The Docklands Light Railway is a great favourite in these parts because of the still magical experience of standing in the very front (or very back) of the driverless trains.  This weekend b2 and I went to stay with friends who have the great good fortune to live near a DLR station.


Here we are going there, at the back of the train, in one of the tunnels. Please note the hand-knitted cotton jumper of awesomeness.

rounding a bend dlr

Here we are going back, at the front, going round a bend above ground.

heron quays

And because, like bees, you can never have too many exciting trains, here we are drawing in to Heron Quays with an oncoming train speeding (a relative term of course) towards us and Canary Wharf (the red arches in the distance) ahead.

little soy cat

While on our adventures we met this cheerful cat. An excellent time was had by all.

Me and you (annoyingly subtitled Permission and Power)

To the annoyingly subtitled exhibition An Urban History of Photography (surely the photography is urban not the history thereof) Street and Studio at the Tate Modern with Hg (and the already holidaying FirstSpawn).

The blurb is similarly annoying:

Street & Studio brings out the contrast between the photos taken in the carefully orchestrated studio, and images captured in the changing and uncontrollable street, whilst highlighting the crossovers between the genres and their influence on each other…

Focusing on photos taken in buzzing cities, with their cosmopolitan cast of hipsters, businessmen, beauties and criminals, Street & Studio builds an engrossing urban history of photography, ranging from early black-and-white pictures from the late 1800s, to elegant fashion photography from the mid twentieth century, to cutting-edge portraiture by contemporary artists.

How many adjectives can one be expected to take in such a concentrated space?

However the exhibition itself is fascinating but its hugeness means repeated viewings will be necessary in order to absorb all the photoyumminess.

What most interested me on this, the first pass, was the concept of permission in terms of images of people. In other words the perennial question of whether it’s “ok” to take pictures of people in public without asking them. Although Room 2, Passers-by is where the issue is most clearly demonstrated but discussion avoided, as far as I could see. However I find the tone of the accompanying text interesting:

DiCorcia takes striking close-ups but goes to extreme lengths to ensure his subjects are not aware of being photographed. Using a long lens and flashlight, he sets up a complex apparatus above the street and is able to illuminate and isolate passers-by. Ed van der Elsken’s tactics were more aggressively voyeuristic. He followed an anonymous woman around the streets of Hong Kong, creating a sequence of pictures that is reminiscent of a tracking shot from a movie. ‘I followed this babe around for a while. She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit’, he confessed.

“…more aggressively voyeuristic”… “he confessed”… hmm… a tadette, a mere whiff of the pejorative, perhaps?

knitting, spawn, bee, beer

(Gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text and pejorative only to beer-seeking bees inhabiting the buzzing city)

Perhaps this issue just isn’t controversial any more, it’s merely my continuing considerable unease with the practice in a tide of acceptance which makes me feel it’s so. It certainly has been in the past though. There are a couple of pictures in that room by Philip-Lorca diCorcia from his series Heads which prompted a lawsuit from one of the unwitting subjects and much debate on blogs. The photograph in question is not in the exhibition which could be entirely unconnected with the subsequent litigation but I did wonder whether there might be worries about further action under a different legal system.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, over in Room 9, Liberation: 1960s – 1980s there’s a piece by Laurie Anderson called Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which is described as a “photo-narrative installation”. Back in 1973 Anderson got sick of being harassed by men as she went about minding her own business so she decided to retaliate by taking a picture of the harassers.

The piece consists of an introductory text statement explaining the background followed by a number of photographs of men with their identities obscured in time-honoured newspaper journalistic fashion (a bar over the eyes) and beneath each picture is a short account of the event around the photograph. In the introductory text she compares taking someone’s photograph to mugging them.

This project was apparently the inspiration for a number of web-based “fight-backs” against street harassment – Holla Back New York City (not annoyingly sub-titled If You Can’t Slap ‘Em, Snap ‘Em) and Blank Noise in India for example.

The piece explicitly and the effect it has had demonstrates clearly the fact that one person taking a photograph of another person is an act which involves a significant power relationship and it is this which I think lies at the heart of my unease with some, possibly a lot, of street photography.

This twinning of permission and power is delightfully exemplified in a showcase in Room 5 (Ordinary People and Celebrities). One half is occupied by a hundred or so photographs of women taken in photobooths in 1928. The women, alone, entirely in control of what is happening, pose in exactly the way that appears on such pictures today. One even holds a telephone receiver to her ear which presumably she had brought with her for the purpose of appearing to converse animatedly.

The other side of showcase has a series of police mug shots – individuals without any control or power at all.


(Second gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text, having nothing at all to do with mug shots)

The issue of permission emerges in the “public contribution” section of the exhibition. Street and Studio is following in the footsteps of last year’s How We Are at Tate Britain – which invited the public to contribute to the exhibition via a specially-set-up group on Flickr – and has set up a Street or Studio group. There’s an interesting discussion thread about “permission” centred around the Tate’s rather vague terms and conditions:

For legal reasons, the main subjects of the photograph should have consented to being photographed and not have received any payment in return.

Tate do not require evidence of written consent from the subject of the photograph…

The condition applies where the subject is the main focus of the shot, as in a staged studio portrait.

A snatched street shot would not require this permission as the subjects may be incidental.

The main thing is that the subject of the photograph has not been paid for being featured in the photograph.

Clear? Yeah, as mud.

I was disappointed not to see the Flickr photographs anywhere in the exhibition itself, unlike How We Are Now which included several screens showing pictures from the group pool and later 40 of those submitted were chosen for display in the gallery for the end portion of the show’s run. It seems counter-intuitive to invite public participation in a themed exhibition and then not incorporate those contributions in the gallery itself.

True, the involvement is billed as “Your photos in print” but there’s a para which claims “All submissions will be posted and shared on Tate Online and displayed on a screen in the gallery” so maybe I missed it. I’m a cynic, of course, but this does look more like a marketing opportunity for the project’s publishing partner to cash in on a new variant of vanity publishing rather than exploring the richness and variety of responses to the theme.

I shall look carefully for the screen in the gallery on my next visit, which shall be very soon indeed.

Fleecing the sheep

“Did you know” ask Craig and Gerard “that there are more than 60 breeds of sheep in the UK?”

We had the best of the weekend weather yesterday, without a doubt. The spawn and I winkled Jean from her work and went to the Alternative Village Fête where, to celebrate all things ovine, we selected beautiful British yarn from the baskets available and Jean, SecondSpawn and I knitted a swatch to attach to the I Knit London sheep.

We were not alone. Large numbers of people leapt at the chance to do likewise, sitting in the sun, accompanied by various attractions ranging from Rediscovered Urban Rituals, the Bollywood Brass Band and (very surreal, this) a man who made a hat entirely out of cake icing (and plastic cups and sugar-coloured-sprinkly-things too, but they weren’t mentioned).

FirstSpawn is not a knitter but he kept us in stitches (sorry, couldn’t resist) with wisecracks about his “new” mobile phone. Due to an unfortunate incident over which I shall draw a discreet veil he is now reduced to using a, uh, vintage (more than ten years old!) handset – my very first mobile in fact. In a youth culture where only the very latest, most complex and most expensive will do his brick is going to stick out like, well, a brick. However he is putting a brave face on things.

“You know how small is good in mobile phone terms”, he says, “well *my* mobile phone has got the smallest screen I’ve ever seen”.

Twinkling summer toes

Last month I received a communication from the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP). It contained a couple of sheets of hand-written figures with an accompanying letter telling me this was the calculation of the benefit I was entitled to between May and September 2007. Enclosed was a cheque for £2.08.

There was the usual small print about how to appeal against a decision if you disagreed with it, but this was itself already the result of an appeal, lodged in October 2007, consisting of two closely-typed and closely-argued sheets of A4 and about half a tree’s worth of supporting documentation.

The only thing to do, in such circumstances, is to laugh. Which I duly did, and forgot about it.

Today I received another communication from the DWP. It appears, reading between the lines, that they may have made a mistake. No cheque, of course, but the prospect of some money somewhere down the line. Not much but better than the proverbial poke in the eye and certainly more than £2.08.

I was still digesting this interesting news as we walked back from the station after a lovely day out with A on Hampstead Heath. The local shoe-shop was plastered with big red banner signs saying “Closing Down Sale – Everything Must Go”. I dragged the tired and unwilling spawn across the road to have a quick look.

Oh what a brilliant idea. What excellent luck. Because among the heterogeneous not to say eccentric selection of shoes on offer in an extremely limited range of sizes there was exactly the right model in exactly the right colour and size for each of us. At half price.

new shoes!!!

FirstSpawn has those rather drunken looking asymmetrical black Converse hi-tops, SecondSpawn has khaki-patterned kids’ Converse hi-tops and, the astute will have already worked out, I have the purple Mary Janes which are actually, and unbelievably to me, Hush Puppies. In my youth this brand was notorious for being, well, a bland. Maybe in the intervening decades they’ve become the hight of fashion. Whatever. I love my little purple-hearted MJs.

We are all very happy and well-shod for summer.


The sock family.

My father looks as though he has elephantiasis because his sock was retrieved from the laundry basket and he insisted on putting it on over the thick one he was already wearing.

FirstSpawn’s sock has a huge hole under the heel (not visible in this picture) because he’s been wearing it almost constantly since he got it, half the time sliding around on wooden floors without shoes on. He has ordered me to darn it. I have ordered him to take more care of it.

The next sockage will be long ones for my father probably based on this golf hose pattern which dates from when he was two years old.

It is, in our collective experience, quite true that hand-knitted socks are warmer and more comfortable than shop bought.

A loop in the fabric of time

Those instances where, when you’re in them and realise it and think, through the delight, that this moment, this particular configuration of the universe as apprehended in this instant is so exquisitely beautiful that it will live in me and be a constant source of joy available at will, like a rare scent to be unstoppered from the bottle of memory and stroked on the pulse points, conjuring on the brain’s skin and in the brain’s eyes and ears a waft of re-being in that pure ecstasy.

Or (of course a poet says it so much better) a Wordswothian time spot:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

Thus early this morning when SecondSpawn sat cross legged on my bed, the diffuse brightness lighting his cheek and brow and lips and features of solemn concentration as he bent over his knitting, I curled and warm beneath my duvet gazing gazing gazing and so full of love that time and space and every dimension and all meaning converge and are held motionless in that moment.

Hairdressing: EPIC FAIL

Secondspawn is shornspawn. Last night I took the clippers to his curls.

The results, as might easily have been predicted, pleased nobody. Neither Secondspawn nor I liked the length (very short due to his mother’s egregious failure to acquire a qualification in trichological control); neither Firstspawn nor I enjoyed the 40 minutes or so of continuous maximum volume screaming with which Secondspawn greeted his appearance in the mirror.

This morning peace prevailed* but the weather was cold and (another fact which will come as no surprise to those with children) not a single hat was to be found of the formerly enormous collection of Arsenal and Nike headcoverings which littered the house. He walked, uncomplainingly, to school with his little ears shrivelling with cold.

Thus it was that I was galvanized to complete the Red Light Special which I started back in April last year (on holiday in the camper van… sniff sniff) and which has been languishing for months complete but for the darning in of its ends.

red light special hat

Being designed for an adult head it has the advantage of entirely covering the ears of a spawn, and he seems rather to like it.

* Firstspawn informs me that this is because he told Secondspawn he looked just like Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt had been voted the sexiest man in the world and therefore Secondspawn was mollified. He also confided that he wasn’t exactly certain whether Brad Pitt had really been voted the sexiest man in the world but he thought it might be true.

It's me (apparently)

While we’re on a roll of offspringing today Firstspawn suddenly lunged for his iPod saying “you must watch this, you must you must, it just so reminds me of you”. And this is what he played.

It is, I ascertained on further questioning, the 20 seconds or so from about 45″ in where the resemblance is most strong. The clenched-hand, tooth-gritted determination to stay calm whilst all about small demonic ninja-creatures determinedly wreak mayhem.

I was completely delighted at this recognition of my almost super-human (obviously nearly simian) efforts to cultivate equanimity. What a long way I’ve come!

When I do snap, which of course I do, I have not yet mastered the eye-popping evisceration techniques of Buddhist Monkey but perhaps, if I try really hard, one day I’ll be able to emit cosmic rays from my third eye and put an end to civilization as we know it.

I don’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed that apparently the level of “cartoon violence” in the two Buddhist Monkey episodes is ok but the rest of the Happy Tree Friends output is, according to our young critic, “just sick”.