Thursday, 20 December 2012

A wager on the future

Glancing anxiously over my shoulder at the last few years and wondering where they went, I realise this blog is stuttering (with more long silences than in previous years) towards its fourth Christmas. I’m writing this in the deserted main office of the building where I’ve worked for years. This is our last year in the building, which, even though we are only moving down the road, is making me feel a little bit like John Clare in ‘The Flitting’: ‘the summer like a stranger comes / … the sun een seems to lose its way / Nor knows the quarter it is in’. I am, as usual, the last person left sitting in the building except for a few people coming in briefly to pick up their Christmas essays to mark. There is an empty tin of Quality Street on the office desktop with just a few wrappers inside. There are slithers of tinsel wrapped round PC monitors, with no one now to enjoy them before Christmas except me and the screensavers. There is an unopened bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a half empty carton of apple juice, the leavings of an office drinks party last night. The last post lies unsorted, wrapped in a rubber band, including what look like Christmas cards that will not now arrive in pigeonholes until January. Only the remnants of other lives remain.

I don't know who, if anyone reads, this blog, and in a way it doesn’t matter. ‘Before becoming a text, the private diary is a practice,’ writes the French theorist of diarists, Philippe Lejeune. ‘The text itself is a mere by-product, a residue. Keeping a journal is first and foremost a way of life, whose result is often obscure ... it is a wager on the future ... we are writing a text whose ultimate logic escapes us; we agree to collaborate with an unpredictable and uncontrollable future.’ For Lejeune, the diary ‘protects us from the idea of the end’, being one of those illusions ‘that gives us the courage, day after day, to live out the rest of our lives’. I always liked the idea of the Mass Observation diarists posting their entries from around the country to the MO offices – first, to Grote's Buildings, Blackheath, SE 3, and then to 21 Bloomsbury Street, London, WCI – never to see them ever again. In a way, they were posting their diary entries into the future and an unknown reader, like writing a message in a bottle and throwing it not into an actual ocean but an ocean of time. In the absence of much feedback, I think of this blog as a bit like that: I am posting it into the future just to see what happens. But if anyone does happen to be reading it now, I wish you a merry Christmas and bid farewell to 2012 with a couple of snowy poems:

‘Morning at last: there in the snow’

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,
Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.

First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

Philip Larkin

Saturday, 15 December 2012

A light without shadow


This programme about the golden age of TV wrestling, on this week, was a bit of a Proustian madeleine for me:


The wrestling always reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson’s fable ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’. Who was going to be the little boy who pointed out the obvious: that the whole thing was a gigantic sham?

Official confirmation came in 1980 when, in response to complaints from some viewers about the violence of the bouts, Mary Warnock and other members of the complaints review board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority sat down to watch World of Sport for several weeks. They found no case for stopping the wrestling on the grounds of violence because, they said, it was largely faked. The bouts were not viewed primarily for the violence and in any case, they noted drily, this did not seem to cause any lasting damage to the participants.

Of course, people did not want to know, and didn’t care whether or not it was authentic. As Roland Barthes wrote in a famous essay, wrestling was ruled by an ‘immanent justice. The baser the action of the “bastard”, the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in returnA light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve … At such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself … what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.’

Most hated of all by the viewers were not the ‘bastard’ wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus or Adrian Street (who dressed like a glamrock star and camped about the ring, straightening his tights and pouting his lips between grapples) but the World of Sport presenter, Dickie Davies, who appeared whenever a bout was late or a match had to be interrupted to go to the football scores. He received regular angry mail from viewers for whom the 4-5pm slot was sacrosanct. Perhaps they had guessed correctly that Davies loathed the wrestling, except when he found it unintentionally hilarious.

‘I must admit, I’m not the greatest wrestling fan there is,’ he told the Daily Mirror in 1969, ‘but there are times when I watch someone like Les Kellett and tears stream down my face. He gives me more amusement than anybody else. It’s like watching Charlie Drake.’

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A certain hold on sausage and haddock

I've been reading lots of diaries lately, for something I'm working on. 'And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; and must cook dinner,' Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on Sunday 8 March 1941. 'Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.' It turns out (though I didn't know this) that this paean to everdayness is quite a famous line: it found its way into Ned Sherrin's Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations and another anthology called Great British Wit. Odd, because it isn't really funny at all. Just before it, Woolf wrote, 'I will go down with my colours flying.' 20 days later, she found a big stone to put in her pocket and weigh her down, and then slipped into the fast-running River Ouse to drown herself.

But the sausage and haddock line does point to what's often interesting about diary entries: the nearest thing to being post-it notes to the self, they go off at strange tangents and can be gnomic and surreal in their meanings. Woolf wrote her diary very quickly straight after tea, when she she wasn't too tired – 'fast impressionism done from an armchair with a dip-pen'. She saw diary-writing as a runaway carriage 'jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles' but took comfort from the fact that 'this diary writing does not count as writing' because 'if I stopped and took through, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidently [sic - Woolf was a terrible speller] several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap'. When she got behind in her diary, she fretted that the people she had met and the events she had attended had 'gone down the sink to oblivion'.

I found this strange echo in Sylvia Plath's diary for 25 February 1957:

'And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels Saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper's (no less! and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock and sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her, somehow … her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn't drown. I suppose I'll always be over - vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I'm also so damn healthy and resilient.'

Woolf only wrote one more diary entry after the sausage and haddock one. The last line of it reads: 'L is doing the rhododendrons...'

Saturday, 24 November 2012

58 years in the wild

Congratulations to David Attenborough, currently celebrating 60 Years in the Wild on BBC2 (although, on a point of pedantry, it should be 58 Years in the Wild because, while Attenborough began working for the corporation in 1952, his Zoo Quest didn't start until 1954).

Attenborough's most famous moment on TV came when he suggested that his series, Life on Earth, should feature a sequence to illustrate opposable thumbs, which we share with apes. That is how he came to be lying smiling among crushed wild celery alongside a 100kg female gorilla on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda in 1978. One young male even jumped on to his lap. Head down in deliberately submissive pose, Attenborough whispered: 'There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. We're so similar. It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is one thing that the gorilla is not - and that we are.'

‘It was obvious from the first episode that thousands of new zoologists would all be conceived at once, like a population bulge,’ wrote Clive James in the Observer about Life on Earth. According to the sociologist Yvonne Jewkes, who conducted ethnographic research in Midlands prisons, Attenborough’s programmes were particularly popular among inmates. ‘I watch them because animals don’t make judgements’, said one. ‘When you’re behind bars, it’s wonderful to see animals roaming free,’ said another. ‘All you see round here is varying shades of grey, so it really wakes up your senses to see a fantastic kingfisher or amazingly coloured fish.’ (Yvonne Jewkes, ‘The use of media in constructing identities in the masculine environment of men’s prisons’, European Journal of Communication, 17 (2002))

In his book A Short History of Celebrity, Fred Inglis wrote this about Attenborough:

‘[He] has taught his large following, in the tiny details and broad patterns of natural life from its minutest insects to its cosmological panoramas, the terms of what it is not too much to call an emerging religion. The wonderful spaciousness of the sky and seas and the multitudinous variety of the life lived in them corroborate the Romantic metaphysics which is by now the nearest thing people outside formal churches have to a shared religion … Attenborough teaches, though he would never, I guess, put it like that, the theology, liturgy, mathematics, and grammar of such a world and other-worldly view. His listeners believe him because of who he is, the self that he is: serious, joyful, highly intelligent, unself-regarding, changeless from thirty to eighty, brave ... He is steady and hopeful. There is no tragedy in his vision of nature and its many selves, only the plotless epic of seeing and believing.’

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Trendy enough to make your teeth peel

It's 30 years ago, 2 November 1982: the first night of Channel 4. The controller, Jeremy Isaacs, has decided that the first night on the new channel will not depart from the regular schedule. So, at 4.45pm, the first programme begins without any fanfare: a man in a demure blue suit and pale blue tie, looking rather uneasy, introduces a new quiz show with the words ‘as the countdown to the start of a brand new channel ends, a brand new Countdown begins’. He explains the rules of the game and makes the first of what will be many endearingly feeble jokes over the coming years: ‘It’s what the post office have been doing for years – they get a lot of letters, then decide what to do with them.’ At 5.15 comes Preview Four, with Olgar Hubicka and Paul Coia giving a taster of forthcoming programmes on the new channel. They are, writes Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian, ‘trendy enough to make your teeth peel, sitting on white furniture and drinking iced white wine I shouldn’t wonder’.  

The actor's union, Equity, have decided to black Channel 4 adverts after a dispute with advertising agencies over pay rates in the commercials. Only commercials with no actors in them can be broadcast – so there are lots of cheerful businessmen plugging Vauxhall dealerships or timeshares in Spain. Public information films about how to proceed at level crossings and how to look after your purse are, wrote Julian Barnes in the Observer, ‘repeated with boot-through-screen frequency’.

There is a strange filler inbetween the programmes: flying, coloured blocks arranging themselves into the shape of a 4, to a Brian Eno-like, four-note tune that can be played in any style, depending on what programme it is introducing. Channel identifications were not new: they had been used since the birth of ITV in 1955, but they tended to be brash fanfares similar to those used by Hollywood studios at the start of films – like the famously naff revolving knight on Anglia TV.

Channel 4’s flying bricks were the moment when these primitive idents were replaced by a more subtle concern with an ambient ‘brand identity’. They were devised by a designer called Martin Lambie-Nairn who went on to create the even more influential idents for BBC2 which reimagined the number 2 as a fluffy, somersaulting toy or a plane gliding across a wooden floor. They were widely credited with helping the channel shake off its forbiddingly highbrow image.

Soon all the channels were using idents. BBC1 had Haka-dancing rugby players and acrobats suspended from ceilings; Channel 4 had skyscrapers and pylons magically aligning to form the number 4; ITV1 had, for more obscure reasons, people hugging trees and examining their beer bellies. The Zen-like calm of the ident is a creative response to channel multiplication and the power of the remote control. The hope is that people will tire of this dizzying choice and simply stick with one channel, with its familiar filmic language. Some people complain about how much money they cost, particularly to BBC licence-payers. But the best ones, like those hippos swimming in a circle, are like understated poems in vision and sound – a tiny antidote to the brash, exhibitionist programmes they increasingly introduce.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Voices in your head

A longer version of the article I wrote for the Guardian today:

Long before I was old enough to know what it was all about, I loved listening to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America. Cooke's opening gambit would always be something like "I was standing on the corner of Lexington Avenue on a Sunday in May waiting for a bus …" and off he would go at a pace that seemed far too leisurely for a mere 14-minute programme, only for him to sidle seamlessly into his main theme just in time. Mostly, it was his voice that kept you listening: beautifully modulated, slightly breathy from chain smoking, with a gentle ascension and declension ideally tailored to his script's skilful melding of the written and spoken word. It is impossible to read Cooke's prose now without hearing that voice in your head.

On 1 November, as part of its 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC is releasing 920 editions of Letter from America on the Radio 4 website. It is a fitting choice with which to initiate an intended expansion of the BBC's online radio archive because what made Letter from America so compelling was really the essence of radio itself – its capacity to draw us in and make us listen intently to the sound of another human voice.

Before radio came along, the ability to hear the voices of absent speakers was seen as the preserve of spiritual mediums or mad people. Early listeners were fascinated by this strange phenomenon, the radio wave, which could carry voices on the air but was itself undetectable without that magical deciphering machine, a wireless. One of the radio wave's great charms was that, unlike the telephone or the telegraph, it radiated to no one in particular. The early term for the BBC's audience, "listeners in", suggested they were eavesdropping on a voice that was not really speaking to them but to the universe. "By enabling a whole country or continent to listen to a disembodied voice, wireless concentrates attention on it – flood-lights it, as it were – bringing out every little trick and peculiarity," wrote the BBC's first director of talks, Hilda Matheson, in 1933. "The violence of emotion produced in quite mild people by unfamiliar pronunciation, vowels, accent, is an astonishing proof of this heightened consciousness."

When listeners get used to a radio voice, though, they become tenaciously attached to it. News of the imminent retirement of the Radio 4 announcers, Harriet Cass and Charlotte Green, has led to a wave of melancholy among the station's audience because, just by reading the Shipping Forecast and introducing You and Yours in pleasing inflections over thousands of days, their voices have wheedled their way into listeners' heads. My own favourite radio voices are John Murray, the Northumbrian-accented 5 Live commentator who always sounds as though he is in a musical and is about to break into song; and Clare Runacres, who reads the news on Radio 2 in such an emollient voice that, should the need sadly arise, I would like it to tell me to form an orderly queue for the lifeboats.

The voices coming through the radio mean a lot to us because they wrap themselves around our daily routines. Over 58 years, entering people's homes at more or less the same time every week, Cooke's voice came to seem as eternal as the news pips. That is why, although we should all cheer the expansion of the BBC's digital archive, I hope that one of its rationales for expanding it – that real-time radio and the daily schedule are on the way out and that the listeners of the near future will all be selecting programmes themselves online like picking items off a menu – turns out to be wrong. The Letter from America archive will be a great resource, but it won't be quite the same as that familiar Friday evening ritual, with that slight pause after the announcer's introduction and that inimitable voice saying: "Our plane was coming in from San Francisco, nosing in through endless layers of cotton wool …"



Sunday, 14 October 2012

Meg and Mog and the M4

Helen Nicoll, the author of the Meg and Mog books, died a fortnight ago. I discovered from her obituary that these books were largely written in a cafe at Membury Services on the M4, where she and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, would meet because it was roughly equidistant between their houses in Wiltshire and London. I think this may be the only example of a literary collaboration forged at a roadside service station - with the arguable exception of Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop's The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, an account of their month-long residence by the side of the Autoroute du Soleil, the road that runs from Paris to Marseille.

For most of us, motorway service stations are non-places where we have only brief, anonymous encounters with other human beings. But people do meet there. They are a well-known no man's land for divorced couples to exchange children, and for football transfer bungs to be handed over in brown envelopes. You can sit in a service station for hours and, for all the attention you get from the table clearers and floor wipers, you might as well be a ghost. That’s why low-level lawlessness has always thrived in the anonymity of the cafes and car parks. Unwanted babies are dumped here, illegal immigrants exchanged, drugs and contraband traded by small-time criminals.

In the 1960s, gigging musicians would bump into each other after midnight at the M1 service stations and exchange gossip about venues and recording deals. The Beatles, according to one Newport Pagnell counter-assistant, were ‘very unruly’ and threw bread rolls at their manager, Brian Epstein. Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, once recalled the Blue Boar at Watford Gap at two o’clock on a Sunday morning looking like a Ford Transit van rally as bands made their way back from gigs, and ‘crushed velvet trousers outnumbered truckers’ overalls’. When Jimi Hendrix first arrived in Britain, he heard the name ‘Blue Boar’ so often that he thought it was a new nightclub and asked which band was playing there that night. Chris White of the Zombies called it ‘the feeding trough of the mid-60’s Beat Boom’.

I'm doing a talk on roads as part of the Liverpool Biennial on 7 November, and I have to relate them somehow to this year's theme of 'hospitality'. Of course, most people think of roads as pretty inhospitable places, but then most of them don't know about the role of Membury Services in helping to create the Meg and Mog books.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Armchair nation

I've just finished a history of watching television called Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in front of the TV, although it probably won't be out till next autumn. I hope to be blogging some of the stuff that didn't make it into the book over the next few months. One of the more surprisingly enjoyable days I spent researching it was at theNational Archives at Kew, looking at old Home Office files on the politics and aesthetics of the new transmitters built in the 1940s and 1950s at places like Holme Moss, Winter Hill, Caradon and Kirk O'Shotts. These masts were seen at the time as modern-day cathedral spires, announcing the arrival of the new god, television, into the region. I found this by one of my favourite contemporary poets:

The transmitter stands lonely in my mind,
Remote and cold, beyond the aerials
Of gable-ends and guttering, beyond
Ideas of Eiffels casting silvery bolts;

Remote as the front that brought snowfall
to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau;
apologies from high on distant Pennines,
though something of a signal still gets through.

Paul Farley, ‘Winter Hill’

Mundane quote for the day: 'Last night I went to Elsa Lanchester's. Oh the horror of TV! It is so utterly, utterly inferior, yet just enough to keep you enslaved, entrapped, on the lower levels of consciousness - for a whole lifetime, if necessary. It is a bondage like that of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott.' - Christopher Isherwood's diary, 28 September 1959

Thursday, 6 September 2012

No longer a secret vice

I wrote this on the return of Dallas for Saturday's Guardian:
 
According to Michael Palin’s diary for Saturday 9 January 1982, at 9 o’clock that evening he rang his friend George Harrison. After a few monosyllabic responses, Harrison said pointedly, “You’re obviously not a Dallas fan, then.” 30 years ago, in a country with only three TV channels, everyone except Michael Palin seemed to be watching Dallas. Ed Miliband has said that it was his “secret vice”, which alarmed his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who worried he might be “planning a future in Big Oil”. David Cameron, probably without generating similar parental alarm, watched Dallas while at Eton.

America was a long way away. Freddie Laker’s transatlantic Skytrain had been offering cheap, no-frills flights since 1977, but that went into liquidation five years later. The Atlantic really was an ocean, culturally as well as geographically, and most Britons saw America only through their television sets. For them Dallas must have seemed like a vision of otherness and excess, with big hair, big shoulder pads and big plotlines. To others it felt like a cultural invasion, American imperialism by other means. Nowadays, of course, our talent show franchises have ensured that the trash doesn’t just travel one way.

The new series of Dallas, which begins on 5 September after a 21-year break, returns to a very different cultural landscape. The Sunday Telegraph’s long-serving TV critic Philip Purser wrote in his 1992 autobiography, Done Viewing, that “the gravest disservice that Dallas did television was to create an appetite for flavours so strong and artificial that the palate was ruined for more subtle and natural tastes”. But this isn’t quite what happened.

Dallas was a world in which every villain was irredeemable, every emotion was signposted and everything happened for a reason, even if it was only that it was all a dream. But most of the successful dramas imported from the US since Dallas have been the opposite: multi-stranded, self-consciously clever narratives that demand more intellectual and emotional work from viewers and do not always reward them with clear resolutions. In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, the American cultural critic Steven Johnson argued that this kind of complex drama had developed to stand up to repetition, as shows were repeated on the multiplying number of channels and had an afterlife as DVD box sets.

The prototype for this type of series was Hill Street Blues, a programme that began three years after Dallas. Dallas also had its clones, like Dynasty and Falcon Crest, but they all predeceased it. Now we have become habituated to the subtle, natural-seeming flavours of The Wire and Mad Men, they may have ruined our palates for characters who say “You don’t care how many lives you destroy if you get what you want!” and “You bought me once, you can’t do it anymore!” to a swelling background chorus of woodwind and grand piano.

In another sense, though, Dallas in its first incarnation may have created the conditions for it to be a success second time around. For it was one of the first shows that British viewers watched with a squint, with an awareness that it was both addictive and absurd. This peculiarly British compromise was actually engineered by two expats: Terry Wogan and Clive James. On his Radio 2 show, Wogan treated Dallas as “a weekly Eurovision Song Contest” and mocked the way that the oil-rich Ewings could only afford a single telephone in the hall. In his Observer TV column, Clive James homed in on Dallas’s strange, compelling details, from its southern pronunciations (prarlm for problem, lernch for lunch) to the way that Sue Ellen moved her mouth in different directions to convey emotion.

This professionally flippant, slyly populist voice, accepting of kitsch and able to rework it into unintentional comedy, has become the default style not only of TV reviewers but also of viewers. We have learnt to read programmes against the grain, to mine enjoyment from them that may never have been intended by their makers. And thanks to this, Ed Miliband may like to note, watching Dallas need no longer be a secret vice.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Orwell on statues

I don't know what George Orwell would have made of the fact that the outgoing director general of the BBC apparently vetoed the siting of a proposed statue of him outside Broadcasting House because he was 'too left wing'. We do know that he was pretty ambivalent about statues per se.

In his novel Coming Up for Air, the narrator George Bowling, alluding to the endless tracts of semi-detached housing built in the 1930s, proposes a statue to 'the god of building societies'. And in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell writes about how his Russian friend, Boris, liked dining in a particular cafe in Montparnasse 'simply because the statue of Marshal Ney stands outside it' and he liked anything to do with soldiers.

In Victory Square in 1984, Winston Smith walks past 'the statue of a man on horseback which was supposed to represent Oliver Cromwell'. And according to Jeffrey Meyers's biography of Orwell, he was amused by the monument to the hymn writer, Reginald Heber, bishop of Calcutta. He told a friend, 'if you are ever near St Paul's & feel in a gloomy mood, go in & have a look at the statue of the first Protestant bishop of India, which will give you a good laugh'.

But I am sure that Orwell would have approved of the choice of sculptor to make his statue. Martin Jennings also did the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras, which has the poet holding his hat as he gazes up in wonder at the huge span of William Barlow’s train shed, and it is lovely.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

I ate the world

A postscript to my post about Voyager 1 and the Pale Blue Dot. I just found this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, "This must thou eat." And I ate the world.'

As inaccessible as Eden

An afterthought on yesterday's post: motorway poetics is not an entirely new genre. A couple of years ago Simon Armitage published a chapbook called The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right, which I haven't managed to get hold of yet. Charles Tomlinson has also written a number of motorway poems, including this one, 'From the Motorway':

Gulls flock in to feed from the waste
They are dumping, truck by truck,
Onto a hump of land three roads
Have severed from all other:
Once the seeds drift down and net together
This shifting compost where the gulls
Are scavenging a winter living,
It will grow into a hill - for hawks
A hunting ground, but never to be named:
No one will ever go there. How
Shall we have it back, a belonging shape?
For it will breed no ghosts
But only - under the dip and survey
Of hawk-wings - the bones of tiny prey,
Its sodium glow on winter evenings
As inaccessible as Eden ...

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Pale blue dot

I've written elsewhere on this blog about Voyager 1, the probe that was launched almost exactly 35 years ago, in August 1977, and which NASA has just announced is now leaving the Heliopause, the last bit of our solar system, making it the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. It also appears in Jake Arnott’s new novel, The House of Rumour, in a scene which transports the reader from Ian Fleming arguing with his wife in their Jamaican house to Voyager 1 to show how insignificant this argument is in the great scheme of things. When Voyager 1 and 2 were launched there was much excitement about the golden disc containing birdsong, music, pictures of the Sydney Opera House and the Pyramids and messages recorded in various languages (‘Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday’) that would help us to communicate with hypothetical aliens. In fact Voyager 1 will not pass another planet for another 40,000 years and its real significance is its reminder of our own marginal place in the universe.

Writers have been reminding us of this for thousands of years. In Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’, a Roman general finds himself looking down upon Carthage ‘from a high place full of stars, shining and splendid’, and realises how small and puny it is from that perspective. Then there is (the atheist) Rupert Brooke's poem, Clouds:

They say the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

And in his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote this about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black:

'From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.'

On this day

'Walked to Oxford Street, took cab home. The cabman insisted on two shillings, which I resisted; and, on his persisting, I made him drive me to the police office, where a deposit was made for the measurement of the ground. I walked home.' - Charles Macready, 29 July 1837

'Sat and watched the royal wedding on TV ... The image presented to the rest of the world was of a Britain about as socially advanced as France before the French Revolution! We are slipping back to eighteenth-century politics. We've got to fight like anything to recover the position that we had even in 1945. I had the feeling most strongly. It was feudal propaganda, turning citizens into subjects.' - Tony Benn, 29 July 1981

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Phantom railings

I really like the look of “Phantom railings”, a public art intervention at Malet St. Gardens, Bloomsbury, running from 24 July to 20 August as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Developed by a collective of artists and academics at the Centre for Creative Collaboration at the University of London, it is 'an interactive sound sculpture that uses the move­ments of pedestrians to evoke the ghost of a lost iron fence'. This is how they describe it:

'The site of the intervention is a garden in Bloomsbury, whose railings were removed as part of the 1940s war effort and never replaced, leav­ing a line of iron stumps along the surrounding wall. Using sensor-based acoustic devices, the installation makes evident the absence of railings by creating a resemblance of the familiar sound produced by running a stick along an iron fence. The pitch of each railing’s "sound" is set to vary according to the pedes­trian’s speed and proximity, allowing the “phantom railings” to be played and tuned as desired.'

You can find out more on the website www.publicinterventions.org
I wrote this four years ago about the railings around London squares:

In all the anniversary discussions of May 68, I have not seen any reference to Britain's most unusual, homegrown variation on the Parisian evenements . Forty years ago this month, in Notting Hill, a loose alliance of hippies, community workers and locals scaled the gates of the private garden squares and claimed them for the people. The psychedelic poet and playwright Neil Oram called the occupation a symbolic quest to convert "unturned on people" and start "a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world".

As you may already have guessed, this didn't happen. But the Notting Hill insurgents did succeed in a more modest aim. They persuaded the council to buy the overgrown, privately owned Powis Square and turn it into a playground. Campaigners poured on to the grass and erected a banner: "Powis Square belongs to the people at last."

Granted, this isn't quite as dramatic as students from the Sorbonne defending the Latin Quarter with barricades built from iron railings and paving stones. But protests against railed-off gardens have a distinguished place in the English radical tradition. When cast-iron railings began to appear widely in the mid-19th century they were a hated symbol of the enclosure of common land. The Reform League marched on Hyde Park in 1866, pulling down the railings and trampling on the flower beds. And when the railings around London's private squares were removed for salvage during the second world war, many welcomed it as a democratic gesture. At the end of the war George Orwell noted that makeshift wooden railings were being erected so that "the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out". For Orwell, the resilience of Britain's keep-off-the-grass culture was a victory for its few thousand landowning families, who were "just about as useful as so many tapeworms".

The idea that these gardens might ever have become permanently communal now seems rather quaint. In a scene from the 1999 film Notting Hill that unconsciously mirrors the 1968 occupation, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb surreptitiously into the private Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Powis Square. But Grant is no one's idea of a long-haired revolutionary ("whoops-a-daisy!" he says, as he slips), and at the end of the film we see them both relaxing in the gardens, presumably having bought one of the surrounding houses.
Personally, I cannot see why private garden squares are any more invidious than private back gardens - which just goes to show, I suppose, that I am a liberal wuss who will be no use to anyone when the revolution comes. More importantly, it shows that we now live in a relentlessly privatised society, in which postcode prestige and gated communities (both official and unofficial) are the norm. If you have to pay several million pounds for your Notting Hill house, then it seems reasonable enough to expect a key to the garden square.

No one today would think, as Orwell did, that railings reinforce the legalised theft of land ownership. Over the past few years English Heritage has been campaigning for the restoration of the railings in London's squares as "a vital component of the public realm". In my own area of Liverpool, I have noticed people installing traditional railings outside their houses, in the pursuit of what estate agents call "kerb appeal".

It is easy to dismiss the occupation of the Notting Hill squares as countercultural self-indulgence. But these revolutionaries realised that social change had to take place in the mundane spaces of everyday life, where inequities of money and class are naturalised. Today we look through railings as though they are invisible; we should remember that what they really mean is "keep out".

Mundane quote for the day: 'No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil.' - Virginia Woolf

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Ziggy's stardust

I did this for the Guardian yesterday.

On Thursday, 6 July 1972, halfway through an edition of Top of the Pops, David Bowie performed his new single, “Starman”. Dressed in a multicoloured lycra jumpsuit, he put his arm languidly round his guitarist Mick Ronson and looked seductively into his eyes. Now, exactly 40 years later, Dylan Jones has written a 200-page book, When Ziggy Played Guitar, all about those three-and-a-half minutes of television. “It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative,” writes Jones, who was 12 at the time. “For me, and for those like me, it felt that the future had finally arrived.”

Jones is not alone. It would almost be quicker to list the pop performers and writers of his generation who have not cited this broadcast as a watershed in their musical and sexual education. Basildon was a factory, working-class town,” Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode once recalled. “Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else … I just thought he wasn’t of this earth.” The radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, then a 14-year-old pupil at Bolton School, thought that Bowie and Ronson had “arrived from another planet where men flirted with each other, made exhilarating music and wore Lurex knee socks”.

In 1972, less than five per cent of British homes had more than one television. Most teenagers avidly watched Top of the Pops, as the only chart music show on TV, but so did their parents, most of whom had grown up before rock’n’roll, and something unfolding unexpectedly on the living room set could uncover a troublesome issue that ordinarily remained unspoken.

Just before he launched his Ziggy persona in January 1972, Bowie had told Melody Maker he was bisexual. And on 1 July, about 700 people walked from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in the first gay pride march. The world was changing, but not fast enough. While a pop star putting his arm round another man on television might not look very revolutionary now, it seems to have been a liberating moment for young people coming to terms with their sexualities. The crime writer Jake Arnott, then aged 11, recreated the Top of the Pops performance in his back garden with his best friend Pete, who had hennaed his hair like Bowie, “feeling a strange sense of excitement as he put his arm around me”.

But did this moment really “create havoc in millions of sitting rooms all over Britain”, as Jones suggests? We do not know, because no fossil record of its contemporary effect on viewers remains. In 1972 there were no Twitter hashtags to collate an instant collective response, and it was only in the 1980s that newspapers, faced with declining readerships, really began to cling parasitically to the younger medium of television as a source of comment and gossip. So Bowie’s performance inspired no press coverage or public reaction at the time, simply vanishing into the ether to make way for the Goodies at 8pm.

All we have are people’s memories of the event, and viewers often misremember what they see on television, an inherently evanescent, momentary form – especially in those days before domestic video recorders. Perhaps these people are remembering having seen it repeated, because it is one of the few Bowie broadcasts around this time not to have been wiped – although there was much excitement last December when a retired BBC cameraman came forward with a lost recording of “The Jean Genie” on Top of the Pops in January 1973. Despite the TOTP “Starman” being repeated often, people still misremember it. When Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, recalled seeing “Mick Ronson on 10-inch platforms, bending over, giving the guitar fellatio”, this must be a case of the wish fathering the thought. Bowie did simulate fellatio on Ronson’s guitar in concert, but it would have got him taken off air at primetime on BBC1.

One of the traits of popular collective memory is that it likes to fasten on landmark moments when everything was transformed and after which nothing was ever the same. But the truth is always subtler and historical change always more of a continuum. The turning of Bowie’s “Starman” performance into a seminal moment probably has something to do with nostalgic regret for the seemingly lost capacity of multichannel television to create these shared, cataclysmic moments. But all those who saw the performance repeated again on the recent Bowie Night on BBC4 can surely agree on one thing. Even 40 years on, it remains an electrifying piece of television.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Roadside Britain

The photographer Sam Mellish has just published a new book, Roadside Britain, for which I wrote the preface. I think the photographs are wonderful. You can find out more about Sam’s project, including the galleries where his roadside photographs are being exhibited and links to his various websites, on his blog:


Here is part of my preface just to give you a taster:

In his recently published memoir, I, Partridge, the North Norfolk digital radio presenter and former BBC chat show host Alan Partridge writes that one of the programme ideas he once unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC was ‘Motorway Rambles’: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special permission from the Transport Police.

Everyone immediately understands the joke, because spending any more time by the British roadside than you have to is supposed to be an inherently absurd activity. The roadside has long fed into resilient British narratives of nostalgia, loss and self-depreciation. The roadside verge is a hybrid place, neither urban nor rural, in which elegists can contemplate the natural world and lament its encroachment by modern abominations. These anxieties date back to the interwar period, when the rise of the motor car and the arrival of the National Grid meant that houses and factories tended to be built along roads rather than near coalfields. Many observers saw in Britain’s new roadside topography the symptoms of moral degeneration and social crisis. Throughout J.B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934), the roadside serves as a metaphor for cultural change, an augury of a future England made up of Tudor-style chain pubs, lock-up shops and redbrick villas where ‘everything and everybody is being rushed down and swept into one dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardized living’ …

… But there are some parts of the British roadside that still resist the relentless pull of sameness and blandness, and these improvised roadside shacks are the subject of Sam Mellish’s ongoing photographic project, On the Road. In this he joins an emerging but increasingly distinguished tradition. It was probably Paul Graham who began it all with his photographic project on the A1 (the ‘Great North Road’) conducted during 1981 and 1982, a subject returned to by Jon Nicholson in his 2004 book A1: Portrait of a Road. Until the 1960s, the A1 was the main road connecting the north and south of Britain, but it has now been superseded by the M1 and other motorways, so both Graham and Nicholson seek to represent a partially dying world. It is here that you see drivers sitting alone: lone bikers resting their helmets on tabletops or men in hangdog suits with vacant stares – the sort of sad roadside cafe people whom the philosopher Alain de Botton has compared to the lone figures in Edward Hopper paintings.

Others have joined the pilgrimage by the roadside: the Church of England vicar John Davies in his book Walking the M62; the artist Edward Chell, who combines oil paintings depicting motorway verges on the M6 with text pieces in the form of customised road signs; and the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book Edgelands. Like these artists and writers, Sam Mellish demonstrates that spending time carefully observing and recording what goes on by the British roadside is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity. It is a worthwhile, enlightening and often touching one.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘No one suspects the days to be gods.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Civilisations on sand

I wrote this about beaches a while ago. Jean Sprackland reminded me about it by kindly citing it in her book.

In Waterlog, an account of his wild swimmer’s journey through Britain, the late Roger Deakin observes the “hairless apes squealing with pleasure in the sea” at Porthcurno in Cornwall, and wonders why people are so playful and carefree on the beach. He concludes that our species emerged from the sea and our dry-land existence is a recent phenomenon, so we simply feel more at home on the shore.

The resurgent interest in “wildness,” among contemporary nature writers like Deakin, Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, has often gravitated towards the beach. This is partly because many of our beaches, on the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset or the great shingle peninsulas in the southeast, are such strange, otherworldly places. But it’s also because the beach is a point of accommodation between humans and nature. Deakin may have felt the call of the wild but he was also a dedicated beach anthropologist, wandering Monsieur Hulot-like among the tame holidaymakers with their windbreakers and Primus stoves.

The ideal of the beach in western culture is of a beautiful tabula rasa, a preferably deserted landscape of virgin sand and translucent sea where you can escape from the stresses of modern life – which is presumably why you can now buy a “beach in a box” for your office desktop, with a miniature deckchair, sea shells and sand. But as the BBC series Coast showed - once you got beyond its self-consciously stirring music and sweeping aerial views of our shoreline - the British beach is really a case study in cultural history. Our beaches have gone through all sorts of uses, including land speed record attempts at Pendine Sands in Carmarthen Bay, improvised airstrips at Southport and D-day landing dummy runs at Slapton Sands in Devon. More recently, beaches have become highly artificial environments, as tidal changes and coastal erosion force resorts like Minehead and Lyme Regis to import sand or dredge it from the sea bed.

The beach is a frontier not only between water and solid ground, but also between the wild and the domestic. It is where sandyachters and kite buggyers share space with picnickers and sunbathers, in states of proximity and undress they would never tolerate in their ordinary lives. As a self-policing community, the beach also condones a certain amount of low-level lawlessness, from nicking boulders for garden water features to scavenging for Nike trainers in the cargo ship containers that occasionally wash up on the southwest coast. Even Ian McEwan admitted to liberating a few pebbles from Chesil Beach, although he later returned them at the invitation of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

Deakin admired beaches as places where social hierarchies and arcane rules are temporarily suspended. So I imagine he would have disliked the current fashion, in newspaper travel supplements, for listing our “best” beaches. This trend for grading beaches began with conservation societies worrying about sea pollution. But it has become a beauty contest, as resorts compete over things like wave size and sandcastle build-ability. Some of this is less to do with the beaches themselves than the accident of location. Resorts that are within second-home distance of London’s middle classes tend to emphasise the clean minimalism of their beaches, because that is what appeals to busy professionals and downshifters. A side-effect has been the decade-long property boom in beach huts, which are disproportionately on the south and east coasts, and are now undergoing their own version of the house-price crash. The struggling seaside resorts in my own area of the northwest, like Blackpool, Morecambe and New Brighton, rely instead on council-led regeneration plans for casinos, outdoor lidos and refurbished Art Deco hotels, and don’t go on about their beaches so much.

Contrary to some reports, the recent Policy Exchange publication, Cities Unlimited, does not write off all the regeneration schemes in the north. It is fairly optimistic about inland cities like Manchester and Leeds, and gloomiest about coastal towns like Liverpool, Hull and Blackpool. In a motorway-based economy, it argues, these places are literally at the end of the road. Cities Unlimited is an anti-coast manifesto. All the places it commends for being well-connected, like Corby, Daventry and Oxford, are miles from a beach.

Fortunately, the beach has no truck with neo-liberal economics, or indeed beauty contests. Almost everywhere on the coast has a serviceable beach nearby, assuming you can refrain from giving the sand a star rating. And I will happily trade living in a motorway hub for living as I do within 10 minutes’ drive of Crosby beach. On late summer evenings when the day-trippers have gone, there is no one else about except some naked, cast-iron men staring out across Liverpool Bay. Anthony Gormley’s rusty artwork, Another Place, is a reminder that, even on a deserted beach, people have left their mark.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A year on the beach

Having been wrongly accused last week of never having been to Deptford, I've been steering clear of urban planning politics this week and heading for the beach. It is June, after all, even though this month is rapidly disappearing down a drain. I've been reading Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, a new book by Jean Sprackland, a poet who lives, or lived, not far from me, near Ainsdale Sands, between Southport and Formby Point. Over the course of a year, Sprackland simply walks on the beach near her home and tells us what she finds and sees.

There is some lovely stuff in it, with a particularly brilliant section about messages in bottles, sent to no one in particular across 'the mother of all dead letter boxes: the sea'. It is also salutary to learn that 'caffeine levels are so high in some coastal areas that it's used as a marker to determine general water quality'. And I learnt a lot about a science I had never even heard of: Flotsametrics. In his book Flotsametrics and the Floating world (2009), Curtis Ebbesmeyer explores the science behind the complex and unlikely journeys taken by ocean debris like driftwood, messages in bottles, corpses and derelict ships, as well as 'the Great Sneaker spill' - when thousands of lost-overboard Nike training shoes ended up on distant shores. Apparently, 'murderers often underestimate the strength and complexity of currents and tidal systems, a failure which has sabotaged many an otherwise "perfect" crime.'

Searching for some of Sprackland's poems, I found this suitably lyrical reworking of the everyday on her website:


Mattresses


Tipped down the embankment, they
sprawl like sloshed suburban wives,

buckled and split, slashed by rain,
moulded by bodies dead or disappeared
and reeking with secrets.


A lineside museum of sleep and sex,
an archive of thrills and emissions,
the histories of half-lives
spent hiding in the dark.


Arthritic iron frames might still be worth a bit,
but never that pink quilted headboard,
naked among thistles, relic
of some reckless beginning, testament


to the usual miracle: the need to be close,
however it stains and bruises.


from Tilt (Cape, 2007)