Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Beautiful and the Damned

Forgive the F. Scott Fitzgerald title.  I'm going through a phase of discovering old classics I've yet to read and downloading them to my Kindle, this blog post title being one of them.  

Recently I've been gravitating towards Victorian chillers (my current favourite author in this genre is Laura Purcell) and Lucy Worsley's "A Very British Murder" on BBC4 last night, only served to feed my habit. 

The infectiously enthusiastic Lucy looked at how murder infiltrated popular culture during the Victorian era.  It was an absorbing documentary looking at the rise of the popular press and its role in our obsession with violent crime.  Apparently, Charles Dickens would make a beeline for the police station on arrival in any new town or city, including New York, where he was given a tour of the Big Apple's underbelly by the New York Precinct.  I was slightly creeped out by the re-telling of his particularly animated public readings of murders from his novels, but then when the narrative cut to people soaking up the atmosphere on one of many Jack the Ripper tours today, I recalled handing over money myself a few years ago to follow in the Ripper's footsteps and hear the all the gory details. I've since downloaded "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins (free on Kindle), considered one of the first examples of the modern detective novel and inspired by a real life country house murder.  Thanks Lucy!

Anyway, the dichotomy in nature of beauty and ugliness is evident all around us.  This "spring" weather has been ugly for sure - icy winds, ice in general...Spring weather?!  Be damned!  (I've clearly been reading too many books set in Victorian Britain).  The weather has given me little motivation to do anything or go anywhere.  (On the plus side, it has given me an excuse to purchase a pretty cool 1960s roll neck jumper online.  Fingers crossed it lives up to the photographs).

The frost has already burnt the tips of the Magnolia tree flowers, on the cusp of their stunning, but all-too-fleeting Spring display, cutting them off in their prime.

The trees have also encouraged that most malevolent of birds, the Magpie.  We have a pair nesting in the silver birch tree, terrorising their neighbours, the blackbirds.  They may have a sinister reputation, but they are clever beings.  

A friend witnessed one trying to build its nest whilst negotiating a rather tricky long twig.  Try as it might, the Magpie couldn't make the twig fit into the nest with ease.  So, it tossed it into the air, adding a little spin to make it rotate and, as it came back down vertically (the desired position), the Magpie grabbed it in its descent and wedged it into the nest.  Success!

Take our local woodland for example.  Arguments continue to rage on whether or not the recent clear felling represents woodland management or corporate greed.  I usually try and capture Ridgehill Wood in all of its glory, but feeling fed up with the freezing temperatures, on Easter Monday, my photographs reflected my mood - dark and oppressive.

Forestry Operation sign nearly destroyed by flying missiles.

Remnants of Forestry Operation barrier tape blowing in the breeze

A fallen tree ensnared in barbed wire

Twisted Trees
The weather has also put paid to any progress on the pond.  Well, it is now a pond at least; it's been lined and filled with water, but planting will have to wait until the water has dechlorinated fully and the temperatures rise above zero at night.  We're not investing in any plants until the threat of frost has passed.  

Instead, we took a walk down our local Ashwood Nurseries to take a look at their pond for any inspiration.

On the way back, I spotted this buried treasure.  With daytime drinking on the rise, thanks to the pandemic, this boozer has clearly taken to burying their stash.

The Ashwood Nurseries visit has added Marsh Marigold to my list.  One sign that there is now water in the garden is this heron I spotted flying overhead this morning.  New pond, new predator.  No fish though (and no plans for any), so its murderous intentions were not satisfied.   

After a couple of days' of relative inactivity and going nowhere, I can always rely on macro photography to bring the beauty.  The following photographs were taken with extension tubes with a combined value of 68mm on top of my mounted 50mm lens. 

The Euphorbia flowers are almost alien in their beauty; worlds within worlds.

The first of many Spanish Bluebells lurking in the woods behind the house.

Check out the curls within this dandelion head.

So there you have it, the beautiful and the damned - not quite F. Scott Fitzgerald take on materialism and classicism, but the natural world version.

Did any of you see snow?  Fingers crossed for better times and better weather ahead. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Digging for Britain and learning to dig insects

After the car was written off last week, we decided it was safer to stay close to home. 

I have started taking photos on my daily walks with the vintage Pentax, but will obviously have to wait to finish the film (I'm naturally more choosy about my shots when each one costs money) and for processing before I can share them.  I've had plenty of tips from the Instagram photography community and am encouraged by the photos shared by other Pentax Me Super owners.    

 In the meantime, I've been taking macro   photos of insects in the garden.  I think   I'm getting the bug!



Incy Wincy

Expecting a cold and gloomy weekend, we were surprised at the vitamin D-boosting weather conditions on Good Friday and had an impromptu family get together (two households) in the garden with tea and hot cross buns.  Here's Lotte claiming the new pink lounger.  Two hours out of the packaging and already covered in paw prints!

As is usually the case when I attempt to relax in the garden, the bits that bother me start screaming at me.  

We planted a honeysuckle a few years ago behind the box hedge (or what's left of it) that provides a safety barrier between the sloping garden and the patio below.  Access steps are at the left of this photo.  I'm adopting the term "lazy gardening" as I think that quite often applies to us.  Digging in our garden is always constantly thwarted by the spade twanging off some enormous boulder or tree root and so we tend to follow the path of least resistance - literally - and plant things in the most accommodating spot vaguely near to where we originally planned.  Hence this honeysuckle is way off centre and for the last year has been working its way around a bamboo cane, forcing into an awkward and unsightly angle, jutting into the sky.  I finally decided to attach another flexible cane to it, bent it over and with a few cable ties and a little coaxing, we now have a honeysuckle arch of sorts.

I also finally got around to repainting the aluminium bistro table and chairs.  The Hammerite paint colours on offer in many stores is pretty limited.  I'm always looking for ways to bring colour into the garden and brightly painted garden furniture is an obvious one.  This is "Raspberry Sorbet" a specially mixed Hammerite paint Ebay purchase.  The RHS book in the photo was my Mother's Day present and has been a great source of information for the next project, a wildlife pond.

After a pretty busy day, we had differing ideas of how to spend the early part of the evening.  Gareth fancied a walk.  I was leaning more towards making a start on the pond.  Any potential debate was interrupted by a phone call from my Mom.  Forty minutes later and I discovered that Gareth had been digging for Britain.  It did cross my mind that that hole was intended for me, but he seemed to be quite pleased with his progress.  Again, that nagging thought...

I'm hoping that the next photo of the pond will include dragonflies hovering in the frame.  The replacement Gunnera Manicata arrives next week, along with a couple of aerating plants.  My shopping list now includes Lily Pads, Brooklime, Frogbit and Yellow Flag Irises.  We don't have a water butt, so I'm thinking we will have to fill the pond and leave it for a week or so to fully dechlorinate before adding any plant life, but more research required on this.

This was our view just as we finished work last night; Gareth treading down the "beach" area of the pond, me wrapping fleece around some of the new, tender plants, given the ongoing threat of sub zero temperatures.

This morning, I was the first up and after being blinded by the sun when opening the curtains, I decided to take my breakfast into the garden.  

The tulips are almost ready to flower.  I have no idea what they are as I threw away the packets.  I obviously carefully selected them at the time, but with my goldfish memory, they will be a nice surprise.  I'm guessing they were dramatic and contrasting colours.  Fingers crossed.

The seven dwarves and their chaperone were chilling under the Monkey Puzzle tree.

I moved some of the garden furniture around yesterday and decided that this little shady nook, half way up, is the perfect reading/beer drinking spot.  This is where you will find me later today, head buried in a book (the Victorian chiller "The Corset") or, depending on how the day goes, the pond. :-) 

Now, how to find the warmest spot in the garden on a sunny Easter morning?  Look for a puddle of fur.  Chances are it will be an elongated cat, maximising the surface area exposed to the heat of the sun.  

For some reason, Lotte doesn't want to know us inside the house.  Houses are for food and sleep.  But as soon as I join her in the garden, she becomes a totally different character; excited, playful and part dog - she chases sticks and stones!  This morning though, we both enjoyed a few moments of calm.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Slow Travel

This week has been eventful for a mixture of reasons; some good, some bad.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.  My car was written off  (not my fault).  A neighbour reversing off her drive inadvertently put her foot on the accelerator instead of the clutch! 

In other news, our Gunnera Manicata is no more.  After many years of spectacular service (ignoring the environment-bothering tonnes of water), it's been  a bit lacklustre for the last couple of seasons and now, sadly, there are no signs of life - as evidenced by this photograph taken by Gareth.  Forgive the poor photograph and dreadful composition.  It was not my doing!

RIP Gunnera 

Positives?  I've acquired some batteries for our 1980s-never-been-used-by-us Pentax ME Super and am going to try shooting on manual with an analogue camera next week.  Why not?  I'm interested to see the results.  Film photography has a unique quality, very different from digital.  If I achieve any usable images from a couple of rolls of film, I will be relieved and very happy.  I'll feel I've earned my stripes!  (Actually, stripes would be most unwelcome.  A little grain is fine).

I've also been working at the Black Country Museum for a few days this week, which is always immensely interesting.  It's an open air museum and is recognised the world over by Peaky Blinders fans, although it is so much more than that.  It's a special place (not to mention a TikTok sensation), bringing to life the history of one of the first industrialised landscapes with a talented workforce and a team of dedicated volunteers.  If you're in these parts, you really should visit.  Fingers crossed for a May 17th re-opening!

My work pattern has afforded me little time for photography this week, so I've been trying to think what to include in this blog post.  But a chance conversation sparked a train of thought.  So think of this blog as effectively a photographic stream of consciousness.

One of my colleagues happened to mention that she is from Romany Gypsy stock.  Her grandparents' caravan was set alight when they passed.  She herself was raised on a narrowboat and enjoyed a childhood fully immersed in nature.  She recalled watching a swan teaching a cygnet to fly, which I found magical.  

So here in the Black Country, we have canals, swans and narrowboats aplenty.  

Kinver, Staffordshire


Stourbridge Canal

I've found that I've gained a new found interest in narrowboats.  Correction.  I've always appreciated their value; practically and aesthetically (I love their unique characters, names and designs and the associated Roses and Castles canal artwork).  

They are commonplace in and around Birmingham and the Black Country, courtesy of our extensive network of canals, so it's easy to take them for granted. 

Stourbridge Canal

The concept I have struggled with is the narrowboat holiday.  I like to set my own pace on holiday and I'm not sure how I would adapt to a constant leisurely pace being imposed upon me; the idea that walkers could overtake the only mode of transport available to me.  That said, I'm making progress in that I am now at least open to trying.  I thank lockdown for my change in attitude.  Any new experience within reason) is now fair game.  Plus, Slow Travel is now a thing.  Google it.

Kinver, Staffordshire

Incidentally, I caught this man navigating his boat through a lock at the weekend.  Hours later, his wife spotted his photo on my Instagram feed and left a lovely comment.  Small world!


We also have visiting travellers periodically here in the Black Country, albeit less frequently these days (traditional horse pulled Vardo caravans with their stunningly intricate decorations).  Romany Gypsies have always fascinated me - from the generic image we have of female fortune tellers, to the quasi mystical "slow travel" travelling lifestyle and the fact that their lives and wagon artwork are so heavily influenced by nature.  

I lived for the best part of a decade in the village of Great Missenden, also home to Roald Dahl.  I was lucky enough to see first hand, his famous writing hut and his beloved Gypsy caravan in the garden of Gypsy House.  I've wanted a gypsy caravan ever since.

Peaky Blinders Festival, Digbeth, 2019

There is the famous "Black Patch" in Smethwick, on the outskirts of Birmingham (a thriving Romany Gypsy community back in the 1880s).  It is noted that after the death of Charlie Chaplin's widow, Oona, their daughter inherited a bureau with one drawer remaining stubbornly locked.  When it was prised open, a handwritten note from one Jack Hill, penned in the 1970s to Charlie was discovered, telling him that he had "entered the world in a caravan that belonged to the Gypsy Queen, who was my auntie.  You were born on the Black Patch in Smethwick."

Gypsy Camp, Peaky Blinders Festival, Digbeth, 2019

Digbeth 2019

So there you go...a little insight into the Black Country.  Black by name and black by nature - from industry furnaces, smoke and smog to the cut, Gypsy encampments and dark secrets.

Added to my "To Do" list now is painting a discarded horse shoe discovered on one of our lockdown walks.  There's plenty of artistic inspiration in these parts!  Given the forecast, I've also decided that it's not too late to attempt to crochet a bobble hat.  I've neglected my hooks in recent months, but the news this week that crochet may be an activity that prevents the onset of dementia appeals to a a hypochondriac like me.

What have you got planned for this icy Easter?

Friday, March 26, 2021

Another Day, Another Aesthetic: Accidentally Wes Anderson

Being part of a number of photography related social media groups, inevitably, members like to show off their skills and weekly competitions are commonplace.  Occasionally, if the theme grabs me or if I have a suitable image or I'm up for a challenge, I enter.

Last week, the Midland Photography Group set its weekly competition theme as "Experimental."  I immediately had an image in mind and after checking that the definition of "experimental," could include editing techniques (it can), I uploaded my entry.  (Some members of the photographic community can be quite pedantic and one still intimated that experimental should not include use of Photoshop, which I found a bit baffling, as everything in my composite image was photographed by me).  Semantics aside, my image won and is now in the virtual hall of fame on the group's UK Showcase page.

I mention this because winning meant that I got to choose the next theme.  Whilst many of my photographs are quite nature-centric, my tastes are actually quite eclectic.  I can enthuse about all genres of photography.  Opportunity is key to what I capture and none of us have been particularly well travelled in the last 12 months.  Accordingly, at present, I'm limited to my home environment, immediate local area and the cat.  So in a departure from the style of photographs I've been uploading of late, I opted for Minimalist photography.  In fact,  anyone who knows me or has visited our house will know that one thing I can never be accused of, it's being minimalist!

Minimalist photography is defined as being distinguished by extreme, austere simplicity.  It emphasises negative space, creating breathing room for the eyes and uses a minimum amount of components such as colour, shape, line and texture.  Here are a couple of examples from my archives.

Buoyed up by my self imposed challenge, I quite fancied capturing some appropriate architecture.  The most obvious place, which is close to home with plenty of clean lines and utilitarian buildings was Halfpenny Green Airport (now Wolverhampton Business Airport), which was built in 1941 as an aerodrome for the Royal Air Force.

It was a beautiful spring day when we visited and I was struck by the patina of the corrugated iron and the old paintwork.  Something about the washed out pastel shades stirred thoughts of the Film Director Wes Anderson's unique aesthetic...and so down the second visual aesthetic rabbit hole in a week I went!

As a film fan, I'm ashamed to say that I have only seen three of Wes Anderson's films - Lost in Translation, The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr Fox.  However, I am an admirer of his visual style.  I follow the hashtag #accidentallywesanderson on Instagram (there's a book by the same name, celebrating the style adored by millions).

So in tribute, I've been exploring any images of mine which may have subconsciously been inspired by Wes.

This door in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, captured just prior to the first lockdown, is a good example of the vivid pop pastel colours he favours.

Similarly, these images, taken in the crumbling Wordsley Manor (originally built in around 1757 by Black Country Industrialists), give a nod to the aforementioned vivid colour palette and epitomise faded grandeur.

Symmetry also plays its part in Wes Anderson's style, as illustrated by this images taken on the Severn Valley Railway....

....and this one through the doors of The Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton.

I like the idiosyncrasy of this image taken in Normandy....and again, the pop pastel colours.

Coloured corridors.

Finally, this one may require some explanation depending upon how much a Wes Anderson fan you are.  For some reason a couple of years ago, I felt moved to photograph my Mom in the most ordinary of settings - a supermarket.  The colours just popped, but only now, can I also relate this to the closing scene of a Wes Anderson film.  Anyone care to hazard a guess?  My clue is:  It might fox you.

Have a great weekend!  I'm off for my jab!

The Beautiful and the Damned

Forgive the F. Scott Fitzgerald title.  I'm going through a phase of discovering old classics I've yet to read and downloading them ...