something cracked after publishing "Eleanor" - one wonders who deprived MacEnnis of his vision...

The image shown here is "Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896" from MacEnnis' book, "Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape". It appears to show fracturing sea-ice. As sea-ice is not common in Scotland, this photograph may have been taken on an unrecorded visit to Norway or Sweden.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

a spirit in the dust

rosa, Frau Karl DrschkiMy hotel room in Helsinki was unusually voluble during hours of darkness, with soft thuds, chattering and distant tumbling sounds, none of which could be put down to neighbourly nocturnal activities. I guessed they came from the minibar, the air-con system and the ice-bucket - it all seemed amicable and out of sight.

My paternal grandmother’s house had areas that one didn’t see. They weren’t specifically out of bounds, you just didn’t go there (tins, drawers, an ottoman, cupboards, shelves, rooms even). The front of the house never seemed to get any sun and this was made all the worse by the thin grey soil, weakling grey forget-me-nots and ancient scrawny black-barked rose trees that in spite of never seeing secateurs and grandma’s pursuing the milkman for his horse’s steaming droppings, never seemed to grow any larger. I can't ever remember even seeing weeds growing there. There was a cold and game-less park beyond, walled-in by enormous plane trees. However, the back garden was a sun-bathed haven of colour from early Spring to late Autumn (there was and there was a wish-you’d-paid-for overpowering scent of lilies-of-the-valley on humid April evenings), all save for a sycamore corner that played home to an aerial sprit. I rarely stayed over. When I did, it was always in the large front bedroom – I refused the smaller room as only I knew that it was also evilly haunted.

The sycamore corner lay below the gable-end of the neighbour’s outbuildings. It was guarded at ground level by a perimeter fence of cat-shit – the cats ventured no further than this communal warning. The malevolently shaped gable whined even when there was no wind. This was not a threatening spirit, it lived over the fence and was just a back garden annoyance that was best ignored. There was also an almost life-size Venus which peered over the fence from the garden of the adjoining house, and which, to my uneducated eyes, looked as if it were waiting to be moved to a cemetery to join its owner when she eventually left this life.

The small front bedroom was home to an evil spirit that lived in the dust on top of the wardrobe – sleeping by day, but chattering, scraping, whispering and puthering by night. I spent just one terrifying evening there until darkness finally drove me out, and having to threaten to sleep under the clothes mangle in the garden shed allowed me to be ushered into the sanctuary of the ‘guest bedroom’ next door. From then on, whenever I could (not often, as this room became one of the places one did not visit), I sought to terrorise the spirit by sneaking into its room in daylight hours and beating hard on the wardrobe, threatening with a duster and shouting at the top of my voice. My grandmother could never understand this behaviour and held lingering doubts about my sanity right up until she left this world – “this house is not haunted!” While the spirit did its best (but generally failed) to be heard through the bedroom wall whenever I slept in the guest-room, for luckily it was sedentary – itself imprisoned on an inhospitable dusty plane in an abandoned room. I wonder if it is still there or whether it moved on with the house sale…

One of the ancient roses that occasionally struggled into bloom in the front garden was called Frau Karl Druschki (aka Snow Queen; first propagated in Germany on 1901). A near-white rose that belied my grandmother’s wars-worn attitude towards things German but itself abandoned in a sunless garden. I doubt it is still there - and Google Earth renders it in total shadow...