Category Archives: Journal

Favourite Childhood Books

Great Tales of ActionWriting in my post the other day about the new Kindle Paperwhite and old-fashioned books and memories of old-fashioned books brought to mind a lot of fond recollections of sitting on the porch at the venerable family pile in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with the scent of balsam in the air and the cheerful babble of the brook coming up through the woods at the bottom of our meadow.

An idyllic place to sit and read a book on a fine summer’s day, was our porch. We had a sturdy old wicker rocking chair out there, and a mission rocker as well, and a solid oak mission sofa – and a bookshelf, stocked with plenty of classic dog-day-afternoon hammock reads: Perry Mason and Agatha Christie, and a collection of hardcover children’s classics, illustrated by the likes of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Worth Brehm, that had been my father’s when he was a boy. They included some of my all-time favourite reads: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped and Treasure Island. I remember the set contained Ivanhoe as well, and Mysterious Island. Although I enjoyed both of those, neither ever quite attainted the beloved annual-summer-read status of the others.

"One more step, Mr Hands... " N.C. Wyeth illustration from Treasure Island

“One more step, Mr Hands… ” N.C. Wyeth illustration from Treasure Island

An anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories was out there on the porch shelf, as was an illustrated edition of Around the World in Eighty Days, a complete collection of dog-eared paperback Fu Manchu thrillers by Sax Rohmer (whose lurid covers and casual racism makes me cringe today) and a collection of riveting short stories (mainly out of the ‘20s and ‘30s) called Great Tales of Action & Adventure that my brother and I read over and over and over and over. It contained unforgettable pearls such as Leiningen versus The Ants; The Bamboo Trap; The Most Dangerous Game and To Build a Fire that we happily recall to this day, as well as its manly cover illustration of somebody getting kneed in the groin and socked in the jaw.

These were the books (and illustrators) that enriched and informed our boyhood worlds. And of course they all had those wonderful covers, unlike my much-read and enjoyed Kindle which resides in a striped leatherette case. That is something I will always miss with e-books – the scent of a musty, slightly foxed page and allure of a gaudy cover that invites you to pick up the book, peek inside and disappear into its magical worlds.

The Kindle Paperwhite

One Lonely Night 2I am one of those people who simply has to have something to read within reach, wherever he goes. If I take the train up to London you can bet I will have at least one, if not two, books in my knapsack, and be sure to pick up a copy of the free Metro newspaper at the station. I can’t bear to sit idle with nothing to read.

Even on bicycle tours where weight is ostensibly critical, I will pack several books in my panniers for quiet evenings in B&Bs or camping in the bush or, like when I was pedalling through the scorching heat of the Australian outback, long breathlessly hot afternoons spent sitting out the heat of the day in whatever shade I could find. I might do without cooking utensils, stove and fuel – and indeed, did – but never without books.

On my cycling trek from London to Istanbul, done in the cold and rainy summer of 2000, I packed along a dog-eared collection of second-hand Mickey Spillane novels which I read and re-read on many a rainy night in cheap pensions – I, The Jury, Vengeance is Mine!, My Gun is Quick! and One Lonely Night, to name but a few. I still have them somewhere in my wardrobe, musty, slightly foxed, with their wonderfully garish Signet covers from the 50s. I love them.

When the Kindle first came out a few years ago I was deeply sceptical about e-books. How could they possibly replace the tactile sense of reading a paperback, let alone offer the ease and clarity of a printed page in all sorts of conditions. But then my wife bought me one for a Christmas present a few years ago – this not long after an assignment that took me to the Cook Islands, and for which I had taken along more than a dozen thick books to cover my reading needs and moods for the duration. The convenience of being able to carry hundreds of books, for the space and weight of a slender paperback won me over – surprisingly quickly – even if the reading experience itself was a bit diminished.I The Jury

Last month though, I got the new generation Kindle Paperwhite and since then all my old prejudices against e-books vanished completely. The clarity and page-like feel of the screen is nigh unto perfect, and when you have the Paperwhite in a case, and thus are holding it open like a book, it replicates the traditional reading experience wonderfully – so wonderfully that I am actually clearing out space in my bookshelf, getting rid of mountains of books that I find better and easier to carry around on my Kindle. I’m not going overboard, here. I’ll keep my Mickey Spillanes with their racy covers, and a good few other old favourites as well – for sentimental reasons more than practicality – as well as those favourites I can’t yet get on Kindle (John Dos Passos USA Trilogy, for one). But I have really been enjoying reading on the new Kindle Paperwhite, and the sweet simplicity of being able to pick up a single paperback-sized ‘book’ and open it to any page, in almost any book I choose. And I could even double up on my old favourite Spillanes for a few pennies a copy!

 

Roman Holiday

BOAC Rome 2My apologies for the lack of posts recently but I have been away – in Rome of all places, where the Smith family enjoyed a pleasing end-of-summer getaway, a combination of culture and gelato, particularly gelato. It was wonderful seeing Rome again. I had not been there since I was a kid, back in 1972.

Those were the days. Although I recall visiting the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and St Peter’s Basilica, my abiding memories of Rome ’72 are of a grape I threw at my brother, who ducked. Said grape whistled over his head and continued across the lobby – forever in slow motion in my mind’s eye – and splattered spectacularly on one of the doors at the end of a corridor in the posh Cavalieri Hotel, where Pan Am Airlines had put us up after cancelling our flight back to the US. To this day I cannot understand how a single grape, however hard you threw it, could possibly have made such a mess. The spread must have been three feet across. Needless to say, neither of us hung around to take the blame but wisely got the hell out of there. And to this day, whenever the subject of Rome arises, one of us is bound to mention ‘The Grape’.

No such boorishness this time around, although over a pizza one night I did regale my two  young girls – aged 11 and 13 –  with the story of The Grape, who found it as amusing as my wife did not. Their memories, and now mine, will be of gelato – not thrown, but enjoyed, at leisure, while ambling down the old quarter’s sun-drenched streets.

We made quite a study of Rome’s gelato, our explorations taking us from the famed Giolotti – the oldest gelateria in town, circa 1890, but neither friendly nor especially good – to the altogether newer, trendier and very delicious Come il Latte, a small artisanal gelato shop hidden away on a quiet backstreet (24/26 Via Silvio Spaventa), about ten minutes convoluted walk from the Barberini Plaza, and well off the usual shopping and dining precincts. This was seriously good stuff. And at €2.50 for a small, but nicely lavished cone, we returned multiple times. Although we never encountered any tourists there, only locals on little motorbikes and stubby cars, out-of-towners must get there as I have since seen the place lovingly written up on Trip Advisor as one of Rome’s hidden gems. I’d have to concur, so I’ll put in my oar and recommend Come il Latte to anyone who finds themselves in need of a good gelato in Rome on a dog day afternoon. And now to hit the road again to work off all those calories…

 

 

Eastbourne Pier

Eastbourne pier post-1I took a ride over to Eastbourne this morning to check out the damage done to the Eastbourne pier by the fire earlier this month and was pleasantly surprised to find much of it still intact, stretching out into the sea and projecting its old Victorian charm and grace. I love the architecture in those old fun piers, with their domes and cupolas, fretwork and iron lace, and the Eastbourne pier is one of the really beautiful ones.

I suppose I have taken its elegant presence for granted all this time, and so looking on the bright side, finding a silver lining, this month’s fire served as a reminder of the transience of things. I’ve decided to pedal over there more often (a few more 40 mile rides would be good for me) with y camera and tripod and build up a portfolio of images of the pier, in various lights and angles. Because you just never know how long nice things last. I will post a gallery slide show of these images when I have enough variety to do so.  For now here is this one, taken just after sunrise.

 

 

Sunny Hastings

Weather station on Hastings promenade, Hastings, East Sussex, UKSeems hard to believe sometimes, on wet and dreary weeks like this one, but I live on the English version of the Costa del Sol – the Sunshine Coast. Hastings is meant to be one of the sunniest places in all of Britain. While there are any number of towns along the south coast and in the Channel Islands that claim the distinction of being the  sunniest, overall, and which put forth all sorts of conflicting and contradictory data to back their claims, Hastings does indisputably share with nearby  Eastbourne the official UK record for having recorded the most hours of sunshine in a single month – with both seaside towns enjoying a stellar 383.9  hours of sunshine in the very summery month of  July in 1911.

It was all recorded here, and reported to passers-by in this little Edwardian weather kiosk on the promenade. It is an interest little kiosk, and although I have never seen anybody attending it, it is updated daily and has plenty of data about Hastings current and past weather, and forecasts for the future.   It is, I suppose, just another one of those many little features on the street-scape that tend to go unnoticed when you get around by car, but catch your eye and your curiosity when you travel by bike.

Tinkering

Fishing Fleet Gallery-4Not really sure about this but I just couldn’t resist the urge to tinker – and to try returning  the site to something of its former magazine layout. I quite liked the Photocrati theme and am still using it on my photography site – which is really more about showcasing images than telling stories – but  I worried that on this much more word- and narrative-driven site people would not necessarily be able to find content as readily.

I also thought a change in livery was in order. This my not be the final incarnation; the jury (me) is very much still out this blue-and-cream livery, the new layout and the new font. I miss the brightness of the Photocrati set up, and the shifting galleries, but I also heard from people who could not find the posts and thought much of the material had gone missing.

Please bear with me while the blog undergoes its mid-life crisis!

Postscript: Crisis passed – if you blinked you missed the brief incarnation of My Bicycle and I in a very different magazine format; I just didn’t like it…

 

Sunday Morning

The town of Hastings in a golden glow as the dawn sun breaks through the rainSunday is my favourite day for riding, especially early in the morning when I go out. The roads are quiet and I have the luxury of having the whole morning to myself, at leisure. No need, or perceived need, to be back home at a set time and at my desk, and one of the usual Saturday morning chores – just empty hours to fill with riding, as far, as fast, and wherever I choose.

This Sunday  morning it was over to Pevensey Castle and back home again along the Hastings seafront. It’s an old familiar run I have made hundreds of times and so has a kind of comfortable lazy Sunday appeal – no thinking, no special expenditure of energy, just a thirty mile slice of Sussex countryside and two hours of fresh, if rainy, air to recharge the batteries. On the way back home, as I pedalled up Galley Hill, just east of Bexhill, I came upon this view of Hastings seafront bathed in a luminous golden glow, with the dawn sun struggling to break through a heavy pall of rain cloud.

I pulled over, leaned by bicycle against a bench and scrambled to get my camera out of my saddlebag even as the light was retreating from the town. I still managed to get this shot off before the scene faded away entirely, and came home feeling privileged to have been out and about on my bicycle and seen it.

The Selfie

A full moon beckons a dawn cyclist along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea, East SussexThe ‘selfie’ has been much in the news this week with British nature photographer David Slater going public with his battle with Wikipedia, which has apparently appropriated a ‘selfie’ photo of a crested black macaque (monkey) that Slater engineered whilst on a visit to Indonesia in 2011. Having set up his camera and tripod, he watched while one of the monkeys came up and, while peering into the lens, snapped hundreds of ‘selfies’. Most of the images, not surprisingly, were blurry but one of them was startlingly clear – and cute.

Delighted with how things panned out, Slater thought – not unnaturally – that he might make a little money with the shot and so he did, for a while. But then Wikipedia, and presumably its lawyers, decided that the image was public property and that the copyright, if any existed, would belong to the monkey that ‘shot’ the photo.

Since the intellectual rights of a monkey, as regards copyright, are not recognised by law, that would mean that Slater’s image would be in the public domain – free for anyone to use at will. Understandably, Slater, as the photographer who engineered the shot, is less than thrilled by this interpretation and, with Wikipedia refusing to budge, is threatening to go to court. I don’t blame him. (I am deliberately not running the photo myself – if you want to see the monkey selfies, they can be seen here on Slater’s website)

Incredibly, though, there seems to be a substantial body of legal thought that Wikipedia may in fact be correct in its interpretation of copyright law – or at least be able to get a ruling in its favour – on the grounds that since the monkey was the one that actually tripped the shutter, it ‘owns’ the copyright. Words fail. That is such a dispiriting interpretation of photography, framing, composition, lighting, focus and artistry one scarcely knows where to begins.

The capturing of an image is far more than the pressing of a button. It is not for nothing that the phrase intellectual property was conceived; the use of the adjective ‘intellectual’ is not meant to be ironic. The monkey had no conscious part to play in the planning, composition, or focussing of the shot. He – she – it did not determine the f-stop or ISO setting, nor did own the camera, lens, shutter release or tripod. And as far as I know it did not participate in the post-processing of the image or its later dissemination. The one who did all of the above things was the photographer David Slater. Why such a thing should even be up for debate is beyond me.

As someone who has taken many a sefie for this blog I find myself wondering where this bizarre train of thought could lead. Does Canon own the rights to my selfie photographs because they were taken with one of their cameras? After all, I did not personal trip the shutter – the self-timer did that; I merely set it to go off. What about the camera trap images of the rare Iranian cheetah that ran in my National Geographic story on cheetahs (November 2012)? World famous wildlife photographer Franz Lanting was responsible for those – at least by my reckoning, Franz Lanting’s, National Geographic’s and just about anybody else with a modicum of common sense and fair play.

If all this were to be suddenly thrown up in the air, and camera trap wildlife photography were to be declared in the public domain, that would pretty well put an end to that. That kind of photography costs serious money to produce and nobody will do that just to give away the images.

More intriguing perhaps might be the copyright standing of images captured on speed cameras. If the owner and operator of cameras are not held to be the legal copyright holder of images that are shutter-released by someone else – in this case the subject of the image – it would mean that speeders would therefore own the copyright to the images. Unlike crested black macaques, who have no legal standing in terms of copyright law, and therefore cannot claim or hold copyright, motorists – as human beings – could certainly claim it. Wouldn’t that throw the cat among the pigeons?

Since no one is obliged to incriminate themselves, it follows that the subjects of these speed camera images would have the right to choose not to have them used as evidence in court – or indeed appear anywhere outside their own photo albums. With no evidence that speeding had taken place, unless the driver cared to make a voluntary admission, the case would have to be dismissed. At the very least it should make for an interesting debate.

In the meantime Slater is hopefully benefiting from the publicity surrounding the case, even if he is not earning a penny from the selfie itself.

Eastbourne Pier

Eastbourne pier at duskI was very saddened to hear that Eastbourne Pier caught fire last week. I read about it when I was up in Wales. Bad enough to hear that a third of it was destroyed, but to hear later that the fire is being treated as suspicious is dispiriting indeed. I always liked Eastbourne Pier, and liked riding over there to see it. It was far prettier than the drab and rather boxy looking pier we had here in Hastings (until it too was burned) and with its lacy ironwork, domes, fretwork and cupolas it evoked a pleasing Victorian seaside elegance.  It was a particularly pretty sight at dusk, with the fairy lights festooned  along the promenade and twinkling on on its huge pavilion domes. Indeed I had been planning this week to ride over there one evening with my big DSLR and tripod and try to capture a little of that twilight magic.

Now I am not.

I understand there are already moves afoot to rebuild the pier. I sure hope so. I hope too that if they do indeed go ahead and rebuild it that they build just the way  it was, a like-for-like replacement as far as possible. The fact that the 144 year-old pier is/was a Grade II* listed structure gives me some hope, but my journalists’ in-built scepticism tells be that there will be some get-out clause and that the pier’s replacement pavilion won’t look much at all like the old, and be architecturally and visually much at odds with the remaining two-thirds of the pier on the seaward side.

Like Hastings Pier, Eastbourne Pier was built by Eugenius Birch, a renowned Victorian naval architect and the greatest of the Victorian fun pier designers. It really was a treat to look at – just as Hastings Pier was in the old photos. A structural fire in 1917 and what was evidently a pragmantic, budget-minded reconstruction afterwards gave Hastings  the rather boxy, warehouse-like pier that existed until it was torched a couple of Octobers ago, after having lain derelict for years.

The replacement pier for Hastings will be quite modern in tone, from what I gather, but since it is replacing something that was 95 per cent destroyed and not terribly pretty or evocative anyway, I really don’t mind. In fact, the design looks kind of cool.

But Eastbourne Pier is different. It was  pretty, postcard pretty, and two thirds of it is still there, still evoking its old Victorian charm. Hopefully they won’t hand its restoration over to some architect who feels he (or she) just has to gild the lily, ‘improve’ upon it, inflict his own personal biases and tastes and render some ghastly post-modern interpretation of a Victorian pier.  My sense is that is exactly what will happen, with the local MP assuring everyone that plans are afoot for a ‘fantastic’ replacement. I sure hope not. I liked the old pier just as it was.

 

 

Landscape Photography

Kiosk on the promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea Bexhill East Sussex EnglandThanks to the need to provide illustration for this blog, I have rediscovered my love of photography which I had buried for a good many years. Looking backI a not quite sure why I abandoned photography the way I did. In part I think it was because I spent a lot of time in those days travelling aboard cruise ships, giving lectures on behalf of National Geographic.

It was a fun gig, taking ships around the world, coasting along South America, visiting Antarctica, sailing in the Baltic, circumnavigating Britain and Ireland and travelling up the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, visiting some of the most remote islands in the world – the Falklands, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension, St Helena and so forth.  It was the perfect gig, really, for anyone who likes doing landscape photography. And yet through most of those years I did not carry a camera with me – not even a point and shoot. I could kick myself for that now, but at the time I really didn’t want the burden.

So many of the people I was travelling with – the well-heeled passengers who I was lecturing on various topics – came with thousands of pounds worth of camera gear, the biggest best lenses on the market, and big beefy pro DSLRs to put them on. Overlooking for a moment their photographic talents (or in some cases astonishing lack of same), or any gear-envy I may have felt, what bothered me was the way none of them – or very few – actually seemed to see or experience, in real time, any of the things they were paying so much to come and see and experience. They saw it all later, on their laptop screens back in the ship’s lounge, while they tinkered with Photoshop to get the exposures dialled in and the white balances correct.

In some cases – mainly birders – they would not bother making a landing unless they could be assured they would get a useful photograph of a new species. Instead they would sit in front of their laptops, getting a screen tan while they toiled away at Photoshop or showed off their images to each other.

And when they did come ashore, the unseemly elbowing for position and scrambling to outflank each other robbed many a lovely setting of its charm. I came to view photography as a real scene spoiler, and photographers in general as myopic anoraks who were wrapped in technology and forever missing the moment. I wanted nothing to do with it. And so the cameras stayed home. I didn’t miss them either, but felt liberated, a step ahead of the rest, and enjoyed the beautiful and exotic places I visited all the more for it.

But when I decided to start writing this blog, I knew I would need a means to illustrate it and so I dragged out my old cameras and put my (very) rusty skills to work, reluctantly at first – and then not so much. I made a discovery. Perhaps it was the added maturity of years or the linking of cycling and landscape photography, but I found that instead of missing moments I was seeing more of them – noticing little vignettes that had been slipping by unnoticed. The saddle of a bicycle is always a good perch for seeing the world afresh, but the camera gave me a sense of purpose in doing it, and this purpose honed my vision and enhanced the overall experience. Then too,  of course there was the logistical, artistic and technological challenge of doing cycling photography with myself as both  subject and photographer.

Whatever the reason, I rekindled my love for photography and discovered that there was no reason I couldn’t take pictures and live the moment at one and the same time. And so after many years away I have added that string back to my bow. This past month I have been building up a photography website – www.roffsmithphotography.com – with the aim of drumming up some business aside from what I shoot for fun and for the blog. You can see it here.