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.
If you want to license any of these images for use elsewhere, please get in touch using the contact form.
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.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whalers left their home ports in England and mainland Scotland in late February or March heading for the Arctic fishing grounds. Many of them stopped at Shetland, which is about a third of the way between ports such as Whitby and the edge of the ice where Bowhead whales spent the summer months. There they picked up supplies, spent a day or two adjusting ballast, but most importantly they collected men to complete their crews. In some cases almost half the crew of a Hull whaleship would consist of ‘Shetland Men’ who had a reputation for good seamanship, especially in small open rowing boats.
It is not immediately obvious why a man from Shetland would be prized over one from any number of fishing villages on the east coast of England or Scotland, or at least it wasn’t to me until I visited Shetland and found out about the Sixareen, a six-oared boat with a prow at each end used for fishing, and its smaller cousins, Yoals, Fourareens and haddock boats. These boats, many of which were imported from Norway before 1830–Shetland has very few trees–were used on fishing trips, sometimes with a small sail to supplement the effort of the rowers. Sixareens were used for deep-sea fishing on trips lasting three days or more. Shetland’s lack of roads at that time also meant that it was quicker and easier to travel around by sea than over land so they were also used for general transport around the islands for people as well as animals and other cargo. Sixareens and Yoals, or boats like them, are now used for racing.
I’m far from an expert in the details of these boats, but the similarity between the smaller, narrower Yoal and a whaleboat is striking, and Shetland men, besides being used to spending time at sea in small open boats, must have been physically well prepared for rowing at speed for long periods. In contrast, whaleship crews from ports in mainland Britain would have less experience, and significantly less long-distance rowing ability.
The boats pictured above are at the Shetland Museum, which is at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick, the last part of Lerwick harbour remaining from the early nineteenth century. Hay’s Dock was new when William Scoresby Jr. and the Arctic whaling fleet anchored in Bressay Sound on their way northward. Scoresby’s aim was to recruit whaleboat crews, but It is intriguing to wonder whether the connection went both ways, and whether Sixareens, Yoals and Fourareens influenced the design of whaleboats themselves.
Yesterday (July 23) was Raymond Chandler’s 125th birthday. I meant to write a post about that, but as seems to be the case in general with my blogging at the moment, I didn’t get round to it. Anyway, today I found time to add my short biographical piece on Raymond Chandler, which appears in Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers to my Articles pages. You can read all 2500 words of it here. There are quite a few Chandler-related posts and pages on this blog now, so here is a round-up:
Raymond Chandler: A Matter of Disguise (an early academic article of mine).
Also, I just posted something about In a Lonely Place (novel and film) over at the Venetian Vase.
At the European beer Bloggers’ Conference this past weekend there was a lot of talk about moving on from discussing the ingredients and statistics of beer and concentrating on the people. Beer is a social drink. It needs to be tasty, and that’s all; what matters is the company. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a while now and have reached a conclusion that one of the problems beer has is that it’s not normal enough. There are lots of times when drinking beer would be a bad idea, but it struck me reading George Ewart Evans’s Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, that there was a time when beer held the same position in family life as tea or coffee does now, and that it has somehow become too special: not quite a luxury, but not a staple food either. By becoming a “leisure drink” beer has to compete with other drinks, such as WKD; drinks that make no sense at all outside a marketing meeting. In that context, trying to be “special” might not be doing beer any good.
Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay was compiled by Evans from interviews he conducted with the inhabitants of Blaxhall, Suffolk in the 1950s, and looks back a further 50 years or more from there, to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Farming in postwar England was mechanising rapidly, changing both the work, and the culture of English villages. Evans believed it was important to record the memories of those who had lived and worked in such villages before these changes took place, to make sure that the customs and activities of an era in farming that had lasted several hundred years would not be lost forever.
The book covers many aspects of English village life, from the social structures of masters, servants and agricultural workers, to sheep shearing, bell ringing, superstitions, the church, and the old farming methods. What struck me, reading Evans, was how communal life was in the few decades before World War I, and how interdependent people were. That interdependence still exists of course, but it is less with our neighbours and more through formal infrastructures provided by corporations and governments. We pay our dues largely in cash, rather than sharing effort, and although we depend absolutely on the electricity supply and the stream of trucks supplying the supermarket, it feels at least as if these things are not precarious. You take a can of beans from the shelf, and before long another will appear.
And that brings me to what Evans has to say about beer. The people he spoke to, mostly born in the late nineteenth century, made or grew almost everything they owned or consumed. What happened on the farm, or in the kitchens of cottages, affected everyone. Surrounded as they were by fields of barley, beer was the usual drink for most people in the village. Sometimes the farm brewed beer centrally for the men who worked there, but most families brewed beer too, a task that fell to “the wife” of the household. The yeast was shared between households, each brewing in turn and taking yeast from whoever had brewed most recently and had the freshest supply:
…home-brewing was an important event, demanding the utmost care and vigilance; for there would be a great loss to the household if the brew went wrong. Moreover, beer at that time was recognized as an essential part of the farm-worker’s diet; and at times of extra work on the farm allowances of hops and malt were made by the farmer to his men. Robert Savage, for instance, got a “lambing ‘lowance” of two bushels of malt and two pounds of hops so that Prissy often made two brews during the lambing season.
One lady from a nearby village remembers how, as a child, she hurried down with her brothers and sisters on the morning after brewing to see whether the crown of yeast had spread all over the top of the beer. The children that if they saw the welcome froth of yeast the brew had been successful; and they were glad …
Back in the nineteenth century the status of beer was different from what it is now; it was drunk by just about everyone. It was a drink for the workplace and the family table, and a staple part of the diet. Imagine the joy of seeing that “the beer was smiling” on the morning after brewday, and knowing that the ingredients you had grown yourself, or shared with your neighbours, had not gone to waste. Quite a different experience from dropping a few bottles in a shopping trolley. What we gained in convenience we’ve lost in magic.
Curiously, beer was replaced as a family staple, according to Evans, not by another alcoholic drink, but by tea. Tea became cheaper in the late nineteenth century and was promoted by the Temperance movement. It is an intriguing idea that if things had gone differently commuters who now carry takeout tea and coffee might instead be toting mugs of bitter beer.
By Chris Routledge