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If I Don’t Put It Here It Will Get Rubbed Out Eventually

scene of a fire in an electrical shop on Mill Road in Cambridge
scene of a fire in an electrical shop on Mill Road in Cambridge

Why did I take the photos of the burned-out shop on Mill Road? I had the camera with me, and I was drawn as though on rails to the scene of the fire.

Earlier, when I was further down Gwydir Street I saw a woman explaining to a motorist that the car would not be able to exit onto Mill Road. I thought she meant because of the roadworks. I wasn’t sure whether she meant pedestrians as well as motorists, because I could see a police car parked way down at the end of the street.

I thought then perhaps someone had been injured, a crime or an accident.

I was on my way to the Visitor Centre at the David Parr House on Gwydir Street and I wasn’t sure whether that was beyond the crossroads or before it. In the event, it was before the crossroads and when I went in the woman who runs the Centre explained that there had been a fire on Mill Road in an empty electrical shop.

She said the woman who owned the shop had been taken ill a few weeks before and so the shop was empty. And she had been a local character and the shop was very old. And her husband had died from a heart attack not long ago.

Now I read that the shop was named H Gee Electrical and that it took fire crews 19 hours to tackle the blaze, and that nearby residents had to be evacuated from their homes, and were given shelter at the Islamic Centre on Devonshire Road and the Earl of Beaconsfield pub.

I saw a blaze once. A big building with flames reaching up into the sky. I thought at the time it seemed unreal – people standing, looking, and the building the most energetic thing in the scene.

When I think of the Blitz in London during the war, I am in awe of the resilience of people who had to live through that bombing. And not just one night – two months of it.

Were they hardened, made stronger, weaker, more troubled, more found, by the experience?

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I like the way the Fuji exposes and pushes the darker parts of the image way into the dark, like with this image of a Dahlia. Again, it is from the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College in Cambridge.

I looked up dahlia and was surprised at where it comes from. It’s a New World flower – from Mexico and Guatemala and into the northern tip of South America (not sure what happened to the intermediate countries between Guatemala and Colombia…)

The plant is named after Anders Dahl, author of Observationes Botanicae, and a student of Linneaus.

The story of the introduction of the plant into Europe is interesting – In 1787, the French botanist Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville was sent to Mexico to steal some cochineal insects. He got the insects and reported that he had seen strangely beautiful flowers growing in a garden in Oaxaca.

A couple of years later the plants made their way to Europe, and the rest, as they say, is botany.


If this is not in fact a dahlia, and I have got it wrong (not unknown), then blame my poor faculties.

White Dahlia

Of course, it is not white – the original flower is not white. I ‘whited’ it in Photoshop. I rarely if ever convert a part of a photo into a black-and-white image. Perhaps you have seen those postcards of scenes like red London Buses crossing a B&W London Bridge? Not to my taste, but a chacun son goût, and now I have gone and done it. Seriously, do you like the white version?

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I Couldn’t Give A Fig

Fig leaves on a tree In the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College, Cambridge

These are fig leaves on a tree in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College, Cambridge. I thought there ought to be small figs on the tree – but nothing at all. I’ll have to ask when I next catch sight of one of the gardeners. I know it is early in the season, but the horse chestnuts in the park are well developed.

If you are not familiar with the phrase, ‘I couldn’t give a fig‘ means not to care at all about something. I googled and found that the origin of the phrase is a sexual gesture of contempt made by placing the thumb between the first and second fingers.

It originally comes from the Greek sykophántēs formed from the Greek for fig and vulva, sŷkon + -phántēs ‘one who shows’.

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Hydrangea bush in the Fellows' Garden of Christ's College, Cambridge

I have a mental block against the word hydrangea. Perhaps this will get rid of it for me.

I stand in front of a hydrangea and my brain feels like it is being squeezed. I am taken back immediately to the front gardens of the houses I would pass on my way to the bus stop to go to school.

I hated those hydrangea bushes. They were the epitome of all that was unpleasant about the life I saw around me.

Oh, poor hydrangea bushes, that you should be sacrificed on the altar of my teenage displeasure. Now I try to like you, but I cannot get past you bloody names.

So, here to dispel old traumas – a post in homage to an innocent.


Greek hudro- ‘water’ + angeion ‘vessel’ (from the cup shape of its seed capsule).

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At Wimpole Hall

Jonathan Saul Freedland, British journalist, who writes a weekly column for The Guardian. He presents BBC Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View. Freedland also writes best-selling thrillers, mainly under the pseudonym Sam Bourne - photographed here on the podium at the Wimpole Hall History Festival

Jonathan Saul Freedland is a British journalist, who writes a weekly column for The Guardian. He presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View, and also writes thrillers under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.

I photographed him on the podium at the Wimpole Hall History Festival. Tamara and I went to hear him talk.

He was standing in front of a black backcloth. As you can see from the original here below. I masked out the other things caught in the frame, and cleaned up the colours in Photoshop.

Specifically, I cleaned up the colour of his face in the mixed lighting in the tent. I took a true black from the iris in his eye, and everything fell into place from that.

By the way, you can’t do that trick with the iris of many animals. That’s because, unlike humans, they catch, reflect, and bounce light around inside their eyes to maximise the light they can use to see. So pegging a colour in their iris is not going to show black, but instead a melange of whatever they are looking at.

Freedland was talking about the lessons of history. Tamara asked him what lessons we could learn that would help guide us in the uncharted territory of global warming. He said he didn’t have an answer, but said that the world had come together to ban CFCs, to cure the holes in the ozone layer. So, he said, perhaps the world will work together to reduce harmful outputs.

Mostly he talked about the hijacking of truth and the necessity of well-researched, ethical journalism.

I just finished reading 1984. I recognised a lot of it, but I don’t know whether it is from reading it when I was a teenager, or whether I never finished it and I imagined I am recognising it.

It’s a chilling book. The goodies don’t win.

And it has spawned so many stories. Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, for example, where escape from the system is revealed to be just a desperate wish, a hope, and an illusion.

There’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where the system callously betrays its assets.

I guess 1984 can trace its roots back to Kafka, and The Trial. Or The Castle, although it is so long since I read he Castle that I should re-read it.

You could say that The Talented Mr Ripley is seen on the other side of the mirror – from the point of view of the amoral actor in his own society of one. Except instead of faceless and uncaring, we see angst-ridden and yet ultimately uncaring.

Farming At Wimpole

We also listened to a talk by the farm manager at Wimpole.

Wimpole is owned by the National Trust, and the farm is run as an organic farm. The manager explained that the creed of the farm was to be, in so far as possible, a circular system rather than a linear one. That means buying in as little as possible and wasting as little as possible.

He made an interesting point about the true cost of farming, giving the example of the artificial fertilisers that run off the land, get into the water system and have to be cleaned up by the Local Authority. If farmers had to contribute to the cost of that clean-up, then non-organic, linear farming would be seen to not make the profit it claims.

In answer to the question of how organic farms can compete when they cannot produce the yields of non-organic farms, he said that the problem today is not one of sufficient production. We in Britain already produce enough. The question was of sustainability and the long-term health of the land and of nature.

On that note, I recall knowing someone who lived in a farmhouse in the middle of a huge field. The field was about two feet lower than the stockyard and the farmhouse and barns. The reason was that over the years, the soil structure had been destroyed by fertilisers and insecticides and had simply collapsed.

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Cindy Sherman At The National Portrait Gallery

Young woman looking at a Cindy Sherman photograph.

Tamara and I went to see the Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London a couple of days ago.

I have know Sherman’s photographs for a long time. She is one of my photographer ‘greats’. I like one of her early photographs because of the untold story. A young woman seen from behind, blonde, neat hair, wearing a longish skirt to mid calf, standing next to her suitcase on the side of a country road, early evening or early morning – still quite dark.

The hands behind her back say something, as does the set of her shoulders and the white bobby socks.

Who is she waiting for? Anything is possible. The narrative is there, we just don’t know what it is. But, there is definitely a narrative.

The woman in the photo is Cindy Sherman, and one defining description of Sherman’s work is that she uses herself as the model in all her photos. And she is really good at posing her body and adjusting her expression to represent what she intends.

There were several Sherman’s quotes in the exhibition – about her dislike of the artifice and false promise of fashion and the destructive influence of trying to live up to roles, using beauty, wealth, power, as props.

One room, of recent work – of women hanging on to life with the trappings of wealth and hope, were strong – huge photos in deep, rich colour. Sad, and threatening – people hanging on to things with a steely grasp or a doomed hope.