A wild slim alien


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Super 8 stories – film 5 – Beach barbell

It’s a world older than the late 1960s, when this reel of film was shot.  A world of horse and cart and wells for water and waves crashing on the rocks of undeveloped coastlines.  A battered Citroën 2CV before a petrol station brings us back to the twentieth century.  A road sign points in the directions of Maria, Lludi, Inca and Palma. The latter two are enough to tell us that we are in Majorca.

My father sunbathes on the beach, and swats away an insect with a lazy hand, or makes the movement in his sleep.  Then we see him showing off his skinny champion flyweight boxer’s physique standing before a barbell, the connecting rod of which is bent, seemingly by the downward force of the weights at either end, and frequent handling. He brings the barbell to his chest, and then, the strain showing on his face, raises it high above his head, arms straight.  You think this clean and jerk is slapstick at first, because of the gurning, because of his making it seem an effort when the spheres at either end of the barbell look like they might actually be made of polystyrene.  But now my mother tries her luck, and only manages to raise it as high as her knees.  The spheres are not in fact made out of polystyrene, but some considerably heavier material – metal or concrete, perhaps.  Now my father lifts again, this time deliberately clowning and Charlie Chaplinesque, falling forward under the weight of the barbell till he collapses into the sand, a fistful of which he throws in my mother’s direction.  She has another go, sticking out her tongue, and on this occasion at least manages to stand up straight with the barbell supported at her thighs.  They look as happy as they are young, and young they certainly are.  Young enough to be children of mine now.

Next the reel catches a flock of Majorcan sheep, and a bleached and arid-looking coastal panorama – presumably the Bay of Palma and its surrounding hills – at the end of the sweep of which, the camera briefly settles on my mother, who’s wearing a beige dress and sunglasses, looking like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Finally it’s back to the beach, where she smokes, as do the friends to whom the footage cuts.  Everybody did.  They were much smokier days.


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Super 8 stories – film 2 – Swinging sixties

If you follow this series, you’re going to have to get used to random juxtapositions.  Footage of dogs chasing each other will suddenly cut to a local shopping trip, as happens here.  It is the tail end of the sixties, and two dogs are running in circles around a small, largely paved-over back garden.  One – the golden retriever – is our family pet, a staple now of my online security questions, so I will draw a veil over his name.  The other is the poodle belonging to my paternal grandmother, whose back garden and patio this is.  The golden retriever runs through these films much as he does through my mind, invariably chasing or gnawing at a small punctured ball.  He belongs to the first eight years of my life, and must have died some time before the second half of my childhood began, in another part of the country, because he did not travel with us.  My grandmother’s poodle was long-lived, eventually replaced by Dalmatians, a constant trip hazard to an elderly woman in a small house, resulting in broken bones late in her life.

Cut to my mother leaving the house looking very swinging sixties in an orange mini-skirted dress and calf-length boots, carrying the infant me.  I’m put in the cot in the old-fashioned motor car, while the golden retriever provides continuity by running out of the previous scene and into this one, joining me on the backseat.  My mother then reappears on the high street of a town I know to be Epsom.  We see Finlays the tobacconists, the long since defunct Charter Inn, and Meakers, men’s outfitters, as well as chain stores still familiar in the UK, Burton and Boots.

My father shoots the traffic, and – not untypically for him – lets the camera wander after a bare-legged girl walking along on the other side of the street, before returning to my mother crossing the busy road.  ‘A man who never sees a pretty girl that he doesn’t love her a little’, as the Sea And Cake song has it.  People wait in a long, orderly crocodile for a bus in front of the long-lost pub.  It’s late summer or early autumn, 1968. You can almost hear the Kinks’ ‘Days’ or Dusty Springfield’s ‘I close my eyes and count to ten’ drifting from the window of one of the passing cars, or from the open door of a shop.  And again comes the wondering, where are all those patiently waiting people now?  What were their lives like?  If not in the ground or tossed as ashes into the air, do they ever remember those endless minutes queuing for a bus on Epsom High Street?

Cut to later that same sunny day, and a brief shot of the chef from the restaurant next to the golf driving range run by my father, followed by footage of two little twin girls eating chocolate, one of them clinging to her father’s leg, perhaps a little awed by the strangeness of the camera.

And now comes my first act of self-censorship, as the rest of the reel features me baby-naked in my cot, looking up into my birdie mobile (thus explaining my later ornithological leanings).  While I haven’t got a problem with you seeing me in what in those days they might have euphemistically called the altogether, I suspect YouTube would have.  And I suppose I don’t really want images of what would subsequently become my manhood floating all over the internet, so… cut!


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Super 8 stories – film 1 – The Caped Crusaders

In which all of the main characters are introduced.

Here is my mother, wearing a peach Slazenger v-neck jumper and a gauzy scarf knotted in her hair, looking incredibly young for someone who has just had her third child, that being my sister, who appears as a mere months old baby.  There am I, and right by me is my brother.  We seem joined at the hip, and I guess we were, till I was about ten.  ‘On top of each other’ might be a better way of putting it, because we fought like dogs throughout the length of our childhood.  My father is largely absent, either because he was the one shooting the footage, or more probably, because he was busy teaching golf, a six days a week job in the summer.  But he does feature in the final frames of the reel.  We are playing football, and – wearing a light blue v-neck jumper – he scores a goal past me.  He turns to the camera, to my mother (I presume), and you can almost hear him saying, ‘I hope you got that.’

It’s 1974, and for the most part we are on a playing field somewhere in Surrey.  Horsell, perhaps, near Woking. A short train ride south-west of London.  My brother and I are in fancy dress, as indeed are all the children in this film. It’s a fancy dress competition. We have come as Batman and Robin.  Or, to judge from the costumes, Batman and Batman; whose younger brother has ever liked having to play second fiddle?  We were both big fans of the endlessly re-run television series starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin.  Fabulously, throughout the reel, we never take off our masks.

Despite the anomaly of us both being dressed as the chief Caped Crusader, and the fact that our Batman insignia look rather more like oyster mushrooms than bats, I have a memory that we won a prize, but perhaps it is a false memory, the kind that you tell yourself about a remembered day such as this to make it seem more magical, as magical as it very well may have been to live through, regardless of whether or not a prize was won.  See the way my cape billows when I jump off the heavy roller, just like Adam West’s did – for the space of a day, I must have felt that I really was Batman.

We are six and four, with twenty months between us.  Already we are adopting facets of the characters we have dressed up as, if we allow that my brother is indeed Robin.  I am more measured, if not yet cerebral, while he is excitable, already showing signs of a tendency to wind people up and pick fights with those who were bigger than him.  Here for example he takes on a sword-wielding pirate, armed only with a length of rope.

Blink and you’ll miss Sherlock Holmes, a Dickensian urchin, the obligatory cowboy and indian, and a little bear.  I wonder what became of them all.  The maid in blue and white and the satanic girl in fiery red, for example.  What have their lives been like?  Have their experiences tended towards fulfilment or disappointment?  With whom did they fall in love, and do they love them still?  Perhaps they went on to make costumes for their own children to wear to fancy dress competitions or parties, and if so, did they remember this day, without the footage of it to remind them?  Might they even still have a memory of the Dynamic Duo flitting very faintly across the screen of their minds?

A series of blipverts finishes off the reel; it was typical for every second of film to be used, with nothing wasted. And so at the last, there finally is my father, as well as a brief portrait shot of my maternal grandmother, holding my sister, walking towards the camera, but giving very little away.


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Super 8 stories, Super 8 dreams

Super 8 reels

It was a treasure trove that my mother handed over to me about ten years ago.  Film from an age when childhoods were not routinely captured as moving images.  She entrusted the box to me as her eldest child – or possibly her most technologically literate (it’s the eldest’s prerogative to say things like that) – and tasked me with transferring the 36 reels of Super 8 footage to DVD.  Which is what I had done, with the help of John Ross of Moving pictures.  And now, once again, it feels like time to take these old films out of their shoe box. Or rather, upload them to YouTube.

Each reel lasts three minutes twenty odd seconds.  That’s two hours of film, all told.  Enough to make a movie of my early childhood, of my parents’ life before upping sticks to another part of the country.  A skilled film editor could make something of them all, could take this random jumble of chronologically muddled Super 8 reels and perhaps transform them into a tale of the times, full of suggestion and pathos.  But I am not that skilled editor of film.  All I can do is present the footage more or less unedited, as they were shot, and try to make some sense of them with words.

The films come from what you might call the golden age of my childhood, before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  Those are stories for another time; and though inevitably what happened subsequently adds an optical or a mental filter to the projected images, what I really want to concentrate on in writing about each reel of film is the life before me, the captured colours and tones and the sheer otherness of the not so very distant past.  The otherness, and the eerie similarities, as one generation succeeds the next.

The films have no sound, and tempting as it is, I’ve decided not to superimpose a musical soundtrack.  There are only the moving images to watch, and my accompanying words to read, if you’ve a mind to.  Bear witness to these small fragments of lives as they were lived forty years ago, and then perhaps set the Super 8 projector in your own mind running, in an effort to relive the earliest parts of your life.  And if that seems too highfalutin’, then simply enjoy this historical record of a particular place at a certain time, all shot in the glorious, faded colours of Super 8.


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Lunchtime caterpillars

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding binomial names beautiful.  While the peacock butterfly’s is the Greek-sounding Inachis io, the elephant hawk-moth’s is the more typically Latin-sounding Deilephila elpenor.

My daughter noticed them first, crawling up the stems of the fuchsia by the gate.  Three, no, four elephant hawk-moth caterpillars, monstrously magnificent, almost too large to be supported by the stems of the flowers.  We both went for our cameras.  Snapping them discomforted one sufficiently that it carried out its deterrent trick of retracting its head and trunk-like neck into its thorax, which consequently swells to enlarge those conspicuous eye-spots.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

As well as rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), elephant hawk-moth caterpillars are rather partial to fuchsia.  We left them to feast, reasoning that while the hardy fuchsia could probably cope with their nibbling, the caterpillars could not cope without it.

Possibly they are common-named as much for their excrement as their trunk-like neck; it looks like little logs of elephant dung, the kind that Chris Ofili used to use to prop up his paintings.  Returning the next day, we found plenty of it peppered around the fuchsia’s pot.

I had hoped to document their transformation, but I’m afraid there is a sad end to the story.  We won’t see them pupate or become fully-fledged pink-winged moths, because those conspicuous eye-spots weren’t enough to deter a local feline from playing with them as it might a mouse; and my daughter and I could not be there to defend the fuchsia night and day.  A case of caterpillars besieged and eaten by cat.

But here to finish is the best photo I could find of this beautiful moth from elsewhere (West Yorkshire, to be precise).  One day I hope one flutters by me, and by you too.

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Photo of adult elephant hawkmoth by Rachel Lucie Johns.  Photos of elephant hawkmoth caterpillars by awildslimalien.


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The shape of clouds

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‘I became a story sailors tell, the one about the old captain who travels the earth looking for the comfort the ocean used to give him, reading the shape of clouds as he once read the swell of waves.’

I’ve not long finished taking photos of the sky every day for a year.

I introduced the idea here; and here’s where the story ends.  Inevitably, given the subject, no matter how hard I tried to vary what I captured against or underneath the sky, there was an ever-increasing sense of repetition.  But that was an accepted part of it for me, to record the points at the ends of my regular itineraries and the skies above them.  Of course, there was seasonal repetition too.  Overcast skies seemed to dominate for long stretches of the year, but if you look hard at those skies, there are a thousand shades of grey, while blue is merely a continuous spectrum depending upon where you are looking.

It’s not the first time I’ve undertaken to do something of the sort.  In 1998, I attempted to record everything I ate and drank in the course of a year, following Georges Perec’s lead, though his Attempt at an inventory of the liquid and solid foodstuffs ingurgitated by me in the course of the year nineteen hundred and seventy-four was cumulative (‘One Belon oysters, three coquilles St-Jacques, one shrimps, one shrimp croustade…’ etc) rather than a day by day affair, as mine was.  For example, I can tell you that on February 16th 1998, I ate and drank the following: ‘Porridge, toast with hummus and celery, lentil shepherd’s pie and broccoli, one can Castlemaine XXXX lager, malt loaf, white grapes.’  Perec’s drinking (largely wine, rarely beer) was somewhat more refined than mine seems to be, to judge from this one entry.  And while his list is a journey through classic French cuisine, my entries have the matter of fact flavour of historical record buried in a time capsule, rather like ledgers detailing the outgoings of the great houses of the nobility in previous centuries.  They summon up the time and the young man I was, the man I am still – but also the man I am not, the man I am no longer.

This too will stand as a record of a year.  I’ll see the framing of certain skies and know exactly where I was on that day; or there won’t be quite enough to tell and I will have to scratch my head to remember, if I can.  I’m sure I learnt things about myself as in early 1999 I looked back across what I had eaten during the previous year (not always as wholesome as was the case on February 16th), though I confess I no longer remember what it is I learnt.  I’m not sure I was any more certain about the worth of this latest year-long project – sometimes it seemed an exercise in futility, although for the most part it felt like a valiant undertaking pursued for all the right reasons – but I’m prepared to have a stab at what I think I may have learnt from looking at the sky so much for a year.

I learnt to turn around and look behind me.

I learnt the limitations of the frame and to avoid the brightest part of the day.

I learnt how to be patient, to wait for the right sky.  I learnt that the sky doesn’t care for your troubles, though it may sometimes seem to mirror your joy.

I learnt that in a coastal town or city, seagulls will always photobomb your pictures – often to good effect, it has to be said.

I learnt the names of previously unfamiliar types of cloud, though sadly my year of photographs does not include any examples of either lenticular or noctilucent clouds.

I learnt that the most beautiful skies would always elude me.  Even now, a couple of weeks after the end, I see them from the car, and I cannot always be stopping to capture them, or I’d never make it to my destination.  Coastal skies, and skies from on high looking down over the plain beneath a line of hills.  Porchester Castle at sunset or sunrise.  Dawn, with the skeletal big wheel by the travellers’ camp site before it, strands of cloud like combed candy floss detaching from a cumulus mass in the wind.  A mackerel sky over the common.   Clouds like distant mountains.  Endlessly spreading cumulonimbus above the Isle of Wight, their splendour undimmed for being seen through the institutional grubbiness of my window at work.  Clouds like those depicted in Old Master paintings.  God skies, you might call them, without necessarily believing in God.

I learnt that you can never stop looking at clouds and seeing shapes in them.  Horses and dragons, VW Beatles and ships of the line.  There goes Italy, hotly pursued by a somewhat misshapen Australia, and coming after the countries, a sparrowhawk followed by a peacock.  I often thought of Peter Benson’s novel, The shape of clouds, the clouds being those which chase a retired sea captain to an abandoned, remote Cornish village, the clouds which witness his late-flowering love with the film star of both his early years and his dreams.

As I drive with my daughter, we play the shape of clouds game.  One evening recently, we saw a cloud resembling nothing so much as a giant heron gliding, migratory and magnificent in its thermal determination to get where it was going.

The skies that I captured are unrepeatable. They were mine, but I had the urge to share them, and I managed to sustain that across a whole year, save the single day that I missed, when a few words had to stand in for a thousand possible pictures.  So, though I more or less succeeded, I also failed, judged against the standard I set myself.

But at least I managed to end on the high note of a rainbow, to make up for the one I missed in the Highlands of Scotland, stopping the car in a lay-by on the way home in the fading light on the very last day of the sky-snapping year.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow that late in a day before.  And so it became both my final sky and my covenant with you, the viewer.

See you on the other side of the rainbow.

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Breakfast butterfly

Peacock butterfly

That’s a butterfly at breakfast time rather than one for breakfast, you understand. A peacock (Inachis io, and not the first to have featured in these pages) lighted on my arm and seemed happy with where it had landed, staying long enough for my daughter to grab my camera and shoot these pictures.  Settled magically in the crook of my arm for those minutes, the butterfly seemed a blessing, or perhaps a reminder or gift from a muse.

And then as I tried ever so slowly to sit down at the table so that my daughter might better capture it from above with the camera, it took fright and flight and was gone.

Peacock butterfly