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What gets better as you get older #2: being a connoisseur

People mock wine experts less than they used to. More wine is being drunk, for sure, but also the general level of connoisseurship has gone up. More and more people know what good wine tastes like. The notion of being an ordinary person with connoisseur level knowledge is no longer incongruous. We sWe see connoisseurship levels rising in lots of areas: cookery, gardening, natural history.

Becoming a connoisseur takes time, for sure, but also patience. Moreover it is something that just keeps getting better the older you get.

It is also something that keeps aging brains healthy. When we become interested in something we form circuits of neurons, but for these to become permanent we need to focus and concentrate on what we are experiencing. It needs to be important to us; once it is, brain plasticity and neural growth happens, and keeps happening what ever age we are.

The outdated notion that the brain stops growing is SO utterly wrong and yet also somehow comforting, it provides lots of people with the excuse that an old dog cannot, and should not, be attempting new tricks. In fact in research that started with old rats rather than old dogs, it's been conclusively shown that neural growth continues whenever there are learning challenges that we care about. But without connoisseurship we quickly level off and cease to care that much about our initial object of interest. We find one wine ‘we like’, and simply switch off.

As we get habituated to something we require fewer neurons to recognise that which is familiar. Our circuits rationalise and microglia hoover up unused connections. The result is we have a less rich and more abstract experience. Which is less memorable. Habitually doing something without wanting to appreciate its subtleties, or improve at it, results in connective decay, as we ‘switch off’.

The Biblical injunction that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well is backed up by neuroscience. Habits that have no connoisseurship potential dull and blunt our minds over time.

The effect of having a connoisseur mindset is very useful. Once you see yourself as mastering the subtleties of one area of activity you can transfer them to another.

If you’re an expert wine taster you can transfer this skill to being a better cook—that seems quite obvious. But what about being a better judge of antique furniture or birdsong?

When we become greatly interested in something, when we build connoisseur skills we sharpen our ability to discern small differences. This discernment skill can be accessed by analogous thinking- a by product of greater distribution of any mental event. By using analogous translations of grades of subtlety from the original connoisseurship we can transfer its use to a new area of interest.

Without becoming precious (I can’t help remembering the Roald Dahl story about the fraudulent wine expert) connoisseurship in whatever interests us is something to cherish as you get older; it also provides a reason for younger people to see an obvious value in aging.

Indeed when someone is held up as being ‘young at heart’ they are often demonstrating something that is merely human: learning something new.

Dr Stanley Karansky, at ninety years old, describes himself as a lifelong self-educator. But rather than dabble, each new interest becomes an engaging passion. In an interview with Dr Norman Doidge he says, “I became interested in astronomy five years ago and became an amateur astronomer. I bought a telescope because we were living in Arizona at the time and the viewing conditions were so good… I’m willing to put pretty intense concentration and attention into something that interests me at the moment. Then after I feel I’ve gotten to a higher level at it, I don’t pay quite as much attention to that activity and I start sending tentacles to something else.”[1]

This powerful focussed learning pays dividends in health. Though Dr Karansky has had two heart attacks, one at 65 and another at 83, he completely recovered. His parents who did not share his proclivities for learning died young- his mother in her 40s and his father in his 60s.

Connoisseurship- whether of the serial kind or simply sticking to one area and ever increasing the levels of subtlety- seems natural to me; it’s healthier for the brain and it is one more area of human activity that gets better with age.


[1] Norman S. Doidge “The brain that changes itself”. Penguin 2008


What gets better as you get older

As people age they focus, or tend to, on the things they are losing, the things and faculties that are worsening, the situations and events that are sliding into chaos or decay. It is all part of the default pessimism of most cultures. Why is this the default setting? Because a culture is living YOU if that makes sense. You’re like a single cell and your existence serves the culture, to some extent, but since the culture is not alive- it has been created by humans- it is parasitic on human energy to keep it alive. Like the matrix it feeds off our vital forces, and that drain is experienced by us as pessimism. Without its supply of human energy the vampiric culture dies, it displays itself as energy hungry and casts aside those who cannot blindly feed it- therefore it prefers the young to those who have wised up, the old.

Yep, that’s the first benefit of aging, you’ve seen through the culture. You know you have to pay lip service and do your civic duty but that’s it. No overtime here will gain you anything. Your energies are better spent relating to real people.

As you get older is makes sense to focus on that which CAN evolve and improve:

You get to be less self-centred (if you try)

You become better at detecting subtleties

You see the bigger picture

You can predict things better

You have more foresight

Now the harder part- which requires work:

You can be less anxious

You can be more lighthearted

You can give more in every sense

Faced between making a heavier response and a lighter one you can choose the lighter one

You can learn more effectively

You can better identify worthwhile goals

You can be more use to people

The list could be longer but this is a start. The real regeneration of any culture begins when old age is seen as a revered and worthwhile goal not some kind of horrible garbage bin end to a beautiful, prolonged and self-centred childhood.




getting in the right head space

Half the battle is turning up. Half the battle is coming back to your work after taking a break, several times if necessary. And half the battle is getting in the right head space (all battles command more than 100% from you). This can be helped by travel, sleeping at a different time from usual, being ill, drinking, plenty of danger there for mistaking one thing for another. The best way to get in the right head space for taking photographs is 1) start taking pictures straightaway, bad ones especially (or very vaguely interesting ones if you prefer) 2) get closer  3) keep moving  4) get above people and look down 5) get below and look up 6)take more bad pictures 7) get closer . As William Burroughs said, good writing happens when your nose is right on the wheel in front. Writing and taking pictures are similar in that when you are in the right headspace you see possibilities everywhere.

Of course one of the main enemies of the right head space is getting precious about being in the right head space. You need to get rid of any pressure- self imposed or other-people-imposed. You need to be outside time- achieve this by other going very fast or very slow, machine gunning or simply staring. Increasingly, though, I find that almost any photos are good, almost any writing is good. Maybe the right head space is simply the one that says 'make something' rather than "it's not good enough". Not good enough for who?


11 things about the future I am contemplating

The future will be homemade

Life will be a niche in the future

The future will be human

A few big things will fail

The only agreed morality will be sustainability

The future will be opt in/sign up not opt out.

New forms of family and old forms of family will still be paramount

The future will involve fasting: food fasting and information/stimulation fasting. We’ve messed up our physical and mental digestion through over eating and we are stressed and distorted from too much information- people will regularly fast from both.

The future will be business not nation driven.

The future will tend away from either/or,  and, this/that

The future will be about growing things yourself

Time spent not driving/commuting will be seen as a major form of success





Here is a link to an article I wrote for the excellent essay magazine AEON on altitude and how it helps and hinders life...


Interview with Alias Johnny Stiletto

This pic of Francis Bacon- his favourite portrait- is just one of the more famous photographs in Johnny Stiletto's genre defying collection of photos and mini-essays: Shots from the Hip

I found the book a fascinating and refreshing take on photography- very inspiring for anyone at all interested in street photography- unique and utterly memorable photos and far and away the best writing on the subject. Johnny kindly agreed to be interviewed- here are his answers to my questions...

Q1: Your unexpected and quite brilliant photographs in Shots from the Hip amount to a kind of intellectual autobiography; it becomes a revealing diary but also a series of autobiographical essays touching on the two wars, women, film, London, ageing. It really is 'another way of looking through the camera'- why aren't there more books like this? Are there any you can think of?

A: What I try and do with my photographs is tell stories, quite often the story isn't particularly clear at the time I take the shot, I might have a feeling, or the circumstances might be interesting or even exciting so I try and shoot as intuitively as possible. Afterwards the shots are there and the circumstances have settled into some sort of logic or story and that's the point at which I look at the shot, think about what was happening at the time, what I was thinking about and what I was going through and write round it and through it. Like most people I suppose my thoughts are all over the place a lot of the time. Shots From The Hip took over ten years to shoot, photographing on a very regular basis. Commissioning editors are quite brutal and they want to see a proposal of somewhere between 120 and 160 shots that exist now and not in the future. They want to see photographs that are immediate, original, or to put it another way photographs they like. They also want to see something you’ve written and had published. They don't buy hopes, maybes, bluff, excuses or it'll be alright on the night. The photographs have to be taken by one person, if you include other people’s photographs and describe how they shoot them, you’re writing fiction. You just have to be very focused to do these kind of books and you're rather held to ransom by the quality of the shots you get so this may account for the fact that there aren’t many or any books like Shots.

Q2.I notice you mention that you shouldn't be a slave of the camera- which is something Daido Moryama also says, were you influenced by his street photography at all? If so, how?

If I'm completely totally honest I don't know Daido Moryama so that really slices the top off the question. Sorry about that. All I can say, though, Don't be frightened of the camera, don't be in awe of it, it's just a machine, a technical slave, feel comfortable with it, press the button when you see something you like or interests you and let the camera do the work. Cameras aren’t children, they’re grown ups, they can look after themselves.

Q3. I'm interested in the way words and pictures work together- something that is really effective about Shots from the hip- how far into taking the pictures did you plan it is as an essay/manifesto?

A:It was always going to be about words and pictures and again, I think goes back to telling stories and I think pictures quite often need a bit of help. Also if you think about it, words and pictures slide naturally together. Think about press ads, films, posters, comic books, editorial. Words and pictures are working partners, words can do things that pictures can't like setting a scene and a time and pictures capture emotion. When you add words to a picture you quite often add a layer of excitement that isn't there in the picture alone. With words you can direct people into a photograph, get them to look into it, see it your way, linger, enjoy, I hope. Putting words and pictures together just seems a natural thing to do.

Q4. You used an OM SLR (I think) for 'Shots', digital makes it easier - or does it?

A:They're two different things and they're both brilliant. In practical terms shooting digital is much cheaper, no negs, no prints. Also you can shoot a lot more on digital and you don't really have to worry about reloading, flicking the winder or the noise of the shutter. Digital is faster and quieter, the only thing I'm very careful of is using small memory cards- if you get stopped or somebody gets upset about a shot you might have to hand over the card, (the Paris police are particularly excellent at this and 75% of them are plain clothes) so if you've got a weeks of work on a memory card you risk losing a lot. What I like about film is that you can force it to the limits and does some very interesting things by accident. In a way I'm always looking for small accidents in the shots I take. I don't like them fixed and perfect, again it goes back to the story telling thing, if everything's frozen and perfect there's nothing left to read into it. It's much harder to bend digital, it's do-able but more difficult. I think that’s the overall problem with digital, it’s often a bit too precise everything’s there and that’s not really how we see things, in reality eyesight is a series of slightly imperfect impressions. You can give digital a slightly more narrative filmic look by under exposing by two thirds of a stop, in other words by making the exposure slightly darker than the camera’s programmed to do and it’s forced into doing a bit of dancing in the dark. On balance, if I'm completely honest I think it's archaic in 2015 to be shooting film.

Q5. What other photographers are there that mean something to you and you have learnt from, and what you have learnt from them?

A:Robert Capa is the photographer who I really first became aware of and who influenced me most. He photographed the D Day landings and most of the film was destroyed in excitement by the lab, about 12 shots survived and one of them is a very blurred image of a GI in the water struggling to the beach, you know nothing about the detail or the man and everything about everything else. That for me is when photographs stepped out of the phone booth and became superman. If there's a point the point is that you don't need to do crisp perfect to tell a story or take a great shot, always try and leave something to the imagination.

Q6. What is the most useful encapsulated advice you have for street photographers?

A:Blend, be part of what’s going on and switch off the auto focus light.

Q7. The second most useful?

A:Shoot your life. The best photographer's photographs are all about them. Hello Me. They photograph the times they live in, the places they inhabit, the people they come into contact with the events that surround them. It’s a sort of universal rule, doesn’t matter what you’re shooting, interiors, fashion, war, reportage, it’s the personal bit, the interconnection with what’s happing in front and around the camera. Good photographs are autobiographies.

Q8. Anything else on mixing writing and photography that comes to mind?

A:Final last thing is a thought: if you're writing to a photograph it's often very nice to write to music.

Johnny Stiletto

Many Thanks.

Johnny Stiletto' s excellent website can be found here.

Shots from the Hip can be bought here on amazon


Rod or net: the big question


I have to admit an admiring fascination for Bear Grylls' The Island. In this program a team of men have to survive for 40 days on an island. One guy, Vic, is good at fishing with a rod and on a good day brings home five fish.Vic is a loud northern type who has a chip on his shoulder about posh Sam. Sam seems a bit of a dreamer and is no good at manual work. Vic leads the group in denigrating Sam as a skiver. But Sam is tough. He steadfastly keeps working on his own project which is to repair and use an old fishing net. Everyone thinks he is wasting his time but he keeps going. Every day he sets it and every day it's empty- but that's how you learn with fishing. You keep fine tuning and you keep trying. The others begin to ignore Sam but then one day he asks them to help him with the net...he's caught 23 fish!

Sometimes it's worth going out on a limb, against the group, sticking to your guns and using creativity to be audacious.