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[About me] About the author

Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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abandoned places and things architecture bristol coastal dorset events highlands history industrial lake district lakes london mountains not the uk photo essays photography politics protests rural rural decay science scotland somerset structures the north uk urban urban decay wales westcountry all tags

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Sat, 20 Mar 2010

Location: Castlerigg


In the house where I grew up, on the side of a kitchen cupboard above the kitchen sink is a small wide yellowed print on a bent and battered cobweb covered card, faded with the light of five thousand sunrises and dappled from the condensation of countless boiled kettles.


It's a print of the stone circle at Castlerigg, the Celtic Carles of Keswick, looking north over the shapely Cumbrian fells of Latrigg and Blencathra, known as Saddleback, in the northern lakes.


A neolithic druidical astronomy set, aligned with the autumn equinox and set centre stage on a minor eminence in a cavernous amphitheatre.


An antique shelter for the sheep, trap for the tourist, and prop for the photographer.

Built to catch the light and the lightning, the sun, the snow and the storms.

More photos in the Cumbria gallery...

[Tag] Tags: castlerigg, cumbria, history, lake district, national parks, rural, the north, uk, weather

Sat, 30 Jan 2010

Moving photographs

When flickr introduced video functionality, the community was divided. To a certain type of purist it was the beginning of the end, or the last straw; the big coporate takeover ignoring the wishes of a passionate established community in favour of mass appeal. A certain type of purist flouced off and cancelled their membership.

To the rest of us, flickr videos are just moving photographs: just another way to capture the light and landscape, the streets and streams of changing scenes.

more moving photographs...

[Tag] Tags: derwent water, flickr, lake district, photography, video

Wed, 20 Jan 2010

I get mail

Spam mail. I don't mean your regular crap. Professional spam mail from the professional spammers: PR. Somebody put me on a list and now all kinds of companies and individuals are paying all kinds of PR agencies lots of money so that the PR agencies can pay the mailing list compiler a load of that money to send me spam about their crap photography competitions. And then I laugh at them in public. Money and time well spent all round, I think.

Last week, for instance, Rebecca at AppleJupp could hardly contain her excitement to be announcing to me the totally new "mobile phone photography course" being organised by "Photography Made Simple". For just forty pounds, this unique course will, for the first time ever in the UK, teach you how to take photos with your Blackberry. But where do you go to become a qualified cameraphoner? Crystal Palace.

Sadly, as it was last Saturday, I was too late to make an anonymous tip-off.

[Tag] Tags: crystal palace, photography, pr, spam

Mon, 18 Jan 2010

Tough on crime in fantasy land

Conspiracy theorists believe that there is a tall building somewhere in this photograph.

Conspiracy theorists believe that there is a tall building somewhere in this photograph.

I used to work on Cleveland Street in central London. Our next-door-neighbours at "The Tower, 60 Cleveland Street", were one British Telecom. Their offices were designed for some old fashioned method of telecommunications routing involving microwaves, and so it just happens to be one of the most distinctive -- most noticeable -- buildings in the country, being as it is, a narrow cylindrical building of 620 feet, covered in antennae and dishes, in an otherwise low-rise and conventional section of the centre of a major world city. Legend has it that, because of the potential military importance of the communications networks, the tower was only officially revealed to exist in 1993 by an MP responding to the persistent rumours -- conspiracy theories! -- that there might possibly be a large and unusual shaped top secret skyscraper somewhere in the vicinity of the Tottenham Court Road. These days, the tower is largely redundant: the idea of using microwave technology as the backbone to a communications network didn't really have time to catch on before fibre-optics became the in thing. These days, most of those antennae and dishes are decoration, unplugged and silent, protected from removal by a grade II listing. The building is nothing more than heritage. It just sits there looking pretty, counting down the days to the Olympic games in LED lights that can be seen from miles around.

At the same time as working in Cleveland Street, I was living in the shadow of another transmitter, the more mundane but equally difficult to miss Crystal Palace Transmitter, which rises 720ft above the chalk hills eight miles south of the city centre. Though only the second tallest structure in the capital, once its 360 foot base height is factored in, it becomes the highest, and is prominent on the horizon from around the city. It is the main transmitter of television and radio -- local and national, BBC and independent, analogue and digital -- for the whole city.

A stop and search what I got

In february 2008 I photographed the transmitter from the public park below it and was issued with a stop-and-search by the metropolitan police. A pair of officers drive a patrol car around Crystal Palace all day specifically for this purpose (at least, this was the case in 2008). I think they were probably just bored and wanted something to do -- somebody to talk to -- for five minutes. They explained the reason for their constant zealous and jealous vigilance: the transmitter hosts the emergency services radio system (I have subsequently been unable to verify this fact) and is known to be a terrorist target. One of the officers said, "nah, it's fine, just, like, you shouldn't put the photographs on the internet or whatever, cos they might be used by terrorists in planning an attack."

A picture what I took of the transmitter.

A picture what I took of the transmitter.

There are 418 flickr photographs tagged "Crystal Palace Transmitter", and approximately 38,000 google image hits, alongside the usual detailed Wikipedia article and fine google earth coverage. Its existence is not one of London's better kept secrets.

The point I want to make about all this is not about whether the things the policeman said are true or lawful, or to bitch about the general behaviour of individuals in the metropolitan police (these two might have been a bit dim, but they were perfectly nice), nor is it really about the need to stand-up for our civil liberties (you're familiar enough with that argument already). Because the idea of stopping and searching photographers in the name of keeping London safe fails at a much more fundamental level than the civil liberties argument: terrorists don't go around photographing the crystal palace transmitter. And piles of money -- our money -- are being spent to act upon the absurd idea that they do.

There are two main reasons why terrorists don't go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter -- apart from the fact that it's easier to look the photos up on Google Earth. Firstly, it's because terrorists aren't photographers. I don't simply mean that, like almost 100% of people, almost 100% photographers are not terrorists. I mean that terrorists aren't photographers. Perhaps in cheap TV dramas, where one can't illustrate that a character is shady by showing that he is thinking shady thoughts, terrorists go around with their expensive SLR equipment taking photographs of their targets. In the real world, they don't. When asked for evidence to support the efficacy of their activity, the best the police can do is point to one guy who went around filming stations with a phonecam and who was successfully prosecuted for, er, fraud and immigration offences. He could, perhaps, theoretically, be linked to terrorism, though, they say. And apparently that's good enough evidence for police in London.

Secondly, terrorists don't go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter because terrorists aren't interested in the Crystal Palace transmitter. Not unless they are shit terrorists. I'm not an expert on the way terrorists think, but I understand that Terrorism Studies 101 teaches that the goal of the terrorist is to make a scene: to get into the headlines and get into people's heads; to spread their message and to spread fear. Toppling a tower in a suburban park and depriving a few million people of Celebrity Big Brother for the five minutes that it takes the engineers to switch on the backup signals is somewhere down in the thousands on the list of the most effective ways one could achieve that goal. Toppling an iconic piece of architecture in a busy central business district -- even if the tower was functionally redundant -- would have a far higher impact. Which is exactly why terrorists did target the BT Tower: the IRA exploded a bomb there in 1971. But I never did get a stop-and-search on Cleveland Street.

Some of us still cling to the unfashionable idea that if one wants one's actions to be effective, they need to have some basis in reality and be informed by evidence about how the world works. The Home Office told us what they think of that idea back in October. If there's one thing the Home Office can be commended for, it's being consistent in ignoring the inconvenient complications of the real world as they instead throw our money away on absurd ineffective solutions to serious social and security problems.

[Tag] Tags: bad arguments, bad policies, london, photographer not a terrorist, photography, politics, stop and search

Mon, 18 Jan 2010


I have been quiet here for a couple of weeks while getting my blogging in order. Over the past couple of years I've been blogging here sporadically on a random assortment of topics from photography to publishing via skepticism and hardcore science. Because that combination of interests is rather unique and few of you care to read my uninformed thoughts about all of them, but because I can not decide on any particular topic to give up writing about, the blog is therefore being broken up and the parts sold to the highest bidders. So from now on, you can find me blogging in these places:

  • On the nature of science, skepticism and bad arguments at Lay Science
  • On science publishing, open data, and the future of the scientific paper at Journalology
  • On hardcore cancer biology at a location yet to be announced
  • and the stuff that I just made up off the top of my head -- the LabLit and Skepticism Lit -- at another location yet to be announced

Leaving this site to become a dedicated photography site. That doesn't mean I won't be writing much here. I'm going to be stepping up the blogging about photography and about being a photographer in London and the UK, and about some of the photogenic and not-so photogenic locations that I stumble upon. You may also have noticed that the site has just been reskinned ready for its new photography focus -- do take a look around at the updated galleries!

But what if you do happen to have all of the same interests as me and do want to hear my uninformed views on all of them? That's OK! I've made another little site to amalgamate them all -- you just need to subscribe to that!

Thanks to everyone who subscribes, and please take a moment to update your subscriptions -- unless you were only ever here for the photography talk.

[Tag] Tags: meta

Sun, 6 Dec 2009

Competition time

IanVisits notes the irony of the Docklands Light Railway, famous for their absurd private policing of passengers' photography, launching a photography competition and inviting you to send in photographs taken at their stations, even though their security patrols stop people from taking photographs at their stations. Obviously the scheme was dreamt up by the PR and marketing department, who think that they can get hundreds of publicity photos, some of which are bound to be quite good, for a single payment of 150 (or nothing at all if the prize was in turn given to them free by the manufacturer's marketing department) -- a tiny fraction of the cost of hiring a photographer.

It's a trick that marketing departments and PR companies everywhere seem to have really caught on to this year. Don't pay a professional photographer a grand to get the shot you need, make people do it for free! Offer a cheap prize as bait, call it a competition, and make sure the small print gives you unlimited rights to the catch. Then, target your spam at a few good photographers, and hope that some of them fall for it.

Here are just a couple of the more surreal competition subjects that PR agencies have pestered me with lately:

  • Media Consulta PR agency send unsolicited mail on behalf of the EU Safety and Health at Work Agency, who seem to think that it would be exciting to share "my image of Safety and Health at Work." Ironically, their unsolicited bulk mail appears to break theEU's rules on unsolicited bulk mail. But at least the EU were offering a whole 1,000.
  • Ceres PR send unsolicited mail on behalf of the HGCA -- the cereal farmers' marketing board. They've created "Annual Farmhouse Breakfast Week", and think that you might want to hand over your photography in exchange for a mid-range kitchenware set. Hey, why not also get a mathematics student to write the formula for a perfect breakfast?

Sadly, the DLR competition seems to have made a schoolboy error -- not in asking members of the public to do something that another department is using all the intimidation it can muster to stop the public doing, but in its offering of a prize. A cheap compact digital camera. Who would want a cheap compact digital camera? Hint: not the brilliant photographers you want to give you fantastic free marketing shots.

[Tag] Tags: photography, pr

Sat, 5 Dec 2009


This week, the shocking private emails of a group of senior scientists were leaked after one of the scientists placed his laptop in the line-of-sight of the dozen or so nosy people who were sat behind him at a rather dull public lecture in London.*

Secreted in a back corner of the lecture theatre, Charles Quackenbush strains to hear the next facile question tumble and stumble in "uhms" and "ahs" from the eager humanities student in the front row. He briefly exchanges a look with a fellow from the department (the wednesday evening public lectures are always a source of great amusement for the department's old boys) before returning to his emails, leaving Sir Frederick to try explaining again the very basics of natural selection to the sociologists of science.

Dear Charles, Just to confirm, as per our earlier conversation, that the recording will be Thursday at nine -- my BA will meet you in BH reception. Could you send your press photo for the listings? I don't think we have one on file. Melvin.

Charles taps out a quick content-free response about "looking forward to it", and drags in a file from close at hand. Archives the email.

Dear Prof Charles Quackenbush, I am a MA Science Communication student at City Univ--

Are you sure you want to delete this email? OK Cancel

And then another new arrival; the latest episode in the great ongoing saga that was tearing the department in two. A short episode.

chaz, those are mighty hateful hurtful words. i can't believe you would say such things about collins, after that nice book he wrote about me and science not being incompatible. cheers, God.

Charles frowns, looks up and glances over to his right. At the far end of the row Professor Goddard Z Bumsted O'Higgins leans forward and grins at him, iPhone in hand. Charles doesn't stop frowning. Hits reply, but he's too slow. There's already another new entry. Its author, Professor Elisabeth Penelope Ditherley de Pelet, a row in front to the left, is now staring, stern face and unfocused eyes illuminated by the light from her netbook, at another of Sir Frederick's amusingly captioned slides of his golden retriever.

Shut up, Bumsted, the grown-ups are trying to talk here. Charles, I'm afraid your argument is utter utter cock. It would be by *not* inviting Collins to speak that the university would look like it had the agenda. Obviously you're free to publicly say whatever you like about the guy, but the fourth best university in the world can't snub the head of the NIH without anybody noticing. You know how these things work. When people of his standing announce that they're coming to town, an invitation is expected from us. If you succeed in blocking this, the headline will be "fundamentalist atheists go out of their way to be rude," and I couldn't blame anybody for running it--

Charles thinks about replying with "yawn", and yawns.

--frankly, I'd have thought you'd have more important things to be doing than preaching to the rest of the department. You can't have failed to hear the *gossip*, even stuck in your own fantasy land? -Betty x

Charles frowns some more. Sends a blank email to Goddard, subject "what's the gossip?" Continues through the dregs of his inbox.

Dear valued reader, We are pleased to announce that there is still time to register your place at the first annual International Conference of Gastropodcomparative-systematicsemiquantitativetemporalnuclearmisinteractomics, to be held in Las Vegas, 18-21 March 2010...

Charles hits the spam button.

heheh. betty's post-doc has been telling everyone what she walked in on in the darkroom the other day. your students were in there, *kissing*. from what i've heard, they've been doing a lot of that lately. heh. they're probably in there *now*. I say, though, old chap, I'd have thought you'd have been wanting to put a stop to that sort of thing? cheers, God

The colour drains from Charles and his hands begin to shake with horror. Kissing. How awful. Charles had read that kissing could lead to friendship and a social life, even marriage, or children. Charles couldn't afford for his people to be rushing around all over the place having children. There was science to be attended to, and they were already behind on delivering it.

Charles stares at Sir Frederick's "science kitteh" slide, tapping his feet manically, wondering desperately what he can do to contain the situation. Eventually, the solution comes to him.

Hi All, I stand by everything I've said and will still vote in the 'no' camp, but I have no interest in wasting any more of my time arguing with those of you who apparently don't care for reality, rationalism or academic integrity. Invite him if you like. *I* will make sure that I am well out of it. There's an interesting looking conference in Las Vegas that weekend. I think I might take the whole lab. A good dry conference should get those students back in line. Regards, Chaz.

* Obviously, any resemblance to real people, events, or email exchanges is entirely coincidental.

[Tag] Tags: Charles Quackenbush, Francis Collins, atheism, fiction, flash fiction, religion, short stories

Mon, 2 Nov 2009

Open doors other side

Charles Quackenbush stands at the far end of the platform, away from the crowds around the shelter at the platform steps; positioned well over the tactile paving and the yellow line.

"The train now approaching platform... one... is the... oh nine... oh four... service to... London Victoria... calling at... Herne Hill... Brixton... and... London Victoria."

The rails begin to sing their high-pitched wail. Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rain rolls down his cheeks.

And the train pulls up, beside him, past him, coming to a stop twenty seconds later with Charles stood, eyes still closed, beside the final set of doors. The doors open, and the eyes open, and Charles doesn't really have much choice but to step on board. He'll just have to get off at the next stop and try again.

"Any unchecked tickets please," comes an abrupt shout. "Good morning, sir, could I see your ticket, please?" Charles, of course, has not purchased a ticket. His intention had not been to go anywhere today. At least, not via Herne Hill. He pays the penalty fare and is given his ticket.

Charles steps off the train with the few dozen passengers changing to the Blackfriars line, and casually wonders across the platform as the Victoria train continues on its way. On the Blackfriars platform, the electronic display scrolls a long list of destinations for the train through to Bedford, the reflected lights creating a psychedelic show on a warped and battered advertising display case.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... nine... minutes."

Two empty paper coffee cups are caught by the wind. They roll around in circles, catch on the corner and break dance through the eddies, colliding, bouncing violently apart, and hurl themselves from the platform edge. Charles sits on a cold metal bench and stares through the rain, across the track, over the scruffy scrub of the embankment, and out to the twin beige concrete tower blocks looming over them from across the road. "Open doors other side," reads a helpful sign placed high on the chain-link fence between the tracks and bank.

"Open doors other side," thinks Charles. The doors are open for the post-doc on the other side of the lab, whose experiments work, whose papers get published in Cell and Nature, whose smile charms committees and conference rooms. The doors were always open for the guy he lived with during his PhD, who, despite his obvious brilliance, never bothered looking for a post-doc position but within a year of graduating had already accumulated an MBA and a small but cool hi-tech company. Or his friends at Oxford -- the lawyers and bankers; and his friends from school, who had travelled the world, published novels, and were already sending children of their own to the same school. And here was Charles, at the end of a second post-doc, penniless -- personally and professionally -- and not a datum that any sane person would want to publish. His career was over. They would make him take the walk of shame.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... seventeen... minutes."

Charles sighs and sits back in the seat, folding his arms and tilting his head. And he sees it. The damp mouldy rope, hanging from the station canopy; one end tied securely around a beam, the other looped and slipknotted . Why? What purpose could such a thing serve? Charles stares at it for a few minutes, wondering how strong it might be. The estimated time of arrival on the electronic display revises itself. Charles hadn't considered this method. Hadn't done his research. It couldn't be a bad way, though, could it?

Charles stands purposefully, steps up onto the bench and balances with one foot on the arm rest. He reaches out and grabs at the rope. A few of the fifty-or-so people on the platform notice the performance, and wander quietly and casually away, so as not to see the finale. Charles places the loop around his neck, takes a deep breath, and steps onto nothing. He swings forward, out over the coffee cups and cracked tactile paving and faded yellow line. The rope creaks, the beam cracks, and Charles falls, pursued by the station canopy onto the tracks, knocking his head on the lip of the platform and rolling onto the dead third rail. Somebody on the platform looks up from their newspaper and screams. A distant voice rings out,

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... has been cancelled."

Charles lies on the track for a while, panting, while the stars fade. His eyes focus on a solitary white flower in the fence. Bind weed climbing the wire links. His phone rings, and he sits up with effort, loosening the rope that still hangs from his neck. There are some "yeses" and "of courses" and "thank yous" from Charles, and the occasional dizzy and vacant nod. An offer. Not science. Something about writing and publishing and online media; a startup doing something new, something interesting, perhaps. Not science, but an offer; an invitation to do the walk with purpose and a destination and his head held as high as a head could be. A fresh breeze blows down the tracks, drying his face. He nods to himself, and smiles.

Charles slowly rises to kneel, rubbing his neck and knees and brushing dirt from his damp clothes. He pulls himself up onto the crowded platform with some effort; the broken section of station canopy clattering after him. He stands there, staring blankly at the arrival of the oh-nine twenty-seven. Steps aboard, still lost in his thoughts, and squeezes himself in, with his feet awkwardly arranged around somebody's briefcase, and his face shoved into the armpit of a Metro-reading old man. Then he snaps back into the world as lightning strikes a concrete tower and thunder cracks. The train slows. "Apologies for this delay, ladies and gentlemen. Due to a broken train at Farringdon we are being held in a queue outside Elephant and Castle."

Charles takes a deep breath of armpit, turns around, and starts pounding on the doors.

[Tag] Tags: chuck quackenbush, fiction, flash-fiction, science, short stories

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My other blog is a...
  • Science blog! A blog about cancer cell and molecular biology, coming soon...
  • Skepticism blog! I contribute to the group blog Lay Science on the nature of science, skepticism, and bad arguments.
  • Science publishing blog! It's called Journalology and it's a group blog about publishers, journals, papers and data.
  • Fiction blog! Where I make stuff up, coming soon...
  • Cycling and transport policy blog! I run the group blog At War With The Motorist, where we look at evidence-based urban planning and transport policy, and ride bikes.

Follow them all here.

Find me here...

Creative Commons License All text and photography on this site is Joe Dunckley 2001-10, except where stated otherwise. Text and photos are released under the terms of the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, meaning that you may reuse, remix, and republish the work for non-commercial purposes, on the condition that a credit is given to "Joe Dunckley/" and you make it clear that the work is released under this license. See this page for more detailed conditions. Contact me to enquire about commercial and editorial use.