This past weekend I attended the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin. It’s the third year I’ve been to the event and as usual it offered a good mix of regular conference sessions with beer tasting, brewers’ receptions and social gatherings. The major sponsors Guinness, Pilsner Urquell and Molson Coors (represented by Franciscan Well) might not be approved of in some quarters, but their generous help meant the conference could take place. The evening at the Guinness Storehouse was refreshingly free of corporate pushiness and the brewer I spoke to was genuinely enthusiastic about his job. The impressive Smithwick’s Night Porter, winner of an internal competition between brewers, of which only 120 bottles were brewed, showed just how much talent they have despite the ubiquity of the beers they brew every day. Apart from tasting their beers in near perfect condition (the Guinness served at St. James’s Gate had better be as intended, right?) it meant that we could be introduced to small Irish brewers like Mountain Man, the Carlow Brewing Company, Galway Bay Brewery, Trouble Brewing, Black Donkey, Rascal’s, N17 and others (who have I missed?). N17′s small batch of Oatmeal Stout was a highlight for me. It’s a sign of how quickly brewing in Ireland is changing that these last two have been brewing for only a matter of months, in contrast to Guinness, whose shiny new and vast €160 million Brewhouse No. 4 we visited on Friday night. How vast? One of the company’s representatives told me at full capacity it is capable of brewing 180,000 pints per brew and nine brews per day. It’s a truly impressive place, although it did come at the expense of closing two other breweries, at Dundalk and Kilkenny. Quite a few of us learned how to pour a pint of Guinness that night, but the barman refused to show me how to put a shamrock on top. It wasn’t all beer and food, though there was an awful lot of both. Derek Springer, representing WordPress, gave a fascinating talk on how to get the most from WordPress and other blogging platforms, and handed out sunglasses that seem to have inspired the formation of a completely silent and beer-related tribute band: CraftWerker. I switched from WordPress.org to WordPress.com several years ago after being hacked a couple of times, but Derek’s talk has left me wondering whether Jetpack and Vaultpress might just give me the confidence I need to switch back. As in past years, what made the conference for me was the people and I spent a lot of my time wandering around with my camera and a dodgy old lens. Here’s a
carousel gallery of images from the various receptions, parties and conference sessions over the weekend. And the frightening offspring of the unholy union between a gnome and a leprechaun.
For part of this week I’ve been writing a short biographical piece about John Clavell, an English poet and dramatist, who was born in Dorset in 1601. Clavell didn’t write very much before he moved on to other careers as a lawyer and a doctor (neither of which he seems to have been qualified for in any way), but what he did write is fascinating. Clavell was born into a well-to-do Dorset family, with an estate at Wootton Glanville, and he arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford as a likely lad of eighteen in 1619. But despite his family background, including a rich uncle, Sir William Clavell, our man seems to have wanted more. In 1621, before competing his degree, Clavell stole some of the silver and gold plate belonging to the college. He was soon apprehended and thrown in prison, only to be given a pardon following the intervention of his uncle. After that Clavell went off to London and fell in with a bad crowd. Thinking he was going to inherit a fortune from his father he started borrowing money, but when his father died in 1623 and most of the family estate turned out to be mortgaged, he found he couldn’t pay off the nice men who had lined up to fund his lifestyle and now wanted their money back. Clavell did the best thing he could think to do in his position: he became a highwayman. Highway robbery was a capital crime in 1624, but Clavell clearly thought the possible returns were worth it. Unfortunately he was arrested in late 1625, after less than a year terrorising the roads around London. Along with several others he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
If the hangman had his way we might have been deprived of Clavell’s obscure, but fascinating account of highway robbery. Fortunately for him and us the coronation of Charles I in February 1626 brought with it a general amnesty and for the second time Clavell managed to secure himself a pardon. It was another two years before Clavell was released, but in the mean time he wrote a penitent poem explaining why he went on the road and describing the life of a highway robber. His A Recantation of an Ill Led Life was published in 1628 and became immediately popular. Here was a first-hand account of the life of one of the most feared categories of criminal, a group who made long-distance travel a hazardous undertaking, whose acts could leave their victims penniless, or even dead. But not only was Clavell’s confessional a revelatory tract about a mysterious and much feared profession, it also offered advice on how to avoid being robbed, and on how to recognise highwaymen among your fellow travellers and companions. Notably, despite the fact that he was released from prison, Clavell warns others against taking up the profession. One swallow, he says, does not make a summer. Despite its lurid subject matter, the Recantation is low-key and unembellished. Clavell is keen to be accepted as a reformed character–he even begs the king for some kind of employment–and portrays the highwayman as generally more fearful than fearsome. Even so he begins with a striking statement:
Stand and deliver to your observation,
Right serious thoughts, that you by my relation
May benefit, for otherwise in vaine
I write, you reade, unlesse from hence you gaine
The happinesse I meane you; blest is he
That will make use of others jeopardie.
Be warn’d by me, so may you purchace hence
At a cheape rate my deare experience.
Some of the advice he gives to travellers is surprisingly modern. Don’t make it generally known you are going away, or why:
… you little thinke
There’s any harme in this, yet I have knowne
A Father thus betray’d by his owne Sonne,
A Brother by a Brother, and a friend
Most deare in outward shew, to condescend.
Trust nobody along the way:
Oft in your Clothiers and your Grasiers Inne,
You shall have Chamberlaines, that there have bin
Plac’d purposely by theeves, or else consenting
By their large bribes, and by their often tempting,
That marke your purses drawne, and give a gesse
But some of it seems at first glance rather odd: don’t travel by day “with any sum you are afraid to lose” and don’t travel on a Sunday. The first of these becomes clear when Clavell explains that darkness makes the victim and his pistols more difficult to see, but also that highwaymen “… must / Keepe lawfull howers, for feare they through mistrust / Be apprehended …” Not travelling on a Sunday also makes sense: only people with important business would be prepared to travel unlawfully on the sabbath, making picking out a victim much easier.
Clavell also gives good advice to inn-keepers on how to spot highwaymen and thieves. Ostlers in the stables might notice horses that must have special food, or careful treatment–above all else a highwayman depends on his horse. And highwaymen, it seems, travel light; their horses have empty cloak bags on the saddle, there for show, and to receive the swag. Inn-keepers, according to Clavell, should make sure to spy on their guests, listen to their conversations, and arrange for someone to knock loudly on the door, to see how they react. Sometimes criminal guests arrive in groups, pretending not to know each other, and they always go to the best inns, where they are less likely to be suspected:
The fairest Innes they usually frequent,
Out of a wary-politicke intent,
Presuming, for disparaging the man
They will not search his howse, and there they can
Rest unmolested, but since this you know
Let not the subtile theefe, escape you so.
Clavell went on to write a play about a young man who borrows money expecting to inherit a fortune and is then cheated out of his inheritance by unscrupulous moneylenders. He then went to Ireland to be a lawyer and physician. It is very unlikely he ever had any formal training as a lawyer, but nevertheless he also practised law in London in the late 1630s. He died, nobody knows where, aged 42, in 1643.
Gillian Spraggs’s site about highwaymen has part of Clavell’s Recantation available. I was unable to find the whole poem available for free on the open internet, but if you have a university subscription to Athens or similar you can read it at Early English Books Online. Otherwise, there is much more about him (and the poem) in John Pafford’s John Clavell 1601–1643. Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, (Oxford, Leopard’s Head Press, 1993).
As a side-effect of all this, I’ve had the inevitable Adam and the Ants earworm for a couple of days:
Another quick post to say there’s a new poem and photo over at The Jupiter Project, my collaboration with poet Rebecca Goss. This one is called Caitlin and the Hens and although it has a comfortable, domestic setting, as with childhood itself there is a double-edged payoff.
I’ve just finished writing a short biographical piece about Francis Coventry, a writer and clergyman from the eighteenth century I had never come across before. Coventry was born in 1725, but between leaving Cambridge in 1749, and his death from smallpox in 1754, he produced a little-known novel that I found very amusing. Pompey the Little is a picaresque tale of eighteenth-century London society very much in the vein of Henry Fielding, the twist being that the ‘hero’ is a lap-dog. It was published anonymously, probably because many of the characters in it would have been recognisable to anyone reading it, and as a result there was much speculation about who the author might be. Fielding was one suspect. Coventry’s novel is funny, lively, and often coarse: a “modish” marriage descends into mutual violence because the wife goes to the theatre to see Hamlet; Pompey pisses on his master’s breeches and “performed a much more disreputable action on a rich Turkey carpet” before being rewarded with a large breakfast.
In his dedication to Fielding in the second edition, Coventry laments the low status of the novel, which was then still a novel literary form:
Scholars and men of learning have a reason to give; their application to severe studies may have destroyed their relish for works of a lighter cast, and consequently it cannot be expected that they should approve what they do not understand. … People whose most earnest business is to dress and play at cards, are not so importantly employed, but that they find leisure now and then to read a novel.
It’s been a couple of years now since I started using film cameras again and I have become quite attached to two of them in particular. I’ve written about the Zorki 4 rangefinder here before and if anything I’m more impressed with that now than I was back then, in the excitement of shooting my first roll of film in a decade. The Zorki–and its Jupiter 8 lens–is a great carry around camera that works really well in the street, but for a slower style of photography I’ve taken to using a Yashica Mat 124G. This is a black brick-shaped hunk of metal from the early 1980s which produces square negatives on medium format 120 film and makes images with fine detail and beautiful, smooth, out of focus areas.
Where the Zorki is a crude but effective tool, the Yashica Mat is a precise and delicate instrument. That’s not to say it isn’t robust–this one is over 30 years old and works perfectly–but if I was looking for a bludgeon to whack a burglar and still be able to take pictures of the crime scene afterwards, I’d pick the Zorki. The 124G is what is known as a “Twin Lens Reflex” or “TLR” camera, because it has two lenses, one for viewing (the top one), and one for actually taking the picture (the one below). The viewfinder flips up from the top and you look down into it to frame and focus the image, which appears back to front on a piece of ground glass. There is a little magnifying glass to assist with fine focussing. It’s a very simple system and it works well, but if you want to get it right, you have to take your time. Given the cost of film and the fact that you only get twelve shots per roll, you’ll want to take your time anyway. This is the last in a long line of made-in-Japan Yashica homages to the more famous German Rolleiflex.
There is a real sense of occasion when using this camera. It’s theatrical in a way that most cameras are not. Back in the days when owning a car was something special, people would make a decision to “take the car out” as a treat. Using the Yashica Mat feels just like that. Being fully manual–it has its own light meter, but it’s not coupled to any settings–you have to check the light and set the aperture and shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Like making good coffee, you have to go through a process, and do it mindfully and with care. Most digital cameras can be operated one-handed, an ergonomic development we can thank for the rise of the selfie, but for the Yashica Mat you need three hands. It’s best to have it hanging round your neck or on a tripod while you set it up. Yet for all this inconvenience and fiddling around, once you get the hang of it it’s surprisingly easy and pleasant to use. All the settings can be seen looking down at the top of the camera, which is what you’ll be doing anyway while you are framing the shot, and what you see in the viewfinder is pretty much what you see when the negatives come back from the lab.
I had a soft spot for these kinds of cameras even before I acquired this one. My Dad had a Yashica TLR in the 1970s (a 635 I think) and I have happy childhood memories of him in holiday clothes, head bowed into the viewfinder while we smiled and tried not to blink at the wrong time. Since I started using one myself I’m even more taken with it. As an object it really looks the part, but it is also a functional and highly effective design, with a superb, sharp 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon lens. And when you use it it makes people smile.
At the risk of turning this blog into the story of what I did on my holidays I thought I would post a few pictures of Jarlshof, a prehistoric site at the southern tip of Shetland, at Sumburgh Head. It is generally considered the most important prehistoric site on Shetland, dating back to around 2500BC and inhabited more or less without interruption until the 1600s. Sir Walter Scott was a commissioner for the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head and set his novel The Pirate (1822) in the most modern of the houses at Jarlshof, the biggest ruin in the pictures.
What I most like about sites like this is the sense of people living in them. You can imagine these rough huts, with their turf roofs, and would be glad of their shelter even now. I particularly like the way that the geometric patterns of human dwellings is both imposed on the landscape and is forced to fit into it.
Apart from the Norse long house and the latest building, almost everything here is curved, and yet even the curves are built from layers of rocks, laid carefully upon on one another with a plan in mind.
Jarlshof contains most of the types of ancient construction used on Shetland, from early buildings to brochs and wheelhouses, and a Norse settlement that dominated the village for 400 years from the 800s AD. There is also a medieval farm and, most prominent of all the New Hall, which inspired Scott. Anyway, Jarlshof is a fascinating, atmospheric place. I hope you enjoy the pictures.
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Like most people who enjoy taking pictures the closest I get to photographing unusual wildlife is at the zoo. While an ancient film camera is perfectly adequate for shooting the exotic creatures stalking the streets of Liverpool, I don’t have the funds for the kind of equipment needed to get really close-up shots of anything more reclusive. Even so, a trip to Shetland seemed like an opportunity to play at wildlife photography, so I borrowed a Tamron 18-200mm ‘superzoom’ lens from my sister (Thanks Sis) and set out with high hopes. We had three goals: to see dolphins, whales, and puffins.
We got lucky on day one when our neighbour (and owner of our holiday apartment) came over to say that orcas had been spotted just off the coast nearby. It turned out to be a pod of four (or maybe five) and they treated us to a spectacular display of the kind that wildlife television crews sit around in wet tents for months to see.
This included a demonstration of seal throwing that was both thrilling and quite harrowing to watch, especially when it became clear that they were doing it for fun and not for food. You can’t see the seal in the picture above, but it’s in there somewhere.
Even at 200mm the lens wasn’t really adequate at that distance–I reckon I needed at least twice that to get really close–but some cropping helped bring them closer. Here’s an excellent video taken by John Moncrieff not long before we arrived.
We had even more good luck at Sumburgh Head the following day, where not only were there loads of puffins scattered across the sloping cliff tops, but a pair popped out of their burrow right at our feet.
Photographing these birds was easy. They were well within the range of the 200mm lens–some of them were close enough to photograph with a phone–and even those further away kept still long enough for me to compose the shot.
It was trickier capturing them in flight. The autofocus on the Tamron lens just wasn’t fast or accurate enough to lock on to them as they approached from the sea.
Tracking them as they took off and plunged down the cliff was easier, but I wanted a landing shot.
I finally got one as we were leaving, but more by luck than judgement. This image is cropped too as the bird was quite far away. I was quite impressed by the lens, which is small and light despite its wide range, but it is an old design now and the slow autofocus and lack of stabilisation were sometimes irritating. I’d go for the newer Tamron 18-270mm, which has a welcome extra bit of reach and is stabilised to reduce camera shake. Overall, despite the limitations, it was refreshing to use one ‘do everything’ lens for a change. If I was thinking of buying a new crop-sensor DSLR I’d be tempted to buy a body on its own and one of these to go with it, rather than the standard kit lens.
We never did see dolphins, but getting this close (and closer) to these charming little birds, while they ignored us, was quite a thrill.