Sunday, 4 June 2017

Were You Still Up for Portillo?


Why do we value beauty? We value beauty because the world is mostly ugly. In Britain ugliness is all around and beauty is unusual. This is the reason why Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus feel so strange to British audiences. They are British films, but they are visually stunning; they are escapist fantasies and they are cinematic.

Beauty is rare and precious, dazzling to those unfamiliar with it, which brings us neatly to Michael Portillo. In 1997 he was not by Hollywood standards a beautiful man, but compared to the likes of David Mellor or John Redwood - his political contemporaries - he was Hugh Grant and indeed Cary Grant rolled into one. And yet in 1997 this beautiful man was widely hated in Britain, and in the General Election of that year the people of his constituency rejected him. He was not the only Conservative minister to lose his seat in 1997 but he is the one that most people remember today.


Twenty years and a month ago Britain's Labour Party won a smashing election victory. Now they are poised to win again under the wise leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who despite being of pensionable age looks much younger than his years. Every so often Britain has a realigning election that reflects a fundamental change in the country's mood. The election itself is just a point on a larger wave; the elections of 1979 and 1983 took place during a phase of realignment, and so did the elections of 1997 and 2001.

Each shift sets the pattern for subsequent governments, but over time the wave has flattened. The elections of '79 and '83 led to a major shift in Britain's political landscape. Today no mainstream politician believes that Britain should have full employment, or that BAE Systems should be run directly by the government, or that anything should be done to reduce house prices, for example. The tower blocks in the image above would be unthinkable today because they might reduce house prices, which would be disastrous given that a substantial percentage of Britain's economy is based on the value of houses going up. All of these ideas are legacies of Thatcher's Britain.

It is much harder to pinpoint the legacies of '97 and '01. New Labour hoped that an influx of new British people would give Labour a perpetual majority, but in practice the impact of the New British on politics has been negligible. It's almost as if immigrants are individuals with political opinions of their own, and that importing millions of them simply increases the number of voters for all parties, not just Labour. Imagine that. Britain of 2017 idolises slender posh white women such as Kate Middleton and Taylor Swift, and all the young girls are called Saffie or Esme or Queenie etc, and Downton Abbey and Poldark and Call the Midwife are popular on television - but none of this is convincing evidence that Britain has reacted to mass immigration by becoming a nation of white supremacist Tories. There are ample counter-examples. Although the papers like to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn will take Britain back to the distant past the fact is that he cannot, because Britain will not go with him. He's smart enough to recognise this.

Corbyn was first elected to parliament in 1983, the same year as Tony Blair, but I believe that for most British people he was a complete unknown until 2015, when he "rose without trace" to become leader of the Labour Party. He beat a much younger man and two women, which is something I have not yet done. Back in 1997 he was a nobody holding down a safe seat in Islington North, which he won with a commanding majority of 20,000 votes. He was active in the House of Commons, but New Labour didn't care for him and he was otherwise just another long-term Labour throwback. Looking at his activity in Hansard I learn that in 1996 the average amount of rent paid by private renters in London was £114 per week, which seems quaint nowadays. See, this is the issue that large numbers of voters care about. Affording to live. No amount of frugality will help if the cost of rent and transport suddenly becomes greater than your income, and even if you are keeping your head above water no-one enjoys being in a position where one missed paycheque will result in economic ruin and homelessness.

I digress. In 1997 New Labour's big guns were Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, and Alastair Campbell, all of whom seemed like political giants at the time. Campbell was an unusual figure in that he wasn't a politician, he was instead Labour's version of communications director, its version of Joseph Goebbels.

Quoting from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads is a cliché of writing about Britain in the 1970s, and so is quoting Enoch Powell's maxim that all political lives end in failure, but it's true. The young meteors of New Labour all failed sooner or later, sometimes several times, although on a personal level they are now very wealthy men. Peter Mandelson was sacked several times before being sent to the House of Lords, where he earns a few hundred pounds just for turning up; David Blunkett was sacked and is now a Baron; John Prescott was famously useless at whatever job he was given and is also now a Baron; Gordon Brown spent years trying to become Prime Minister, and then performed poorly when he finally got the job. He is not yet a Baron.

Jack Straw failed to turn Britain into a police state and attracted controversy in 2011 when he suggested on television that certain sections of the population were conducting activities, which is something you aren't supposed to say; Clare Short huffed and puffed but amounted to nothing; Alistair Darling spent his entire career being laughed at and mocked by his bosses and is now a Baron; Robin Cook died; Mo Mowlam died. Some hung on before giving up in the 2010 or 2015 elections. Alastair Campbell is in an odd situation whereby he is interviewed on television and people laugh at his jokes and pretend to be friendly to him, despite the fact that - like Goebbels - he is a fundamentally evil man responsible for thousands of deaths. Whatever political power they once had is now slowly fading in inverse proportion to their accumulated wealth.

Jeremy Paxman opened an interview with Tory grandee Cecil Parkinson by saying "You're now chairman of a fertiliser firm. How deep is the mess you're in at present?"

Were You Still Up for Portillo? was published in October 1997, five months after the election. It was written by Brian Cathcart of the New Statesman and is essentially a lengthy magazine article published as a book. It describes the spectacle of the election, in particular the television coverage, without delving much into the historical context. The book begins at 10pm on 01 May 1997 and ends early the next morning. I remember that 02 May 1997 was bright and sunny, and everyone was happy because the forces of youth had won and the evil Tories were gone forever. A few days later Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England freedom to set interest rates, and it seemed that New Labour really was as good as everybody said, but it was not to last.

Today the period from 1997-2001 is lost to time and memory. The period from 2001-2008 is dominated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the period from 2008-2010 is overshadowed by the Great Recession, with the result that as time goes by New Labour is overshadowed by what appear with hindsight to be a series of calamitous natural disasters. Furthermore rather than shaping destiny New Labour developed a reputation for reactive politics, whereby its policy wonks would read through the Daily Mail on Monday morning, announce half-baked policies that would appeal to the newspaper's readers on Tuesday, implement them poorly a year later and then drop them without fanfare after that.

Despite living as an adult for thirteen years under New Labour - some of those years in London, no less - I struggle to remember any of the Party's policies. The minimum wage, set so low that it made more sense to be on benefits. ID cards that no-one wanted and that served no practical purpose. The congestion charge, which was actually Ken Livingstone's idea. The rebranding of Royal Mail to Consignia and then back again, also not directly Labour's doing although symptomatic of the Labour years.

Everything was built on masses of debt, which made sense because the economy was always going to boom, so why not use future revenues to pay for things today? The economy was built in cheap loans and interest-only mortgages. History will recall that New Labour devised public-private partnerships, the Child Support Agency and Railtrack, but history would be wrong because all of those things were introduced by John Major's Conservatives in the 1990s. At heart New Labour arrived at the same conclusions as the preceding Conservative administration but had much better presentation and a more charismatic leader. A fertile leader, no less, because three years after winning the 1997 election Blair fathered a child, thus demonstrating to the voters of Britain - especially the female voters - that he was healthy and his seed was pure.

She is happy because her children will not go hungry; he is happy because he is in charge. He will stand next to Bill Clinton on television, and when Clinton's time is over he will stand next to Al Gore, and the world will see that he is leader.

The election happened while Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. The result was announced while Brosnan was filming Tomorrow Never Dies, his second film in the role. I've always felt that Tony Blair modelled himself on Pierce Brosnan's version of Bond, or perhaps that they both modelled themselves on a shared archetype. A good-looking good guy, polite and worldly-wise, with a hint of Celtic grit (Blair was born in Edinburgh; Brosnan is Irish); broadly pro-European, nothing against gays, drinks wine occasionally, enjoys tapas. With their good looks and arsenal of decent suits they were what men of Britain circa the late 1990s aspired to be, and in their day they were both very popular although no-one admits to liking them nowadays.

We know a lot now that we didn't know then. The affair-having, egg-disrespecting, child-beefburger-force-eating, arms-to-Iraq-denying antics of the Tories in the 1990s seem quaint in the wake of a decade of drone strikes and IEDs. It turned out that most Members of Parliament were attracted to the job by generous expense accounts rather than a desire to make Britain proud. Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Cyril Smith etc were not great men after all, and Jack Straw's opinion that certain sections of the population were conducting activities turned out to have a substantive factual component, but that was the price of a guaranteed Labour majority and we weren't supposed to talk about it. Throughout the 2000s there were numerous marches in London to protest at Israel's treatment of Palestine, three thousand miles and a world away; for Rochdale and elsewhere there was silence.

Even today, seven years into a period of Conservative rule, the very mention of those activities and in particular the suggestion that they were conducted by certain sections of the population in particular is enough to have one ostracised from polite society. In fact it would have been better for all of us if the victims had just vanished into space, along with the probably neo-nazi fellow traveller who wouldn't shut up and was rightfully sacked for making things awkward for the rest of us. I'm digressing here, but again for some people the most pressing political issues of the New Labour years were not the railways or foreign policy, they were real things of genuine concern to actual people trying to live their lives, and when confronted with reality Labour not only did nothing, it actively suppressed any attempts to act. In 1998 the Belgian government faced a no-confidence vote in response to its inability to deal with, supposedly, a single man acting alone; no such thing has happened in Britain. No wonder some people believe that the recent witch hunt of a supposed paedophile ring in the British government of the 1960s was actually an attempt to deflect attention from more recent events.

Brian Cathcart and the people of 1997 were not to know about any of this, or if they had suspected it they would have kept quiet. In 1997 Labour had been out of power for ages. Although it had been in office as recently as 1979 its power had evaporated; the last time Labour won a commanding majority was in 1966. Labour in the 1980s was profoundly unappealing to Britain's youth and seemed out of step with the times. British people of the 1980s wanted McDonalds and home computers and video recorders, and the Tories understood this. Thatcherism sought to blame Britain's ills on unions and the poor, who were loathsome parasites, and this remains an effective tactic because no-one likes to identify as poor. The problem for the Tories was that once everybody had a home with two cars and the gypsies had been moved off and the poor had been starved out there were no more cards left to play. Margaret Thatcher became intolerable and her replacement, John Major, was hard to take seriously.

Throughout the 1980s Labour faced a problem whereby its most popular or at least visible politicians - the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, and Derek Hatton - were despised by the people who ran the Party. Labour supporters tried to compensate for the lack of a parliamentary majority by using control of local councils to exercise power independently of the Party's machine, with the result that Labour of the 1980s was loved by its fans but treated with suspicion and fear by everybody else, which is not an effective way to win over the entry country. Labour tried to win over Britons by demonising wealthy Yuppies, which had limited appeal because a lot of British people actually did want to be Yuppies.

At some point I will start writing about Were You Still Up for Portillo?, question mark full stop. The drink is starting to have an effect and I am finding it hard to concenreate. Mountain Dew, malt whisky - any kind - and water. IT hits the pots. Labour's victory in 1997 was seen as inevitable. The Party had wised up and cleaned up its image in the 1980s and early 1990s and came close to winning in 1992, but despite a memorably inappropriate victory rally by then-leader Neil Kinnock, the Tories won a slim majority. This proved to be a mixed blessing. The Tories hoped that things would get better, but they didn't.

It has nothing to do with the article.

The Tory majority of 1992 was whittled away in by-elections to nothing over the next five years, and then eventually less than nothing. The Party's appeal had traditionally been built on its command of the economy and concern for strong defence, but after the Cold War the people of Britain were resigned to defence cuts, and in the wake of 1992's Black Wednesday the Tories seemed to have no idea how to balance Britain's books. Tory ministers were in a state of civil war over Europe and they just came across as a bunch of arguing little shits who hated each other.

In 1997 Michael Portillo was Secretary for Defence. At the age of 43 he was a Tory version of John F Kennedy, young and handsome, although there were continual rumours that he did not have Kennedy's eye for the ladies, or for ladies in general. In 1995 he gave a famous speech at the Conservative Party Conference in which he mocked Labour's defence policy and tried to associate himself with the SAS. The speech was popular with Conservative fans but came across as too American for the rest of the nation.


Nonetheless he was tipped to run as party leader in the event of the inevitable Tory defeat. But Labour's victory was even bigger than the polls had forecast, and Portillo lost his seat to Labour's Stephen Twigg, a complete unknown. Portillo was unable to stand as party leader. The Tories instead picked William Hague, who had his moments but was outclassed by Tony Blair. Portillo returned to Parliament and ran for leader when Hague resigned, but lost. As with Michael Heseltine before him he was doomed always to be one of those "what-ifs" of British politics.

For non-UK readers of this post - both of you - I don't need to identify the two men. Portillo has a sneer of cold command. Stephen Twigg won the seat again in 2005, with a larger majority, so his victory in 1997 wasn't just a fluke.

Portillo's defeat became symbolic of the 1997 election. A lot of people absolutely loathed him. In their minds he was the living embodiment of the stereotypical second-generation Thatcherite Tory. Along with David Mellor, John Redwood, and Neil Hamilton, he seemed to represent everything that was unlikable about the Tories of the late 1980s and 1990s. He came across as a real-life version of Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard from The New Statesman, albeit that in retrospect it was his looks and manner than irritated people rather than anything he did. Many years later he became self-aware - in 2010 he wrote that "my name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public" - and nowadays he works as a television presenter and general media personality. Even his critics admit that the programme he did about the trains was good. His time in government is now a distant memory. Perhaps he will make a political comeback one day.

Yes, but what about the book? What about Were You Still Up for Portillo??, which is grammatically correct because I'm using the title of the book as a question. I wonder how you would say that sentence. How do you articulate "what about Were You Still Up for Portillo??"? If this blog post was translated into Spanish, would that sentence become "¿Qué pasa ¿Estabas Todavía por Portillo??"?"? Is there a way I can fill the screen with punctuation marks?

Over the last few years, perhaps even decades, it has become fashionable to "uptalk", which is the practice of ending all sentences as if they were questions. It comes from America. The book is a quick read, just shy of 200 pages. Flicking through it again I am reminded of Jonathan Aitken, who lost his seat to a man called Stephen Ladyman, who was later made minister of Transport but was sacked for failing to denounce Top Gear. Aitken went on to lose a libel case and was made bankrupt. Aitken was perhaps even less popular than Portillo if only because he had a sinister air about him. He was chair of a right-wing think tank and wrote the official biography of the current President of Kazakhstan, so he probably knows someone who could have you killed, but is it all just bluff?

I am also reminded that there was a Conservative minister called Michael Carttiss (sic). Hansard records that during a debate in the House of Commons called shortly after Margaret Thatcher decided to resign, he shouted "Cancel it! You can wipe the floor with these people!", which is sweet.

The Guardian is usually associated with failure and lost causes, but in the 1997 election former Guardian journalist Martin Linton beat junior health minister John Bowis. Inevitably he later got in trouble for suggesting that the "long tentacles of Israel" were interfering with Britain's elections - Britain's Labour Party is indifferent to the Jewish vote, to put it mildly - but on the other hand he has been far more successful in politics than Polly Toynbee or Seamus Milne, other Guardian journalists who tried their hand at the real thing. Portillo also reminds me of the existence of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, a kind of trial run for UKIP. Their one goal was a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, so I suppose in terms of percentages they were - despite failing to win a single seat - the most successful of all the parties that stood in 1997. They got their referendum and the people voted as they would have wanted.

The book also reminds me of the existence of Jerry Hayes, a Tory MP who would have fitted in perfectly well with New Labour, and also of William Waldegrave, whose name sounds like a fictional character; they both lost their seats. So did Edwina Currie, who left politics shortly thereafter. In 1997 no-one suspected, except as a joke, that she had been having an affair with John Major for several years. In 1997 the thought of either of them having sex - much less with each other - was ridiculous and even today it is a topic that I find difficult to contemplate.

1997 also saw the election of Mohammad Sarwar, Britain's first Muslim MP, who handed his seat to his son in 2010 and went off to be Governor of Punjab, as you do. The book reveals that ITV's staff cheered when Labour won an overall majority, so it's not just the BBC that should be deloused, it's the entire media class. 1997 was also the year that television war journalist Martin Bell won Tatton while standing as an anti-corruption independent. He was well-liked in his constituency but kept his word only to serve one term there. He was replaced as MP for Tatton in 2001 by George Osborne, who would go on to greater things.

Were You Still Up for Portillo? doesn't have an index, which is a big problem, especially given the cryptic chapter subtitles. Perhaps Penguin Books didn't have time to make one up. The book is essentially a lengthy piece of you-are-there reportage. It doesn't try to explain why the Tories lost, for example, and has a lot of minutiae about the television coverage that adds flavour but not substance.

Portillo went on sale for £5.99 but is long out of print. It is widely available on the used market. It was only ever released as a paperback; it's small enough to fit into a large jacket pocket, which is how I read it first, while on the London Underground. There is a page about Penguin's new website, which is still at www.penguin.co.uk. When Penguin goes bankrupt Britain will be finished. Long live Penguin.

Postscript
The two main parties learned a lot from 1997. Labour learned that even if you make yourself electable and then win elections, you're still subject to the same forces of entropy and decay as any other political party; the Conservatives learned that Britain had changed. And spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party. In 1997 Paddy Ashdown won 46 seats, more than double the Party's total of 1992. Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy the Liberal Democrats became a major political force, but Kennedy had a drink problem and so Nick Clegg took over.

In 2010 Clegg took the party into government, as partners with the Conservatives in a coalition, but it was a disastrous miscalculation. During the coalition the Liberals came across as Tory lackies and they had no real power. Clegg had traded the Party's soul for nothing, and in the 2015 there was a Liberal anti-landslide, with 49 of the Party's 57 MPs losing their jobs. A by-election win means that there are now nine Liberal MPs. The Liberals are the only party unequivocally opposed to Brexit, and yet they seem to accept that Brexit is inevitable, which raises the question of what else they stand for. Nonetheless, while our eyes were turned elsewhere, the Liberals had the most dramatic course of the last twenty years.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Nome, Alaska


There's something I want to get off my chest. A few weeks ago I read this great article about Nome, a town in Alaska where men are real men and women are hard-wearing. Nome is separated from the nearest McDonald's by hundreds of miles of bleak, frozen tundra. It is the hub of a small road network, but the road only leads to the nearest towns; the only way to get to Nome from civilisation is by sea or air.

It's very unlikely that I will ever visit Nome, but Google has mapped the place, so I can visit it virtually. It even has Street View, which was achieved by making a poor Google employee walk back and forth down Nome's frozen boulevards with a camera on his back.

Nome is a fishing village with very little tourism, but it has a certain appeal to motorcylists and offroaders who fancy a challenge. A century ago it was swamped by gold prospectors; half a century ago it was home to Marks AFB, what with it being just across the water from the Soviet Union. Today the population is slowly approaching 4,000, and on the whole it seems a pleasant place to rest and write a very long novel. But does it have broadband internet?


The Bob Blodgett Nome-Teller Memorial Highway leads to Teller, which is fifty miles away and has a school. One-third of the way from Nome to Teller the road goes over the Sinrock River. In 2016 someone stopped there and took a panoramic photograph. The place looks like Sweden:


Let's have a look at those rocks under the bridge, just visible in the right of the topmost image:


It's bleak. But hang on, what's that:


Let's take a closer look:


Really, I'm disappointed. Humanity has a spotty record with the environment but this is just embarrassing. Did Google's man throw the bottle away? Or was it a tourist?

Whoever it was, you're lazy. I ask you, the Internet - next time you're visiting Nome, pick up that bottle and put it in the bin. Otherwise it will haunt me until the end of my days.

That it's, that's all I wanted to say. Carry on. No, there's something else. It's 2017 and I've just found a discarded Powerade bottle seven thousand miles away, next to a bridge in Nome, Alaska. I didn't have to leave the privacy of my own drinking-room. I was just sitting in front of my computer. Truly, we live in the future.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Olympus XA3


My only hope is that the nightmares will cease when I die. But what if they continue? What if, without the moderating influence of my conscious mind, the nightmares are set free? So I have resolved to reverse the wheel and ram the ship through Cthulhu. I will activate every neuron in my mind, generating a furnace of anti-death so potent that it burn the nightmares out. To this end I'm going to have a look at the Olympus XA3, a compact camera from 1985. In my hands it has looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror and there is no escape for you.


For this post I decided to photograph blue things and red things.

I've written about the original Olympus XA before. It was a neat little rangefinder camera from 1979 with aperture-priority autoexposure and a proper split-image rangefinder housed in a tiny body, with a really good 35mm f/2.8 lens. The XA was sold alongside the budget-priced XA2, which had three-zone focusing and a 35mm f/3.5 lens, and the confusingly-named XA1, which had a fixed-focus 35mm f/4 lens and a selenium light meter. The XA1 was a bit naff.

They were all the brainchild of top God-genius Yoshihisa Maitani. While you're reading this post please listen to OOIOO's "Umo", which came out a while back but didn't we all:



Writing in 1928, H P Lovecraft imagined a future in which the scientific method's piecing together of dissociated knowledge would open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft underestimated the human spirit, however, and when Yoshihisa Maitani was confronted with the vast black emptiness of the universe he did not succumb to cosmic horror and go mad. Instead he produced a string of excellent cameras. I like to imagine that Lovecraft would have been pleased; pleased that he was wrong.


All of the XA cameras were manual focus, which was anachronistic by the mid-1980s. Nonetheless they sold well, and Olympus launched a second wave in 1985. The XA3 was essentially an XA2 with DX film encoding and a special quick-loading system; the XA4 was similar but had a 28mm f/2.8 wideangle lens that could focus down to a foot, with a special lanyard that could be used as a measuring aid or makeshift garrote.


London is full of billboards like this, on construction sites, where investment vehicles are constructed for people who won't live there.

Alas the XA3 and XA4 were not enough, and Olympus discontinued the range a year or so later. Olympus' early autofocus compacts didn't have much of an impact, but the Olympus Stylus and particularly the Olympus Stylus Epic of the 1990s were very popular and still have a following today. Over the last decade Olympus has revived many of its old brands to good effect, and it will be interesting to see if they ever dig up the old XA.

Of the lot I haven't tried the XA1, XA4, or original Stylus; their dead bodies told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. Of the others I prefer the XA, if only because the viewfinder is huge and it has more controls.


I actually shot all these pictures last year, when I went to see Barry Lyndon. I was so busy writing about Barry Lyndon that I completely forgot about them. When I am writing I forget about everything else, including food and sleep.

I don't know if it's the V500 scanner or Ektachrome or slide film in general, but it has a distinctive glow.

Compared to the XA the Stylus Epic has a slightly better lens - it vignettes much less - and used examples are much newer and less likely to go wrong. Furthermore the XA's soft-touch shutter button is an acquired taste.




The XA3 also has a soft-touch shutter button, but it has a bit of give so it's not too bad. As with the other XAs the shutter is really quiet - long exposures go snick (long pause) snick - but the thumbwheel winder is quite noisy, albeit that you can hide it in a jacket pocket while you advance the film, whereas with the later motorised cameras you have no choice.

The images in this post were shot with some Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007. Slide film tends to go purple as it ages, but the colours can be corrected with Photoshop. At the top, how it came out of the scanner (with the levels fixed); at the bottom, Photoshop.

Writing about the XA3 is difficult, firstly because it's basically the same as the XA2, secondly because I live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that I should voyage far.

The combination of 35mm and f/2.8 is more or less perfect; wide enough, narrow enough, fast enough, and it's easy to hold the XA3 steady. Exposures are spot-on. It is compatible with the standard XA flashes, which I will probably never use unless someone invites me to a party, which is unlikely, especially after the last time. It shares with the XA2 a design issue whereby whenever you open the sliding cover, the focus slider defaults to the mid-distance instead of the last position you selected. On a physical level the XA3 is slightly but noticeably larger than the XA. It's also harder to come by, as it was only sold for a short period and was overshadowed by the XA2 (cheaper) and the XA4 (wider).

You can't override the DX setting, but if the film doesn't have a DX code there is however a full range of ISO settings (from ISO 25 to ISO 1600). It shares with the XA a +1.5 stop backlight correction setting, which is selected with a little self-timer/battery check/miniature tripod good lever on the bottom of the camera, breathe out

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blue Skied an' Clear: Slowdive


Let’s have a look at Morr Music's Blue Skied an’ Clear, a compilation album stroke label sampler from 2002. Disc one has covers of songs by top British shoegaze band Slowdive; disc two has original songs inspired by the band. So it was that in 2017 I was moved to write about an album of covers released in 2002 of a band that flourished and faded in the early 1990s, as if descending a staircase into the past. I gazed at translucent figures who could not see me; I studied their ways and surfaced gasping into the present. As I write these words I imagine invisible eyes from the future studying me.

Slowdive was a shoegaze band. What was shoegaze? In the gap between C86 and Britpop there emerged a generation of fey, pale teenagers whose guitars broadcast formless, distorted washes of sound to an audience that craved an aural comfort blanket. The genre had a good run but the leading lights split up, or ran out of ideas, or ground to a halt. Britpop absolutely obliterated it. Britpop was brash, populist, and highly commercial; shoegaze was none of those things. It had an air of passive self-absorption that was at odds with Britpop's extroverted anthemicism. Furthermore there was a romantic aspect to shoegaze - the musicians were aesthetes - that didn't sit well with Britpop's postmodern mood.


Slowdive passed me by at the time. I was into electronic music, and in those days it was difficult to become familiar with a wide range of different bands. You either had to borrow lots of records or have a lot of money. There was no Youtube, and Slowdive was never played on the radio. I could only read about them in the music press, except that I continually got them mixed up with Swervedriver, another shoegaze band - Slowdive and Swervedriver are the same colour, both red - so I can't be sure if my memories of the band are correct. From my point of view Slowdive and the shoegazing genre was a blip that came and went between Madchester, ambient house, and then Britpop and drum'n'bass. It was part of the sadly doomed and forgotten pre-Britpop era.

The only shoegaze band that approached a commercial breakthrough was Ride, who managed a couple of top ten albums and a top ten single, although nowadays they tend to be thought of as a pre-Britpop indie band that had a shoegazing phase rather than a fully-fledged shoegazing band. My Bloody Valentine’s second album, Loveless, is generally regarded as the high point of the genre - the loudest, most formless, most diffident of all shoegaze records, the genre’s Kind of Blue. Slowdive never had a commercial heyday, and fan favourite Souvlaki was a victim of unfortunate timing. By 1993 the music press had grown tired of shoegaze and was more interested in the likes of James, The Wonder Stuff, Suede and so forth, and of course a year later the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and Parklife opened the floodgates that swept Slowdive and shoegaze away forever, or at least it seemed at the time.


For some reason – I know not why – Slowdive became internet-fashionable again in the 2000s. The group recently reformed and has released a new album. Surprisingly, it’s terrific; a moody, floaty ambient indie pop record that manages to be formless and tuneful at the same time. In a just world "Sugar for the Pill" would be a massive radio hit. Judging by Youtube views the band has gained a whole new following, including this blue-haired woman who was moved to tears by their cover of Syd Barrett’s "Golden Hair":


But what of Blue Skied an' Clear? The covers on Disc One are solid but sound a bit thin, as if the bands were all pushed for time. The problem is that Slowdive's music was inseparable from the production, with the result that, shorn of the band's wall of effects pedals, the music doesn't have the same impact. The exception is múm's cover of "Machine Gun". The song has a killer melody but Slowdive's production was plodding and unimaginative; múm's take is subtler, and the sound would have fit perfectly on Finally We Are No One.

There's another problem, highlighted by Limp's take on "Souvlaki Space Station". The compilation was released in the wake of Warp Records' glitch-pop heyday and consequently several of the tracks have pointless sub-Squarepusher glitchy treatments that don't fit the material, "Space Station" among them. Disc two's "Fade Out Your Eyes" is a particular bad offender.

Ulrich Schnauss' "Crazy for You" is the second best cover, adding twangy guitars and a shuffling beat to the original, which sounded as if it had been recorded in a tunnel. A few years later Schnauss' version of the song was used in a Lucozade advert, although sped-up:


I imagine Schnauss earned more from the advert than he did from Blue Skied an' Clear. During their career Slowdive tried to change their sound - they hired Brian Eno, although he didn't stick around for a whole album - but never really managed it. Their most recent album feels like the product of twenty years of gradual evolution rather than a sharp break, which is fine now but would have been disappointing if it was just Slowdive's fifteenth studio album. It's fascinating to imagine what might have happened if Slowdive and Eno had hit it off; say what you like about U2, Achtung Baby was a major leap for the band and it did give them a second wind. Solvent's cover of "When the Sun Hits" reimagines Slowdive as Add N to X while Lali Puma's version of "40 Days" has something of Garbage about it but neither of them convincingly reinvent the band. Skanfrom's version of "Here She Comes" sounds like a Brian Eno solo track from one of his non-ambient vocal albums.

Disc two is a lot more variable. Whereas Disc One is listenable throughout, Disc Two has some complete stinkers, although it gets off to a great start with Manual's "Summer Haze" and Isan's "My Last Journey". "House Full of Time" and "Fade Our Your Eyes" aren't very good at all and Solvent's "Discontinued Parts" is godawful. Limp's "Silent Running" is nice - it sounds like an instrumental cover of "40 Days" - but again has tonnes of indifferently-executed, now-badly-dated glitches. I bought the album after hearing Icebreaker International and Manual's "Into Forever", and for me it's the standout track. Schnauss' "Wherever You Are" is the other standout. The rest are basically inoffensive filler. That's (counts) four excellent tracks, three bad tracks, seven okay tracks. I find it hard to criticise the bands involved. They probably had six weeks to throw something together for the compilation and no extra money, so I imagine disc two is stuff with demos that they didn't want to put out as b-sides.

Morr Music still exists. Blue Skied an' Clear was released physically on compact disc and triple vinyl. The vinyl has a poster and some twee stickers that made me smile. It's still on sale today albeit only digitally. It's one really good album of mostly Slowdive covers with a handful of original tunes as a bonus, plus some rubbish that you can skip, the end.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Nikon F-301 / Nikon N2000


In a few days' time The White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl" will be fifteen years old. It wasn't their first single - not by a long chalk - but it was the first I remember seeing on television. You remember the video. It was made with Lego pieces. Stop-motion Lego pieces. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon F-301, a 35mm SLR that was sold in the United States as the Nikon N2000, although nowadays everybody calls it the Nikon F-301, albeit that no-one calls it anything because no-one remembers it or cares about it.


The F-301 was released in 1985, the same year as Madonna's "Into the Groove". Nikon sold it alongside the F-501 / N2020, which was essentially the same camera but with an autofocus motor. Autofocus was a big thing back then, but there was still room in the market for manual focus cameras. In November 1985 Popular Photography had a look at the F-301 and concluded that it was okay, I guess, although the reviewer basically describes the camera without passing judgement.

Also, check out the headline font, which is a good example of a proportional font, e.g. the letter I in NIKON is much narrower than the letter O - but also check out how the letter O actually overlaps the letter K. I think the font is ITC Avant Garde Gothic, but I'm not an expert. Obviously they must have hired a designer to push the letters close together. I assume the headline font is an imitation of Nikon's N2000 logo, in which the zeros overlap, just like the Olympic rings, although the F-301/N2000 had nothing to do with the Olympics:


Flight of ideas is a mental disorder characteristic of mania. Nikon sold the F-301 as an entry-level beginner's camera, although compared to the later F-50 and F-70 it feels a lot more substantial. The top plate is apparently made of plastic but the chassis is however metal, and overall the F-301 is heavier and more solid than I expected. Benoît Pioulard's music is fantastic. He is an ambient-indie musician (technically Benoît Pioulard is a "project"; his real name is Thomas). His ambient music mostly sticks to the same formula of evolving, distorted drones, and it sounds lovely:


"Sonic sculpture" is a massive cliche, but in this case it's true, the music is like an object to be contemplated or a mood that slowly passes through you rather than a quick buzz. Until recently I assumed that this was the entirety of his bag, but he has also made jangly indie pop and even ambient folk. Last year he broke his wrist! Unfortunately this incurred hefty medical costs. If only he had flown across the Atlantic to the UK, where he could have had the surgery for free, except that they won't let you fly if you have a broken wrist, scotch that idea. I'd love a scotch egg right now. I love savoury things. Sadly I don't have a scotch egg.

Nowadays the F-301's design smells of the 1980s. In those days it was fashionable to ask Porsche Design or Giorgetto Giugiaro to have a go at designing camera bodies; the F-301 looks like something Porsche or Giugiaro might have produced although apparently it is an in-house design.

F-301s are available on eBay for pennies. They have no real antique value. As with the early Canon EOS cameras the body is slightly more upmarket than it appears. I bought one so I could try out my 28mm f/2.8 AI-S on a period-correct AI-S-enabled Nikon film camera, because why not?

With an AI 20mm f/3.5. As always the most important part of the photographic system is the man holding the camera (or woman), specifically me.



Spec-wise the F-301 resembles the Pentax A3, Canon T50 and so forth. It uses Nikon's AI lens mount and is one of only four Nikon SLRs that supported AI-S; it is manual focus only; it has DX film encoding and manual film advance, but not rewind; it has a non-standard PPhiAM exposure matrix, oddly without S; it takes four AAA batteries, or four AA batteries with an optional baseplate.

I have this baseplate, and with four Eneloops the F-301 lasts forever. Which is good, because it's useless without batteries. It doesn't have a backup mechanical shutter speed, but even if it did there would be no way to wind the film on. Unlike some motor-equipped cameras it shoots until it detects film tension, rather than stopping at exactly 36 frames, so a few of my rolls had 37 exposures. When you insert film it winds on with three quick shots.

The F-301 has a beeper that beeps if the shutter speed is too slow. You can turn it off. The beeper and the motor drive are very loud.
The camera was sold as an entry-level model, but it still has some of Nikon's professional heritage. You need to press a small button before you can twist the PASM dial; ditto rewind. The motor drive runs at an unusually fast 3.5fps.
Beyond the AA baseplate there were no special accessories. No handgrip, no dedicated speedlight (the F-501 had the SB-20), no underwater case etc.


 The full caption is "black dudes, you can avoid the rain drops if you smoke".


So the story goes, during the making of The Fifth Element director Luc Besson came up with an imaginary alien language for Milla Jovovich's character, and by the end of filming the pair of them were so proficient in this language that they could have entire conversations. Humanity developed language for sound practical reasons, but to what extent does it shape our consciousness? Historically the F-301 was quickly overshadowed by Nikon's new autofocus cameras. In the 1990s and 2000s it was never prized by the cult camera crowd, who instead gravitated towards Nikon's older manual focus SLRs, such as the EM and F3 and so forth. On a technological level the F-301 is objectively more advanced than the F3, but the F3 has a much better viewfinder. The viewfinder is the F-301's biggest weakness. It feels cramped and I have to jam the camera against my face to see all of it.


My F-301 was actually broken when it arrived - the mirror and shutter were jammed - but after a bit of poking it started working again, so top marks to Nikon's early-1980s engineers. By the 1990s Nikon embraced cheapness to an alarming extent, and the F-301 was perhaps the last gasp of old-school grown-up Nikon.

If you want to experiment with film photography using old Nikon manual focus lenses the F-301 is an interesting value proposition - it can't depreciate any more, the only issue is liquidity - but you have to ask yourself if you'd rather fulfil a childhood dream and buy an F4 instead. The F-301, F-501, and FA do have one advantage over the F4 if you plan to use manual focus lenses however, in that they have a split-image viewfinder. Floordrobe, that's a good word.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8


Let's have a look at the Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8, an old zoom lens from the late 1970s that takes up very little space in a travel bag. Here's what it looks like:

The creatures we become / will visit distant suns / and find to their dismay / that they are all the same

The coating is an attractive red-purple-amber colour.

Vivitar sold it for all the popular camera mounts of the day. It pops up in camera magazines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, often sold alongside a 2x teleconverter. Vivitar's adverts claimed that the teleconverter was a specially-formulated "matched multiplier" that worked best with the 70-150mm, which sounds like total balls.

Off to Monte Isola on Lake Iseo, which has sunshine and cats (pictured).

In common with other Vivitar lenses the 70-150mm was built by a third party, in this case Kiron. To confuse matters Kiron sold the lens under its own name as a 70-150mm f/4, and furthermore Vivitar sold two different 70-150mm f/3.8 designs - the first had separate focus and zoom rings, my version has a one-touch pushy-pully-twisty control. Despite being roughly thirty years old the pushy-pully-twisty zoom ring on my model doesn't flop about.

It was a sunny day and I had the luxury of stopping down to f/8, which is easy on lenses. At f/8 the 70-150mm has very little vignetting and none of the "glow" typical of 1970s zooms. There's a bit of pincushion distortion at 150mm.
The colours are fine, again without the obvious washed-out quality of 70s zooms, but hard to judge given that I was shooting expired Ektachrome, which had a purple cast, and furthermore atmospheric haze made everything look slightly blue.

But was I blue? I was not blue because Lake Iseo is a happy place. This is a 100% crop from the middle, scanned at 2400dpi with an Epson V500. A dedicated film scanner could probably get more detail out of the original negative.

Short, relatively fast tele-zooms were a fad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Zoom lenses had been around for a few decades but they really started to become popular in the 1970s. The typical 80-200mm f/4 lens of the day was very bulky however, and there was a gap in the market for shorter models that could replace an 80mm and 135mm portrait lens. The Olympus 70-150mm f/4 was an early example, launched as part of the OM range in 1974; by the end of the decade there were loads and third-party short zooms, which nowadays clutter up eBay. Nikon's relatively large 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E is quite fondly remembered.



Monte Isola is a fun day trip, or two-day stay if you want to catch the sunrise. The island itself is pedestrianised - the locals get about on scooters and Piaggio Apes - and although there isn't much to do beyond walk around and eat, what's wrong with that?

On the whole the designs fell between two stools, too slow for indoors and too short for the outdoors. If you want to photograph birds, cats, ducks and so forth - and I realise that ducks are birds, perhaps I could have said hedgehogs instead - you have to get right up close to fill the frame at 150mm, which is risky. What if they attack?

The range makes more sense for tigers, cows, horses, and people, for whom you can zoom in to 150mm for a head and shoulders portrait and zoom out to 70mm for an upper body shot.

This was shot with a 20mm. In the absence of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude organisation the only practical way to reach Monte Isola is by ferry.
The island pictured in the poster (and at the top of this article) is the Isola di San Paolo, which is also accessible by ferry albeit that it's privately-owned. Google Street View has some images taken during the fortnight that the Floating Piers was in situ:


The inhabitants of Monte Isola string up the bodies of dead fish in these execution racks, facing the lake, "pour encourager les autres".

It seems that only Tamron made a short f/2.8 zoom, and it was a special soft focus model that sold in tiny quantities. With a 2x teleconverter the Vivitar 70-150mm becomes a 140-300mm f/8, which is very slow. My hunch is that unless it is an extraordinarily bright day, it would be better to ignore the teleconverter and just enlarge the photograph, or get closer, or put the camera away and just savour the moment.




70-150mm zooms don't have a direct modern equivalent; their modern descendents are image-stabilised, plastic-bodied 70-300mm f/4-5.6 designs, which have a more useful range but are much more conspicuous. It's funny the things that stick with you. For most of my adult life I have carried the words "beep cleep chimney" in my head. They come from this sketch, from Alas Smith and Jones:

Strictly speaking it was just "Smith and Jones" when they moved from BBC2 to BBC1.

A bunch of dinner party guests are playing charades. The joke is that instead of picking "vertical assembly building" or "Schleswig-Holstein question", their senile uncle has picked "beep cleep chimney", which doesn't make sense.

The sketch is cleverly constructed. There's an initial laugh at the realisation that the answer is beep cleep chimney, which sounds inherently funny; then there's a second laugh when we cut to the senile uncle, because (a) we suddenly realise why such an unlikely combination of words were picked and (b) Mel Smith looks stupid. The sketch is cruel and funny*. All humour stems from violent subversion; the sketch subverts our expectations of charades, then dabbles in absurdism, which is yet another form of subversion.

* I could have said "cruel, but funny"- but cruelty and humour are not mutually exclusive, especially in the context of British comedy.


The lens focuses closely enough to be used as a 1:4 macro. This is an Olympus Stylus Epic shot with a Fuji S5 at 150mm, f/11.

Alas Smith and Jones belongs to a generation of British television sketch shows that was supplanted if not exactly made obsolete by the dark realism of The Day Today and latterly the likes of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Smith plays the senile uncle as a broadly comic village idiot, but a modern take on the same material would portray the character realistically, ending the sketch on a sour note. The humour would then derive from our discomfort at the fact we are laughing at a mentally ill old man. A similar idea was the basis of Mitchell and Webb's final sketch, in which a senile Sherlock Holmes tries to force coherent thoughts through the fog of dementia.

For British television sketch shows the 1980s was akin to the Bronze Age of comics; although Russ Abbot and Cannon and Ball had huge ratings, the likes of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Alas Smith and Jones, Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, French and Saunders and so forth also attracted millions of viewers, bringing elements of the new Alternative Comedy to mainstream attention. The Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8 is neat, albeit that the range is very short; the Nikon version is particularly handy if you have a posh Nikon body, because it mounts and meters natively; Alien: Isolation has one of the best soundtracks of any