THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Two disappointing conversations

This week I had two conversations; one with a valued and respected friend and one with a total stranger. I found both of them profoundly disturbing. 

My friend is Jewish. In the course of a conversation over lunch he told me that he and his wife have decided to leave Britain if Jeremy Corbyn becomes our Prime Minister. Not to avoid the avalanche of new taxes to be expected from an authentically Marxist Labour government, but because he is afraid that the growth of anti-Semitism will at best go unchecked, and at worst be encouraged, by Corbyn's government.

Think about that for a second. One of Britain's best claims to be the most civilised nation in Europe is that there have been no pogroms here since that at York in 1190. I have never heard an anti-semitic remark from a British person in my life. I am sure we must have the occasional nut-job who harbours hatred for the Jews, but have never met one. Given that for a while, I was a partner in a predominantly Jewish law firm, I have had better than average chances of doing so.

I am proud of the fact that Britain has been for centuries one of the safest places in the world for a Jew to live. I was shocked to hear my friend express his fears.

This is no shrinking violet neither. He is a distinguished lawyer; a former partner in another City of London law firm. He has a fine mind, strong principles and a courageous, forthright character. He is a clear thinker and a tough negotiator. He is not a man to cut and run, so I do not dismiss his concerns at all. He is making a rational calculation. 

The second conversation was at my local petrol station. A well-dressed young black man driving a newish Audi accosted me as I refuelled Speranza. He felt I had cut him up at a nearby roundabout and had followed me to offer a critique. I don't believe his assessment was correct but let's pretend he was right because that doesn't affect my point. The conversation ran as follows (and I am rather proud that I stayed so calm);

"Do you know who a roundabout works?"

I think so, yes. Why do you ask?"

"You didn't give way to me back there"

"Really...?"

"As soon as I saw the car [pointing to Speranza, my Ferrari] I knew it would be driven by an ugly c**t and here you are"

"What did you call me?"

"You heard. An ugly c**t" [He then spelled the C word out, letter by letter]

"Charming"

"That thing [pointing to Speranza]. It's to replace a tiny d*ck. That's what it's for. Your d*ck is tiny"

As he turned to storm off, I finally lost it a little and called after him

"What kind of man speaks to a stranger like that, you uncultured bastard". 

His anger was genuine enough but it was not righteous. My impression was that I was the object of his hate not because of what I did but because of what he thought I was – rich, old "gammon". Outside the ranks of fundamentalist religions, only social justice warriors can behave so badly with such a righteous demeanour. This man was of the Left; consumed with envy and identarian anger.

Before you leap to a wrong conclusion, I an not seeking to join the identity politics jamboree. Far from it. The only "protected characteristic" I aspire to or recognise is "Human." Nor do I want legal protection from mere words. In the end, though I think he hoped I would offer violence so that he could beat me up, he did nothing but call me names. When I refused to rise to his bait (carefully calculating about how it would look on the petrol station's CCTV cameras, if I am totally honest) he walked away without converting his assault into battery.

He was throwing a tantrum like a spoiled child and a better come-back than I found in my distress would have been to laugh and ask him;

"What are you? 12!?"

What connects these two incidents apart from incivility and threat of violence? The politics of identity. An imperfect but, generally, safe country is becoming angry, violent and dangerous because the members of the British Left, in common with their comrades throughout the West, have deliberately fomented division. Their forerunners' attempts to turn class against class having comprehensively failed, they have spent the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and some of them have spent far longer) trying to set race against race, sex against sex, faith against faith and so forth. That explains the anger of the young man with the Audi. He saw in me, not another human, but a category of oppressor. My driving error (real or imagined) gave him an excuse (as he would see it) to express his righteous contempt. His conduct was that of a medieval knight encountering – and expressing his scorn for – an actual villein; that is a person of an inferior class.

That, combined with the Left's quest for Muslim votes by its unholy alliance with Islam in support of the "Palestinians", accounts for my friend's calm assessment of the future for Jews on our sceptred isle. To them, he's not (as he truly is) one of the kindest, noblest and gentlest of men, but an enemy. A "Zio" to his face and God-knows-what behind his back, 

This post is not a counsel of despair. To be clear, I believe in the future of our country. To be even clearer, I don't accept the stereotyping of the "Millennials" and "Generation X'ers". I know enough of both to see through that. There are unpleasant and dangerous trends in Britain's public dialogue but I accept none of them as permanent. There are straws in the wind suggestive of public resistance to this vile brand of hate-driven, envy-driven, divisive and – yes – racist politics. But we are at a dangerous juncture in our national story and many more of us than already have need to take a stand.

We will be a poorer nation if my friend leaves. We will be a poorer nation if young Audi-man doesn't grow up to see the humanity in all of his fellow-Brits. It's up to every one of us to do our best to make this land of ours safe again.


Mindrolling in Dehradun

I spent today around Dehradun (known to the British in the days of the Raj as "Dehra" and often to the locals just as "Doon"). It's a lively city of more than half a million souls and the "interim capital" of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. The official plan is to build a new capital in the mountains, but I am told that may never happen (though the plan will probably never be officially renounced) because the politicians, officials and their families don't want to move to some soulless new town.

It's not a typical tourist destination. I'm here to visit a friend. I clearly stand out a bit from the crowd, though the attention – in this very polite country – is not unfriendly. I am just the subject of mild curiosity. After looking around a bit to get a feel of the place, I lunched with my friend at a mildly hip cafe and got another taste of Indian Indian food as opposed to the British Indian food I've been enjoying all my life. As my diet precludes carbohydrates at present, my food choices have not been entirely typical; no chapatis or naan bread, no potatoes or rice. However I have enjoyed the greater delicacy of the spices and the lighter consistency of the dishes. My friend reckons the British versions have too much tomato, butter and/or cream. Presumably our first Indian restauranteurs checked out our traditional diet and decided modifications were in order. Given the more sedentary lives we lead these days and the greater care many of us take with our diets, I reckon it's time for a reboot of British Indian cuisine but I'm sure no-one will do anything so radical on the say-so of a first time visitor on only his second day! 

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In the afternoon we visited the local Mindrolling Buddhist Monastery. This was founded only quite recently – in 1965 – by monk refugees from Tibet. I know little about Buddhism but I have always found its monasteries and temples attractive, soothing places. This one was no exception, though in the heat and humidity I was not quite as soothed as I might have hoped. I enjoy a bit of sunshine as much as the next chap, but I am not constitutionally adapted to it on quite this exuberant scale. I don't think I could have coped with it at all last year when I weighed forty kilos more! Despite this, I enjoyed my wander around the extensive site. I then drank a litre of water in a shady place before grabbing a taxi back to base.

In the morning, continuing the spiritual theme, I'm visiting the Hindu holy city of Rishikesh before returning to dine with my friend's family in the evening.


A different kind of road trip

It has been a while since I visited a new country but here I am in India for the first time. Most English people think we have an idea of this place. It is writ large in our history, cinema, television and literature. We've all read "The Jewel in the Crown", right (or at least watched the TV adaptation)? We all have Indian colleagues at work or Indian friends or neighbours. We all eat "Indian food" (though mostly adapted to our tastes, apparently).

This is not a trip for Speranza. I dropped her off for her annual service before heading to the airport yesterday. I will collect her when I return to England in ten days time, fettled and fitted with an Apple CarPlay system to bring her up to date. I wanted to work in a road trip though, so arranged to transfer from Delhi airport to Dehradun by car. This was a six hour trip that allowed me to see Indian life at ground level in cities, villages and countryside. I was strongly advised not to drive here and, after my experiences today, I understand why. I am a libertarian, but Indian drivers tend more to outright anarchism. They drive on the left, mostly. If a junction is coming up on the right, they sometimes decide to get into position a mile or two early, however. If a motorcyclist in a town sets off from the right side of the road, he may just stay there. When emerging from a junction, the Indian driver's trust in fate is impressive.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 18.48.10To be honest, I rather liked it. The further we traveled and the more I observed the local techniques, the more I wanted to have a go myself. It would have to be in a hire car though and preferably a four-wheel drive SUV – ideally of military specification. I would also like it to have a very loud horn, because that's a more important component here than the steering wheel. From my observations today, it seems that the person with the loudest horn has right of way. The driver we encountered with a Dukes of Hazzard "General Lee" type horn seemed to take even higher priority so, ideally, my hire car would have one of those.

The motorised road users were fun enough but when we left Delhi things got even more interesting. I am used to seeing cattle as I drive through the English countryside, but only out of side windows. Here you can see them from the others too. The composure of Indian drivers, who never seem to look angry or surprised no matter how fast or erratically you drive at them is only exceeded by the bovine pedestrians and their relatives pulling the bullock carts. My driver cut in on one so sharply that I thought we must spook him but Indian bullocks are made of stern stuff. I watched him in the mirror as we pulled away and he was completely unperturbed. We also encountered a goat herd and his flock. He was one of the few Indians not clutching a smartphone, though he may have had one about his person somewhere. Nothing about his dress or his demeanour contradicted the idea that he had time-travelled in from the Biblical era. In the next village another chap – in thoroughly modern dress and clutching a cellphone – was lounging in front of his home petting a goat which seemed to enjoy being stroked as much as any pet dog or cat. It was an oddly touching scene.

My favourite road users however were the serene and elegant Indian ladies riding pillion on motorcycles – sidesaddle. As the guy in charge of the machine (safety-helmeted as none of them were) dodged in and out of traffic, they sat upright and calm, one hand resting gently on the pillion. The voluminous fabric of their outfits swirled in the wind with such graceful abandon that the fate of Isadora Duncan seemed certain to be theirs. Yet they remained as poised and stable as the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front of a Rolls-Royce – even those with a child or three in hand.

The other thing that struck me on the journey was the high value Indians place on education. There were more advertisements for educational programmes than for consumer products and seats of learning (some more impressive than others) were dotted along the route. I am told that many of the students are being exploited by scoundrels whose diplomas are not worth the paper they're printed on, but I couldn't help liking Indians for their enthusiasm for learning, however naive.

As we passed over the hills on the final approach to Dehradun, the road become rougher and yet more dangerous.  A new tunnel is being built and our route seemed to be across the construction site. This did not deter my valiant driver. He tackled the unfriendly surfaces with such vigour that he managed to get all four wheels of his clunker of a Chevrolet "mommy van" off the ground at one point. If he has been driving it this way from new, it is a credit to its makers that it only looks as scruffy as it does. It had over 160,000 kilometres "on the clock" and he seemed determined to destroy it before it reaches 170,000.

We had already encountered a couple of monkeys in the villages down below but on the hill roads, they were legion. I am no naturalist, but watching their mutual familial care at the roadside was fascinating. 

India_06I didn't see much of Dehradun before we reached my hotel. The picture below is the view from my room's window. I shall take a tour with camera in hand tomorrow. For now, I have just enjoyed the view from the rooftop bar of the foothills of the Himalayas and my first taste (in the hotel restaurant) of Indian food without the "sneer quotes". It tasted good, but less creamy or buttery than the version for English palates. On my current diet, that suits me just fine.

India_20For the duration of this trip, I shall not be blogging about politics. Given the mess the Government is in over Brexit, I am sure that will be as much of a relief to you as it is to me!


A corset-maker by trade, a journalist by profession and a propagandist by inclination

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Five years ago today in New Jersey I stood outside the home of my hero Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.

In his day he was known as “the most dangerous man alive” though his only weapon was his pen. So mightily did he wield it that President John Adams said “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

He helped shape the new republics of America and France; serving in the Revolutionary French National Convention representing Pas-de-Calais, bravely opposing on moral principle (anti-monarchist though he was) the execution of the deposed King and escaping the guillotine at the hands of Robespierre by pure luck. He was “a corset Maker by trade, a journalist by profession and a propagandist by inclination.

Washington had Paine's pamphlet The American Crisis read aloud to his troops to inspire them. It begins:

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.

He is the most important but least remembered of the Founding Fathers because — though profoundly religious himself — he offended the conventional (and in the case of the slave-owners, hypocritical) religiosity of the early Americans. Sadly his influence was also lost in France, where his fan Napoleon, who slept with Rights of Man under his pillow but whom Paine recognised shrewdly as “the completest charlatan that ever existed,” overthrew the Revolution.

When I stood before the images hewn into Mount Rushmore, I was probably the only person there thinking it sad that Paine’s was not among them.

I blog under his name not because I agree with all his ideas (he was as misguided in details as he was sound on principles) nor because I consider myself his equal (though he would have insisted upon that) but because he is a hero of the cause of Liberty. Also because if he were alive today the greatest of all pamphleteers (no publication has ever reached the same percentage of Americans as Common Sense) would blog and tweet to dangerous effect. I hoped my humble writings in defence of beleaguered Liberty might exert even a millionth part of the influence his had.

If only his ideas had been as successful in his native Britain as they were in his adopted America how much better the world might be today. I still hope one day we shall bring his revolution home.


A small experience of violent orthodoxy in Britain

Your humble blogger is on a diet, a health kick, a change of lifestyle – call it what you will. Always a big chap, I have carried excess weight since my mid-thirties. The late Mrs P. used to nag me about it, with kindly intent, but I was never very concerned. Of athletic build (though with no athletic inclinations) I could carry it and it didn't prevent me from doing anything I wanted. In the six years and more since she died, however, it has become a problem. My health is still sound, but it became difficult to carry my burgeoning weight around and I realised I was on a downward spiral to serious health problems as it became more difficult to exercise. 

For two weeks in January I went to a health spa in Turkey with a similarly-afflicted friend (the Quarterback or "Q", as those who followed my Great American Road Trip tour may remember him). There I was given an eye-opening analysis of my physical condition. I was over 174 kg, including 101 kg of muscle built solely by carrying the rest about. My blood sugar was terrifyingly high and if I didn't have Type 2 diabetes (as it later proved I didn't) it would be a miracle. My heart was working so hard to keep the blood circulating around my bulk that my resting heart rate was that of a runner during a race. For all its effort my circulation was poor and my legs and ankles were swollen. I needed to lose weight equivalent to that of an entire sturdy midfielder playing for the football club I follow.

The nutritionist in charge of the spa and the doctors supervising the regime there treated me like an unexploded bomb and forbade me to use the gym. As retired lawyers, it was clear to Q and me that they were concerned about liability issues if I popped my clogs on their premises. It was sobering stuff but I took the view that essentially this was a scientific problem and that it could be fixed by controlling calorific inputs and outputs. Advised by the spa staff I swam every day. Advised by Q, now renamed "Coach" or "Yoda" for his role in all this, I also decided to play games with my own psychology.

I made a commitment to my friends on my personal Facebook page to lose 40 kg by June 30th of this year and to lose a further 28 kg (taking me to my ideal weight) by June 30th of next year. Informed by some lectures I attended on the psychology of personal change, I posted a picture of Colin Firth standing outside the Savile Row shop that features in the Kingsman movies wearing a classic English gentleman's suit. I promised I will post a picture of me wearing the same suit outside the same shop on June 30, 2019 – and cutting the same bella figura. He's a little shorter and a couple of years younger than me, but of a similar build so I think it's a realistic objective. I also showed this picture to a personal trainer at my health club near my home in West London. She laughed and said Mr Firth is a member and will be amused to hear about that. I rather hope our paths cross at the club so I can persuade him to stand by me in the 2019 picture.

I lost 5 kg on the regime at the spa, and had lost more than 10 kg by the time I returned to London towards the end of January. I have been exercising regularly and following my Turkish guru's advice on nutrition and have now lost 27.5 kg. I am well on track to my first 40 kg target. On the advice of supportive friends and family, I also joined my local Weight Watchers group. The app for tracking consumption is useful and the meetings put me under more useful psychological pressure. I attend every Wednesday morning and publish my stats on my Facebook feed. My fellow Weight Watchers are all female and embarrassingly supportive. I respond poorly to that "yay! well done!" stuff and am more incentivised by avoiding the relentless mockery I can expect from my male friends if I falter, but it's pleasant enough.

I have found the meetings a bit irritating at times however. My scientific, practical approach sits poorly with the emotional way the ladies there look at the problem. When one said she'd put on weight because her husband had upset her and so she'd eaten a cake, I suggested a healthier approach would have been to throw it at him. There was a collective intake of breath and then a couple of ladies laughed and the moment passed. This week, however, the WW group leader was inviting us all to consider how our emotions affected our weight and the resulting twenty minutes of psychobabble became difficult to bear. I was biting my tongue throughout but when the leader directly asked me what I thought, I offered a couple of observations to the effect that the science still works, however you feel about it, so why even worry about emotions?

This stimulated an interesting response. An angry old woman ('the AOW") shouted that they had listened to me (yes for less than a minute after I had listened to emotional blather for twenty!) and that I should now shut up. I duly did so, even as she testily told me that I was lucky not to experience the same emotions as normal people and that my success in losing weight was therefore lucky too. The leader came up to me afterwards to ask me if I was OK, which was kind but rather proved that she too had missed my point. This was really not an issue to me. My approach works for me and I don't give a damn whether the AOW's does or not (apparently not) or how she "feels" about that. But it was a very revealing exchange.

Margaret Thatcher once said;

Do you know that one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas?

One often hears people make similar complaints about the so-called Millennials – the "snowflakes" who fret so much about hurt feelings that they deny others' right to different opinions. Lady Thatcher was not talking about Millennials though, was she? And the AOW was firmly in the same "baby boomer" generation as me.  Nor are the television and radio interviewers who ask wounded victims of terrorist atrocities (or footballers who have lost matches) how they "feel" about it necessarily young. Nor, for the most part are the "outraged" columnists in quite serious journals who propose changes to legislation based on hurt feelings. While you or I believe that one is no more dead or injured if the victim of a "hate crime", many people of all ages (including the allegedly Conservative Prime Minister, God help us) believe that the irrational emotions of one's assailant make a crime somehow "worse". 

Lady Thatcher's observation encapsulates the main change in public discourse that I noticed when I returned to these islands in 2011, after nearly twenty years away. The English pride in rationality and the traditional "stiff upper lip" approach to emotion has vanished to the extent that I experience living here now as akin to being on some dreadful afternoon TV show. All media presenters are more or less Jeremy Kyle or, at best, Ellen Degeneres. Whereas as a young law student I was trained that "hard cases make bad law" and that legislation should be made in a detached spirit, not driven by the passions of those close to the problem, I now hear every day the ludicrous assertion that only victims can truly hope to understand issues and that it's ridiculous to believe that a calm, rational analysis by a detached person, "privileged" by not being in a given group of victims could lead to the right outcome.

I don't care that Mrs AOW has a different point of view to me. I actually found her emotional incontinence amusing and only mention her to illustrate my point. She's entitled to be as wrong as she likes and it's only her problem if her emotional response to a practical question has made her as unhappy as she is angry. But her determination that her emotions trump rationality and that her anger somehow validates her views tells a story about our country that, in the longer term, has to be worrying. 


La dolce vita in Florence

Last night I decided to make the effort to go out after all. I was glad that I did. Our whole group was invited to the home of Paolo and Tiziana, a local couple who are friends of some of our teachers.  They made us welcome to their beautiful home; a fifth floor apartment with amazing views (as pictured here) of the city's skyline on one side and across the river towards Piazzale Michelangelo on the other. They wined and dined us until our jollity overflowed into song. This persuaded Paolo to sing some opera, in Italian, which rather shamed our amateur efforts. After our exertions in the heat of Tuscany and Florence it was delightful to relax in someone's home and to enjoy such personal and personable hospitality.

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This morning we were outside the hotel at 0800 for the group photograph before setting off to the Duomo. A hardy sub-group had tickets to climb the campanile. The rest of us did our humble best at ground level until, as arranged by our local friends, we were granted privileged admission before the general public. Two Italian soldiers and a Humvee were stationed right outside. It's sad that in the current climate of terror we must fear someone would damage such a magnificent part of Europe's heritage.

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This afternoon we have our final class and critique session. I will see Siena through the eyes of my classmates who were there in the blazing sun yesterday. I am told it reached 40ºC at one stage so I don't regret my decision to skip that outing. The workshop ends with the "farewell dinner" this evening and Speranza and I will hit the road tomorrow morning after breakfast to drive back towards England.


Pasta and Wine

Considering how selectively I shot in the previous day's blazing heat, I was happy with my "selects" for the critique yesterday. After class we adjourned to a restaurant where "Suzie" the chef had agreed to a pasta making demo / photoshoot. The area set up for the purpose was ablaze with natural sunlight from a large French window, so sensei hung a bedsheet over that to form a huge "lightbox." He then set up a studio flash outside to mimic the sunshine he'd tamed in controllable form. Another flash inside the room was slaved to provide "fill". The objective was that the lighting set up would not be apparent to the viewer, who would think we had just been blessed with perfect natural light. You can judge if we succeeded from my shot of Suzie (a patient, charming lady who rolled and chopped contentedly for over an hour).

Suzie (1 of 1)

The unusual heat (over 30℃) was already getting to me. Even more so in the box of frogs formed by my fellow photographers writhing and dancing around our subject. I didn't serve my full stint in command of the lighting set up. I got my shots quickly and adjourned to a cooler spot. After lunching on the pasta we'd watched made (I was too hot to eat and skipped that) we were due to head off for a wine tasting and photo shoot at a vineyard, Felsina. Wine and olive oil have been made there since the days of the Etruscans.

We spent an interesting and pleasantly cool hour or so among the barrels of maturing Chianti, Spumante, dessert wine and their "Super Tuscan" brand Fontalloro. I can't show you any of the pictures alas, as the company made prior approval of published pictures a condition of allowing us such free access. I have been promised an email address of someone who can approve my shots, but immediacy is in the nature of a travel blog so by the time that happens it will be too late. You can see their pictures at their website. The most interesting part of the day was watching sensei make a portrait of the vineyard's owner and management team. I love to watch any expert at work. 

The wine tasting was fun and I particularly liked the Super Tuscan. I was enjoying it so much that I offered to buy wine for everyone on condition that we cancelled our excursion to photograph the raw ingredients while being grilled by the Tuscan sunshine. Such enthusiasts are my colleagues that this (I thought) compelling offer was emphatically rejected. I was by now operating well outside my design parameters for temperature management. I stayed on the air conditioned bus while they frolicked among grapes that will be of no interest to any sensible person for years yet!

Then it was back to our Tuscan home at Castello de Gargonza for our last night there. We had a splendid buffet dinner in a garden. The night sky was of such a rich dark blue that several of my visually-acute photographer pals could scarcely digest for their artistic glee. While they got their jollies their way, I gave the good Tuscan wine the full respect it deserved.  I sat at the same table as the Italian contingent of photographer/interpreters. Much international goodwill was generated over toasts. We exchanged idioms that foreign language speakers would never normally learn. I now know how to respond if insulted by an Italian. If an Italian photographer in London tells you it's "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey", you will be detecting my influence!

Hands were raised before bedtime to indicate who was up for a dawn photoshoot at 0515 today. Mine was not among them. I rose at a sensible hour and packed for our return to Florence. This was meant to be via Siena. I had been looking forward for months to that. I have been to Tuscany before but never to that city. Sadly that visit is still on my bucket list as I decided I would not be able to cope with hauling my camera kit around a city centre in these temperatures. Leaving Leslie,  a charming artist from New York who is my usual companion on these runs, to ride with the main group on the bus, I headed directly to Florence. My plan was to relax and decide whether I could cope with tonight's planned event. We are all invited to a garden party at the home of a Florentine "aristocrat" (an odd pretension in a Republic). The jury is still out on that one as I write this.

Tomorrow is our final day. We shoot the Duomo in the morning and then meet for a final class over a working lunch. There's then a break while the faculty create a slideshow of our best work to be viewed before our farewell dinner. As I have done in past years, I shall host the slideshow here and link to it for anyone who may be interested. There is a good range of photographic styles in this year's group, so I think you may enjoy it.


First full day of our Tuscany Workshop

Our workshop proper began on Sunday morning with a pre breakfast portrait shoot on the street outside our hotel with Natalie, our traveling model for the week. This was followed after breakfast with critiques of past work. Sensei took a look at four or five images from each of us to get an idea of where we are photographically. Given our numbers, this took all morning. 

We then took a long lunch break to enjoy the sunshine as tourists, rather than wrestle with its harshness as photographers. At 4.30pm we set off together to shoot street photography at the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria under the guidance of our tutors. At 7pm we reassembled to head up to the Piazzale Michelangelo to shoot at sunset.

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Some "location attitude" was required to seize the best position and hold it as we waited for the best light. We had as much right to be there as anyone else but of course so did they. To pass the time Joe did a couple portrait shoot against the background of the city, demonstrating the use of flash to blend the subjects with the background. This drew an even greater crowd, including some of his fans who recognised him from online video tutorials and a lot of Chinese tourists who just wanted to shoot the models with their smartphones. As they pressed against us with an Oriental determination and a surprising lack of respect for personal space, I experienced a disquieting physical intimacy for which thirty years of marriage to an Englishwoman had not prepared me. 

Eventually the setting sun did its stuff and we did ours, waiting (unlike the hard pressing iPhone crowd) for the lights on the Duomo and other landmarks to come on at about 9.20pm. Then I adjourned to the terrace restaurant of a nearby hotel for a splendid late supper and some Brunello di Montalcino with two friends from NYC who were on the previous workshops I've done with Joe. 

Today, Monday, we leave Florence to head out into the Tuscan countryside. 


A pedestrian day in Florence

Today was the first of two full days in Florence. My photo workshop begins this evening and I am looking forward to meeting up with friends from previous such events as well as making, I hope, some new ones. I had breakfast with the organiser, photographer and film-maker Liza Politi. This is the fourth of her photo workshops I have attended and it was good to catch up. Our "sensei" for the week, Joe McNally, stopped by to report on his early morning location scouting and showed us this photo, which sets the bar distressingly high.

I then braved the heat to haul my own camera gear around Florence. It's one of my favourite cities and, once I had bought myself a new Panama hat to shield my pale Brythonic features from the fierce sun, I enjoyed my stroll. It brought back happy memories of a family trip here with the late Mrs P. and Misses P. the Elder and Younger.

There was some kind of Ruritanian parade through the Piazza della Signoria and after watching the tourists vaguely wave phones over each others heads to produce thousands of what must have been dreadful photographs, I worked my way to the front to snatch some shots of manly Italian gents carrying off truly bizarre attire with such aplomb as only they can muster. In fairness, their outfits were only marginally more elaborate than the police uniforms here. If nattiness tended to effectiveness then this would be the best-policed country on Earth.

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Tonight our workshop begins with a kick-off briefing and setting of assignments, followed by a get-to-know-each-other dinner. If the organiser's choice of Florentine restaurant is half as good as her choice of hotel, we are in for a treat.


On the road again

Today Speranza and I sail to Santander in Northern Spain to embark upon a mostly recreational road trip. Political blogging is suspended until I return on October 4th and The Last Ditch will – subject to the constraints of internet access on the road – once more become a travel blog for that period.

As well as driving for fun, meeting friends in Spain and France, dining with some of them at my favourite restaurant in the whole world at Cap d'Antibes and generally living la vida loca, I have been commissioned to take photographs for the brochure and website of a friend's vineyard in Spain. I have been researching the Priorat – the beautiful area where it's located – via the marvellous 500px photography site and it should be a fun challenge. It's harvest time and I hope to get in amongst all that picturesquely sweaty activity with my camera.

For much of the time I will be driving wherever the fancy takes me when I wake up in the morning, relying on chats with locals to be directed to suitably fun roads, so I have no complete itinerary. However this map shows the general route from and to the ferry port at Santander (click the pic to enlarge).

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