Saturday, 28 May 2011

British television archive

While writing a book about television, I’ve been collecting complete programmes from the history of British TV that I’ve found on YouTube, going back to 1953, and putting them on my playlist. It occurred to me that this archive of British television might be of interest to others. Here it is:

I’m not sure what the copyright status is on some of these programmes but since I’m just collating what other people have uploaded I assume it’s OK. There is plenty of banal stuff, obviously – Blankety Blank, the first episode of Countdown etc. – mixed with some little gems, from Ripping Yarns to John Betjeman’s Metro-land.

I’ll probably be adding to it as I go along, so keep checking back if you’re interested. I’ve also started a radio archive, but there’s not much on that so far.

Mundane quotes for the day: ‘The horrors of office life are soon forgotten once one has left the scene, in much the same way as summer holidays spent gazing angrily out while the rain drums against the windowpane and the clouds scud across a Chinese harbour are eclipsed, in retrospect at least, by occasional flashes of watery sun.’ - Jeremy Lewis, Kindred Spirits

‘Institutional life is only made possible, or evern tolerable, by the shared pretence that everything we do is – as, in the long run, it must be – a matter of life and death, and in the years ahead I came to find the small hierarchies of office life and the ways in which, after a holiday, the office worker had to play himself back into his part, learning once more to feign rage or delight or indignation, both moving and extremely comic.’ - Jeremy Lewis, Playing for Time

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Daily life is scattered with marvels

Under plain cover and with no explanatory note, I received through the post the other day the rather handsome first publications of the Pam Flett Press. Pam Flett is a pun on ‘pamphlet’ and a sort-of nod to Pam Ayres, another ‘somewhat wonky amateur lady who wished to launch her own poetry upon the world’. The Pam Flett Press seeks to expound on Michel de Certeau’s assertion that ‘daily life is scattered with marvels’.

One of its early publications is ‘Lord biro and the writing on the wall’, a meditation on the surreal graffiti that punctuates urban daily life: such as TWIGS, which existed for several years on a gantry above the M1 and merited mention on John Peel’s Radio 4 programme Home Truths; ‘The Alphabet of Brooke Shields’, which suddenly appeared in 2007 across London and was believed to be viral marketing but no one was sure what for, before it was eventually borrowed by a bunch of Bradford musicians; and the bright yellow exclamation ‘DRUNK FOOLS!’, visible from the East Midlands rail route where it colour-blended pleasingly with an adjacent field of oilseed rape.

Forthcoming editions will include ‘Waiting for a bus that never comes’, which borrows its title from geographer Doreen Massey’s suggestion that ‘this type of non-activity is what makes up much of our waking lives’; ‘Gumming up the works’, which will fantasise about ‘luminous constellations of dropped chewing gum on the street before getting stuck on the image of sticking plasters and confronting a horrible compulsion to seek out the hard stuff glued under desks or in the recesses of train carriages’; and ‘Witches' Knickers’, a disquisition ‘on the much-maligned plastic bag’.

The Pam Flett Press turns out to be the work of Joanne Lee, an artist and lecturer at Nottingham Trent University who financed the whole venture herself ‘having become tired of writing proposals rather than getting on with the work itself, and fed up with with fitting my own interests into other people’s funding agendas’. You and me both, Pam.

You can read more here:

Mundane quote for the day:
‘Tramlines and slagphaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.’
– W.H. Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, 1936

Monday, 16 May 2011

The fall and rise of the expert

In January 2009 the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, while being interviewed on BBC radio, suddenly became angry when the interviewee mentioned a particular word. Bragg’s response is worth quoting in full:

One of the things that’s happened in the last few weeks is a total devaluation of the word ‘expert’. It is meaningless. People come on saying they’re experts and they know absolutely nothing … experts on banking who have the gall to tell us what’s going to happen in a few months or so. The word ‘expert’ should be expunged from the dictionary until it’s been cleansed and rehabilitated.

This verbal assault was clearly aimed at a particular sub-species of expert. In September 2008, the international money markets had crashed and a number of banks had failed, initiating a global recession. One of the causes of the crash was the unravelling of highly leveraged financial products - complex derivatives and securities, devised using mathematical models, which turned out to be so complicated that not even the experts were able to calculate the risks. The Queen was widely praised in the media for echoing the public mood when, opening a new building at the London School of Economics, she asked Professor Luis Garicano how this ‘awful’ financial crisis could have taken so many experts by surprise. ‘Why did nobody notice it?,’ she asked. ‘If these things were so large, how come everyone missed them?’ The greedy bankers may have been the folk devils of the credit crunch, but joining them in the rogues gallery were the financial experts, the clever fools who had departed so disastrously from common sense and forgotten that deficits and imbalances cannot be endlessly deferred …

This is the start of a long article of mine in the latest issue of Critical Quarterly on ‘The Fall and Rise of the Expert’. I’m afraid the rest of it is hidden behind a paywall, as is normally the case with academic journals. But if anyone is interested they can email me and I’ll send them a PDF.

The geographer Danny Dorling had some nice things to say about On Roads in this interview:

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Come friendly bombs

In a postscript to her classic The Pleasure of Ruins (1953), Rose Macaulay compared the appeal of the ‘catastrophic tipsy chaos’ of postwar British bombsites with the ‘morbid pleasure in decay’ that the Romantic poets and painters experienced among the wrecked remains of Gothic abbeys and Greek temples.

In Christopher Woodward’s book In Ruins, I found an interesting discussion of churches bombed in the Second World War. During the blitz the art historian Kenneth Clark declared that ‘Bomb damage is in itself Picturesque’. On 15 August 1944 Clark and others, including T.S. Eliot and John Maynard Keynes, proposed that some bombed churches should be preserved in ruins, to remind future generations of ‘the sacrifice on which [their] apparent security has been built’. The campaign was elaborated in a book, Bombed Churches as War Memorials, which, Woodward writes, was ‘the last great fling of the British Picturesque, summoning the spirit of Stourheard and Stowe to soothe the trauma of high-explosive bombs. These churches would not be cold, black slag-heaps of unforgiving bitterness, as at Dresden, but garden ruins haunted by birds and soft with greenery, places that children would be thrilled to explore. Stone colonnades truncated by the blast would continue as rows of trees, and roofless crypts become sunken, sheltered gardens.’

We have our own bombed-out church here, St Luke’s, about two minutes walk from where I work, which has been a hollow shell ever since the Liverpool Blitz exactly seventy years ago. Strangely enough, I discovered recently that this church is following me on Twitter. You can follow its own tweets, should you so be inclined, at @BombedOutChurch.

There are plenty more contemporary ruins in the area where I work, which has now been rebranded the ‘creative quarter’. The patchiness of Liverpool’s recent redevelopment allows for spaces within the city where accidental survivals from the recent past are visible. Even in the centre of the city, where real estate should be most prized, there are no man’s lands blocked off with corrugated iron or wooden hoardings, and unoccupied buildings with peeling paint, shattered brickwork and rotting timber. In the sidestreets off the main shopping areas, the less visually appealing effects of regeneration are evident: masses of rubble, wire fencing and cones, and the fronts of buildings unceremoniously ripped apart. The passer-by can look inside these buildings in cross-section at the remains of ordinary lives, such as wallpaper peeling from walls, staircases ending in thin air, and the holes left by fireplaces. As Stephen Barber writes, the contemporary idea of cities as supermodern environments paradoxically opens them up to history and memory, as ‘the visual arena of the city … move[s] through concurrent acts of construction and obliteration, extrusion and intrusion, incorporation and exclusion’. This process produces historical remains which cannot be recuperated by official forms of heritage and nostalgia, but instead expose what Barber calls the city’s ‘burning core of banality’.

There are some wonderful descriptions of bomb damage in Daniel Swift’s recent book Bomber County, including a brilliant account of Virginia Woolf seeing her old flat in Tavistock Square exposed to the elements.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Strange things happen on the edges of places, where two opposed landscapes meet to create a mutant zone, lacking organic consistency. English suburbia typifies this strangeness, endlessly seeking new ways to feel at home with itself while engendering contradiction and compromise. The suburbs, because of their presumed orthodoxy, exaggerate the extremities of mood and movement; the darkest alley in the seediest district of the biggest city will lack the sheer oddness of suburban neatness, where all that appears most settled conspires to make its own drama … English suburbia has become virtually synonymous with the sinister and the sad – the very opposites of its founding intentions.’ – Michael Bracewell, England is Mine

Saturday, 7 May 2011


I’ve been reading James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, which is among other things an eloquent argument against light pollution and in favour of darkened skies: ‘What a profligate civilization we are, burning up our resources to light streets that nobody walks down and shop-window displays that nobody sees, pouring light on the empty pavements as a ritual oblation to the god of money.’

Attlee also discusses an intriguing artwork by Katie Paterson, in which she transmitted a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon via morse code using an EME [earth-moon-earth] radio communication system in Southampton. Reflected off the moon’s surface, a process known as ‘moonbounce’, it arrived at another station in Sweden about half a million miles and 2.5 seconds later. But the music had changed: ‘the moon reflects only part of the information back – some of it is absorbed by its shadows, lost in its craters.’ Attlee considers the new version an improvement on Beethoven.

Paterson’s work reminded me of the attempts to transmit TV signals long distances in the days before Telstar and other satellites, as they tried almost everything to get the high frequency waves over what Marconi called ‘the stubborn curvature of the earth’. In the early 1950s, there was an idea – never put into practice - to use aeroplanes as gigantic TV transmitters. The planes would travel in lazy circles 30,000 feet above the earth, sending out short waves that would blanket the earth’s surface like a giant inverted ice-cream cone covering an area 400 miles in diameter. Another plan was to bounce radio waves off the surface of the moon. In May 1959, Jodrell Bank, in co-operation with Pye, the now defunct British manufacturer of televisions, sent morse messages via the moon to Cambridge Air Force Base, Massachussetts, but the sound was poor and in any case the signals could only be sent once the moon had set, which would have had the effect of severely rationing television. Perhaps, for those of us who have had the misfortune to catch some of the recent offerings on ITV2, this would have been no bad thing.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.’ Graffiti in ancient Pompeii, from Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

Sunday, 1 May 2011

In the metro

I’ve been looking again at In the Metro, Marc Augé’s book about Paris’s underground system. Augé began his career as an ethnographer of tribal societies on the west coast of Africa, and his analysis of the Paris métro is part of what he calls a ‘reverse ethnology’: a response to ‘the death of exoticism’, the discrediting of anthropology’s traditionally hierarchical relationship to a primitive ‘other’, by finding new areas of ethnographic investigation closer to home.

Augé sees the métro as an especially fruitful place for ethnographers, because it brings the middle classes together with people on the fringes of society such as impoverished artists, buskers, homeless people using the concourses for warmth and shelter, and more active beggars patrolling the carriages with children in tow, all brought together in a kind of collectively experienced solitude. On the métro we meet ‘proximal others’, who are not so different from us that they can be reassuringly exoticized, but who still force us to reflect on the extent and limits of community.

Augé notes the ways in which commuters exchange fleeting glances, or the flickers of emotion that can sometimes be detected behind the apparently blank faces of daydreamers. These silent acts show how much the métro is based on both peaceful co-existence and the impossibility of knowing anything about the lives of one’s fellow passengers. Augé admires the ‘virtuosity tied to habit’ of the metro users. The movements of regular métro passengers, he suggests, have the balletic economy of endlessly repeated actions, with no unnecessary or redundant effort. They will get set and on their marks before departing from a carriage; will know whether or not to quicken their pace based on the noise of a train whooshing through the tunnels; or will stand on the platform at the exact spot at which the train doors will open, and which will deposit them near their exit on the destination platform.

The fundamental quality of the métro is its ordered and contractual nature, which is found not simply in its explicit rules (the ban on smoking, for example, or the regulation of travel through ticket types) but also in its ‘collective morality’, the complex etiquette necessitated by its cramped and warren-like environments. Although it is true that certain people remain indifferent to these rules, Augé write that what is ‘most astonishing is that there are not more of them’.