Sunday, 24 November 2019

Long Live Dubcek!


Alexander Dubček was the man in charge of Czechoslovakia in the later 1960s - effectively the Czech Communist Party's main man - who, while remaining true to basic Communist principles, and carefully reluctant to disturb the integrity of the Warsaw Pact - attempted nevertheless to introduce freedoms inside his country, such as a free press. He was the government leader supporting and cautiously encouraging the 1968 Prague Spring, a temporary blossoming of individuality and free expression, softening the harshest elements of the hitherto rigid Communist rule in his country.

Later in 1968, this move towards freedom was crushed, and the rest of the world saw TV reports of Soviet Russian tanks in the streets of Prague. Almost all the other Warsaw Pact countries were there with the Russians. It was deemed vital to show a united front against any undermining of Communism in Eastern Europe. They all feared that a freer Czechoslovakia would turn to the West, something that could not be permitted. Dubček and his allies were arrested and taken to Russia. He was soon allowed to return, but the country's drift away from hard-line Communism was halted, and everything had to be 'normalised' again.

Dubček was reinstated in high office but was now carefully watched, and soon he was expelled from the Communist Party, signalling the end of his political career under the old regime. He wasn't 'bumped off'. He was given a role in the country's diplomatic service, and then a post in a government department. He was able to live a normal, comfortable life - but out of the public eye.

Roll forward to 1989. European Communism faltered, and then failed. At last, real freedom for Czechoslovakia. Dubček was honoured for his past efforts, and became a senior symbolic figure in the new Czech Parliament.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that he was twenty years too early. Had the Prague Spring occurred in 1988, it would have succeeded. But in 1968 Russia and its allies were still able to invade and control. I was by then a keen follower of events, and to me the Soviet intervention not only seemed inevitable, but it came with all the expected assertiveness. And yet Prague's spirit was not quelled. It was a tragedy to see the invasion unfold on TV, and the tanks certainly looked brutal in those city streets, but they were facing not an army they could get to grips with, but nimble individuals who had tasted freedom. Brave people dodged in and out of the tanks, some getting injured, but for a while putting up an inspiring display of low-level resistance. The crack-down that followed was saddening; but somehow you knew that tanks would not always win, and that it was only a matter of time before Czechoslovakia would be truly free.

For a short while - for a year or so, mostly in 1968 - Dubček had looked like a hero, risking his neck so that the Prague Spring could develop and transform his country. And it was at that time that somebody painted LONG LIVE DUBCEK on a wall next to a road junction on the outskirts of Southampton. As it happens, it wasn't very far from where Mum and Dad (and of course myself) lived in Swaythling, a suburb on the north edge of the city. I didn't see the painted slogan at first, but once I was driving (on a full licence from 1973, but as a learner before then) I would pass it frequently. You could hardly miss it.

The funny thing was that nobody defaced it, or painted it out, or in any way tried to clean the wall. It was as if everyone respected this painted slogan, and by general agreement wanted it to persist as a monument to a brave man. Even though he wasn't really a revolutionary in any ordinary sense, and never abandoned his belief in Communism for something more in tune with modern times. Be that as it may, the words on that wall were still clear and obvious to see ten years later in 1978, although the name of Alexander Dubček must have by then faded from memory somewhat. The paint was fading a bit, too, but not much.

I moved to London in 1978, and rarely saw LONG LIVE DUBCEK thereafter. But it didn't go away. The message remained on that wall, eventually getting covered with plant growth - which helped to preserve it.

Something jogged my memory of it this morning. I was planning a long-distance outing for the day, and was considering another nostalgic trip to Southampton - specifically Swaythling this time, which I hadn't walked around for some years. That's when I thought of the Dubček slogan again. Was it still there?

It wasn't really the day to go very far - it was dull and damp, and it would start getting dark too soon - but, curiosity stirred, I did try to find pictures of LONG LIVE DUBCEK on Google. I found only a couple, snapped in 2018, after the wall had been cleared of foliage and ivy.

Well, well! There it was, after fifty years. Faint but legible. Could I find other shots? Earlier ones, perhaps?

What about Google Maps, and Google Street View? Could I capture a shot from there? I could. In fact, I discovered that it was possible to view all the pictures taken at various dates by the roof-mounted Google camera as it passed by. (Did you know that you could do that?)

So here it is: LONG LIVE DUBCEK in all its latter-day glory. First, August 2009, when still concealed under dense greenery:

April 2011. Much the same:

June 2012. Some letters are visible, if you peer closely:

May 2014:

April 2016:

May 2018. The greenery - apart from the trees - has been cleared away, revealing the slogan:

June 2019:

I should perhaps mention that the road joining the main A27 road here used to called Allington Lane. But after the southern end of Allington Lane was diverted by the building of the M27 (this part of the motorway was opened in 1983) the old southern section of Allington Lane (now a dead end) was renamed Romill Close. (Admit it: secretly you wanted to know this)

I've included all these shots of the same spot to illustrate that you can take screenprints on your laptop of any place visited by the Google Street View camera, for any of the dates available. In this case, quite a number. (Perhaps thankfully, I haven't shown them all) I surmise that the Google camera is active on most roads in and around every city, on a regular updating schedule. And that it must be possible to take screenprints of any particular locality for a variety of dates, provided the camera has passed by more than once. Useful, if you want to see what used to be there.

Getting back to Mr Dubček, I wonder what he would have to say about (a) the unknown admirer who painted LONG LIVE DUBCEK fifty years ago; and (b) about that slogan's survival.

For my part, I'm glad that a bit of 'my' Southampton - the Southampton I knew from 1963 to 1978 - has survived. I'm definitely going to give it a personal inspection when I do finally drive over to Southampton again. And I hope that some local historian has made proper notes on it. If he or she is reading, perhaps they can tell me more about who painted it, and whether the city council value graffiti like this. It deserves a Blue Plaque.

Extra information
Wikipedia has an article on the man. See:

There is also this very interesting New York Times obituary. See:

As to the graffiti on that Southampton wall, in 2000 the Southern Evening Echo newspaper said it had found a man who claimed to have painted it as a teenager while drunk, praising a musician friend whose nickname was 'Dubcek'. He added that he had never heard of the actual Czech politician. You can read it here: Well, the story might be true, but in all the circumstances I don't give it much credence. The graffiti definitely appeared as the Prague Spring was being put down, exactly when Dubček was in danger of his life for his liberal actions, and it was absolutely in tune with the general outrage felt at the time. Everyone would have recognised it as a contemporary political slogan, and not merely a reference to an obscure local man, daubed by a half-cut mate who just happened to have a brush and pot of paint handy. My apologies to that drunken friend of course, if his mundane explanation is the truth - and relief that the real Mr Dubček never knew.

Finally, it's fair to ask me why - if I nowadays take so many photographs of so many diverse subjects, particularly of places - and you have only to look at my Flickr site to confirm that - why haven't I got a series of pictures in my own archive, showing LONG LIVE DUBCEK when it was newly-painted? After all, I have said elsewhere in these posts that even though I couldn't afford to buy much photo film while still at school in the 1960s, that changed once I was working from 1970 - and especially after acquiring a 'proper' camera in 1973. Surely, I'd be avid to shoot everything worth a picture?

Well, the notion of photographing my local area, and creating a kind of historical record, never occurred to me at the time. I wanted to take pictures of people (though not myself) and favourite holiday scenes in places I loved, like Cornwall. Not humdrum Southampton. Southampton wasn't the most photogenic of cities back then, and in my view still isn't. I do like to go there now, and blitz the place, but nostalgia drives that. I had none then. I just wanted to leave school, start earning, and when ready for it, get my own place locally or up in London. I wasn't emotionally attached to Southampton, and shooting local graffiti, whatever its significance, just wasn't my thing. I regret it now, of course. 

Saturday, 23 November 2019

The fountain pen comeback

Regular readers may recall that in January I bought a good-condition used fountain online online for £125 from Vintage Fountain Pens of Hornsea in East Yorkshire. It was a teal-coloured Parker 51 of 1955 vintage (so almost as old as me!), with a 'lustraloy' (stainless-steel) cap. It had been serviced and was ready to go. All I had to do was fill it up with black Parker Quink ink (still readily available in 2019!) and get writing. I had faith that I would enjoy using it, so within a couple of days of its arrival I had made a brown-leather case for it. And I gave it a name: Water Dragon.

Now, ten months on, how has it worked out?

I'm glad to report that Water Dragon immediately replaced all my ballpoint and rollerball pens: I have used my fountain pen for everything, except where the paper or card that I was writing on wasn't suitable for the water-based Quink ink. Some shiny or absorbent paper wasn't. Most ordinary paper is.

This wasn't just keenness to write with a fancy pen. It was actually more pleasurable, even for the most casual note. Maybe there was something of the ritual about it - especially the weekly fill-up from the ink bottle - but it made the effort of writing something to look forward to. That feeling has never diminished.

I'd always been a fountain pen fan, and had regretted their passing in everyday usage. The arrival of computers and keyboards at work during the 1990s, the later habit of making notes on small organisers with a stylus, and then the ability to make notes on phone and tablet screens with one's fingers, all conspired to threaten the very existence of pens in general apart from cheap disposable ballpoints, which would do for any occasion when tapping something on a screen wasn't appropriate, such as having to sign a paper form or a birthday card.

But then in more recent times a number of people have got bored and frustrated with sterile, digital ways of doing things, and throw-away consumables, and yearn for durable things that are 'real' and involve some physicality. It hasn't been a mass-movement, but there does seem to be at least some reaction against too much hands-off, gesture-only tech. Part of the appeal of (for instance) an expensive smartwatch is, surely, that you strap it to your wrist and can feel it there, and that it has buttons to press. It's a physical object. It also resembles the high-status complicated tick-tock wristwatches of yesteryear - but with extraordinary extra capability. So watches like that are reappearing on people's wrists.

There are undoubtedly people around who like the idea of returning to certain retro, pre-digital possessions - the things that seem old-fashioned now, but did useful things in their day; and still can. Things that get the job done just the same. In my own case, this led to buying that fountain pen.

All very well, you might say, if you want to turn the clock back. But as you say yourself, opportunities to use any kind of pen are now so limited that isn't owning a special one almost pointless? Well, I do see why that might be said; but then there can be many more occasions for using a proper pen than you might think. I made a list, based on what I find myself doing daily, or at least regularly:

# Casual, non-permanent notes of all kinds - possibly several times a day.
# Post-it notes to remind me of something immediate, or very special, or as a bookmark.
# My twice-weekly Shopping List, gradually built up over three or four days.
# Recording gas and electricity readings once a week.
# Recording my weight and body measurements once a fortnight.
# Working out the bills for the next month once a month.
# Acquisition notes inside newly-bought books and maps.
# Entries in Visitor Books in country churches and elsewhere.
# Completing answer-sheets at evening quizzes (the only occasion when I might flourish Water Dragon in company).
# Signatures on typed and printed letters, and on forms.
# Greetings and signatures on birthday cards.

That's a decently long list. I tend to be forgetful, so I make notes all the time, and always have a notepad within reach - and my fountain pen! If I'm watching TV for any length of time - or more likely listening to the radio - it's unusual for me not to make a note of something of interest.

One thing I haven't yet done, is write a letter with my pen. I'd definitely want to compose a handwritten letter for anyone who had suffered a dire calamity, calling for a very special and comforting message. Or indeed for any message that needed a very personal touch. I thought I might be doing that more than once during the last ten months, but there has never in fact been the need. But the occasion is bound to come sooner or later.

One point often made in favour of fountain pens is that they are good for your handwriting. Hmm. I wouldn't necessarily agree. If you have awful handwriting, I don't think that using a 'better' pen will improve it much. You need to do something about how you form your letters! Also, if your handwriting contains non-standard features, a fountain pen won't make them easier to read. As proof of this, here is my Shopping List for today, written casually and incrementally with Water Dragon, but still peppered with the quirks of my own hand:

It's only a casually-written list, and not an exercise in careful calligraphy - hence the scribbled look. The black ink on white paper does perhaps make it high-contrast, and therefore easy on the eyes. But I don't think my handwriting is entirely clear and unambiguous. That admitted, I do assert that, as a shopping list, it must be one of the nicer specimens that will be used in Waitrose today.

Time to get going - I'm getting hungry, and very much fancy having sushi for my lunch!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

A photo accessory for my phone, to make it hands-free

Another day, another gadget...but I think this one will prove very useful. I've just bought a Joby GripTight Mount PRO for my Velbon tripod. It's designed specifically to hold a smartphone.

Now at last I have a way of taking shots with my phone without having to hold it, or prop it up (perhaps riskily) against something. I can use my trusty tripod.

Three upcoming events have spurred me into making this purchase. First, I am shortly going to apply to the local council for an Older Persons Bus Pass, and I'll need an up-to-date photo of myself for that. Second, in 2020 both my Passport and Driving Licence expire, and they too will need an up-to-date photo of myself. Whether on film and printed, or digital and printed, or just left digital for uploading, I've been taking my own photos for these exacting purposes since the 1990s, and a tripod is definitely required. You can't be successful with just an arm's-length snap.

I used to do it with a real camera; nowadays I use my smartphone.

The technique is simplicity itself. I set up a draped blanket as a neutral backdrop, behind a chair to sit on, with my phone on a tripod in front of me, set up to take a selfie in 'full-screen' mode. This produces the same kind of shot - in 35mm photography terms - as using a 52mm lens. That's a 'natural' shot with no facial distortions - no accentuation of nose and chin, and none of that flattening of the face you can achieve with a short telephoto lens. I fire the shutter with a voice command ('Shoot!'). A short delay on the self-timer gives me a few seconds to get my expression right before the photo is actually taken. I then repeat all this, taking in all a dozen-odd pictures; then decide which is (subtly) the best, and use that.

Here's the set-up in 2016, using a real camera (it was the Panasonic LX100 I had at the time):

I was taking a photo of myself for a railway Photocard. This was the outcome. I cropped it for the Photocard. Need I say that this was the buxom me, before joining Slimming World? Within a year, I looked a lot more svelte.

I can do the shooting in daylight or in artificial light, but daylight is preferable. Of course, few of the short dull days of late autumn provide good light for a portrait shot, but the odd day will be bright enough, and it's worth waiting for the right day. After all, the chosen 'best shot' will be my 'official photo' for a long time to come!

The only thing lacking in my line-up of equipment has been an adjustable gadget to hold my phone securely onto the tripod. Now, thanks to a trip to Park Cameras in Burgess Hill, I have that missing item.

Here are some pictures of my new phone holder - in its Joby box, and then fixed to my tripod.

(Yes, it's the wrong way round for a selfie. I soon realised my error)

A tripod always allows a steadier, crisper picture than holding the phone in the hands ever can. It's essential for time exposures, and I expect that I will now attempt some shots at night, perhaps with the moon as the source of light. What fun!

In particular, using a tripod lets me take photos and still keep both hands free. Until now, I haven't been able to take the following kinds of shot with my phone, unless someone else has held it.

I don't have to use the large (though collapsible) Velbon tripod for everything. I've just discovered that I still have an exquisite little screw-together aluminium tripod made by Minox, which I bought twenty-five years ago for my little Minox GT-E folding pocket camera. Here it is - in bits; screwed together for carrying; and set up for holding the phone steady on a table.

That little Minox tripod will fit into my bag, and would be great for group shots - with myself included - in some restaurant. Just in time for Christmas!

It will also do for watching TV, not so much at home (where my proper TV or my laptop would be a better choice), but in the caravan.

The cost of the Joby phone holder? £24.95. That's not cheap, I admit, although the cost is on par with what you generally need to pay for photo accessories. And it's fair to point out that a set of decent 'passport photos' from almost any source would cost much less. But this is a one-off expense, and it will give me much-needed shooting versatility. It will also last me forever, with many repeat uses - unless the basic shape of phones changes radically!


21st October 1966. One of a number of coal tips high up on the rain-soaked ridge above the village of Aberfan in the Merthyr Valley, that with National Coal Board sanction had been built up into small conical mountains over the years - and made especially dangerous in this case by spreading over a spring - suddenly gave up the fight against gravity and spewed downhill like a black mudslide, demolishing everything in its path. At first only the hillside was smothered. But then, with a roar, it reached the junior school in the village, punched it, and obliterated it. Inside had been the young children of the village and their teachers. Not many survived. 144 were killed, 116 of them children.

The whole nation saw the aftermath on TV. Not colour TV in 1966, but then colour would have softened the impact. The tragedy was starker in black and white. I watched, unable to do anything else. I wasn't alone. It was awful. There had been a number of bad coal-mining accidents in recent years. This one was different, in that it killed not miners but their children. It was utterly shocking.

Researching this post, which was originally intended to be just a footnote to my Guardian/Six Bells post, I discovered a BBC News website story that seemed to be based on archive film footage on the day of the disaster, showing the emergency services and sundry local volunteers grimly digging into the scene of destruction; the local men, women, teenagers and babies looking on helplessly with gaunt, anguished faces; uncomprehending, shocked, numbed. With very few children under eleven among them.

It was a media circus, of course. And you can see how intrusive the camera was in this sequence of pictures. Thirty-odd screen shots I captured from that old film, showing moments that I thought caught the scene best. I haven't done more than crop away the BBC heading, which on a phone results in a long, letterbox-shaped picture. No other editing.

I personally think the cameraman went too close up, intruded too much. Two of the pictures (taken in quick succession) show a middle-aged miner, still wearing his hard hat, turning towards the lens with a dangerous and accusing look on his face. I can't blame him one bit. 

There's an S4C programme you can access on the BBC iPlayer, made in 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster. It's in Welsh, but the language is no barrier whatever. 

This is the link: 'Yr ymchwiliad' means 'the investigation'.

Wikipedia has an article on the whole disaster, including the later public inquiry, and relates dreadful stories of NCB meanness and insensitivity towards the bereft families, such as raiding the charitable fund (started to help the families, built up from eager public donations) to pay for removing the remaining coal tips above the village (the NCB's own tips); refusing to pay for the children's gravestones; offering paltry compensation to the families where a child was killed (£50 was the initial offer) and then only after asking 'how close' the parents had been to their dead child; and completely ignoring the ongoing needs of the traumatised surviving children and their parents. Which all reveals the attitude of authority in a different age. It's required reading. Here's the link:

I did wonder why the two media links were available at this present time. It may be because the collapsed coal tip that caused so much harm belonged to the Merthyr Vale colliery, which closed thirty years ago in August 1989. A kind of anniversary then.

I'd intended  to visit the modern Aberfan in the course of my Valleys afternoon last September, but I ran out of time to do it proper justice. I did not want to rush. So this is something for my next visit to the area.