Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from November 2020

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part three)

Or, some cardboard engineering

Another weekend, more work on the papercraft pinhole camera kit I’ve slowly been working on. If you haven’t seen the previous installments, part one is here and part two is there.

This time, I spent most of the time on some of the cosmetic detailing. I glued on a whole set of fake camera controls: shutter button, wind-on lever, timer lever and lens mount release button. They’re not the neatest job, but they’re only there to make the thing look like a camera, so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t get them quite right. More important is the film take-up spool, which I’m trying to assemble very carefully and slowly because, fundamentally, it has to work mechanically as well as look good.

Camera so far

On that photo you should be able to make out that the take-up spool looks as if it has an extra lamination. That’s a strip of card added and only glued at the ends. The idea is, the leader is slipped between that strip and the main part of the take-up spool, and that (with a few turns of the spool) that should be enough to hold the film in place. I’m intrigued how well it’s going to work.

The other part I made up that is fundamental to the camera’s workings is the camera back

Camera back

Given that if the back comes off at the wrong time the whole thing is useless, and that the integrity of the back relies on four small corner tabs, I thought it worth holding the whole thing together with foldback clips whilst the glue did its thing. Normally I’d just rely on a good firm squeeze between finger and thumb, but this seemed rather more important. I suspect I’ll end up taping the back on with something like washi tape when the camera is loaded in any case, because it’s going to be a fine line between a back that’s too tight to go on properly and a back that’s so slack it falls off.

I’m not sure this camera was really designed to run more than one film through it anyway: as I said last time, the instructions tell you to take the whole thing to your local photography lab rather than try to unload the film yourself. Which would seem a bit of a shame, because how are you supposed to learn from your mistakes with a new camera, and learn how it behaves, if you basically have to throw it away before you get the results back? Hopefully it will cope with at least a couple of films before the back falls apart.

The next update on this project is here.

Technical advice post of the week

Or, what to do with a particular compilation problem

This week, Microsoft released .NET 5, and it reminded me I’ve been meaning to post a piece of technical advice that has bitten me a few times but which doesn’t seem to be very well-documented or well-described online. It’s a piece of technical advice, though, that will slowly be fading away in relevance because it’s advice on .NET Framework; so I thought I should put it up here whilst it is still helpful to people.

(Note for non-technical readers, who are used to photos of trains and cemeteries and probably won’t find this post very interesting: .NET 5 is the latest version of .NET Core, which is the replacement for .NET Framework, hence Microsoft have dropped “Core” from the name to try to make that clearer. .NET 5 is the successor to .NET Core 3, because there were many very popular versions of .NET Framework 4.x which were and are heavily used for a long time, so Microsoft thought reusing the number 4 would be just Too Confusing. Are you less confused now?)

This problem, too, is pretty much specific to people working in teams. It only happens (well, I’ve only seen it happen) if all of the following apply:

  • you’re working in parallel in a team, on a complex system, probably that has solutions containing a relatively large number of projects
  • you’re using the MSBuild tool as part of your continuous integration pipeline, deployment process, or similar
  • you’re using Git as your version control system

The symptoms of the problem are:

  • You can open the solution in Visual Studio and build it with no problems
  • When MSBuild tries to build the solution, it immediately errors, claiming that the solution file has a syntax error on line 2.

Spoiler: there is no syntax error on line 2.

Another note for non-technical readers who are still here: what you might think of loosely as a programming project, in any kind of .NET flavour, has a primary file called a “solution” (its name ends in .sln). The solution contains one or more “projects”; each project contains code. Visual Studio can open your solution file and your project files and turn the projects into some sort of output product, such as a program, a website, a code library or whatever. However, you don’t have to use Visual Studio to do this. .NET Framework has a program called MSBuild that does the same thing. If you have automated your build process (which if you’re working in a team you probably should) and you’re using .NET Framework, your build process will probably use MSBuild to do its work. What happens here is one of a range of problems called “well it worked on my machine”. A developer has code that seems to be in a happy, working state, they upload their code to the team’s server, the automated build process runs, and the automated build process falls over and says it doesn’t work.

The cause of the problem is: two people on the team have added different projects to the solution, in parallel. Now, Git is often quite good, when two people change code at the same time, at either working out how to merge the changes together, or at least, asking you to sort the situation out manually. This, though, is a situation where Git does the wrong thing and breaks your solution file—but it breaks it in a way that only MSBuild notices, and that Visual Studio happily ignores.

The reason this happens is down to the syntax of solution files. The part which lists the projects they contain looks a bit like this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Library", "Important.Project.Library\Important.Project.Library.csproj", "{E6FF8E04-A41D-446B-9F8A-CCFAF4B08AD2}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project", "Important.Project\Important.Project.csproj", "{9A7E2940-50B8-4F3A-A535-AB6220E6CE3A}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Tests", "Important.Project.Tests\Important.Project.Tests.csproj", "{68035DDB-1C24-407C-B6B3-32CEC1D964E5}"

Don’t worry too much about what each line says: the important thing to spot is that each project has a pair of lines: a Project(...) = line that contains the important information, and an EndProject line that, er, doesn’t. The projects are in a fairly arbitrary order, too; on your screen in Visual Studio they get sorted alphabetically, but that isn’t reflected in the file, where they are in the order they were added in.

The real cause of the problem is that Git doesn’t know that every Project... has to be followed by an EndProject. So, imagine two people have added new, different projects to the solution file. Git sees this and thinks: Alice has added Project... to line 42, and Bob has added a different Project... to line 42. So I’ll make those into lines 42 and 43. Alice added EndProject to line 43, and so did Bob, so I’ll just pop that in as line 44. So you get this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Alices.Library", "Alices.Library\Alices.Library.csproj", "{0902233A-3857-4E5E-99F4-54F3F5E695E5}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Bobs.Library", "Bobs.Library\Bobs.Library.csproj", "{56ABE9BB-1373-43D3-B1C5-1526E443AD73}"

Visual Studio is quite unpeturbed by this. MSBuild, however, doesn’t like it at all. It reads the file, realises there’s a Project without a matching EndProject, and falls over. For some reason, it always complains that the error is on line 2, even though it isn’t anywhere near line 2.

The fix for this, as you might have guessed, is to open up the solution file in a text editor and manually enter that missing EndProject line after Alice’s project. And that’s it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable going in and hacking your solution file directly, remember I said that Visual Studio is completely unfazed by this? You can make some sort of small change in Visual Studio that will imply a different change to the solution file: for example, tell it not to build one of the projects in one of the build configurations. Visual Studio doesn’t just change that bit, it will write out the whole file from scratch, so the problem gets silently fixed for you. Which one is less work depends on which one you’re happier doing, to be honest.

That’s the abstruse technical post over for now. Next time I write one, I’ll see if I can find something even more technically obscure.

Photo post of the week

Neu, hanes Cymreig

Occasionally, when I visit The Mother, I look through old photos. Either family ones, or ones from my own albums. My first camera was a Christmas present I’d asked for when I was age 7 or 8: a Halina-branded Haking Grip-C compact camera that took 110 cartridge film. With a fixed focus, a fixed shutter-speed and a choice of two apertures, it was an almost-entirely mechanical beast. The shutter was cocked by a lever which engaged with the film’s sprocket holes (a single hole per frame on 110 film) and the only electrical component was a piezoelectric switch attached to the shutter, for firing a Flipflash bulb if you’d inserted any. I might still have an unused Flipflash somewhere.

A photography geek might look at the above spec and be amazed that I managed to photograph anything recognisable on that type of camera. Frankly, even aged 7 so was I: to go with the camera I’d been given a book called something like A Children’s Guide To Photography which made no bones about this type of camera being a very basic one that it was hard to get good results from. It lasted me a few years though, despite at least one drop that popped the back off; I was still using it in my teens, I think.

Sometimes on this blog I’ve mentioned visiting the Ffestiniog Railway; last December for example. The last time I visited The Mother, though, I dug out the photos I’d taken on my very first visit, on which we did a single round trip from Blaenau to Porthmadog and back again behind the Alco. All the photos were taken right at the start of the day, it seems.

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The weather in Blaenau is famously murky and damp; I’m not sure quite how much of the murk and grain in those photos is down to the camera and how much is down to the weather. Still, what the photos lack in sharpness, they certainly have in atmosphere.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part two)

Or, recovering from mistakes

At the weekend, I did a bit more work on the papercraft pinhole camera I posted about the other week.

Camera, from behind

Can you see the mistake I made near the start, but didn’t realise until everything was set truly firm and solid? The dashed lines marked on the card are a bit of a clue. The entire central portion of the body is upside-down. Because the film passes through the body off-centre, this means that the frame mask is in the wrong place: it’s about 3mm or so too high. The photos this camera takes are going to have their bottom sprocket holes exposed, but (unless I take a scalpel to the frame mask) will have a black band along the top. Oh well: it’s not as if they were ever going to be perfect photos in any case. I did, at least, realise this before sticking on the film guide rails, because if I’d put those the wrong way round, with the fat one at the bottom and the thin one at the top, the camera would be completely unusable. As a 35mm film canister is handed, they have to be the right way round for the film to slot properly into place. Luckily, I decided to measure up the guide rails against the leader of a new film, and immediately realised what I’d already got wrong.

Camera, from the front

The next step is the takeup reel, which worries me because, even more so than the “shutter”, it’s the one part of the camera that’s made from card but needs to function mechanically. It feels as if the tolerances in this part of the machine are quite tight, which should hopefully help, so long as they’re not too tight that it takes a camera-destroying force to turn the wind-on knob. You can see that in these pictures: a hollow card hexagon which I would imagine is quite easily distorted if the wind-on action is a bit stiff.

Incidentally this camera has no sort of rewind mechanism. The instructions suggest you take it to a photography shop to get the film out again after it’s exposed. Luckily, I have a changing bag I can use to do it myself.

The next update on this project is here.


Or, daily life in Bristol

Overheard on Stapleton Road, around lunchtime: a fragment of a conversation as I passed:

“I got banned from the Esso garage ‘cos I was drinking too much, but I can still buy food.”

Across the road, a man stumbled and slowly, gracefully, went head-over-heels and landed flat on the pavement, carefully protecting a lit cigarette as he fell. He didn’t try to get up, but laid on the pavement, smoking his fag, looking for all the world as if he was as relaxed as he could be.

Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in the canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.

The state of the world

Or, the world keeps turning

Today was the first morning of this autumn with signs of frost on the ground. I sat down at my desk and saw the roofs across the street fringed with white at the edges of the tiles, as the sun rose in a clear blue sky. Winter is coming, and our Hallowe’en pumpkins are in a dark corner of the garden for the local slugs and snails to eat. A robin fluttered around the garden, getting ready for all the Christmas posing; I doubt they go for pumpkin. In the summer the garden was full with house sparrows, as nearly every house in this street has a few sparrow nests under the eaves; but now they are quiet and are staying inside.

A month or so ago, I talked about how awful the world of politics is, too awful to want to write about. This morning, with the results of yesterday’s American presidential election still entirely up in the air, that seemed still very true. This evening, the results of yesterday’s American presidential election are still somewhat up in the air, but not quite as awful. We can but hope.

Since the clocks changed it’s dark now before I leave my desk in the evening, and on nights with clear skies, at the moment, I can see Mars rising, the first “star” visible above the roofline on the other side of the road. It rises above them just as dusk falls, visible already as a dim orange pinprick whilst the sky around it is still blue. Over the course of this year I’ve come to know the roofline opposite my window intimately. I feel like I know all the cracked tiles and broken patches like the back of my hand; I’ve watched the missing tiles on a house down the street get worse as the year has gone on and wonder how the residents cope in rainstorms, and I’ve watched a house a similar distance up the street slowly have its roof replaced, its chimney repointed, everything tidied and neatened and primped. Winter is coming, we are a third of the way through the final quarter of the year. After that, though, things will be brighter again.

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenbank for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Maps in this post were reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.