Tuesday 29 December 2009


If you look straight up from within the roofless interior of St Michael's Tower on top of Glastonbury Tor, there is a perfectly framed 'skyspace', like a James Turrell installation. A minimalist art work of maximalist impact if approached slowly, as a site of durational process and the active perception of change.

At dusk, the shifts in the sky's luminance and colour are somehow distilled and amplified by the framing; and the sky's planar surface seems to be a material thing, a palpable, phenomenal entity hovering above you in the darkness of the interior.

The image above was taken on a clear evening in late December, the camera balanced on its back on my lap, shooting blind on a very slow exposure.

The sky's colour is created through the contents of the atmosphere, its chemical and particle composition, and the effect known as 'Rayleigh scattering': the interaction of light with air molecules and its elastic diffusion.

What would be the impact of differently constituted atmospheres on the perception of sky colour? In other words, what would we see if we stood on the surface of another planet and looked up? A mini Google trawl soon reveals how common such questions are, and generates some rather astonishing information about extraterrestrial skies:

It is thought that Jupiter's sky is a pale blue, Uranus's cyan, Neptune's azure. Saturn's is yellow.

Venus's atmosphere is so dense that one wouldn't be able to see the sun during the day, or the stars at night. Photographs taken by a Soviet probe suggests the sky on Venus is orange-red.

During the day on Mars, the sky is scarlet. Around dawn and dusk, it's a pinky rose, but blue around the sun.

Images taken from within Titan's thick atmosphere by the Huygens probe reveal its sky to be a pale tangerine. On the surface, it's a dark orange smog.

There is no atmosphere on the moon, so its sky is permanently black. Viewed from the surface of the moon, the sun is white.

For further details of 'alien skies', and a remarkable sci-fi site - a multiply authored, proliferative, work-in-progress exercise in 'worldbuilding' - see the Orion's Arm (OA) Universe Project here

For Wikipedia's fine entry on 'extraterrestrial skies', see

Photographs from Glastonbury Tor: David Williams 2009

Saturday 19 December 2009

how it is

past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them - Samuel Beckett, How It Is

Photograph from inside Miroslaw Balka's How It Is, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, December 2009

Friday 18 December 2009

dad (3): lazy chocolate

At Mortlake railway station, seeing my dad off on to his train back home:

Dad: Gawd it's nippy. Fancy a little snack? Some chocolate?

Me: Why not?

Dad: Good-oh.

At the stall on the platform, 2 men behind the counter:

Dad: What do you fancy? A kitkat?

Man 1: Nice cup of tea two sugar.

Dad: Sorry?

Man 1: You want nice cup of tea two sugar, isn't it.

Dad: No thanks, I've just had one.

Man 1: Oh. You look just like man who have nice cup of tea two sugar, he come here all time. But he don't wear hat.

Man 2: All time. But no hat.

Dad: Oh. (Lifts his hat for a second): Must be my double. I have been here before, lots of times, but not for tea. Erm, I'll just have some chocolate thank you. What have you got here? Ah, oo-hoo, a kitkat.

Man 1: Kitkat laaazy. Lazy chocolate. Laaazy man! (To me): I think you no have lazy chocolate, you have ... snickers! More chew! You look like snickers man.

Man 2: Snickers!

Me: Do I? Oh. Actually I think I'll have a caramel bar, thanks.

Man 1: Oh he lazy too! Laaazy chocolate. No good.

Man 2: Must have snickers!

Man 1: This your son? Yes. He look just like you when you young.

Man 2: Laaazy boy!

Dad: Last time I was here, there was a man from Iran. I said, oh you're from Iran: where were you born? He said, Twickenham. And I said, ha ha, I said, oh I'm from England but I was born in Iran.

Man 1: You from Iran? Where you from?

Man 2: Iranian!

Dad: Abadan.

Man 1: Oh Abadan! Abadan good place! Very good place to come from. Lot of oil. You own property?

Dad: Unfortunately, no.

Man: Do you have mistress in Abadan?

Dad: Do I look like I have a mistress in Abadan? ... Unfortunately, no. Ha ha.

Man 1: You only say that cos your son here. But we know. Abadan ladies very famous: beautiful.

Man 1 & 2 launch into joyous rendition of an Iranian song about Abadan girls, Man 1 banging out a rhythm on a pile of newspapers on the counter: 'Aba - daaan!'

Dad: That's nice. What does it mean?

Man 1: It talk about beautiful lady in Abadan. Famous.

Man 2: Aba-daaan!

A high speed train passes through the station without stopping.

Man 1: Too fast for you to catch, laaazy man! But he can catch it, he still young.

Me: Where are you from, then?

Man 1: We come from Mongolia.

Me: Really?

Man 2: Mongolia!

Man 1: Bayanhongor. We speak nine language: Baluchi, Armenian, Arabic, Farsi, Khalka ...

Man 2: Chinese ...

Man 1: Russian of course ...

Me: Wow! Mongolia to Mortlake, that's a helluva journey.

Man 1: What you do here? You live in Mortlake?

Dad: No, I live in Kent. He lives in London. Well, near Twickenham.

Man 2: Kent! Good.

Dad: We've just been visiting my sister.

Man 1: Younger sister?

Dad: Older sister. 96.

Man 1: 96! Good genes! Hey, you gonna be ok, good genes in family!

Dad: Oh, here comes my train ...

Man 2: 96?

Dad (pointing to my trousers): He has good jeans.

Man 1: Oh yes, very funny. Funny man! But laaazy!

Man 2: Very laaazy!

Man 1 & 2 start singing the song about Abadan girls as my dad's train pulls in. Dancing and waving.

For earlier 'dad' posts, see here, and here

Saturday 5 December 2009

open mic

Image from the Glastonbury record shop window, December 2009

Sunday 22 November 2009

radio on

Another morning, another borderline-psychotic dash to work in my car. In the past ten days, since the train line stopped functioning after flooding damaged a bridge, this journey has taken anything between 23 minutes and 3 hours 15.

You never know.

I have a tiny silver cake decoration blu-tacked to my dashboard by the radio: GOOD LUCK it says, with a tiny shiny flourish.

The fragility of these transport systems. They kind of work but only through a high speed stop-start lurch along the very lip of breakdown. The infrastructure permanently strained to overload. It only takes one bit of grit in the mechanism - roadworks, an accident, a storm, an anomalous micro-second of behaviour - for the circuits and flows of mobility to grind down to inertia and gridlock. Even in its working, abundant stress fractures of different kinds are all too apparent.

Today, with the sky bright and clear, the usual array of fleeting encounters, little frictions, glimpses of events or the traces in their wake. All so utterly predictable in the unpredictable blur of it all. Small acts of kindness, or of lunacy, or violence. The radio on throughout: a mildly irritating companion, like a slightly tiresome relative who's just occasionally surprising or hilarious in amongst the whittering banter. Channel hopping in search of a song to sing, a small musical dream to slide into for a moment. A kind of ephemeral cinematic anaesthesia.

The sudden jaunty appearance of a little white car emblazoned with LETSBREASTFEED.COM ('You supply the milk, I supply the advice' on its back window). I make space to let the car switch lanes, and the driver flicks her side lights in thanks.

Past a couple of huge texts that have become landmarks. The graffiti on the railway bridge, big rough white painted letters, like a kid's writing, always makes me smile. The letters S O U R. Then the Chubb building, with its new sign several metres to the right of the old one, now faded but still only half erased: so it says CH CHUBB, like an uncertain, stuttering locksmith.

The spray of white paint on the road surface, as though a barrel of Dulux has fallen off a truck at high speed. Or Ralph Steadman has been run over, leaving a characteristic splash with a constellation of tiny spots at its outer edge.

A few minutes later, a dawning realisation that the other side of the motorway is deserted, nothing there, just bare tarmac - there's a road closure in the other direction, and all three lanes are blocked by emergency services and police vehicles. An arhythmic burst of flashing lights, then a crumpled yellow vehicle, its bonnet completely crushed like a fag packet; its front end comes to a halt at the bottom end of the windscreen, which is still intact. A team of people in high-visibility jackets in attendance around it as two of them try to free the front seat passenger. Oh god. A huge wave of traffic is building up in its wake, those at the front looking as though they are well positioned on the grid for the start of the race, but increasingly resigned to its indefinite postponement.

One minute chugging along on auto-pilot listening to the radio, dang-a-lang-a-ding-dong, the next all hell breaks loose, a sudden eruption, weirdly slo-moed by the adrenalin rush. The metal and glass rendings of accidentnoise, then silence.

Good luck.

A few miles further, a break-down truck carrying a car has somehow taken out some traffic signs - they have been mown down and snapped off, or are teetering at oddly comic angles as though they've been installed by a drunk. The driver sits in his cab on the hard shoulder looking forlorn, while the policewoman walks away from him back to her car, which is blocking the lane behind him. For reasons that remain a mystery, she's carrying a big yellow torch. More flashing lights twinkling in the rear-view mirror, then gone.

And the radio sings, "You're innocent / You think everything is possible / And nothing's gonna get you baby / Everything is touchable / Nothing's gonna beat you in this life / It's alright ..."

Three guys in a black BMW, like cartoon big city hoods. All shaved heads, black suits, no necks. The front-seat passenger is wearing shades and talking into a mobile. Serious dude with don't-fuck-with-me written all over him. He glances at me as they pass, and for a split second I see a little blue car like a dinky toy travel across his reflector lenses. Then he's gone.

The planes queuing for landing at Heathrow in the sky. The arced choreography of other planes banking over Surrey after take-off. A v-formation of geese fly above the road, then branch off towards the lakes. A blue-yellow-white train along the water's edge, heading back into London; it looks like another toy in the landscape. Then the gear shift of the M25 for a few miles: a lane-changing frenzy, stuff coming at you from all angles. I turn down the radio to concentrate. A loud click as a motorcyclist zips past and brushes my wing mirror, but it pops straight back into position.

A quick stop at the petrol station to get fuel, a paper, and a coffee. As I walk back to my car, glancing at a front-page picture of a miserable Steven Gerrard trudging off the pitch after yet another disappointing game, the pick-up truck lurches off the road and on to the forecourt towards me. I stand back and give him plenty of space. You never know.

In the distance, the incessant hum of the city's traffic rolls on. An omnipresent surf-like drone that Virginia Woolf once described as 'churned into one sound, steel blue, circular'. In a more martial and despairing vein, DH Lawrence suggested that it 'booms, like monotonous, far-off guns, in a monotony of crushing something, crushing the earth, crushing out life, crushing everything dead'.

In the end, 28 minutes door to door today.

Good going ...

And the radio sings, 'Do you want the truth, or something beautiful?'

Images by Ralph Steadman: British, and I shot the sheriff

Monday 9 November 2009

competent drummer

for joff

Band ad in the Glastonbury record shop window

For Joff Winterhart's exquisite Days of the Bagnold Summer, runner-up in this year's Observer/Cape graphic short story prize, see here

For the Bucky website, featuring Joff on competent drums, and Simon on competent guitar, see here

For an earlier post about drummers, see here

Sunday 8 November 2009

keep doing shit (berlin)

Photos from Berlin, 6-9 November 2009

For Guardian articles on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, see here

For an earlier blog post on Berlin, see 'Memory machine', 8.9.2008, here

duree limite (berlin)

sehr (berlin)

'es ist nur eine frage der zeit' (it's only a question of time): Berlin graffiti, November 2009

Thursday 15 October 2009