Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Around the A4074

Hope you all had a mundane Christmas. Here’s a bit of quotidian ethnography for the festive season … A couple of months back I spent an interesting afternoon with Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford, a postgraduate student at Oxford Brookes doing a practice-based PhD on ‘domestic soundscapes’. You can read more about her work on her excellent blog:


As part of her PhD Felicity produced a radio show celebrating the hidden world surrounding her own regular commute along the A4074 road between Reading and Oxford. The interview she conducted with me forms part of the programme which aired on Boxing Day on BBC Radio Oxford. It’s on iPlayer for the next few days here:


The programme sounded great but unfortunately I had to stop listening after two seconds when I heard my own horrible voice. Why did no one tell me I sounded like that? So you can listen to it for me if you like and I might pluck up the courage later on. FYI, if you write and research about everyday life the BBC is obliged under its charter to refer to you as ‘quirky’ and/or ‘offbeat’.

I also wrote about my favourite history book of the year for History Today magazine:


Mundane quote for the day: ‘The symptoms of the freeway – monotony, obsessive time and space, fatigue – do not exist for us; as soon as we get on it we get off again and forget it for five, ten hours, all night long. What can it matter to us if we barely see it, segmented as it will be in more than sixty pieces, brochette of serpent instead of a whole and hissing snake?’ – Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas special

Before this blog shuts up shop for the Christmas break, there's just time to include a slightly longer version of my article in yesterday's Guardian. Merry Christmas everyone.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Pax Britannica of three and four-channel television, Christmas properly began with the family purchase of the double issue of the Radio Times. This seasonal institution, first published in 1969 with the arrival of colour on all channels, was founded in the confident belief that television was our lingua franca and the nation would join together at Christmas in a diasporic community assembled in 20 million living rooms. In those days every sitcom or quiz show, however secular and unenchanted, had its own Christmas show. I would trawl the Aladdin’s cave of TV listings in search of any old rubbish with a festive theme, from Val Doonican in a reindeer jumper to Christmas Celebrity Squares.

One programme is routinely cited as the apex of this golden age of communal television: the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, brought together 28.5 million people to delight in Eric and Ernie and various BBC presenters performing “There is nothing like a dame” from South Pacific. There is a long tradition in British culture, running all the way from William Langland to T.S. Eliot, which supposes that we once possessed an organic common culture that has been fragmented by modernity. This is the televisual version of the myth: a lament for the lost capacity of TV to create shared moments.

History, of course, is rarely so neat. Television ratings in the 1970s were fiercely disputed. The figure of 28.5 million viewers for the Morecambe and Wise show came from the BBC’s own audience research. ITV’s figures, which the British Film Institute now prefers to rely on because they sampled households using electronic measuring devices attached to TV sets, suggest that their 1977 Christmas special was only the 11th most viewed programme of the 1970s, with 21.3m viewers, and the 10th most viewed was the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show which directly preceded it on BBC1, with 21.4m. So perhaps, instead of Morecambe and Wise bringing the nation together in laughter, they made 100,000 people turn off or switch over when they came on.

The point, though, is that people really want to believe there was a moment when most of the nation congregated around the TV, and this yearning for community runs counter to the market logic of the last three decades. Ever since the Annan Committee on Broadcasting reported in 1977, the received wisdom of government has been that broadcasters are an unelected elite imposing their uniform vision of the world on the rest of us. Thatcherism championed the notion of consumer choice against this BBC-ITV duopoly. The irony is that, in the less regulated, market-led environment created by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, those who watched television the most - old people - were the most ignored because they were least appealing to advertisers. Instead broadcasters wooed the ELVs or “elusive light viewers”, such as teenagers and young singles with disposable incomes. Then, with the rise of digital and catch-up television in the 2000s, the era of “linear viewing” was supposed to come to a definitive end. Just as we could create our own playlists on an iPod, we could now personalise an evening’s viewing like the atomised individual consumers the post-Thatcherite market wanted us to be.

Only it hasn’t happened. Saturday night event television like the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing has revived the concept of live shows watched by whole families. True, the viewing figures are smaller than in the 1970s but in some ways the potential for collective involvement is greater because there are so many opportunities to comment and participate. Twitter, with its improvised invention of the hashtag to allow similar content to be searched and tracked, has allowed vast virtual communities to meet to discuss shows while they are being broadcast. There is also far more discussion of popular culture in serious newspapers and so even people who have never seen the X Factor know more than they would like to know about it. For better or worse, such shows revive Dennis Potter’s vision of television as a mass democratic form that could break through the intellectual and class hierarchies of theatre and print culture.

One of the defining qualities of TV remains that it can be viewed by lots of people at exactly the same time. Over the next few days it will once again create this ephemeral, undemanding form of togetherness as millions of viewers sit down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special, the new version of Upstairs, Downstairs and the Top Gear team driving to Bethlehem. Even as our politicians continue to recite the mantra of individual choice, the continued popularity of Christmas telly points to this longing for a collective life.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Upstairs Downton

I wrote a piece about Upstairs Downton and Downstairs Abbey for the Financial Times last week. It’s too long to paste in here so here is the link:


I know some people have read Downton Abbey as the usual recession era toffs’ TV but I am not so sure. When the middle-class Matthew Crawley arrives at Downton he prefers to do his own menial tasks and thus offends his new valet, Moseley, who complains of being “stood there like a chump watching a man getting dressed”. Crawley must be taught how to perform the role of master, to let someone else fasten his cufflinks. “We all have different parts to play, Matthew,” says Lord Grantham reprovingly, “and we must all be allowed to play them.” Of course, one could read this as a reassuring paternalist myth which imagines that the underlings are happy to collude in their own subjugation. But perhaps it is also about mutual entrapment: a recognition that much of the master-servant relationship is a House of Cards, a world of illusion and suspended disbelief which requires the constant vigilance of all its actors to maintain it. Julian Fellowes, who created the series, is an actor himself and much of Gosford Park was also about social life as performance: one of the valets even turns out to be a Hollywood actor, and the servants, constantly watching over their employers as they act out their comedy of manners, are well aware that the emperor has no clothes.

I also did a piece about one of my favourite books for Norman Geras’s blog, Normblog:


Mundane quote for the day: ‘The obsessive fear of the Americans is that the lights might go out. Lights are left on all night in the houses … And this is not to mention the television, with its twenty-four-hour schedules, often to be seen functioning like an hallucination in the empty rooms of houses or vacant hotel rooms … There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room. It is even stranger than a man talking to himself or a woman standing dreaming at her stove. It is as if another planet is communicating with you. Suddenly the TV reveals itself for what it really is: a video of another world, ultimately addressed to no one at all, delivering its images indifferently, indifferent to its own messages (you can easily imagine it still functioning after humanity has disappeared).’ – Jean Baudrillard, America

Monday, 13 December 2010

Boring 2010

On Saturday I made my West End debut, at the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road (see picture). OK, if you were being really picky you’d have to say it was in the Studio upstairs and not the main theatre. And fair enough, I had to squint a little and IMAGINE that the tourist crowds streaming into the foyer to see the Ben Elton/Queen musical We Will Rock You were actually coming to see me talk about the English motorway system. Granted, quite a few of my actual audience of c. 200 probably didn’t know who I was. And I suppose if you were a real stickler for the truth you’d have to point out that the giant gold statue outside was a likeness of Freddie Mercury and not me (although it’s a toss up which of us it looks more unlike). But these are mere details, tiny little flies in the massive jar of ointment smelling sweetly of my success. After years of studying what Lucky Jim called ‘strangely neglected topics’, I have arrived.

Thanks to James Ward for organising the event, Boring 2010. It’s about time someone took the boring seriously enough to have a conference about it. As I said in my talk, people who write about the mundane in this country tend to be met with an arched eyebrow, and placed within a particular tradition of English eccentricity, wryness and self-deprecation (see the above paragraph for an example of this defensive voice). It’s completely different in France, where there is a long and rich intellectual/literary tradition of reflecting on ‘la vie quotidienne’. If only we could write with the same depth, lyricism and elegance as Georges Perec, Marc Auge, Maurice Blanchot etc. about the Paris metro, autoroutes, service stations and airports.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I am busy proving the falsity of the dictum that to a well-stocked mind the word dullness has no meaning – it has a great deal of meaning for me: I might almost say the meaning of meaning.’ – Philip Larkin, Letters to Monica

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Brine town

I’ve always been fascinated by those moments when daily life breaks down and becomes visible beneath its thin veneer of taken for grantedness - such as when snow falls and we are suddenly aware of the elaborate collective apparatus that lets us get to work, buy food, take children to school and otherwise allow our mobile lives to function.

When I was travelling round the motorway system for my roads book, I kept coming across these strange, unmarked pieces of architecture by the side of the road. They turned out to be salt barns for storing and dispensing road salt. One massive specimen sits by the edge of the M5 in Worcestershire. 21 metres high and 21 metres in diameter, it holds about 2000 tonnes of rock salt. Locals know it as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

Road grit is a mixture of sand and rock salt. Sea salt is too fine and dissolves too quickly to disperse snow and ice, so all salt used in gritting comes from salt mines. Towns like Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich take their names from the salt mines, ‘Wych’ meaning ‘Brine Town’.

Sheep and deer are often killed on the roads when they lick the rock salt left by gritters. Sweet-toothed sheep are also partial to the new type of grit, coated in molasses, which is used because it is less corrosive to cars. Seaside species like Danish scurvy grass and lesser sea-spurrey thrive on motorway verges because of the rock salt spread on the tarmac in winter.

Our lives are intertwined with grit. And how dare our masters nearly run out of it, like they nearly ran out of it last winter!

Mundane quote for the day: ‘While the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields … In winter, nature is a cabinet of curiosities, full of dried specimens, in their natural order and position.’ – Henry Thoreau, ‘A winter walk’