Wednesday, March 23, 2005

through a glass darkly

(photo: Josef Koudelka)

I can't exactly remember what st paul's point was in that letter to the corinthians about the differences in perception betwen childhood and maturity, but I've always taken it as meaning that there's an all-too-brief window of clarity, as childhood comes to an end and the realities of adulthood are beginning to emerge, into the real nature of things, which, with the increasing complexities and compromises of adult interrelationships, becomes correspondingly occluded and compromised, so that that clarity of vision is replaced by another, and that we struggle to look through the glass darkly, whereas before it was as clear as if nothing were there between.
I'm reminded of that because I've just noticed that a young man - who describes himself as a poet - from somewhere in Ohio, I think, has named me as his favourite photographer in one of those profile lists in a kind of live journal site called deviant art. furthermore, he's included three of my photographs in his online pinboard-gallery, which wouldn't be remarkable, were it not for the fact that, amongst the twenty or so other photographs in his gallery - all of them interesting, if unfamiliar, images - are two of my own personal faves - one by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other (I'm looking at it on my own - real - pinboard right now) the amazing photograph of a black dog in the snow at the parc du château de Sceaux by Josef Koudelka (above). my point being that, as far as young Zack of Ohio is concerned, the scoring in his personal pantheon of great photographers of the twentieth century goes Bresson - 1 : Koudelka - 1 : Melancholy Rhino - 3. which is patently absurd, but as thrilling as all Corinthia to someone who regards himself, if truth were told, as one of the twentieth century's most minor, and most disregardable fuckups.
so thank you, Zack, for making my day - however delusional that might be.
one small thing that kind of redresses the imbalance of hubris: whereas he's posted the images, he's not bothered saying who took any of them, so everyone on his board - including Henri and Josef - is rocking in the same boat of web-based anonymity. which is exactly as it should be.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

slush fund

one of the projects I'll never get round to is researching what they have in common, these areas that the local drunks hang around in. churchyards figure prominently, I've noticed. some atavistic survival of a memory of tolerance, forgiveness, charity, alms, perhaps, although there's an equally lively countrywide tradition of the local stocks being sited at the church gates. the local churchwardens resorted, a few years ago, to re-erecting the decorative wrought-iron fence that got pulled down, like so many others, for melting down and re-casting as howitzers and shells during the first world war, and keeping the gate heavily padlocked except for services, but they still congregate on the benches outside on the High Street and sneak in whenever they can.
that fence was very expensive. it was partly funded from the rental charged for the erection and establishment of an Orange microwave relay mast inside the belfry. the church authority organised that without public consultation and refused to bow to local pressure to have it removed. they said the government said it was safe. we parents of children at the local primary school adjacent - so close that the procession from schoolyard to church for regular services is through a gate in the common wall - begged to differ. the doomed campaign was mostly organised by phone. mobile phone. good reception.
no-one who had the power to choose would choose to spend their time hanging around on the High Street like this keeping the cold out with a can of Fosters. each one of these guys has a story about how they came to this, a story that will never be heard except here, in this familiar group of a dozen or so similarly swollen burst-veined faces sharing that loose, loud, slightly swaying camaraderie of sozzled destitution. several dogs. one woman has an oversized mutt the size of a small pony which probably eats more than she does. they attract sniffy disdain from us straight locals, but are never quite rowdy enough to attract more than the mildest of now let's be moving along nows from the local mr and ms plods, and anyway they only move along from one bench to the next, settling down opposite the discreet yellow sign on the lamp-post that advises, humorously, that this is an alcohol-free area and that flouting the law will invoke a maximum fine of £1,000.
'maximum'? I know I'm picky, but that wording does seem to imply that, so long as you've got a thousand quid to spare, then no worries, mate. perhaps that's what it does mean.

Monday, March 21, 2005

with a bang

ok - so presuming there's any money left when my turn comes around, and after they've sorted out the obvious dispensations, I've decided how I want the remainder spent: on one stupendous mother of a fireworks display with free booze and chocolate cake. it occurred to me last night - the climax of the boys birthday after a stupendous day-long glut of fun and frolics being the letting off of the two big-as-a-thirteen-year-old rockets that Michael had given them. slightly scary, as I wasn't sure how much the tail-whoosh would spread, and the furthest launch distance away from the house was limited by the overhang from the enormous tree at the bottom of our garden. however, all went well - Bo's went first (he being the firstborn - no paper-rock-scissors this time, at least) - a head-messingly fearsome screech as it lifted off, then the fiery trail, up, up, up, neck-craningly high, until, at the faltering apogee - BOOOOMMMM!!!! - and a huge, oooh-aaah glorious, fifteen-metre blossoming dahlia of molten colours, that lingered for just long enough, then faded back to silent darkness. then Jack's - and the same all over again.
so anyway that's what I've decided I want. up, up and away. byeee. (but not for a while yet, ok?)

Friday, March 18, 2005

off on or on off?

the Energy Saving Trust is a government-backed organisation dedicated to educating us about saving energy.
fair enough.
their latest TV advert depicts a bunch of unpleasant individuals dissing energy-saving campaigns on the grounds that one individual's efforts to save energy amounts to so much pissing in the wind. closeup on a single room light. zoom back to overview of an entire city glowing with artificial light. cut to closeup of a finger flicking a light-switch off.
except - rewind, replay - something a little odd here - the off-switching finger is flicking the switch down as the light simultaneously goes off>.
gone are the halcyon days when advertising creatives (excuse me while I stifle a giggle) employed native wit and a peculiarly patronising take on subliminal reinforcement to encode their world-shakingly consumptive message, otherwise I'd say this was another one of those transparently silly ploys to make us sit up and take notice. hey look, they turn the light on and it goes off! think I'd better do the same. duh.
alas, it's far more likely a case of the filming, editing, post-production, distribution - the whole shebang - having been contracted out, for reasons best understood by the geniuses in charge of the EST, to some flavour-of-the-month American team, who clearly couldn't shake themselves of the notion that the only right way to do anything is the American way.
today light-switches. tomorrow democracy. hey ho.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

but some men are more equal than others

what a minefield, this education thing.
black kids, especially boys, are performing worse than any other ethnic group in the league tables - and have been for quite a while.
whenever education is the subject of either political or media attention, the key phrases that keep turning up time and time again are 'equality of opportunity' and 'freedom of choice' - as if either of these might apply universally across the social spectrum.
obviously, black boys from poor backgrounds need more help than, say the Princes William or Harry, if they're going to get any passes in their GCSE's. if I really need to explain why that's the case, I'm talking to the wrong person. go away, nothing here for you, if you think that poor black kids as a genotype are more stupid than William or Harry (than whose own genotype only the equally pleasing ambulant shrub is more stupid).
the revealing thing is that, when someone who really knows what he's talking about comes up with a suggestion to improve things as they stand, he's immediately jumped on as if he'd pissed on the woolsack. I don't happen to believe that any kind of segregated education can help equalise an unequal situation. I'm sorry that some parents (those who are fortunate enough to be able to choose) find it necessary to send their sons and daughters to segregated schools (segregated, that is, either by race, religion, class, or gender) in order to better their chances. I believe that, if the idea that everyone's really entitled to equality of opportunity and equal freedom of choice were anything more than a notional soundbite, there wouldn't be any problem at all. alas, it isn't, and will never become an entitlement until it's legally enabled, which no government in any way dependent on support from the corporate sector and the higher band taxpayer will ever dare implement. so it will never actually be the case. which lets us all off the hook, doesn’t it?
meanwhile, the real teachers struggling to help our children and young people to get an education in the state schools are yoked to a cartload of political ballast that's absolutely irrelevant to the matter in hand. heroes, every one of them.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

last tally ho

I live within 155mm mortar range of Wells, a quiet little town with a rather impressive cathedral, a good market, an even better Tesco's, a very high opinion of itself, and the worst cinema in Europe. the owner of the cinema - an upgraded scouts hut - has been known to confiscate kids sweets as they go in as you're only allowed to take in what you buy at the counter. I don't know anyone who hasn't had a run-in with him at some time. I once got so pissed off with the movie we were watching being out of focus that I went back out and up to the projection-booth - where I found no-one at the helm, and an inarticulate gum-chewing fifteen-year-old usherette leaning aganst the wall outside not having a clue or caring less where anyone was (at least that's how I interpreted her shrug).

there was a demo in Wells the other day - first ever, as far as I know. blocked High Street. disproportionate police presence. chanting. slogans. the gist of it was that our democratic rights were being undermined yet again, and that the government was acting like a bunch of arseholes - the usual sort of thing, and the sort of thing that I'm usually totally up for. except that this was a demo by supporters of the local hunt on the first day of the coming into force of the law forbidding the hunting of mammals with dogs. red jackets, trot-trot, hunting horns, Barbour coats, flat caps. they were well-organised and excruciatingly polite, but angry, dashit! in a jolly good-humoured way.

what's interesting about the Countryside Alliance is that it's facing up to something that the Northern mining communities had to face up to twenty years ago when She Who Cannot Be Named (*hawk - spit*) was busy dismantling the miners unions: that 'democracy' is something that bends and sways in accordance with the current political breeze. this Wells demo was a pale shadow of all those held in every major UK city during 1984 - 85, and an insignificant squeak compared with the million-strong anti-war demos held in every major city in the world prior to the latest invasion of Iraq, but, for once, the people demonstrating were from that class formerly assumed to represent the establishment. their arrogance in assuming that they'll eventually get their way and have the ban overturned through either the House of Lords or the European Commission only further highlights the marginalisation of their constituency. they're energetically trying to assimilate and convert the tactics of political militancy to their own cause, and they can't see how desperate and irrelevant that makes them appear. there's a certain pleasure - a schadenfreude - to be gained, it's true, in witnessing their dawning dismay that, finally, to the tune of the swansong of their beloved Conservative party, which is busy immolating itself in a positively Dickensian conflagration of issue-twitching and marginal-seat-targeting, they're going to be sidelined. history is just passing them by. they've become as much a social anachronism as those back-to-back mining communities, who didn't have the benefit of their land and inheritances to fall back on.

the pro-hunting lobby still has plenty of fight left in it (proportionate to its plethora of resources), and I'm looking forward to seeing the first physical skirmishes between the hunters and the police on the news. these people have assumed, for as long as Chief Constables have been guests at the Rotary Clubs, that the police are instruments of their will. they are about to discover, however, that they command little if no natural respect in the average bobby, and I have no doubt there's many a constable from Taunton to Yeovil to Exeter who's looking forward to the moment when he's given permission to crack a few of these arrogant bastards heads.

police have their sport, too.

pro-hunting arguments fall into four defensive categories: tradition, pest-control, sport, and the local economy. the antis are more simplistic, and a little monothematic: cruel, uncivilised, anachronistic.

I'm the first to heave at the saccharine sentimentalities of Disney anthropomorphism. I find it superficially interesting, the way kids who were brought up to shed buckets at the evil threats upon countless large-eyed dumb beasties from Dumbo to the Dalmatians learn to adapt to the realities of life on the farm. and, if I had to choose, I trust I'd save the human child before the fox cub - who wouldn't? but I recognised a long time ago the politics behind the reverse sentimentalism that demonises the fox. yes, I've seen what a fox can do in a chicken-coop, but what's a chicken coop to an intelligent animal like a fox? it's like a free supermarket: once in, you're going to kill as much as you can before grabbing as much as you can in your jaws to haul away to your family and hope you can come back for the rest later. there's nothing more evil or sneaky or malicious about a fox than there is about any other feral predator. the red fox is not on the official MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food) list of agricultural pests. the perception of foxy's pestiness far outweighs the reality. yes, if you happen to want to rear free range chickens, you'll consider him a pest, and a threat - if much less so - to the more vulnerable stock like newborn lambs, but the people who really really hate him are the owners of the shooting-estates who rear game-birds.

as anyone who's accidentally wandered onto the wrong part of the moor knows, they're very serious, those shooters, about their sport. and as anyone who listens to the Archers knows, it's a very lucrative business, shooting. foxy kill pheasant. pheasant= many £. foxy must die. dial S for Superaristo.

only a bunch of aristocrats - genetically feeble-minded and as imaginative as a pondful of newts - could have concluded that the best way to control a local fox population was to get a bunch of mates together with a pack of dogs and go hurtling around the local fields on horseback knocking over fences and punching horse-sized holes in hedgerows in hopes of finding one and killing it. it makes about as much sense as letting a party of five-year-olds with mallets rampage around your kitchen in hopes of catching a mouse. the miracle is that they ever catch anything. 'they' don't, of course. the dogs do. messy. always. (no messier, I concede, than the chicken-coop, but forget that bullshit about the Master quickly despatching the beast with his pistol: a) he's got to drag a pack of up to thirty blood-crazed dogs off first; b) he's got to have remembered to load his pistol; and c) it'll misfire most of the time so he'll end up bashing what's left of its head in with his heel.)

the relationship between the hunters and the shooters is symbiotic - the one has evolved out of the same set of social and economic conditions as the other. it's a function of the endless existential struggle to fill a meaningless life with meaning, which, in the aristos case, has meant huntin an shootin an fishin for as long as anyone can remember. god-given right, apparently. be sure that if the fox had evolved to predate on, say, cats or mongrels (the kind of animals that the hoi polloi own), he'd be running around free as a bird (well, not as free as a game bird, but you catch my drift).

the only rational justification for hunting with horses and hounds (all the others are more or less emotional) is, if you're an aristocrat, to keep your local pool of conscriptable arms-bearing men and your fellow mounted cavalry up to scratch between wars. the way you (or your chief huntsman) organise your tactics and signalling methods and marshal your men and negotiate the terrain will correspond very closely to the way you'll expect things to go in battle. it's a wargame, but not one that's had any real correspondence with real wars for about three hundred years.

the 'traditional country pursuits' argument is the feeblest and easiest to dismiss. if 'it's traditional' were a legitimate excuse, we'd still have cockpits and bear-baiting and the stocks (although, as a matter of fact, I'm personally in favour of reinstalling the stocks as a more effective alternative to hilarious things like ASBO's), and, by default, we'd have to defend other cultures' rights to bind feet and cut out clitorises and god knows what else.

the 'pest-control' argument is equally lame: the local Master of Foxhounds is quoted in the local (mostly pro-hunting) paper as saying that this is as dark a day for the foxes as it is for everyone else - referring to the transparently ludicrous and totally unchallenged belief that, unless they cull them, they'll overbreed and then all manner of hell will be let loose. as for the efficiency of this form of pest-control - pull the other one.

the 'don't interfere with our sport' argument is fair enough, provided you come clean and explain why chasing a live fox is better than drag-hunting (chasing a trail laid down by someone who's gone ahead dragging a sack impregnated with foxy-smelling stuff). obviously, foxy is going to be a lot more imaginative about where he or she goes when in full flight from the hounds than some oik running cross-country dragging a smelly sack behind him. I readily concede that, were it not for the ignorant obnoxiousness of the company of the aristos (and, indeed, there are hunts that consist of lower ranking, slightly less obnoxious mortals) the idea of spending a day on horseback chasing around the countryside in a dashing red jacket is quite appealing (jodhpurs! down, boy!). but the hub, the kernel, the essence of the chase is that the object and the end of the hunt is the kill, and killing things is fun. it's thrilling. I happened to be strolling through some woods in Devon with a couple of friends a few years back when we came across a stag-hunting party that was just finishing its work. hugely impressive collection of powerful, steaming horses, stamping about in the undergrowth between the birch trees where the beast had been finally brought to bay. happy, tongue-lolloping, panting, tail-wagging hounds, ecstatically receiving the affectionate compliments of the dismounted hunters. the beast itself - huge, steaming, many-tined, bloody, dead, beginning to be dragged, by the antlers, with enormous effort, by four big men, straining at the limits of their strength, out of the little stream where it had been brought down. everyone flushed, elated, lots of laughter, mid-orgasmic. thrilling.

no-one will admit it - it's a form of sex.

the final argument - the socio-economic one - is a toughie, but equally lame. it's true that all hunts keep a number (a relatively small and exaggeratedly significant but nevertheless a number) of local people in work - work that, compared with what else is on offer in what tend to be economically depressed rural areas, is reasonably interesting and fulfilling - working with animals usually is - if not particularly remunerative. but to justify something that is wrong on the grounds that if you take it away you're taking away people's livelihoods is nonsense. it's a form of blackmail, which the aristos are masters at, but which is employed all the time by far more egregious employers. whole communities have become involved in ethically dubious industries, from weapons-manufacture to cigarette-manufacture, where the choice is presented as either/or - either you're in or you're out of work. very, very few people have the luxury of being able to choose not to compromise their moral scrupulousness in selecting their field of work. obviously, if your livelihood depends on the hunt, whether it be working in the kennels or the stables, you're not going to admit any distinction between what you're doing for the hunt and what your friends and relations might be doing in the Big House - what's one fox against a roof over your head and food on your family's table? it's a trivial thing.

except it isn't. the terrorising of an animal in the name of sport or tradition or anything else is not a trivial thing.

the only argument that's hard to counter is the one that goes 'fuck off milksop townies - we likes killin' things, we's allus done it, we's'n gonna go on doin it and none of your namby-pamby townie ways is going to change any o' that - we don't come into your towns an' start tellin' youse how to run your lives, do us?' it's hard to counter because it's not an argument, just an excuse to pick a fight, but that about sums it up.

no-one's summarised the fox-hunting fraternity better than Oscar Wilde: "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable".

Man has been hunting for a long time. we used to do it the hard way - our canines are evidence of that - but, once we'd learnt how to make throwing weapons and how to organise ourselves into tactical groups, we got better. I don't think that millennia-long learning curve will ever get totally erased from the genetic memory. there's always going to be something in us that remembers what it was like, hunting for a living. it's clear, for instance, that the prehistoric hunters developed a great respect for their prey. the earliest works of art attest to that. and I think there's something of that - an atavistic epiphany - in the common use of the word 'beauty' by hunters - the moment of finding a twelve-pointer in their sights being one of 'beauty'. breath catches. heart hammers. this 'beautiful' creature's life is, literally, in this moment before (exquisite suspension of time) they squeeze the trigger, in their hands.

but we don't need to hunt for food anymore. we haven't needed to for a long time, although it's a not-so-bad thing to do, now and again, if only to remind ourselves of what meat really is. in order to hunt and kill an animal you have to learn a little about it, although it's ludicrously easy to actually kill it (with a gun) when you've finally found it. then the skinning and the gutting and the butchering and the cooking and the eating - all good, if done in a spirit of respect for the animal whose life you've taken in return for your sustenance.

food-hunting good.
trophy-hunting bad.
really - it's as simple as that.

to reduce an animal to a lifeless object for the sake of a photo-opportunity is as sick as it gets. we don't have the right, simply because we can do something, to do it. great power must be moderated by great restraint, otherwise we have failed all the lessons of civilisation. if we use the power of a high-calibre rifle to assert our authority over the animal world for the sake of nothing more than a photograph, it's only a few steps away from doing the same to a man. all it needs is a few tweaks of the conscience-gland (a steady drip-feed of macdonalds and coke seems to do the trick) and to be sufficiently persuaded that the man is a beast. it goes on all the time.