30 September 2015

The benefits of persistent librarianship

From inside the rear cover of a 1951 non-fiction book in the Wellington library collection, an old issue slip records the persistent efforts of the city librarian in September and October 1961 to recover the overdue book from someone's son, perhaps young Master Pascoe.  Weekly reminders climaxed in the dramatic 'Father took message', which seems to have done the trick. Thanks, 1961 Librarian - without you, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy this book 54 years later. And thanks too to the modern Wellington City Library, for not turfing out older (but still lovely) books like this one, in a climate where so many libraries are divesting themselves of wonderful older tomes.

28 September 2015

Great are the marvels of living photography

Following the Lumiere brothers' first public paid screenings of moving pictures in Paris in December 1895, on the other side of the world New Zealand newspapers were quickly alerted via wire services and began reporting on the new medium. But at first the nature of the projections was unclear, with no mention being made of the motion aspect. It would take a few months before the dramatic impact of moving pictures became obvious to readers on the far side of the world, but by April the secret of how the contrivance worked was being reported. By June 1896 the contents of film evenings were being reported in detail, which surely whetted the appetite for moving pictures in little New Zealand. Before the year was out, New Zealand witnessed its first film screening, on 13 October 1896 in Auckland, thereby commencing more than a century of film-going in the South Pacific. (All texts are obtained from Papers Past; links added).
The brothers Lumiere, of Paris, have invented an adaptation of Edison's kinetoscope that is likely to prove of great value. By it the images are projected on a screen, so as to be visible to a large number of spectators. The apparatus may be used for taking photographs and for printing transparencies from the negatives.
- Oamaru Mail, 6 January 1896

Colored Photographs From Nature. The possibility of photographing colors directly from nature seems to be at last proved. The theory of the process belong to M. Lipmann and its practical application to M. Louis Lumiere of Lyons. By means of his special preparations, the secret of which has not transpired, M. Lumiere is enabled after an exposure of about half an hour to obtain a faultless photographic reproduction of colors. Among the things thus chromatically photographed were boxes of matches, Japanese screens, stuffs, nosegays— nay, even landscapes from nature, looking for all the world like very clever studies in water colors, the dull gray of the houses, the brown of the soil, the various shades of green of the grass, fruit and foliage, the deep blue of the sky and the light, laughing blue that peeps surreptitiously through rifts in the fleecy clouds - all colors, hues and tints were there.
- Bay of Plenty Times, 13 January 1896

The kinematograph has been invented by M. Lumiere, of Paris, which is a great improvement on the kinteoscope. The principal feature is a mechanism by which the film is at rest during two thirds of the time of passage of each image; in the remaining third it is seized and carried forward to the next image by a set of teeth attached to a frame whose motion is governed by a cam worked by a revolving handle. There is also an arrangment [sic.] for projecting the image upon a screen so as to be visible to many persons at once. The same apparatus serves as a camera for taking the photographs and for printing transparencies from the negative film.
Daily Telegraph, 18 April 1896

Great are the marvels of photography. Not only can still life be reproduced, but action and movement. A remarkable exhibition in proof of this given in the Marlborough Hall, London, of the Polytechnic, recently, by M.M.A. and L. Lumiere. M. M. Lumiere are the inventors of a contrivance which they call the "Cinematographe," by which scenes of life and movement can be thrown life size upon a sheet in a darkened room in much the same way as at a magic lantern exhibition.  
How it is done is, of course, the secret of the inventors, concerning which nothing was vouchsafed to the visitors at the exhibition, beyond the fact that the photographs which gave the changing details of a scene are taken on a continuous band at the rate of 900 per minute. By means of the electric light they are thrown, in dimensions which are an actual reproduction of the scene itself, upon a large screen, and at exactly the same rate of movement as in the scene depicted. Thus, if in a street a man was walking at the rate of three miles an hour, and a horse was trotting at the rate of six, the picture on the scene would be a reproduction of both rates of progress, and the observer would see the horse overtaking the man and passing out of view before the latter had reached the centre of the canvas.  
The pictures shown were remarkable for their fidelity to life. The first, for example, showed a crowd of people rushing down a wide street— not a momentary and fixed impression of such a scene, for similar pictures are shown in almost every photographer's window— but an actual reproduction of continuous movement. Carriages, carts, and other vehicles go by with their wheels revolving. The horses trot, toss their heads, start at a cut from the whip; the people who rushed down the street each move their legs at different paces; the very bicycles jolt their riders over the uneven surface of the road. Every movement of a crowded street scene was depicted in the order and confusion of its occurrence, when and during the time in which the photograph had been taken. Another picture showed a great throng of men and women passing down the gangway of a steamer and making their way from a pier; another, the arrival of a train at a railway station - the people opening the doors as the train drew up, and leaping out on the platform with all the variety of movement and quickness of action that hourly pass unnoticed at every terminus. Another picture showed a blacksmith hammering away at a piece of iron on an anvil - not merely in an attitude of hammering, but raining blow upon blow and twisting the pliers which held the red-hot metal. Then there came the photograph of a card party; and though one could not see all the cards it was quite easy to follow part of the game if only from the changing expression on the faces of the players. Perhaps the most amusing picture was a reproduction of a domestic scene - father, mother, and infant child at breakfast. The father fed the child from a cup and spoon, while the mother poured out the coffee, cut the loaf, and now and again turned and talked to the child. The movements of each of the three, and particularly those of the child as he ate his pap, and showed his impatience in not being fed as fast as he thought he ought to be, naturally created much laughter. The most effective picture, perhaps, was a bathing scene - the waves rolling in in quick succession, and each breaking into surf and foam upon the sand. Over the wave was a long diving board, along which the divers ran, leaped into the water one by one, were washed in by the rollers, re-ascended the plank, and repeated the dive.  
Certainly M.M. Lumiere fully proved that it is now possible to reproduce scenes and events with perfect accuracy of detail, change, and movement. -Home paper.
- Mataura Ensign, 11 June 1896

24 September 2015

Mail coaches - London departure points

'The mail coaches in their early years departed from the General Post Office in Lombard Street every week-night between 8 and 8.20pm. It was a great sight; and even more spectacular after the new GPO was opened in 1829 in St Martin's le Grand.

During the day the vehicles were greased, cleaned, and polished in the coachyard at Millbank, Westminster. Then, about five o'clock, two horses drew them slowly along the cobbled streets to various inns near the GPO. The Swan with Two Necks, in Lad Lane, a thoroughfare near Gresham Street which, like the inn, has since disappeared, was one of the most important. From its yard departed the mail coaches for Exeter, Bath and Devonport; Salisbury and Exeter; Exeter, Devonport, and Falmouth; Nottingham and Halifax; Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Holyhead (for Ireland); Peterborough, Lincoln, and Hull; Lichfield, Warrington, and Liverpool; Ipswich and Norwich; Bristol and Pembroke; Manchester, Carlisle, and Port Patrick; Southhampton and Poole; Cirencester and Stroud; Cambridge, King's Lynn, and Wells-next-the-Sea; and Dover.

From the Golden Cross at the Charing Cross end of the Strand mail coaches left for Gloucester and Carmarthen; Dover; Nottingham and Halifax; Hastings; Cirencester and Stroud. From the Bell and Crown, Holborn, the coaches took on passengers for Salisbury and Exeter; Boston and Louth; Cambridge, King's Lynn, and Wells-next-the-Sea. At the Spread Eagle, Gracechurch Street, the routes covered were Exeter, Devonport, and Falmouth; and Peterborough, Lincoln, and Hull. At Blossom's Inn, Lawrence Lane, stood the Brighton coach. At the Bull and Mouth, St Martin's Lane, Wetherby, Carlisle, and Glasgow; Nottingham, Sheffield, and Leeds; Worcester and Ludlow; Exeter, Falmouth, and Penzance; Edinburgh and Thurso. From the Saracen's Head, Snow Hill, the coach for Boston and Louth. From the White Horse, Fetter Lane, Portsmouth; and Ipswich and Yarmouth. From the Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill, Newmarket and Norwich; and from the Bolt-in-Tun, Fleet Street, Portsmouth and Hastings.

In the yards of these inns the four horses to take the coach on its first stage were harnessed, while the luggage was stowed on board and passengers settled down for their long journey through the night. The scenes must have been as bustling and exciting as anything at a modern railway terminus, and the onlooker at the Swan with Two Necks must have marvelled at the fact that within this single yard travellers could step aboard a vehicle which would take them to the four corners of the country - to Ipswich or Falmouth, Holyhead or Leeds. Eight coaches all due to leave simultaneously to take up their position in a single file outside the GPO was a sight that Londoners loved to see, and was a matter of wide-eyed wonder to the rural traveller on his first visit to the Metropolis'.

- F. George Kay, Royal Mail. The Story of the Posts in England from the Time of Edward IVth to the Present Day, London, 1951, p51-2.

22 September 2015

David Bowie is...

I arrived fairly late at the revelation that David Bowie is amongst the most intriguing, captivating and inventive performing artists ever. The first glimpse of what would become an enduring fandom was the LP accompanying his performance in the Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth from 1986. The film still stands up as a prime example of intelligent and imaginative youthful fare, but it was the soundtrack that opened my ears to Bowie's voice and style. The five Bowie-penned songs on the Labyrinth soundtrack stand as some of the strongest work Bowie did in the 80s, ranging from the playful Magic Dance, the sweeping As The World Falls Down, and the rambunctious Underground.

From there it was a short step to the precious CD copy of 1971's Hunky Dory album owned by my school friend Tony, which invited me into a whole earlier Bowie incarnation I had been unaware of - the pre-popstar, hippie folky phase on the cusp of what would become Ziggymania, with Bowie enthralled by New York cutting edge music and art (Queen Bitch's Lou Reed-influenced observation, Andy Warhol as a whimsical tribute to the artist himself) and reaching out to those who would become his peers (Song For Bob Dylan). I'd defy anyone to listen to Side 1 of Hunky Dory and not become an instant Bowie fan: Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Eight Line Poem, Life On Mars?, Kooks, Quicksand. It certainly worked for me.

Which is why it was exciting when the Victoria & Albert Museum staged a major exhibition called David Bowie Is to examine Bowie in the broader contexts of both the multiple artforms he excels in, and the context of being just generally fucking awe-inspiring; Pete Paphides notes that in the exhibition 'you just gawp at the sheer ferocity with which his talent burnt at its height'. And it was even more exciting when the exhibition roamed far from London to international venues, including finally to the Australian Centre for the Moving Imagine (ACMI) in Melbourne's Federation Square.

The exhibition succeeds because it's more than a simple chronology of the rise and zenith of stardom, mellowing out into a study of iconic status as the elder statesdame of art-rock. Because attempting to fathom Bowie and his motivations has always been a complicated task, what with all the left-field musical decisions, radical reinventions, schizophrenic stage personae modifications, not to mention the odd spot of heavy-duty substance abuse. (There's not many V&A exhibition that feature the artist's own oft-used 1970s cocaine spoon).

And Bowie isn't just a master of the musical scene - he's also a performance artist with major film roles on his CV (including but not limited to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, the aforementioned Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ, Basquiat, Zoolander, The Prestige...) He's a trained mime. He writes. He's fascinated by experimental fashion and was an early adopter of that new-fangled internet thing. The exhibition rightly focuses strongly on the music, but also gives a flavour of all these other aspects of Bowie's career. And it makes a startlingly accurate claim at the outset:

'His influence on contemporary culture is arguably greater than any other musician of his generation'

There are of course many audio and video gems from the back catalogue as you explore David Bowie Is, and a few proposed answers to the implicit question in the exhibition title:
  • David Bowie is... all around us
  • David Bowie is... a face in the crowd
  • David Bowie is... crossing the border
  • David Bowie is... floating in a most peculiar way
  • David Bowie is... never at a loss for words or poses
  • David Bowie is... quite aware of what he's going through  

Acknowledging the seismic cultural impact of that famous otherworldly appearance as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops singing the single Starman on 6 July 1972 ("If we can sparkle he may land tonight!"), the exhibition rightly places it at centre stage. So many musicians and performers have cited that one appearance as the spurs to their own careers! But there are also plenty of other treasures to discover, some of which can be tracked down on Youtube:

ACMI curator Emma McRae on the 1979 Saturday Night Live performance costume, with solo artist Klaus Nomi visible as the backing singer dressed in black.

'The Mask' mime, recorded in February 1969 when Bowie was 22.

The 1984 Julien Temple short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean, which includes some deft comic acting from Bowie that would later be put to good use in his cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras sitcom.

Finally, it's also nice to note that the exhibition cites Bowie's November 1983 Western Springs concert on the Serious Moonlight tour with around 80,000 attendees as the largest gig in per capita terms - although I'd take that with a grain of salt because you can never believe a promoter!

David Bowie Is runs at ACMI in Melbourne until 1 November 2015.

See also:
Music: Cracked Actor, 5 March 2015
MusicXmas music for people who don't like Xmas music, 23 December 2014
MusicHow Bowie came up with Aladdin Sane, 5 January 2014
MusicInsanity laughs under pressure, 9 June 2013
Music: 'Never born, so I'll never get old', 8 January 2013
Music: Sukita / Bowie exhibition, 16 September 2012

20 September 2015

The last time Paul saw John

Paul McCartney, on the last times he saw John Lennon:

'Good question. When he went with May Pang. I saw him and May at their apartment, which was quite nice actually. He'd mellowed out quite a bit. He was being himself more. Then I saw him - among the last times - when he was out in LA doing Nilsson's album [Pussy Cats] and they were all crazy. I'd been sent by Yoko to be a go-between and to give John a message from her. Which was, "If you go back to New York and court her again, she might accept you." So he did that. Birth of Sean, I saw him. I think that's after Pussy Cats. I think the last time would have been in New York - because he didn't come out of New York - at his apartment, the Dakota. I always think of Rosemary's Baby. It was round about the time that we got the offer to appear on Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels came on television holding up a cheque for $2000, or something. He really had gone to the NBC people and said, "I want this group." They said, "You can pay them scale." I was in John's apartment'.

- Michael Bonner interviews Paul McCartney, Uncut, October 2015 edition, p.41  

[The cheque was actually for $3000 - with Michaels suggesting that the Beatles 'divide it up any way you want. If you want to give less to Ringo, that's up to you'.]

See also:
MusicA very Beatles Xmas, 18 December 2013
Music: Jarvis Cocker on the Beatles, 13 October 2012
Music: Nowhere Boy / Backbeat, 10 February 2010

10 September 2015

De Quincey's phobia of public conveyances

While I'm a firm believer in the benefits of a comprehensive public transport system, English essayist Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took a rather different view:

In 1853 James Payn visited De Quincey at his home a few miles out of Edinburgh:

'As I took my leave, after a most enjoyable interview, to meet the coach, I asked him whether he ever came by it into Edinburgh.

'What!' he answered, in a tone of extreme surprise; 'by coach? Certainly not.'

I was not aware of his peculiarities; but the succession of commonplace people and their pointless observations were in fact intolerable to him. They did not bore him in the ordinary sense, but seemed, as it were, to outrage his mind. To me, whom the study of human nature in any form had become even then attractive, this was unintelligible, and I suppose I showed it in my face, for he proceeded to explain matters. 'Some years ago,' he said, 'I was standing on the pier at Tarbet, on Loch Lomond, waiting for the steamer. A stout old lady joined me; I felt that she would presently address me; and she did. Pointing to the smoke of the steamer, which was making itself seen above the next headland, "There she comes," she said; "La, sir! if you and I had seen that fifty years ago, how wonderful we should have thought it!" Now the same thing,' added my host, with a shiver, 'might happen to me any
day, and that is why I always avoid a public conveyance.'

John Gross (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, Oxford, 2012, p.100.

06 September 2015

What, no Two Lane Blacktop?

At a police breathalyser check in Silverstream last night I was pleased to see the rozzer in question threw a curveball into the usual 'State your name; state your address' spiel. Instead it was 'State your name; state your favourite film'. A great question for a film buff. But potentially a bit slow for the cars behind you:

'Well on some days it's David Mamet's sprightly screwball comedy State & Main, and on others it's the beautiful black and white artistry of Wim Wenders' German classic Wings of Desire / Der Himmel ├╝ber Berlin, or maybe even the legendary Howard Hawks newspaper romantic satire His Girl Friday from 1940, featuring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as sparring ex-married journalists. But that's a lot of old films; what about Richard Linklater's awe-inspiring Boyhood from last year - a magnificent life-affirming achievement that took 12 years to make? Or seeing as this is a police-themed conversation, what about a spot of Hot Fuzz? Oh, there's 20 cars waiting? Sorry...'

04 September 2015

Donald Trump & the Hobgoblins of Consistency

Mr Trump is not in thrall to the hobgoblins of consistency. On abortion, he has said both “I’m very pro-choice” and “I’m pro-life”. On guns, he has said “Look, there’s nothing I like better than nobody has them” and “[I] fully support and back up the Second Amendment” (which guarantees the right to bear arms). He used to say he wanted a single-payer health service. Now he is much vaguer, promising only to replace Obamacare with “something terrific”. In 2000 he sought the presidential nomination of the Reform Party. A decade ago he said “I probably identify more as Democrat.” Now he is a Republican.

In an interview this week (see article) The Economist asked Mr Trump why Republican voters seem willing to give him a pass on so many issues they normally hold dear. He took this to be a question about religion, since he is not much of a churchgoer and struggles to cite a single verse from Scripture. “I’m strongly into the Bible, I’m strongly into God and religion,” he declared. But within a few seconds he appeared to grow bored with the topic and switched to talking about how he has “a net worth of much more than $10 billion” and “some of the greatest assets in the world”, including the Trump Tower, the Trump Turnberry golf resort, and so on.

- ‘Trump’s America’, The Economist, 5 September 2015 edition

See also:
America: Decent exposure in Montana, 16 April 2015
America: Neither confirm nor deny, 3 February 2015
America: How to fix America's broken democracy, 29 December 2014

01 September 2015

Flagged for deletion

So the final shortlist of four flags has been selected by the Flag Consideration Panel and released for public scrutiny. Unsurprisingly given the stated wishes of the Prime Minister for a silver fern on black, the panel has loyally picked three fern designs, along with one solitary curling koru. Two are slight variations on each other, with either red or black in the top left corner. They represent a useful opportunity for the Government to divert attention towards a trivial matter, or rather away from its own record. Also unsurprisingly, none of the flags represents a compelling alternative to the existing flag.

Chiefly this is due to the lack of skills on the panel. Tellingly, no-one with actual expertise in designing flags was appointed. Only one of the 12 members, Malcolm Mulholland, is listed as being a 'flag historian', presumably for fear of muddying the process by contributing a perspective of someone who knew what they were talking about. Instead a panel of amateurs have tinkered around on the taxpayers' tab and decided on a selection of graphic designs that bear little resemblance to a flag of lasting merit. Even if you don't like the presence of the Union Flag in the canton of the current New Zealand ensign, the four selected alternatives are a poor excuse for a tech drawing class rather than a unifying symbol of nationhood.

The existing flag works as a design because it is grounded in centuries of design tradition. It has the virtue of simplicity, and a legacy of continuous use for over a century. Certainly it sports the Union Flag, which I have no problem with, but I acknowledge others do. The British origins of New Zealand statehood may not be warmly embraced by modern New Zealanders, but that doesn't erase the actual history of the foundation of the nation, which was a partnership between the British crown and Maori. Our language, government, laws, economy, sport, and many of our cultural traditions stem from British origins, whether this is popularly understood or not in an increasingly multicultural country with a short attention span.

The new designs are striking for their lack of understanding of the basic principles of flag design, and in part this is because the designers have all opted for approaches that aren't from the world of flags, but rather from the world of corporate logo design. This selection of logos would be ideal banners on corporate letterhead for a Buy NZ Made brand or alongside a tourism slogan, but do not have the impact, heritage or gravitas of a lasting flag design. (They certainly bear all the hallmarks of, say, a grotty collection of clipart. Or perhaps, as Finlay MacDonald has pointed out, they might suffice on a beach towel).  

A successful design must include meaningful symbology, and for some the All Blacks are the most important part of the New Zealand identity. However, it should not be controversial to point out that a national flag is not the same thing as a sporting banner, and that many people's definition of New Zealand is far broader than just its sports teams. Conventionally, the use of black in significant portions of a flag is also frowned upon due to its low visibility at night, and piratical connotations. (Although that didn't stop the Belgians).

Perhaps the saving grace of these lacklustre designs is that it makes the retention of the existing flag more likely. It may not be perfect but it has far more merit than any of these half-arsed MS Paint botch jobs. We need to start again from scratch to avoid a shoddy mess just around the corner. One way we could do this is to ask an actual expert. One of the oft-cited success stories of modern flag design is the South African unity flag; this was designed by one man, an expert in flag design named Fred Brownell, who was the state herald of South Africa in 1994. Someone should ask him what he makes of these designs; and consider the benefits of taking the radical step of asking someone who actually has a clue about producing a flag that doesn't end up making us a laughing-stock.