Saturday, 24 September 2011

Rendering unto Caesar

I have finally got round to filling in my tax return, an annual ritual some way below dental scaling in my list of things to look forward to. This means I am not as virtuous as my dad, who generally fills it in as soon as he can, in April (the swot) but more virtuous than those poor, benighted souls who miss the 31 October paper deadline and are banished to the online wilderness, suffering the shame of being chivvied along in television adverts by the likes of Moira Stewart and Adam Hart-Davis. Why do they leave it so late? They should know that there is nothing certain in life except death, taxes and quiet disappointment. The Rosetta stone, I read from Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, is ‘mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions’. In Biblical times I believe taxes were known as tributes, and it somehow helps to think of myself as paying tribute, offering up a ritual sacrifice to HM Revenue and Customs by sorting through through my receipts and bank statements and trying to figure out why on earth a company I have never heard of paid me £25 18 months ago.

I always used to like the way a single person, with the title of Inspector of Taxes or somesuch, used to write to you in person and command you to let him know all about your taxable income and capital gains. He sounded like someone with the anonymous, unchallengeable authority of the Wizard of Oz or Big Chief I Spy, although like Big Chief I Spy, I imagine he got one of his redskins to do his filing. Nowadays HMRC have dispensed with this formulation, and make no attempt to keep up the charming pretence that a single person can be arsed to check though my calculations about my freelance writing. Anyway, I have rendered unto Caesar, in my case the HMRC Area Manager, and await the dreaded bill in the post.

In a recent post, I speculated that the to-do list was of recent vintage. But Nicola Shulman writes in Graven with Diamonds, her recent biography of the Henrician poet Thomas Wyatt, that ‘Thomas Cromwell had a habit of writing down his “remembrances”, that is to say, to-do lists for the business of the moment.’ The mea culpa is on my to-do list.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Life isn’t Hollywood, it’s Cricklewood.’ – Eric Morecambe

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Pylon appreciation

The industrial sublime is an awkward, unloved genre. There is the odd Victorian poem about steam power or bridge builders, but most people know the drill from those chaps in the 1930s who got lyrical about electricity pylons, of all things.

Pylons have been in the news again this week as the shortlist of designs in a competition to create new versions for the 21st century went on display at the Victoria & Albert museum. Pylons also featured on the One Show, with Professor Valentine Cunningham, an expert on the literature of the 1930s, reading from Stephen Spender’s 1933 poem ‘The Pylons,’ an ambivalent response to ‘those pillars/Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret,’ whose ‘quick perspective of the future’ dwarfed ‘our emerald country by its trek’. The presenter of the piece, the former England spin bowler Phil Tufnell, mentioned the Pylon Appreciation Society and the website Pylon of the Month, but fortunately with only the contractually obligated degree of archness.

This is from Rob Young’s book Electric Eden:

In 1928 Britain’s first electricity pylon was erected just outside Edinburgh. The steel structure was skeletal and vaguely anthropomorphic, with six arms to carry the three-phase cables across large tracts of terrain. Most of today’s pylons are variations on the original design by Sir Reginald Bloomfield, the architect responsible for remodelling London’s Regent Street as a curving neoclassical terrace. Blomfield was a fervent horticulturalist whose 1892 book The Formal Garden in England had reintroduced the idea of gardening as stiff upper-lip horticulture; among other opinions, he claimed to despise the ornamental fancies of William Morris’s organic tapestries. In 1953 a new crop of National Grid power stations was rolled out (including the one at Bankside in London, now Tate Modern), and the electrification of Britain was accelerated with the imposition of a “supergrid”, carried by the newly designed PL1 pylons that are still the dominant model fifty years later. Britain’s open fields and moors had become parade grounds for an army of steel wicker men.

Interesting fact from yesterday’s Guardian: Pam Ayres’s father was a linesman for the Southern Electricity Board, a Berkshire version of Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. There is a buried romance to the life of the linesman, just as there is in the design of pylons, which may have to be the subject of a future blog post …

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Trains of thought

This piece by me was in the Guardian on Monday.


Whenever I travel on a Virgin train, I always book a seat in the Quiet Zone. I am not quite sure why, because the prominently displayed notices seem to have little impact on the use of mobile phones and other noisy devices. But the transport minister, Norman Baker, and a number of MPs representing suburban London constituencies now want to see these zones more widely applied, and have asked Transport for London to consider putting quiet carriages on the Tube and overground trains. They cite the American example of Boston’s commuter train lines, on which passengers are not allowed to use phones or talk loudly in the rush hour.

The train carriage has always brought people together in an awkward mix of tolerance and irritation. Its forerunner, the stagecoach, was a garrulous mini-community by comparison. In 1818, William Hazlitt remarked that “you will hear more good things on the outside of a stage-coach from London to Oxford, than if you were to pass a twelvemonth with the Undergraduates or Heads of Colleges of that famous university”. When the railway carriage arrived in the 1830s, its greater comfort encouraged musing and window gazing, and made solitary, silent activities like reading and sewing possible. By 1862, the Railway Traveller’s Handy Book was complaining: “Generally speaking, the occupants of a railway carriage perform the whole of the journey in silence … This is most unnatural and unreasonable … Why should an Englishman ever be like a ghost, in not speaking until he is spoken to?”

When the earliest, brick-like mobile phones appeared in the late 1980s, this etiquette began to change. What might have been seen only two decades ago as unBritish self-display – having an uninhibited conversation in public - is now grudgingly accepted, without some of us ever quite getting used to it. It is not just that train passengers disagree about the nature and value of silence, but that mobile phones occupy the user and repulse strangers more comprehensively than books or newspapers. In doing so they have subtly altered the already fragile social dynamic of the train carriage, making us seem ever more absent to each other. In A Book of Silence, the author Sara Maitland argues that our ambivalence about silence stems from two conflicting contemporary ideas: first, “that we feel ourselves to be happy and fulfilled only when we are interacting with other people”, and second, “the equally popular mythology that stresses individual autonomy and personal ‘rights’.” Some of the occupants of a train carriage want to be left alone to get on with work; for others, such “work” involves noisily conversing with other people.

The expectation that other people should be silent seems to be an arbitrary, changeable affair. Actors increasingly complain of mobile phones putting them off in mid-soliloquy, but theatre audiences were not always expected to be quiet. In his recent history of celebrity, Fred Inglis traces this convention of sitting in reverential silence back to the actor-manager David Garrick, who in the mid-eighteenth century “taught the London audiences, bit by bit, to suppress their chatter, their zoo noises and bursts of ribald song, their bombardments of fruit onto the stage”. Perhaps today’s noisier theatregoers are simply returning to a pre-modern, natural state. Maitland sees the interruption of silence as an artificial affliction of modernity, but I am not so sure. Certain environments have certainly become noisier: libraries now seem actively to encourage conversation and clatter. But many things are quieter than they used to be: you no longer hear the incessant hammering of the typing pool, and today’s warehouses and factories are places of cathedral-like calm compared to a generation ago.

I share Maitland’s love of silence, although not enough to challenge anyone disturbing me in a quiet zone. But I cannot decide if the desire for it is natural or unnatural in our herd-loving, compulsively communicative race. When I was a student, I happily wrote essays in crowded common rooms; now I cannot write if there is so much as a creaky floorboard in the room above me. It is amazing how much noise you can get used to, and then how much silence you can become accustomed to demanding. So I am not surprised that the quiet zone of a train carriage is such an area of conflict: for I am never so estranged from my fellow citizens as when, in the middle of their never-ending noise, I feel the need for silence.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

White dot

When I was in London working in archives recently, I stayed in a house in which the flatscreen, home cinema-style television was so hi-tech that I could not work out how to use it – in fact, I couldn’t even switch it on - so I ended up listening to a lot of radio 4 and watching Match of the Day live on iPlayer. It’s ironic, at least in the broadranging, Alanis Morissette sense of the word, that I am writing a book about television and do not know how to use the latest television receivers. But I don’t suppose I am alone in my ignorance: at the last count, I believe there were 28,000 people with black and white television licences. One of them is, or was, the former MP Chris Mullin, as his recently published memoirs reveal. Mullin was questioned by the Daily Telegraph, which revealed the scandal of MP’s expenses, about his £47 black-and-white TV licence. He had owned the set for more than 30 years, long before he entered Parliament. ‘The Telegraph reports that I claimed for a black-and-white TV licence, which has been the subject of much amusement among colleagues, many of whom dwell in the world of plasma screens’, he wrote at the height of the expenses scandal. After deciding to resign from parliament, he still could not resist composing a speech announcing his candicacy for Speaker of the House of Commons: ‘In passing I might deny any intention to install a black-and-white TV set in Speaker’s house.’

This reminds me of a bit in the late Gordon Burn’s book Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion where George Best is marooned in his white-tiled modernist house in Bramhall: ‘The papers got very excited by the fact that he could lie in bed and open and close the curtains, dim the lights and open the garage doors at the flick of a switch. He could flick another switch and the television could disappear up the Scandinavian-style chimney … The remote for the gadgets went on the blink, with the TV yo-yo-ing up and down the chimney and the curtains opening and closing of their own volition …’

I am also reminded of an episode of the American sitcom Cheers in which the bar regular, Norm, is transfixed by a bank of big screen, satellite-linked TVs on the wall. ‘Well Normie,’ says his friend Cliff, ‘this is the information age. We can get up-to-the-minute stock prices, medical breakthroughs, political upheavals from all around the world. Of course, we’d have to turn off the cartoons first.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Arthur Koestler's satire of academic conferences, The Call Girls (1973), included an extreme leftwing French professor whose secret comfort was to lock his door and retire to bed to read The Three Musketeers while eating chocolate truffles. I sometimes thought of him when I indulged in my own curious vice, which was to watch Blind Date when working out on the rowing machine. This prototype for many far worse versions of humiliation television took my mind off the hamster-wheel boredom of static, indoor exercise. In fact its true awfulness and the glimpses of young macho-macha life in this country proved utterly gripping. The girls were often the crueller, when putting down their artificially selected partners, and it was hard not to feel sorry for the inarticulate and pathetically boastful young males. They could not see how things had changed and how they had become potentially redundant in the brave new world of mass communication to which they had exposed their own pitiful inadequacies.’ - Anthony Beevor

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Motorwayed out

My friend rang me from the Hoylake branch of Oxfam yesterday to ask if I wanted a copy of the Shell Book of Roads for £4. Reader, I passed. I’m motorwayed out. As John Updike wrote about writing about marriage, it is a subject which 'if I have not exhausted it, it has exhausted me'.

However, I did like this bit from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Dennis Potter which reveals that Potter began his writing career in a west London flat in 1961, while the Hammersmith flyover was being built outside. ‘I live on the top floor of a block of flats on a bloodshot-eye level to the thing,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘Only a few yards of exhaust-laden air separates us from The Start of a New Age, as Transport Minister Marples threateningly called the thing … For months and months they have been building [it] – pneumatic drills, monstrous creaking cranes, shouting foremen, acetylene burners, bulldozers, portable radios, and all the other things which more than justify a tea-break.

‘I spent a little time leaning out of the window, in a vain attempt to foment a strike, when our second baby was born in July, but she came into the world while a grotesque new machine was dropping concrete girders into position with all the gentility of a front-row rugby forward bearing down on a tiny full-back.’

Which reminds me ... Neal Ascherson argued in the Observer in June 1962 that the Hammersmith flyover had transformed the atsmosphere at Royal Ascot. ‘Once, in a vast tribal corroboree, Society congregated at Ascot in house parties for the four days of racing, renting mansions and entertaining splendidly in the evenings,’ he wrote. Now communications between London and the racecourse had become ‘fatally efficient: one of the last inducements to stay overnight at Ascot vanished with the construction of the local by-pass and the Hammersmith flyover, which allows the tired racegoer a chance of getting home to London in the evening at a reasonable hour.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Bankers’ genes were Wall St. genes, especially in the big cities. If the banks were conservative just now [1955], it was because bankers still awoke in the middle of the night, trembling and sweaty with thoughts of the Crash. But in time a new generation would take over: ambitious, overcompetitive young men to whom 1929 wuold be merely a date on a page; such men would sever the roots of memory as if with an ax, not realizing that those tendrils were also the rudder cables.’ – Michael M. Thomas, The Ropespinner Conspiracy, 1987