Wednesday, 21 June 2017

6,000 shots in seven weeks

It's very difficult to keep blogging when on holiday! It's such a chance to do unusual things, and see unusual places, and meet people not ordinarily encountered. Combine a wish to get out and around, exceptionally sunny weather, and a photographer's eye, and pictures can and will get taken in profusion. They have to be dealt with. I've spent most of my holiday evenings on them - well, after cooking, eating and washing up, anyway - and I'm still five days behind.

Don't misunderstand me. I love taking photographs. I linger over them as I process them, and look at them again and again afterwards for all kinds of reasons.

I very often see details in my pictures that I missed when actually there in person. That's why I object to paying good money to visit something, and yet being denied the right to take pictures while there. In fact, if I know that in advance, I won't bother visiting the place at all. For instance, in Brighton they prohibit you from shooting the interior of the famous Royal Pavilion. Why? I mean the days when it would harm 'postcard sales' are long past. Possibly some aged fuddy-duddy on the governing committee has visions of the hoi polloi blitzing the place with flash bulbs - not realising that ordinary modern cameras and phones have fast lenses, and don't need flash of any kind. Anyway, I am not going to revisit the Pavilion again until their silly photo ban is lifted.

I personally think that the various organisations that run places like the Royal Pavilion just like inventing Rules. They don't really welcome visitors, only their cash. People endanger the vital preservation effort. They really want to be belligerently discouraging, repelling all boarders. Or failing that, herd the paying public - who are in any case mostly meek and well-behaved - into manageable groups with a no-nonsense guide in charge, making sure that we pay attention and touch nothing. But listening to somebody droning on about historical and artistic stuff that I already know something about, and not being able to wander about as I please, is to me as uncongenial as being forced to sit still and watch a film that may have generated several Oscars, but bores me stiff.

Another case in point. I'm now in Fife in Scotland, half-way through my long holiday, and yesterday I went to see Falkland Palace, a National Trust for Scotland property. All turrets and royal history. It was a lovely warm sunny day. I had notions of seeing the Palace first, then the famous Gardens. I flashed my English National Trust Life Membership card, and duly got in free.

But right at the beginning of the signed route upwards, via a spiral staircase, was a 'No photography' sign. What? No photography, when the English NT - clearly more enlightened in these matters - normally allowed you to take non-flash pictures? Hmph. Not impressed.

It would have looked a bit odd to back off and slink out right at the beginning of the tour, so I continued upwards and joined a small crowd of visitors in a nice room. I was warmly welcomed by the guide, who had started on a well-rehearsed lecture. But I stayed at the edge of the throng, near the door, thinking: did I want this? Was I going to shuffle with the crowd from room to room, and endure lecture after lecture, all the time unable to take pictures to make my visit memorable? I quickly decided to opt out. I turned, ignored the signed route, and departed the way I'd come. Fortunately, a coachload of fresh visitors had just arrived, and the ticket girl didn't see me escape. Outside, I illegally stepped over a chain and into the Palace Gardens. They proved to be very pleasant, and I shot away to my heart's content.

The old scroats who decide the Rules for Palace visiting need to change their thinking. Otherwise I won't be back.

Falkland Palace was an exception to my daily habit of blitzing every place that I've never been to before. I've done it even more than usual, since I discovered that Tigerlily, the new phone I acquired on 28th April, has a fantastic camera. In the seven and a half weeks since our first acquaintance, I've taken over 6,100 photos with her, a lot of them while on holiday. You can see why the necessary processing time on my laptop looms so large in my life! It's one reason why I always holiday alone. If I had a companion, they would feel lonely and neglected; and I would begrudge giving them any time. I'm very much devoted to photography. Not the equipment and the technicalities: I prefer to keep those very simple. But I do want an impressive collection of shots that perfectly recalls where I went, and fully captioned so that retrieval and publishing is easy.

Some day-trips have yielded an astonishing crop of pictures, in terms of both quality and quantity. Six days ago I walked around Newcastle for the first time ever. I went there by train from Alnmouth (quite an adventure in itself). I saw the central station, the riverside, the bridges, the Baltic arts centre, the old commercial heart of the city, the Cathedral. Then I took the Metro out to Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth. I averaged one snap per minute. The cream of the 400-odd shots taken will appear on Flickr, and in blog posts to come once home. Believe me, it took serious commitment to process those 400 shots, but it wasn't a hardship. I was in the mood to do it, well-fed and comfortable. I had Classic fm to listen to. It just went on and on for hours; but I enjoyed every minute of the task. And there are some striking shots to show for it.

This is the first rainy day I've experienced north of the Border. So I can actually find time for blogging! However, it seems unlikely that I'll be able to write many posts before I get home. The photo work comes first.

Sorry, I mean having a holiday comes first. I need to remember that.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Suspicion and envy in Scarborough

Much to my astonishment, I have wanted to use the camera on my new Samsung Galaxy S8+ smartphone for well-nigh every shot since taking the first few experimental pictures at the end of April. And now, almost 4,000 shots later (that's 4,000 shots in just six weeks), I am satisfied that the future lies in buying phones that feature a camera as good as this one.

That's quite a change of attitude on my part, towards cameras on phones. A couple of years ago I was prepared to scoff at them. No longer. In fact I think the camera I bought two years ago in 2015 - the Panasonic LX100 - will turn out to be the last 'conventional' camera I shall ever buy. In the future, it will only be necessary to buy a smartphone with a camera that suits my kind of picture-taking.

And those personal needs are pretty straightforward. A glance at my Flickr pages will instantly reveal the mix of subjects I regularly tackle. A phone with a good camera is adequate for almost all of it.

You see, you have to distinguish between the shots you actually do take, and the shots in dreams - you know, the sort of picture that the photo-equipment manufacturers splash across their webpages and glossy brochures, to feed desire for expensive, high-status equipment. The images captured by professionals might very well require 'proper' big-name beasts with monster lenses attached. But if all you actually do is wander around snapping things that catch your eye, or recording happy times with friends, then there is no need to tote such imposing kit. In fact, I rather think that only beefy men wanting to be thought 'real photographers' spend cash in that way. The rest of us, with no need to impress anyone, prefer to travel light.

I think the latest 2017 generation of phone cameras is now good enough to replace an ordinary camera without the loss of any capabilty that matters. My 4,000 shots say it's true. Tigerlily's camera can deliver the kind of shot I want. Which is: impeccably exposed, richly coloured, and full of detail. And - vitally - with everything in focus. For I want to examine everything in the shot, and anything out of focus spoils the picture so far as I am concerned. In that I'm at odds with the current fashion, which favours having a narrow depth of field to make the main subject stand out in sharp focus, but the rest of the picture gently softened. A large sensor and a clever lens will achieve that. But no thanks. It isn't what I want.

But a smartphone can give me what I'm looking for. A smartphone is thin. This imposes restraints on the camera design, so that it's impossible to achieve a picture with some things sharp and some things deliberately blurred, unless you resort to clever software that creates a not-very-natural illusion of soft focus. You can't do it optically, unless the subject is right under your nose. Some must deplore this severe limitation. I embrace it. The output of smartphones is exactly what I want.

I was in Scarborough yesterday. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was wandering around with Tigerlily in my hand, and every now and then I'd take a shot, or a number of shots, of something I had noticed. It was very easy to do this with the phone. Easier in fact than deploying a regular camera would have been. Quite a number of people object to being in a shot. I don't know what's up with them. These people notice proper cameras. They peer and stare and often frown. They look stiff and unnatural. Oddly enough, they are often the last people you'd really want to shoot seriously. But by staring straight at you they call attention to themselves, and may spoil the shot.

But phones are almost invisible. They seem to be in everyone's hand. And so many people are taking fun shots with them. They are harmless gadgets. Phones are not threatening. They indicate - if noticed at all - that you are nothing more than a happy snapper taking a casual shot that won't be of any great quality. It's a shot that can't matter. So the self-conscious don't mind nearly so much, and (mostly) remain natural.

That said, I was getting a few stares. I wondered why. Was it the way I was taking my shots? I do compose them with obvious care. But then surely a lot of other people do as well. It wasn't because I was talking to Tigerlily, either. Saying 'capture' wasn't possible in the sea breeze, nor where the background noise was intrusive. Then it occurred to me. My phone was tethered to my wrist with the lanyard. That was something you might see and wonder about. Absolutely nobody else was using a lanyard with their phone. It was surely getting me noticed. Worse, it was perhaps making some people wonder whether what I had in my hand really was a phone. What else do people tie to themselves? Did they think it was a suicide bomb? Hmmm!

There was perhaps another more down-to-earth explanation as to why some people were giving me scrutiny. Tigerlily was a recently-launched and very, very expensive smartphone, and looked like no other. Perhaps they wondered what kind of swanky show-off madam, with too much money for her own good, was walking through the holiday throng? I'm inclined to put it down to ordinary human envy more readily than anything else.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

After the election

Despite being on holiday, I sat up very late in my caravan on General Election Night, all in accordance with family tradition.

Pre-election events had changed the picture, and I thought it was going to be no landslide victory for the Conservatives, and that the unfolding story would be well worth listening to (I was photo-editing with the radio on). It was. The first shock was the Exit Poll that said the Conservatives would be the largest party but lose their majority in the House of Commons. Many commentators immediately went into disbelief and denial about that. But the Poll was incannily accurate. And by the morning we saw that it had predicted the broad picture correctly, although it had not forseen the Conservatives' astonishing success in Scotland.

As a Conservative voter, was I dismayed? (That just might be a decent pun) No. But the result was bound to cause difficulties for running the country effectively, and playing a bold hand at the Brexit negotiation table.

But I wasn't altogether surprised. Labour had made the better running out in the country and on TV, and had deserved to win seats from the Conservatives on account of the sheer effort put in. I'm not saying that I'd have half-welcomed a Labour victory as an outcome well-earned. Certainly not. I'd have shuddered at the inevitable consequences of their grand spending plans. But they had put peoples' welfare at the heart of their programme - people young and old - and that looked so much warmer and more caring than the Conservatives' prudent but rather chilly programme.

It emerges now that the Conservatives had employed two senior outside consultants to advise on the best manifesto - and they messed up. But that's scapegoating. Everyone who allowed that manifesto to be published should take the blame, including of course Mrs May herself. There were things in it that should not have been there, some of them politically unwise (such as bashing older people), and apparently some things that were downright silly (was there really a promise to relegalise fox-hunting?)

Just as (touching on Brexit again) no deal would be better than a bad deal, no manifesto would have been better than a bad manifesto!

Well, the electorate was worried or took offence, the result is now plain, and the question is: where do we all go from here?

It's all very well for Labour to claim they are an alternative government ready to serve. Mrs May and her Conservatives did, very clearly, win most votes and most seats, and that's some kind of mandate to carry on. Labour isn't going to get a look-in. The DUP in Northern Ireland are going to inflate the not-quite-enough Conservative seat total, so that so long as both parties' interests continue to coincide - and so long as they don't fall out - the country will push ahead on Conservative lines, though not necessarily as the manifesto envisaged.

A lot of people are worried about the DUP, not so much for what they may demand for their assistance, but because they have in the past been strident and unprogressive, defending 'moral standards' that seem out of place in modern mainland and mainstream Britain. And I have to say that were I a lesbian, or a pregnant woman looking for an abortion, I'd be highly concerned about what they might be able to do to water down my legal rights. They will find however that getting a chance to exercise real power exposes them to scrutiny and potential censure from the country at large. If the DUP misbehaves, the consequences won't stay in the back yard of Northern Ireland: all the rest of the country will howl at them. I think they do see that, and will conduct themselves with discretion.

It looks as if IndyRef2 is dead in Scotland for now. The independence tide has decisively ebbed. I have personally never objected to any distinctive country running its own affairs under its own flag, but it's nice to know that Scotland isn't going to drift off into the Arctic anytime soon. So it's still the 'United Kingdom'. That's an achievement, although I'd say it was the Scottish Conservatives' leader's efforts that brought it about, and not Mrs May's.

What of Mrs May? I feel quite sorry for her. Unless she finds a way to achieve something new and important, the poorish result of the election will have permanently damaged her. A leadership contest is bound to follow. Forget Messrs Gove & Johnson. I predict that one of the untainted younger women will succeed her.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Ebbor Gorge, Eastwater Cavern, and the Mendip Flood of July 1968

There are one or two leftovers from my last caravan trip. I'd better get them out of the way before setting off again!

This post is about a day out in the Mendip Hills, an upland area south of Bristol that includes the famous Cheddar Gorge. It's limestone country. That means that all rainfall disappears underground, and there are no running rivers on the Mendip plateau. Limestone is permeable: it's jointed, and the water finds its way down these joints, dissolving the rock as it goes. Over thousands of years it creates a system of caves linked by tortuous passageways, the kind beloved of potholers. It's a renowned area for potholing. Here's general map of the area covered by this post:

I have been in caves, but only the sort you walk into for a short distance, occasionally on a guided tour. Personally, I find them slightly oppressive. You can't help being aware of the weight of the rock above, and how dangerous it would be if there were a rock fall. You are also very well aware of the danger from water. It's easy to imagine a rain shower up on the surface leading to a rush of water through those passageways, and caves filling up, and hapless potholers being caught underground. Or indeed mere hapless visitors!

A little more on this theme later in the post.

I was meeting up with Angie and S--- for lunch one day last April at the Queen Victoria pub in Priddy, a classic Mendip village. There used to be another pub there, the Priddy Inn, but it was closed, having changed hands for refurbishment and a relaunch as a gastro pub with its own micro-brewery. That would be a step up from its old status, which was as an inn for hearty booted hill-walkers needing no-nonsense overnight accommodation. If the relaunch actually takes place, Priddy will gain an ambitious eatery that may put the village on the fine dining circuit. But it will have to charge prices that some won't like paying. And its atmosphere might not be pubby enough for many others. At the Queen Victoria they were confident that a revamped and upgraded rival wasn't likely to steal their customers. The lunch and drinks were very pleasant, and I tended to agree with them.

We were going to head south first, towards Ebbor Gorge. Whereas the plateau was mostly farmland with dry stone walls aplenty, and some far-reaching views, the edges of the Mendips featured several deep, wooded ravines like Ebbor Gorge. Here's myself, at the point where we began to head downhill:

It was April, of course! I wouldn't need to wear a jacket like that in the current warm weather.

The Gorge was very green, very mossy, and with bluebells coming out. How lovely to see them.

Our walk contemplated going only so far down the Gorge, just enough to get a feel for it. Then we'd head up to the plateau again, but at a different spot from where we came in. At the point where we stopped descending, it got narrow, rocky, and very steep. We watched some people coming up. It was clearly an unexpected climb for them:

You can imagine a torrent of floodwater from a sudden thunderstorm rushing through there!

Let's consult the map:

We'd come south from Priddy using the West Mendip Way, and had got to the footpath-crossing just below where it says Ebbor Rocks. Now we were going to head north-east using Monarch's Way to East Water. After that, to Priddy church, then back to our cars at the Queen Victoria.

It was proving to be a decent walk, in good weather too. The dry stone walls were picturesque. So were the trees that dotted the open landscape. 

At East Water, we struck off across the field to have a close look at Eastwater Cavern. Or at least the entrance to it. I was last here on 10th July 1968, a fateful day. I was aged sixteen, and I was one year into my A-Level Geography course. It was a special day trip by coach to limestone country from Southampton. 

The day was a washout. We were meant to study typical examples of limestone scenery, swallow holes among them, these being water-formed pits leading to cave systems, into which any temporary surface water drained. But the worsening weather rendered quite a lot of the day's programme impossible. 

Rain fell all day long, and that field was very sodden as we rather unwillingly left the warmth of the coach to inspect the Cavern, notebooks and pens in hand. I remember slithering down to look into the Cavern, which already had a little stream of water cascading into it. Actually climbing down into the Cavern was clearly out of the question, although I rather think that our Geography masters - an all-male team clearly used to trekking without oxygen or KitKats in the Himalayas - had had some such notion in mind. I felt saved by the wet weather, and secretly thanked the rain gods. But I still had wet feet, which was distressing enough. Getting half-drenched in some hole would have been a matter for tears. (I admit it, I was a complete wimp at the time) 

I'd never been back there since. But now, forty-nine years later, here I was with two friends - on a sunny afternoon too. The swallow hole seemed to have grown deeper! I didn't fancy climbing down, and stayed up top, with S---. But Angie was game, which is why she was able to take these shots, which are hers and not mine:

When I was there in 1968, there was an iron grating over the entrance, which I think some local caving body had padlocked to deny the reckless a chance to kill themselves. I wondered why it had since been removed. 

Hmm. Instructions for a cave rescue in the event of an accident or emergency. Definitely not reassuring! Surely nobody would want to go underground, if it were risky? Well, clearly some daredevils do. 

I had mixed feelings about coming here again. It wasn't a fond memory, which is perhaps part of the reason why I didn't join Angie at the Cavern entrance. She had no such problems, and in any event is a brave soul, and happier than I am with steep slopes. I'm still not a seeker of thrills and adventure! It's not just holes. I've never climbed a tree in my life. That said, I've stood close to many a cliff edge for the sake of a photograph.

Back in 1968, the coach motored on towards Cheddar, entering via Cheddar Gorge, already streaming with water. We were allowed a couple of hours to look around the packaged tourist attractions and the gift shops. The rain continued relentlessly. Not fancying the attractions and shops - and not having any money - I did climb up Jacob's Ladder, a long series of steep steps up the side of the Gorge, but the rain-swept landscape at the top was disappointing, and there was no view to admire. I went down again, and decided to wait out the next hour or more in the coach. To my surprise, everyone else was there well before me, and the engine of the coach was running, the driver impatient to go. It turned out that fears of a flood were growing, and the masters were very eager to depart, and get their charges out of harm's way. So in fact we all left much earlier than planned. I was the last back on board.  

We were lucky to get away. Later that day the rain got even worse, and the consequences - awful floods - made the national TV news. Some people must have been underground at the time, unable to get out. I didn't hear of fatalities, but reports now on the Internet recount how bad it all was. See for instance:

We were out of immediate danger by the time the coach edged through Wells. But it had been a scary thing. I couldn't help thinking that by climbing up Jacob's Ladder I had wasted time, delayed our departure, and had inadvertently put everyone else at risk. (Obviously, the coach couldn't leave without me. And I might have taken even longer to turn up) That notion sank in on the way back to Southampton. 

Thereafter I was very, very reluctant to do anything that might involve someone else rescuing me at their peril. 

I felt just the same when in Easter 1969 I was on the Isle of Arran in Scotland on an extended A-Level Geography Field Trip to study the geology there, which involved some pretty awful scrambling up the sides of mountains, and over sharp corries carved by glaciers. We were led by the same Alpha-male team, but they had the sense to see that I would only go so far, and it was no good pushing me further. So I was able to duck out of the worst, and just enjoy the sunshine, the wind in the heather, and chatting to the coach driver. Nobody offered me any scorn. I should hope not. I'd had the gumption to stand my ground and do something different. And I didn't mind being the only one to make a fuss. 

If I'd given in, and attempted things that I knew would scare me witless, I'd have become a problem for everyone, spoiling the day's expedition and diverting effort away from the purpose of the trek. So I felt my recognition of personal limits was thoroughly sensible and did us all a favour. And coming from a youngster, a mere student with no personal clout whatever, and far from home, it might have had - in an odd kind of way - certain elements of bravery. 

It wasn't the last time I stood my ground, although in my working life it didn't always go down so well. Big career fish don't appreciate opposition, and in 1996 I stood my ground again and got thoroughly hammered for it. You can't behave like a wimpy girly (or a stubborn old owl) in the adult world and get away with it. 

At least, not until you retire. Once that glorious event occurs, once you are free, and once there is nobody - not family, nor anyone else - who can push you around any longer, then you can insist on whatever you think best and wisest. Sure, you have to stand by your decisions. But you don't have to follow the crowd. And you can be as deaf as you please to other people's arguments, be they ever so eminent, so long as you have properly worked out your own plan and are prepared to follow it through, and will blame nobody else if you come unstuck. That's what I think being grown-up is all about.