Phorgotography, 1

Our relationship with the photograph has changed so much over the last twenty years that the few black and white or kodachrome or instamatic images of older folks’ childhoods (and of their progenitors’ entire lives) have taken on the austerity of ikons, while the sea of images we swim in on social media makes selecting one or two as pointless as responding to the Lady of the Lake, should she display a photo of our lost youth, rather than the usual Arthurian cutlery.

I’ve been increasingly intrigued over the last year or so, then, by the random algorithms of social media, whereby a site or indeed a device will send you some image from a few years before as a sort of clickbait to get you back in their particular pond or sealoch. Usually I ignore, occasionally I succumb with bad grace, and share with a remark, but now and then, particularly over the various Lockdowns, where the image shown was as much of an unobtainable freedom as the inaccessible past, something would really click if not snap.

Included here are nine instances over three posts where the triggering element was grief or a sharp (rather than comforting) sense of nostalgia, where place became a matter of discomfort at the distance rather than simple pleasure. I suppose I’m interested in being confronted by this process of access by images removed from memory – ie it doesn’t matter to the programme whether I can remember what it displays or not.

I’m struck by the way this throws up the eternal presence of the photograph: how its now dead world transcends its occasion simply through the mechanical act of capture: the dead are as they were, unharmed, the demolished undamaged, the vanished or unconsidered detail available for, from one angle only and with all the limitations of that mechanical focus, our scrutiny.

i the four emperors

(Effbok in its infinite random woozedom suggested this as a memory I might like to share, then, as I reflected upon it, decided I was taking too long and wandered off to ‘care’ about someone else. By then, I’d written this:)

Bookface flashed up this small Byzantine sculpture of four allegorical figures of Roman emperors, built into the corner of St Marks in Venice, just as I was reading about the first Great Plague, which effectively shattered Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Roman Empire in the mid-sixth century.

The sculpture was looted in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the less-than-holy Fourth Crusade, which dealt a subsequent disastrous blow to the Byzantine Empire. Less than 150 years later, the Black Death arrived in La Serenissima.

When I took the photograph I was thinking about why the spolia were displayed on the Cathedral, and how frankly this declared the Venetians’ values. It feels odd to look again at these broken and displaced tetrarchs, who now appear as though they were still trying to bring the fragments of their slowly disintegrating world together.

ii slomadicity


How very past this beforetimes piece for the Lit & Phil seems for the moment, with its accounts of regular rail travel between two hame touns, and its suggestions of the wider, supposedly secular, pilgrimages to regular holiday destinations.

I say ‘supposedly secular’ because what we long suspected is now still more evident: beneath all the statutory boozing and sun-worshipping, these were always our own other places of renewal and, if we briefly came to our senses as a result, reverence.

I should’ve underscored at the time how Anne Stevenson made the same move (gradually) from The Fifeness to Durham, and therefore how the late period of her work is partly an exploration of how such other places become home.

Our current ‘lesson’, of course, is complementary: how exactly is it a home becomes home-like, and how is it that any exploration of this seems to render it simultaneously – and seemingly inexhaustibly – other?

iii grief soup

Nostalgia in its etymological sense as the pain of (not being able to) return. Not only in the sense of getting back to Crete for Paskha, but in somehow returning to the simple pleasure we were taking in the simple pleasures. To before.

The restaurant across the street here is called Nostos, and still features lively murals of an inebriated Odysseus.

The owner of the restaurant we’re sitting in, Syrtaki, died last year (not of Covid). Giorgios was a lovely, gruff-voiced, kindly man, and he made sure his kitchen produced proper Cretan food, including pretty much the son of the bowl of fish soup I’d had twenty years before in a now-demolished place just along the beach.

Every time I remember he’s gone it’s a dull blow that awakens other blows, principally our dear neighbour Apostolos, and then, inevitably, my father. Nostalgia in its etymological sense.

(The sad postscript to this note is that, when we dashed back to Crete for a desperate, delightful, but bittersweet fortnight last autumn, Syrtaki was closed and, as his daughter explained, in the present state of uncertainty, would remain so for the foreseeable.)

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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