Friday, 30 January 2009

Asphalt memories

Writing a book about roads has made me think about my own asphalt memories. We didn’t have a car when I was growing up (although, bizarrely, I still had a copy of I-Spy on the Motorway) and so on the few occasions I was on motorways – usually on school coach trips to Chester Zoo along the M57 or Blackpool on the newly opened M55 - they seemed rather exotic, especially driving back in the dark when the floodlit blue of the motorway signs and the overhead sodium lamps snaking round in gentle curves seemed like a minimalist version of the Blackpool illuminations. I was born too late for the first flurry of excitement about motorways, but I’m sure I remember an episode of the children’s TV programme, Rainbow, in which Bungle, Zippy and George watch a motorway being built and make up a song out of the sounds of the excavating machines - even if it now sounds like a malarial dream. I also remember Kadoyng, a Children’s Film Foundation feature about a robot who arrives on earth in a spacecraft and befriends an eccentric professor and his three children, helping them to foil the plans for a motorway being built through their village. That must have been one of the first inklings of the anti-roads backlash. My elder brother had a Tom Robinson Band LP with an excitable song on it called ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway,’ although its verses about trucking and hitching had a jarring, American interstate feel. I preferred ‘Driving Away from Home,’ a minor-key road song by an otherwise obscure Liverpool band called It’s Immaterial, which was a hit in the summer I sat my O-levels. ‘Why don’t we cross the city limit and head on down the end of 62?’ it begins, before warmly recommending driving along the M62 motorway for ‘30 miles or more,’ which seems like a long way when you’re 16 and your family doesn’t own a car. The video contained some lyrical images of the shadows cast by the concrete stilts on the M1’s Tinsley viaduct - a decent stab at motorway pastoral, I thought, although perhaps to appreciate it fully you had to be a carless teenager with a slightly skewed take on the quotidian.

The film that made motorways improbably romantic for me is Withnail and I, set in 1969, which I first saw in Manchester’s Cornerhouse cinema when I was in sixth form. The eponymous characters have decided to escape from the squalor of squatting hippydom for a weekend break in a cottage in Penrith. While a wrecking ball is being put to London, I (Paul McGann) flicks his sunglasses down in a sort of symbolic exit from the town as he drives them up from Camden to Staples Corner. A drunken Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is reading from a news story about fatal car accidents, and cries that these are not accidents, that the pedestrians are flinging themselves into the road ‘to escape all this hideousness’. Then suddenly we are on the M1 at dusk, and they have caught the near-desertedness of the early-era motorways beautifully. They must have cleared the motorway to film it (although, oddly, only on one side, since the cars coming in the opposite direction seem to be of mid-1980s vintage). The entire scene is done to a backdrop of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ its clanging guitars and apocalyptic lyrics a perfect accompaniment to this rock’n’roll motorway. Any film that can re-enchant the M1 like that has to be worth a look.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Rather than always being a chance to escape reality, perhaps holidays should offer us a chance to make ourselves more at home in the world we actually live in, even down to its half-terrifying, half-sublime motorway systems.’ - Alain de Botton

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Jobbing author of suburbia

I was very sorry to read today about the death of John Updike. I still remember the effect his autobiography, Self-Consciousness, had on me when I read it 20 years ago. I’ve read a lot of his work since then – the early Olinger stories, based on his Pennsylvania hometown, shine like jewels – but nothing had quite the same impact as this series of essays on his chronic ailments and anxieties like psoriasis, stuttering, intimations of mortality and more nebulous feelings of being ‘smothered and confined, misunderstood and put-upon’. There is a dazzling opening chapter, ‘A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,’ in which the present-day (c. 1989) Updike finds himself on Shillington’s Pennsylvania Avenue on a spring evening with time to spare after an airline loses his luggage, and then wanders aimlessly around its streets ‘on Proust’s dizzying stilts of time’. And I still remember off-by-heart this piece of fear and trembling at the self’s unbearable situatedness: ‘Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the center of the universe. What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God?’

Updike was a scribbler for hire – he wrote for everything from the New Yorker to Popular Mechanics to TV Guide. In Self-Consciousness, he links this idea of literature as ‘a space one gratefully escaped into rather than ... a burden of wisdom to be gained,’ to a childhood steeped in ‘the papery self-magnification and immortality of printed reproduction’. His love of cartoons started with Big Little Books bought at five-and-ten-cent stores, and his first ambition was to be a cartoonist for Walt Disney or the syndicates.

I loved the front covers of Updike’s essay collections: Picked-Up Pieces has a photograph of the author dressed in jeans and sweater, standing in a suburban street of clapboard houses and holding some leaves up to the camera. Hugging the Shore shows him in summer clothes, sitting in a boat by the banks of a river, and on the cover of Odd Jobs he is in winter overcoat and woollen hat, raking leaves and twigs on to a garden fire. He’s just pottering about, checking out the neighbourhood, the jobbing author of suburbia.

This blog salutes an author who said the aim of his work was to ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The slow death of the phone box

The K6 phone box that used to be at the top of our road – the type designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who was also the architect of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral,* which I can see out of the window as I write – is no longer there. I’ve no idea when the men in coats took it away. If I, as a student of the everyday, didn’t notice it going, I don’t suppose it was mourned by anyone else. In the age of Twitter and the iPhone, our telephone boxes can’t be long for this world, and no one seems to be kicking up a fuss. It was different in the 1980s, when there was a big row about the last great cull of the K6s by the newly privatised British Telecom. It’s a story brilliantly told by Patrick Wright in a chapter of his 1991 book A Journey Through Ruins. This is what I wrote about the episode in an article I published a couple of years ago in a history journal:

“When the privatised British Telecom was formed in 1982, it greatly accelerated the phasing out of the classic K6 Jubilee Kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s, which had been taking place slowly since the 1960s. BT claimed that the new glass and aluminium kiosks were less easily vandalised, offered better access for elderly and disabled people and presented a clean, corporate image. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the new kiosks, however, was that there were different types installed in different areas, with some models dispensing with doors and the most primitive having just a simple canopy. One of BT’s marketing directors said neutrally that it was offering ‘a range of complementary designs … to provide good payphone facilities in every conceivable environment’. For Patrick Wright, though, the new kiosks were

BT’s humble contribution to growing social polarisation … the better your area the more kiosk you could expect to find. Users in respectable neighbourhoods and well-policed thoroughfares would still be offered a roof, some walling, and a choice between cash and cardphone. The new underclass, meanwhile, would have to settle for a sawn-off metal stump with an armoured cardphone bolted into it.

Conservationists called for the K6s to be preserved as classics of industrial design and ‘symbols of our country’. For some right-wing critics, the disappearance of the red telephone box embodied an unresolvable tension between traditional conservatism and Thatcherism’s more aggressive neo-liberalism. Roger Scruton used the arrival of the new ‘barbarous concoctions of steel and aluminium’ to dismiss the whole ‘tyrannical pursuit of novelty’ since the Enlightenment. It did not matter what type of phone box there was in Birmingham ‘where modern architects have already done their work,’ he argued, but ‘it still matters on a village green, a hillside or a moor’.

Scruton’s unconcern for Birmingham, which was radically rebuilt in the 1960s, raised a familiar question about subtopia: the complaint was partly about ugly street furniture per se and partly about its insertion in ‘inappropriate’ places. In a sense, the burgeoning heritage industry of the 1980s ‘solved’ this problem. In response to their threatened removal, English Heritage, formed in 1983, named up to 1000 of the oldest kiosks as listed buildings. Referring to this ‘kiosk mania,’ John Delafons claims that ‘it must be doubted whether a more absurd undertaking has ever been known in the history of conservation’. After this campaign by English Heritage, BT agreed to retain some of the K6s as working payphones, but only if they were located in tourist areas, within existing listed buildings, or in ‘attractive’ (usually upper- or middle-class) neighbourhoods. Many of the decommissioned red kiosks were sold off at auction to be re-used as pub garden furniture or shower cabinets in private houses. For Wright, this emphasis on heritage aesthetics neglected a more significant issue about the decline of public, shared space in the Thatcher era. The K6’s disappearance also anticipated much broader changes in public amenities in the 1980s. As local authorities were forced by law to contract out their public services to private companies, street furniture diversified. Items such as bus shelters, litter bins and park benches increasingly became an adjunct of global outdoor advertising companies like Adshel and JCDecaux, which agreed to supply these items for free in return for using their surfaces as advertising space. Since bus shelters could not be nostalgically recuperated in the same way as the K6, these significant alterations to the everyday landscape rarely formed part of public discussion.”

Reading this again has just reminded me of one of my favourite bits from my favourite films – the last scene of Local Hero where the phone rings out in the red telephone box in the Scottish fishing village over Mark Knopfler’s lovely theme tune. I wonder if anyone has slapped a preservation order on that one. One of these days I’m going to drive up to Pennan in north-east Scotland, the model for Ferness village in the film (according to the AA Route Planner it is 409.2 miles and would only take me eight hours) and ring someone from that phone box.

*Presumably that is why there is (or was the last time I looked) a K6 in the Cathedral itself (see picture)

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A cone's life

I’ve just finished a book called On Roads: A Hidden History, out in June. I was very sorry not to include in it an extended discussion of the highly visible object that encapsulates how roads themselves have become invisible, unnoticed until our smooth passage across them is irritatingly disrupted: the fluorescent orange-and-white plastic bollard, between three-quarters and one metre in height, used to divert traffic at roadworks. Let’s hear a shout out for the traffic cone, people.

Although concrete cones have been around in America since before the First World War, the first rubber cones were not used until the building of the Preston bypass in 1958. At first a thousand cone types bloomed but now international standards have been harmonised - all cones need to be a certain weight, height and angle, to ensure, among other things, that they can be stacked on top of each other. There are about six million of them in circulation in the UK at any one time. A single motorway contraflow gets through about 10,000.

The faintly anthropomorphic appearance of cones seems to invite psychological projections. In their book Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop speculate that the cones at the Orange-le-Grès rest area on the Autoroute du Soleil are witches’ hats, and that this is the place where witches are tried and executed, the swings in the rest area doubling as gallows and torture racks. The witches have been buried upright in the road, leaving their hats over their graves, pour encourager les autres. In Britain, police have long suspected lorry drivers and motorists of staging ‘skittle’ contests to mow cones down (a cone’s plastic top being designed to disintegrate safely when hit). Another popular pastime is ‘cone-flipping,’ catching their bases with your wheel so they ping into the air like tiddlywinks.

A cone’s life is nasty, brutish and short. Frontline motorway cones survive for only about two months before they are bent, squashed or splattered with cement slurry. A cone needs to be eye-catching, and its attention-stealing orangeness probably explains some of the irritation it produces. We would be more charitable towards cones if we learnt to see the road itself not as a smooth, sterile ribbon of asphalt but as fragile and mortal – every road is in a constant battle with the cars and the elements - and in need of protection by these chivalrous knights in retroreflective stripy armour.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Nor do we perceive the familiar. It is not as if we shrink from it, as we do in the case of refuse; we just take it for granted without giving it a thought. Intimate faces, streets we walk day by day, the house we live in – all these things are part of us like our skin, and because we know them by heart we do not know them with the eye.’ – Siegfried Kracauer

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Uncool songs

It’s Burns night here, so ae fond kiss to you all. Burns’s poems are too obvious for some – Jeremy Paxman recently dismissed his work as ‘sentimental doggerel’ – but any self-respecting theorist of the mundane has to embrace the sentimental, the obvious and the uncool. Most music critics are purists. Unanimously deciding that Coldplay or Keane are beyond the pale, they police the boundaries of their discipline like academicians. They don’t acknowledge that music is something that seeps into daily life, with all its strange, messy, accidental emotions - as Noel Coward wrote, ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music is’. So in the spirit of full disclosure here are the top ten uncoolest songs on my iPod:

10. Air Lovers, ‘Afternoon Delight’. This song reminds me of being a child in the 1970s (obviously I didn’t know what the lyrics meant then) and the wonderfully daft film Anchorman. Not the definitive version by the Starland Vocal Band, but you can’t have everything.

9. Snow Patrol, ‘You Could Be Happy’. Normally this band are too insipid even for me, but I heard this on Gavin and Stacey and will admit to being moist-eyed.

8. Gilbert O’Sullivan, ‘No Matter How I Try’. No one does plonky, slightly out-of-tune piano like the underrated boy from Swindon who, when I was little, I thought had also written Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore.

7. Wings, ‘Silly Love Songs’. While I wouldn’t go as far as Alan Partridge, who preferred Wings to the Beatles, this is still a lovely, complex song with beautiful horns. The world can never have enough silly love songs – or, for that matter, love and silliness.

6. Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, ‘I’ll Keep You Satisfied’. Another McCartney song, with his trademark erratic chord progressions and use of the whole musical scale. Paul du Noyer, in his excellent history of Liverpool music, Wondrous Place, describes it as ‘fine for the sweet of tooth’. That’s me!

5. Norman Wisdom, ‘Me and My Girl’. I have read that in cinemas in the 1950s women would sit through the whole of a Norman Wisdom film twice, not to see the pratfalls but to hear his heartbreaking singing voice.

4. Take That, ‘Reach Out’. I have a soft spot for the middle-aged boy band from Manc whose members are my near-contemporaries.

3. Johnny Logan, ‘What’s Another Year?’ Best Eurovision winner ever, end of (as they say in Liverpool).

2. Tony Hadley, ‘The Mood I’m In’. In my defence, your honour, this is only because they didn’t have the Jack Jones version of this swing classic on iTunes.

And in at number 1 with a bullet is …

1. Demis Roussos, ‘Forever and Ever’. Forever associated with naff Beverley in Abigail’s Party (‘I like Demis Roussos, Ange likes Demis Roussos, Tone likes Demis Roussos and Sue would like to hear Demis Roussos. So Laurence, could we have some Demis Roussos on please?’) the melody, and the lovely intro by the female backing singers, are indestructible.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Nostalgie de la neige

Out of my window I can see it’s snowing, although there’s not a hope of it sticking. In Liverpool, that happens about as often as it does in the Sahara. If you want to make me homesick, show me a picture of the Peak District in snow, like the one above. I was brought up in Glossop, about 1000 feet above sea level, and we were used to being snowed on and snowed in.

I think I am suffering from what Charlie English, in his new book The Snow Tourist, calls ‘nostalgie de la neige’. Among many elegant phrases, English writes that ‘the apparently unnecessary beauty of snow crystals has been put forward as evidence of a divinity’; and that ‘much of the perceived treachery of snow lies in the fact that it appears stable and even welcoming, but can collapse dramatically into a lethal torrent’; and that ‘snow is rarely, if ever, merely white. The angles and surfaces of snow crystals reflect and refract the different colours of sunlight that play upon them like the glass in a chandelier’.

In Patrick French’s recent biography of VS Naipaul I also found this lovely description of snow, in a letter the 18-year-old soon-to-be-author wrote back to his family from grim austerity London in 1950: ‘Last week I had my first snow. It came down in little white fluffs; you felt that a gigantic hand had punched a gigantic cotton wool sack open, letting down flurries of cotton shreds. If you went out your shoulders and your hair were sprinkled with the fluffs. The closest thing I have seen to it in Trinidad is the stuff that gathers in the refrigerator – not when it gets hard though.’

Of course, nostalgie de la neige isn’t what it used to be. ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ [‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’] wrote the French poet Francois Villon in the 15th century. In the land of lost content, I imagine.

Mind you, even a small amount of snow still has the awesome power to mess around with our daily routines. While researching my book on roads, I read about the catastrophic gridlock of January 2003, when thousands of drivers were left stranded overnight in sub-zero temperatures in a 13-mile tailback on the M11. The catalyst was the freak weather conditions that never fail to bring Britain to a standstill (snow in January) compounded by a series of jack-knifed lorries, and motorists abandoning their vehicles or sleeping on the hard shoulder, blocking the rescue services and gritting machines. The crisis conditions produced a blitz spirit, more akin to a natural disaster. Lorry drivers shared their rations and the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service handed out hot drinks from mobile soup kitchens, while the residents of Duxford Village struggled through four-foot drifts on the motorway verge to bring food, drink and blankets to the motorists. After 12 hours the traffic started moving again and no one was harmed – unless you count the commuter stung with a £212 taxi fare.

VERY BRIEF LIVES

Here are my five favourite stories about famous people, culled from a recent trawl through the online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

1. ‘After a variety of menial jobs [Benny Hill] became a milkman driving a horse-drawn cart round Southampton and fantasizing that he was Wyatt Earp, or some other Western legend. He later capitalized on this experience with the song “Ernie—the Fastest Milkman in the West”.’

2. Much of Les Dawson’s drag act was based on ‘mimo-ing’, the northern working-class art of ‘mouthing vocabulary relating to unmentionably delicate parts of the body or the act of reproduction’. He had the self-educated man’s love of language, eg ‘I was vouchsafed this missive from the gin-sodden lips of a pock-marked lascar in the arms of a frump in a Huddersfield bordello.’ He described his own face, more prosaically, as resembling ‘a bulldog sucking piss off a nettle’.

3. Spike Milligan ‘once attempted to cram pounds of spaghetti down a manager's throat in Harrods’ food hall in order to replicate the sufferings of geese in the manufacture of pâté de foie gras’.

4. Professor Stanley Unwin began to develop his nonsense language after he went for an interview for an engineering job at the BBC and, when asked about oscilloscopes, nervously blurted out: ‘Percentage modulakers on the output’. He also said that he was inspired by a phrase about a ‘troutling stream’ from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He tested his new language out on his children, telling them fairy tales about ‘Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders’ and ‘the Pidey Pipeload of Hamling’. He became famous in a TV ad for Flowers Keg Bitter in which he uttered the immortal lines, ‘Cheeribold, lip-smaggery joyfold!’

5. Alec Guinness reached a younger audience late in life as the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – a role which he was not proud of. Once he was approached for his autograph by a mother and her young son. After some negotiation Guinness agreed to sign on one condition: the boy was never to watch Star Wars again. Not entirely unpredictably, the boy burst into tears.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Glittering prizes

On 27 December, a late Christmas present from HM Revenue and Customs arrived on my doormat: a rather large tax bill. My income from freelance writing last year was much more than it has been before and probably ever will be again. HMRC have assumed that this income is constant and so they have stung me not only for what I owe from last year but for the same amount this year. I seem to remember Anthony Burgess moaning about this tax on the erratically accumulated income of authors in one of his memoirs. I have just paid this sum online – more or less the latest I could leave it without incurring the wrath of Moira Stuart, the current face of the TV ads about tax returns - and am feeling as poor as the proverbial church mouse.

If this makes me sound like a whinging 1960s pop star (‘The taxman’s taken all my dough …’), it’s not meant to. I like paying my taxes, even if they are now going to be used to bail out impecunious millionaire bankers. I even quite like filling in the self-assessment forms. Like driving on motorways, it makes me feel like a grown-up. Unlike some freelance writers, I am very lucky to have a well-paid, proper job (where all the tax is worked out and deducted for me). The extra money I earn from writing would barely keep me in beer money, assuming I drank beer. What’s important to me is the symbolism of being paid for my writing, however small the amount. It makes me think that there must be some value in what I do, if someone is prepared to pay me for it. I am sentimental enough to have pinned on my office wall a letter from the late Brian Cox, a ‘please find enclosed’ accompanying a £100 cheque from Critical Quarterly, one of the very few academic journals that pays its contributors. It was the first time I have ever been paid for my writing. (I wasn’t sentimental enough to keep the cheque – I cashed that while it was still warm.)

Normally, academics write for nothing. They research and write their articles for free, then they submit them with no guarantee of publication to journals edited by academics who are also not paid for their labours, and these editors send the articles out to other academics who referee them, again without any payment. The publishers then act as a kind of glorified printing service, although increasingly they don’t even do that as the articles are published online. And then – you have to admire their chutzpah – they sell all our unpaid labour back to us, at extortionate prices, in the form of journal subscriptions. What on earth would Karl Marx have made of this form of exploited labour? Unlike Victorian factory workers, academics seem to collude in the arrangement willingly, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Of course, academics are supposed to be concerned only with the glittering prize of the esteem of their colleagues. One way this is assessed is through a money-guzzling behemoth called the Research Assessment Exercise which determines research funding (oh yes, I forgot to say – all the glittering prize stuff comes down to money in the end). Every submitted publication is ranked: 4 means ‘world leading,’ 3 means ‘internationally excellent,’ 2 means ‘internationally recognised’ and 1 means ‘nationally recognised’.

Unfortunately, these weasel words remind me of nothing so much as the scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall when Paul Pennyfeather, newly rusticated from Oxford, is trying to get work as a teacher in a private school. Mr Levy, of Church and Gargoyle, Scolastic Agents, tells him: ‘We class schools into four grades. Leading School, First Class School, Good School, and School. Frankly, School is pretty bad.’

So I don’t mind paying my taxes – it reminds me that at least someone has appreciated and rewarded my efforts, even if I didn’t notice at the time.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Amid the Ridley Scott images of world cities, the writing about skyscraper fortresses, the Baudrillard visions of hyperspace … most people actually live in places like Harlesden or West Brom. Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the first world, still consists of waiting in a bus-shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.’ - Doreen Massey

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Blogging the everyday

OK, we’re going in …

What possible reason could I have for releasing more words into the vast virtual ocean of the blogosphere, so that they can swim around unread like the gazillions of others? Well, for one thing I have a butterfly mind and I do my writing and research in a fairly scattergun way. This means that I am always coming across arcane or unusual material that I can’t seem to corral into my more organised forms of writing. I sometimes imagine that this stuff might be of interest to a few other people - although I may be about to discover that I am deluded.

So this blog isn’t really going to be about my life, partly because my life involves encountering other people who didn’t ask to be written about in a blog. Instead it is more a commonplace book of what I have read, seen, listened to and encountered in my daily life. My special interest is in the everyday, and it seems to me that the discipline and routine of a blog might be a good way of capturing what the French call 'la vie quotidienne'. The word ‘quotidian,’ after all, literally means ‘to mark time’.

Just don’t expect me to post every day. It was my new year’s resolution to start a blog and I’ve finally got round to it on 17 January. If I were you, I would expect an initial flurry of activity followed by posts at increasingly long intervals, followed possibly by enigmatic silence.

Please feel free to post your comments or send the link on to anyone you think might be interested in this stuff. Is anyone out there?

Mundane quote for the day: ‘In modern society clichés constitute the necessary incantatory noise of the everyday. They provide a guarantee of everyday survival that would not otherwise be possible in our age of oversaturation of information and stimuli. Clichés protect us from facing the catastrophe, the unbearable, the ineffable; thus for the major inexplicable areas of human existence – birth, death, and love – we have the maximum number of clichés.’ - Svetlana Boym