Sunday, 31 May 2015

I have moved

I have moved my blog to a new website at

Hope to see you there, or feel free to enjoy these archived blog pages ...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The unexpected TV watcher

I don’t really do research on the history of watching TV any more, but I still like coming across examples of incongruous meetings of the viewer and the viewed. I found this in The Unexpected Professor by John Carey (pp. 231-3), who began writing TV reviews for the Listener in 1969:

‘I knew nothing about television. We didn’t even have a set. But it was not for me to reason why, so we hired a set from Radio Rentals … I made dreadful mistakes at first, because I didn’t recognise even the most famous TV personalities when they appeared on screen – people like bow-tied Robin Day, then a ubiquitous pundit. However, no one seemed to notice, possibly because no one read the column … The other programme I liked [apart from Monty Python] was the late-night snooker. Our set was black and white – almost no one had colour in those days – so the state of play was hard to follow. But I was gripped by the dramatic details – the waistcoats, the silence punctuated by tiny flurries of applause, the nervous sips of water taken by the player waiting his turn. When Karl [Miller, the Listener’s editor] switched me from television to book reviewing in 1974 the snooker was what I missed most. However, we felt there was no point keeping our set, so we phoned Radio Rentals to tell them. The two men who came round were built like heavyweight boxers, evidently expecting to have to wrest their property from the bosom of a distraught family unable to keep up the payments. They seemed disappointed we gave it up without a struggle.’

Professor Carey joins my long list of intellectual snooker fans, which also includes George Mackay Brown, A.S. Byatt, Clive James and Raymond Williams.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The routine of life goes on, whatever happens, we do the same things, go through the little performance of eating, sleeping, washing. No crisis can break through the crust of habit.’ – Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The truth about dogs

I loved this elegant and funny opening to an article by Stephen Budiansky from the Atlantic (July 1999), titled ‘The Truth About Dogs’: 

‘If some advertiser or political consultant could figure out just what it is in human psychology that makes us willing to believe that dogs are loyal, trustworthy, selfless, loving, courageous, noble, and obedient, he could retire to his own island in the Caribbean in about a week with what he would make peddling that secret. Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I'm thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police.’

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Rush Hour

I did this review of Iain Gately's Rush Hour for the Guardian:

In his 1967 book The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Belgian Situationist thinker Raoul Vaneigem wondered how much humanity could possibly remain in people “dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains” and “tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays and the nugatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in a brutish weariness”. While they might flinch at the unflattering wording, quite a few of the world’s half a billion commuters would surely agree with Vaneigem that the part of the day they spend getting to and returning from work is dead time that simply has to be endured.

And yet there is a small but distinguished body of literature about this banal and taken-for-granted routine. I can think of three minor classics – Roger Green’s Notes from Overground, Marc Augé’s In the Metro and Christopher Ross’s Tunnel Visions – that have found a strange, melancholic poetry in the somnambulant iterations and thrown-together community of the daily commute. To this list we can now add Iain Gately’s Rush Hour. It is not as lyrical as these books, nor as personal, although it does begin with him shivering one wintry Monday on platform one at Botley station in Hampshire, waiting for the 07.01 to London Waterloo. But he too finds this daily ritual full of anthropological interest and surreal juxtapositions.

Gately’s history starts with the London and Greenwich railway line, opened in 1836 with just under four miles of track and the first line to be used mainly by commuters, and takes us up to the gamechanging possibilities offered by driverless cars and telecommuting. Commuting emerges as a sort of banal, undemanding white noise around which creative things happen. Albert Einstein, we learn, was inspired to wonder whether time might be relative while commuting to work as a patent clerk in Bern and gazing up at the town hall clock from the window of his tram.

Gately has a great eye for the illuminating fact that reveals commuting’s capacity to consolidate and synchronise mass behaviour in weird ways. An international urban planning conference in New York in 1898, for example, estimated that the city’s horses, increasing rapidly in number as more were needed to drive the carriages and omnibuses carrying commuters, left 2.5 million pounds of manure on its streets every day and that, if the horse population kept growing at its current rate, manure would fill the city’s streets up to the level of its third-storey windows by 1930. The Times was less alarmist, estimating that London would be only nine feet deep in manure by 1950.

Gately takes us beyond the familiar image of the stockbroker-belt commuter – the famous uniform of briefcase, furled umbrella and bowler hat was, he notes, only common for about thirty years – into the more proletarian city trams and buses where commuting was slower, more congested and more uncomfortable. In the 1950s, Birmingham’s number 8 bus, nicknamed the “Workmen’s Special” because it decanted workers into and out of Ansells Brewery, Saltley gas works and the HP Sauce factory, had its own micro-climate in which, according to one user, “the sweat would run down the inside of the windows, the cigarette smoke was like a London smog and the bus was always bloomin’ freezing”.

Given the constraints of space and the size of his subject, Gately makes a decent stab at delivering a truly global history of commuting. In much of Asia, he points out, commuting on two wheels remains the norm. In communist China until recently, the commuter’s vehicle of (limited) choice was the Flying Pigeon, a single-gear bicycle which came only in black, cost two months’ salary and had a three-year waiting list. At least 500 million Flying Pigeons have been ridden since 1950, making it the most popular vehicle in history. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping defined national prosperity as “a pigeon in every household” and many young women would only accept a marriage proposal if their prospective husband could afford one. When China began to admit westerners in the early 1980s, the Beijing rush hour became an unlikely tourist attraction: “Fleets of cyclists ghosted over intersections a hundred or so abreast in the morning mist, tinkling their bells. Most wore identical trouser suits – grey men on black bikes – and their apparent sameness contributed to the strangeness of the vision.”

Throughout most of Asia, including China, the Flying Pigeon has now been supplanted by the Honda C100 Super Cub scooter, introduced in Japan in 1958, still in production and easily the world’s bestselling motor vehicle. Its unique selling points were 19-inch wheels to cope with the heavily potholed Japanese roads and “a step-through profile, so that women could board it without having to hitch up their skirts”.

The weaker parts of Rush Hour are where Gately approaches commuting from the outside in, giving us potted, familiar histories of the growth of the railways, the car industry and the suburbs. Mostly, though, he succeeds in unearthing the arcane detail of commuting in order to shed interesting light on these larger issues. Rush Hour reveals how the commute has so often driven social change, from shifting breakfast time to earlier in the day to transforming social etiquette about talking to (or, mostly, ignoring) strangers; and it shows how commuting has inspired new technologies from the car radio to the cheap pocket watch with standardised parts. (According to Gately, Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, forever fishing his watch out of his pocket and muttering “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”, is a version of the mid-Victorian commuter neurotically anxious about missing the train.) Commuting is even to blame, he claims, for the Chris Evans Breakfast Show, this “morning zoo” style of radio programme being a product of the commuter’s “diminished ability to focus”.

Gately’s contention is that, in spite of the fact that it reduces its victims to daily frustration, discomfort and impotence, commuting also offers them freedom of movement and the chance to improve their lives. Although he does not mention them, his book is a kind of answer to Vaneigem and the Situationists who, witnessing the reconstruction of Paris in the postwar years and the dispersal of workers into the banlieues, defined commuting as worthless, alienated labour. Sometimes, in comparison, Gately’s outlook can feel too sunny. While I do not suggest that he should have provided a Situationist-style critique of commuting or a political economy of it (his book is too much fun for that), he could have dwelled more on how its tedium, like many of the supposedly universal chores of daily life, is unfairly distributed.

But this book offers only minor frustrations – appropriately enough, since that, according to Gately, is all that commuting offers as well. Since my trip from home to work desk takes just 20 minutes, I can barely call myself a commuter, but I loved this book’s generosity and curiosity about daily life and the people who find themselves stuck in it. Anyone who does commute would find their journey to work enlivened and enlightened by it.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas TV moments

I haven't been keeping up with this blog very well lately, but here is a piece I've just done for the Guardian about five key moments of Christmas TV. Merry Christmas.

On Christmas night 1937, the BBC television studios at Alexandra Palace on London’s northern heights were shrouded in freezing smog. When the Music Hall Cavalcade finished at 10pm, viewers were so concerned for the performers that they rang up the studios offering them lifts home. That Christmas, a year after television broadcasts had begun, showed that the few thousand people with TV sets were forging an intimate relationship with the new medium. Hundreds of them sent cards to the studios or rang up to wish the artistes a happy Christmas. The idea of a special festive schedule was taking shape, with an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a Christmas Cabaret and “Television’s First Grand Christmas Pantomime: Dick Whittington and His Cat”. But Lord Reith was still in charge, so there was no television on Boxing Day - a Sunday.

Our modern idea of Christmas owes as much to television as it does to the Victorians. Christmas and TV are made for each other: they both rely on the sense of a scattered, intangible national community, gathered in 20 million living rooms. Just as Christmas is ecumenical enough in its customs to be celebrated by people of all faiths and no faith, television requires us only to make the rudimentary commitment of turning on the set in order to join its fleeting and virtual society of viewers. Recalling the Christmas television of the past is an evocative but slightly eerie experience. It makes you realise just how much forced bonhomie and fake snow, a lot of it filmed under baking studio lights in August, has been deployed over the last seventy-odd years to convince us that at this time of year we have something in common.

The Queen’s first television broadcast, 1957

At 3pm on Christmas Day 1957, the screens of about 6 million televisions dissolved to reveal the Queen in the long library at Sandringham, with pictures of her children on her desk. A reluctant performer who did not even like the cameras settling on her face during Trooping the Colour, she had agreed to have her Christmas broadcast televised for the first time. Having refused the aid of the recently invented teleprompter, she delivered her lines from a clearly visible script. Many viewers at home stood to attention for the duration of her speech, as they had done since her grandfather delivered the first Christmas radio broadcast 25 years earlier.

“My own family often gather round to watch television as they are this moment, and that is how I imagine you now,” the Queen said to a microphone hidden in a sprig of holly. “I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct.” But she also expressed concern about “the speed at which things are changing all around us” and about “unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery”.

That August, John Grigg, then Lord Altrincham, had published an article in the National and English Review which criticised the Queen’s “tweedy” advisers who, for fear of destroying her mystique, had ensured her speeches were “prim little sermons” delivered in the manner of “a priggish schoolgirl”. Grigg argued that, in a modern democracy, the monarchy needed to adapt “to perform the seemingly impossible task of being at once ordinary and extraordinary”. The Queen’s television broadcast was both a rejoinder to Grigg and a concession that he may have had a point.

Members of the BBC’s audience research panel said that it was “a real thrill to see the Queen so clearly and so close” and that it had made them feel as if “she is really our friend and not a removed figure”. Other viewers had different priorities. The BBC’s telephone duty log recorded hundreds of complaints after the failure of outside broadcast equipment meant that the programme scheduled straight after the Queen, Billy Smart’s Family Party from Windsor, had to be abandoned and replaced by a Ronald Colman film, followed by light songs from Elton Hayes. A BBC spokesman said the Windsor area was “difficult to transmit from”.

Apollo 8 interrupts the festive schedules, 1968

Christmas television’s strangest quality is its juxtaposition of sacrality and banality, solemnity and froth. This contrast was unusually jarring over Christmas 1968, when the schedules were interrupted by the crew of Apollo 8 presenting 20-minute broadcasts daily at about 1.30pm British time. The first, on 22 December, showed the astronaut Neil Anders clowning around with a toothbrush, turning weightlessness into a party game for the first time in history, and the first-ever glimpse of the earth from interplanetary space, as James Lovell pointed his camera out of the cabin window. Sadly, the telephoto lens failed to work and the earth on TV looked like a tiny blob of light, resembling a distant bicycle headlight on a road at night.

The next day, however, the camera was working and viewers could clearly see the earth from 175,000 miles away. Britain was covered in cloud. The Cambridge cultural critic Raymond Williams declared it “a new way of seeing” and compared it to the revolving earth that BBC1 used as its channel ident. He saw “the north and west in ragged shadow; the bright Caribbean; the atlas shapes of the Americas … I glanced from its memory to the spinning globe of BBC-1 presentation: light, untextured, slightly oiled. It was necessary to remember that both were television.”

Apollo 8 reached the moon on Christmas Eve, and seasonal specials like Cilla and Sooty’s Christmas Party were interrupted by ticker-tape summaries, moving across the bottom of the screen, informing viewers where the spacecraft was. While Patrick Moore was commenting on the most perilous moment in the mission, the “critical burn” when the astronauts had to fire the lunar module’s rocket to lock them into a closed orbit round the moon, the BBC interrupted him to go to Christmas Jackanory.

As the astronauts orbited the moon, viewers heard them read out the opening verses of Genesis, before mission commander Frank Borman signed off with “good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth”. As with the best Christmas television, those modern-day Magi, the three lunar astronauts, had managed to land just the right side of schmaltz.

Morecambe and Wise unite the nation, 1977

At 8.55pm on Christmas night 1977, according to the BBC’s own figures, 28.5 million people sat down for an hour and ten minutes and watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Audience statistics at the time were much disputed, and ITV’s ratings system had Morecambe and Wise beaten that night by Mike Yarwood. But their 1977 show has still entered folk memory as the culmination of television’s potential to bring the nation together. The following year, updating his father J.A.R. Pimlott’s book The Englishman’s Christmas, Ben Pimlott wrote that “for those who digest their mid-day Christmas dinner in an armchair, the Christmas edition of the Morecambe and Wise show has established itself as an essential part of the Festival”.

This level of expectation came at a cost to the key participants. Eric Morecambe was so full of fear-induced adrenalin before the Christmas show that he came out in sties and got a nervous itch in his ear. The show took Eddie Braben five weeks to write, working 16-hour days, pushing himself close to nervous exhaustion. When he watched it on Christmas day, his whole body was clenched with tension, unplacated by the studio audience laughter.

Not everyone at the time considered the 1977 show a classic: Clive James in the Observer thought Morecambe had been funnier ad libbing with Dickie Davies on World of Sport on Christmas Eve. But then, as our last link with vaudeville, Morecambe and Wise’s act had always relied on comforting familiarity and repetition. “They do not so much deliver their lines, as resuscitate them,” said an admiring Dennis Potter in the Sunday Times.

It helped that, after the IMF crisis at the end of 1976, Christmas 1977 was a time of modest optimism: the pound was recovering, inflation was down and wages rising modestly. It was also the high watermark of three-channel terrestrial television. After spreading slowly across the country for 40 years, the transmitters now reached almost everywhere, with 99.5% of the population able to receive BBC1 and the majority of homes now having a colour TV – more, in fact, than had a telephone. The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, formerly a television refusenik, wrote in his Orcadian column of his relief at getting hold of the Radio Times Christmas issue after the Stromness paper shop had sold out and he faced “a bleak prospect of groping blindly about in a fog of programmes for a fortnight”. Now he could sit in front of the TV and let his mind be “fed full of shadows”.  

Men Behaving Badly at Christmas, 1998

At the end of 1998, Britain was entering the age of digital television. Sky had just launched a digital service of nearly 200 channels, and a BBC advert for its new digital channels had Stephen Fry sat at the dinner table asking his television to “pass the salt please, darling”. In place of a community of viewers, the digital age promised a profusion of personal choice. The outgoing BBC director-general, John Birt, predicted that “broadcasting will one day no longer be a shared cultural experience”.

The Christmas schedules reflected this sense of the ending of an era. BBC1’s Christmas night consisted of Changing Rooms at Christmas, an episode of Men Behaving Badly in which Gary attempted to cure his impotence by masturbating over his collection of porn magazines, and the comedy sports quiz They Think It's All Over. The evening’s TV seemed to reflect a nation in love with lifestyle fads and new-lad banter and suspicious of earnestness and tradition. In the Daily Mail, the novelist Malcolm Bradbury worried that in “an age of easy sensations, soft scandals, featureless celebrities … the hope that a family can gather around a TV set to share a common programme and the spirit of the season is probably dying. Maybe this disappointing TV Christmas is nothing less than the spirit of Christmases to come.”

At the end of 1998, Graham McCann had published an acclaimed biography of Morecambe and Wise, which began with a setpiece about the 1977 Christmas Show as a vanished moment of national unity. On Christmas day afternoon, BBC1 reran Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas 1973 show – the one with André Previn conducting Eric playing Grieg’s piano concerto, much fresher and funnier than 1977 - to remind viewers of what they had lost.

The survival of the TV Christmas, 2014

By 2014, though, it was clear that rumours about the death of the television Christmas had been exaggerated. The season began in mid-November with the Christmas TV adverts for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s being dissected by everyone in search of signs and portents. Then, in early December, there was the time-honoured tradition of the Christmas schedules being announced to the ritualistic lament from the tabloids and the Taxpayers’ Alliance about the BBC fobbing us off with repeats.

Communal viewing had turned out to be more resilient than people had feared at the start of the digital era. These people had overestimated the desire of viewers to become active consumers, forever searching catch-up services and the higher numbers of the remote control for “content”. Instead, and especially at Christmas, they were slothful and habit-loving. They wanted to flop passive-aggressively in front of the set, moaning about there being nothing on except Through the Christmas Keyhole or the Come Dine With Me Christmas Special – and then watching them anyway.

There was still plenty of family entertainment: Harry Hill as Professor Branestawm, Chummy and Trixie helping with the Sunday School Christmas Concert in Call The Midwife and Strictly Come Dancing welcoming back Bruce Forsyth, a man who had first appeared on television aged 11 in 1939. Although religious ceremony was now mostly banished from the TV, we still had the white magic and quasi-mysticism of Doctor Who, with the Doctor and Clara trapped on an Arctic base with Father Christmas.

Christmas television has long had this incantatory quality, this rhetorical conjuring up of a collective national life. Perhaps its imagined community of viewers has always been imaginary and TV only ever offers what Dennis Potter called “the flickering illusion of communality”. Or perhaps that fragile sense of togetherness becomes half-real simply by being invoked.

Those watching in 2014 would certainly still have recognised the Christmas night routine of the playwright Peter Nichols, who spent the evening in 1969 with his extended family crammed into the tiny living room of his in-laws’ semi-detached in Bristol. “Back in the roomful of furniture and family, we sit watching Petula Clark singing ‘Holy Night’,” he wrote in his diary. “Val Doonican crooning a lullaby to Wendy Craig, the Young Generation dancing the life of Jesus. The children are shouted at every time they block an adult’s view. They want to play with the toys they’ve been given, not grasping that the important part, the giving, is over for another year and they should sit like grateful mutes and let us watch our favourite stars.”

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The grip of the paper clip

I have an essay on the paper clip in Grace Lees-Maffei’s edited collection Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, which is published this week by Bloomsbury. Here is a very brief extract:

‘If all that survives of our fatally flawed civilization is the humble paper clip, archaeologists from some galaxy far, far away may give us more credit than we deserve,’ the design critic Owen Edwards argues in his book Elegant Solutions. ‘In our vast catalog of material innovation, no more perfectly conceived object exists.’ The double oval shape of a paper clip is instantly recognisable. The way that it turns in on itself with its three hair-pin bends and rounded top and bottom - in France paper clips are known as ‘trombones’ - seems like the perfect marriage of form and function. Cheap and easy to reproduce, paper clips have remained virtually the same for over a hundred years. Despite the odd variation - coloured paper clips with plastic coatings, square-edged rather than rounded ones, jumbo clips with corrugated finishes, avant-garde versions with a ‘v’ replacing the inner curve – the design of the classic paper clip remains unchallenged. With the gentle, sliding action of a paper clip we bring paper, and some small element of our lives, under control.

The mass-produced paper clip as we know it dates back to the late 19th century, when the first machines emerged that could bend and cut steel wire cheaply and cleanly. For the modern paper clip is based on the theory of elasticity or springiness, as elaborated as early as 1678 by the physicist Robert Hooke in his Lectures de potentia restitutiva. Hooke’s law, Ut tensio sic uis, or ‘as is the extension so is the force’, means that the extension of a spring, or the displacement from its original position, is directly proportional to the force applied. The spring-steel wire of a paper clip is easily bendable but also wants to revert to its original shape (provided it is not bent too dramatically), allowing it to glide over papers easily and to fasten them reasonably securely …

A paper clip on its own has virtually no monetary or aesthetic value, which is why so many remain forever unused, absent-mindedly vacuumed up by cleaners or twisted into a useless elongated wire by bored office workers. The phrase ‘minister for paper clips’ is used in British political life to describe a job of no importance, usually in the Cabinet office. In July 2005, a 26-year-old Canadian, Kyle McDonald, announced that he was embarking on a quest to trade a single red paper clip for a house. Advertising this almost worthless piece of stationery on the internet, he succeeded in swapping it for a succession of bigger and better things until nine months and only ten trades later (including a doorknob, a party pack of beer and a snowmobile), he was the owner of a one-bedroom bungalow in Phoenix, Colorado … 

The history and design of the paper clip is much messier and more nuanced than what is usually implied by the increasingly casual use of the word ‘iconic’. As the design historian Henry Petroski argues in The Evolution of Useful Things, it is nowhere near as perfectly functional an object as it at first appears. Paper clips are at best an elegant compromise between loose leafs and the stapler: their grip on the paper can be too firm (they can dig into the top page and leave scratches) but also too loose (they have a tendency to slide off, particularly when placed in piles with other paper-clipped documents). And this is perhaps the best evidence of the paper clip’s iconicity, that it has a reputation for design flawlessness it does not deserve. As Petroski puts it, ‘its grip on the minds of critics is no doubt more secure than its grip on their manuscripts’.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Dialect-hunting by caravan

I have a piece titled ‘Vox Populi: The Recorded Voice in Twentieth-Century British History’ in the latest issue of the journal Twentieth-Century British History. It’s subscription-only but here is a little snippet:

Stanley Ellis, the principal fieldworker for Harold Orton’s Survey of English Dialects at Leeds University, was energised by the invention of the portable tape recorder. His institution had a long history of recording voices: F.W. Moorman, soon after his appointment as Professor of English in 1912, persuaded the university to buy a primitive wax-cylinder dictaphone and he would ride on a bicycle, his dictaphone strapped to it, to take field recordings of local dialect in Yorkshire villages. In 1928 Orton himself had initiated a survey of Northumbrian dialects and he aimed to continue this during and after the war at Leeds but petrol rationing, in place until 1950, severely hindered field collection.

In 1952, no longer hindered by petrol shortages, Ellis began riding round Britain in a BSA motorcycle and sidecar loaded with his new Simon Mark I portable recorder and packets of Ringtons tea used to persuade village postmistresses to put him in touch with the elderly agricultural workers whose dialect would be best preserved. After Ellis’s marriage in spring 1953 the University supplied him with a caravan and a better tape recorder designed by a former BBC engineer, which also had a battery and converter. Ellis lived with his wife and, later, their first child on the road for the next five years, giving rise to the compellingly titled scholarly article, ‘Dialect-Hunting by Caravan’. At first this caravan was pulled by a 1936 Vauxhall 14hp car but this aged vehicle could not carry its load up steep hills, so fieldwork was initially confined to flat Lincolnshire - until in 1954, the university supplied a Land Rover and Ellis began covering the whole country from the home counties to the Scottish borders. Maurice Varney, who studied dialectology at Leeds from 1955 to 1959, wrote later that ‘when Stanley’s land rover and caravan pulled up at the English Department after another expedition, we all trembled as if awaiting the arrival of a great explorer like Shackleton or Burton’. This being the period of My Fair Lady’s long run in the West End (1958-63), Ellis’s ability to place a regional accent to within a couple of miles led to newspapers describing him as ‘a real-life Professor Higgins’.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Down to the sea in ships

On the other side of the water you get much more of a sense of Liverpool as a maritime city. During a recent trip to New Brighton to see the Perch Rock lighthouse, I saw a massive container ship, crammed full of those familiar multi-coloured metal boxes, being guided slowly into the Seaforth docks by two tugboats. According to Colin Davies, in his book Prefab, the rise of the shipping container as sustaining force of the modern world is down to one man: Malcolm McClean, an American trucking entrepreneur who, in the 1950s, persuaded port authorities and shipping companies ‘to stop gazing into the cavernous holds of ships and turn attention instead to the long, narrow forms of the lorries, trains and barges that carried the goods to and from the port’. McClean’s achievement was to ensure the global dominance of the ISI (International Standards Organisation) shipping container: a twenty-feet by eight-feet by eight-feet stackable steel box which meant that the goods did not need to be handled when transferring between different forms of transport like a ship and a lorry. Shipping containers throughout the world are now all the same shape and size although there are different kinds for different cargoes: side-opening, end-opening, open-topped and air-conditioned ‘reefers’. A container can even be turned into a site office by adding a door and a couple of windows.

The view from New Brighton inspired me to read Horatio Clare’s excellent Down to the Sea in Ships, about his journey round the world on two container ships. The title is of course from Psalm 107: ‘They that go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters, they see the workings of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.’ This is what Clare also discovers, ‘a parallel world which sustains the one we inhabit’. The sailors on container ships, many of them Filipinos paid shamefully less than the rest of the crew, are ignorant of what is in the containers because otherwise the shipping companies think they will be tempted to steal the contents. But ‘informed guesswork suggests we will have flashy cars in some of the boxes - the kind no one wants to risk on a car carrier - and scrap metals for China’s hungry markets, and paper and plastic waste for recycling or disposal.’  

At the end of his journey Clare says he felt like the Ancient Mariner, wanting to stoppeth one in three and say ‘listen, there is a ship at sea tonight, and this is who is on board, and this is what their lives are like, and without them none of this world you call normal would exist’. He, meanwhile, ‘will always be able to hear the moans and whistles of her stairwell, her ghost music, the muted and ceaseless piano of her theme tune, and the enduring, resisting stoicism of the men who sing and hum her on.’

Picture of Perch Rock lighthouse and container ship © Stephen McKay (Creative Commons Licence).

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A cellar full of noise

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to mark students’ work in my office accompanied by the ambient noise of drilling and banging in the basement. God knows what the builders are doing down there, but the walls in my room have actually vibrated with their efforts. The odd thing is that I seem to be the only one bothered by the din. It has made me wonder about the subjectivity of noise, the way that certain sounds that some of us simply filter out can drive the rest of us to distraction.

I have just read Michael King’s biography of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, and am struck by how much the story of her life was a gradual retreat from extraneous noise. In her solitary bedsit in London in the 1950s, she tried to build a soundproof booth in the centre of the room, draped with towels and blankets, to keep out the noise of her landlady’s baby and a booming TV set. Back in New Zealand, she moved house any number of times simply to get away from the noise of motorcycles or barking dogs. On the suburban sounds of lawnmowers and do-it-yourself carpenters she wrote:

‘They are all an invasion of privacy. You wouldn’t let a stranger enter your house without knocking, so why let his noise come in unwanted? Chekhov made the same complaint, and in some meagre way I can compare myself to him. Silence and solitude are the only ways to get on with my work. If you want to write you must get on with it. There’s no point in socialising. When I was younger and leading a sort of hippie existence in London I used to go to the cafés and see all the young people who said they wanted to write. But if they had really wanted to write they wouldn’t have been there, would they? They’d have been in a quiet room getting on with it.’

According to Michael Foley in his book Embracing the Ordinary, Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust spent most of their only meeting with each other moaning about how much they were distracted by other people’s noise. Proust recommended that Bergson try Quiès ear plugs. ‘I have found that people are curiously insensitive to the nuisances they inflict on other people,’ the Orcardian poet George Mackay Brown wrote in his autobiography. ‘The air is full of noises; sound is thought to be a natural and acceptable background in the twentieth century. Silence is the thing to be dreaded.’ Brown was so sensitive to noise that, during a stay at a TB sanatorium, he grabbed his roommate’s transistor radio in a fit of rage and smashed it against the wall.

I don’t want to become like these people, aural versions of the fairy-tale princess distracted by the tiny pea under dozens of mattresses. I don’t have the talent to justify their neuroticism. But sometimes I can’t help agreeing with Jules Laforgue who wrote that ‘the modern world has embarked on a conspiracy to establish that silence does not exist’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Have you noticed that the BBC keeps its silliest programmes, and its jokiest announcers, for those times in the morning and evening when people are on their way to and from work. It’s very significant. Why should the BBC choose those times to cover the land in a pall of fatuity? What is it about work that we have to be hurried to and from it by drivelling idiots?’ Alan Bennett, Getting On

Saturday, 24 May 2014

All flesh is as grass

This is the bench at work where I sit and have my lunch if the weather allows it. Our building, which used to be a convent, backs on to a couple of acres of garden where the nuns used to tend their allotments. Here I sit and smell the mown grass and watch the trees coming into leaf while I wonder how many people before me have unwrapped a forlorn-looking sandwich from its tin-foil wrapper and ruminated on a bar of fruit and nut. The garden is dotted with benches, many of them with plaques dedicated to former members of staff or students who have died. Even without these associations, there is something melancholy about a park bench, that unchanging design which has accommodated so many nameless human behinds.

The artist Tom Phillips has produced a series of paintings which enlarge and subtly modify postcards incorporating municipal park benches. The first and best known of these is Benches (1971), the material for which has been reworked and adapted in a number of other works including Ma Vlast (1972) and The Flower Before the Bench (1973-74). Benches interlaces a number of apparently insignificant details from similar postcards of people sitting or strolling in parks in Battersea, Harrogate, Bournemouth and Brighton.

The main focus of the painting is the people who inhabit the parks, and who are often at the margins of the original postcards but are placed in the centre of Phillips’s work. Unlike the more posed shots of family albums, these postcards bring unsuspecting strangers together, forcing them into a relationship with each other at a moment frozen in time for public consumption. As the French cultural theorist Maurice Blanchot writes, one of the reasons the everyday evades analysis or perception is that it is ‘without a subject,’ so that when we live the everyday ‘it is anyone, anyone whatsoever, who does so’. The subjectlessness of these postcards gives a sense of both commonality and isolation: of a civic life suggested by benches, paths, well-kept lawns and other public amenities, but also of countless isolated, anonymous and interchangeable selves moving within it, what de Michel de Certeau calls that ‘multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets’.

Phillips notes elsewhere that postcard images tend to ‘deceitfully inhabit their own eternal summer’ and, once the tinting process has done its worst, have a much higher proportion than in real life of brightly-coloured clothes and cars with the shiny newness of die-cast models. In the postcards used in Benches, though, this artificial sunniness comes up against the blandness and uniformity of the public parks, their carefully arranged flower beds, neatly trimmed foliage and ubiquitous concrete. We see not an idealised spectacle but a random moment of daily life, in which the faceless individuals in the postcards could easily be replaced by other people. Reminding us that the people pictured in postcards are sometimes dead by the time the card is purchased, Phillips describes Benches as ‘a plea against dying’ and includes a stencilled quote at the bottom of the painting from Isaiah 40: ‘All Flesh is as Grass … the Grass Withereth.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There it was, your life of everyday, with its duties and its meals, its small comforts and its upholstery, and wordy goings on; with its fragile and often unexpressed affinities, homely jests and intrusion of the infinite.’ - Pamela Bright, The Day’s End (1959), p. 183

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

What BBC2 taught me about television

I'm doing a public lecture on BBC2 as part of a 50th anniversary conference at the Science Museum in London on Friday evening. Details here:

The lecture is free and anyone can come. It’s called ‘What BBC2 taught me about television’ and will be followed by a screening of the final episode of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, first shown on BBC2 in 1969.

I was on BBC Radio Wales talking about the anniversary of the launch of BBC2 on 20 April. It’s here about 40 minutes in I think:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Of all the human plants, habit requires the least fostering, and is the first to appear on the seeming desolation of the most barren rock.’ – Marcel Proust

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The lure of the lighthouse

I did this piece for the Guardian last week:

When I grew up, I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. Just like Moominpappa in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, my ambition was to live on the loneliest lighthouse on the remotest skerry farthest from land. It didn’t end well for Moominpappa, the island he and the other Moomins settled on being barren and desolate, inhabited only by a silent fisherman who turned out to be the ex-lighthouse keeper driven mad by loneliness. It didn’t put me off.

I have since met many of my compatriots who had or still have the same dream, for there is something about lighthouses that seems to speak to our islanded souls. Now, to celebrate the quincentenary of Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouses of England and Wales, an exhibition is opening at the National Maritime Museum. “Guiding Lights” will display intricate models of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers’ personal effects. It is hard to imagine a similarly pulse-quickening exhibition about air traffic controllers or road safety officers, although our lives are similarly in their hands.

“I meant nothing by the lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf wrote of its role in her most celebrated novel, “but I trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.” Lighthouses, Woolf realised, are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other. Countless British artists, from John Constable to Eric Ravilious, have made them the focus of their paintings, which can’t simply be to do with their pleasingly vertical contrast with the horizon.

I suspect that lighthouses appeal especially to introverts like me, who need to make strategic withdrawals from the social world but also want to retain some basic link with humanity. A beam sweeping the horizon for the benefit of ships passing in the night is just that kind of minimal human connection. “Nothing must be allowed to silence our voices … We must call out to one another,” wrote Janet Frame, a shy New Zealand writer also fascinated by lighthouses, “across seas and deserts flashing words instead of mirrors and lights.”

I finally cured my lighthouse fantasy by reading Tony Parker’s Lighthouse, his oral history of the lighthouse keepers. Looking after a light – no keeper ever called it a lighthouse - was, I learned, a tedious job, with little to do but linger over meals and make ships in bottles. The clincher was reading about the keeper who was so lonely that in the middle of the night he switched on the transmitter and listened to the ships radioing each other, just to hear some other human voices. The tower lights, the ones that rise impossibly out of the sea and carry the most romantic connotations for landlubberly ignoramuses like me, were the most dreaded by the keepers. Without even a bit of rock to walk around on and escape from your housemates, they were the lighthouse-keeping equivalent of being posted to Siberia.

In any case, I was well out of it because lighthouse keeping was not a job with prospects. The lighthouses began to be automated in the 1970s and the last keeper left the last occupied lighthouse in 1998. Now, in an age of radar and computerised navigation systems, working lighthouses are an endangered species. Their haunting fog signals are being switched off. Their black and red painted stripes, meant to stand out against the land and sky, are being left to peel off without being retouched. And many lighthouses are being decommissioned, turned into holiday cottages or expensively renovated homes.
No doubt satnav will now do the job just as well, but it will be a shame when the last lighthouse turns off its light. In an age when we have to justify public projects with reference to the consumerist language of stakeholders and end users, lighthouses still feel like an uncomplicated social good that belongs to us all. They are the concrete symbol of our common humanity, of the fact that people we may never meet – whom we may do no more than flash our lights at in the dark - are also our concern.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

This essential piece of our humanness

I liked what John Banville said to Claudia Winkleman on Radio 2 last night about the sentence, so I went on to iPlayer and transcribed it:

‘I work in the sentence. The sentence is the essence of our humanity. It’s our greatest invention and I love working in it. It’s a great privilege that I make some sort of a living from every day dabbling in this essential piece of our humanness. Yes, I love a good sentence. I spend a great deal of time trying to get them right.’

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The slaying of the ice monsters

I have a piece called ‘The slaying of the ice monsters’, on TV masts, in the latest issues of Craig Taylor’s excellent magazine Five Dials. You can view it (and all the other issues) here:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘A television aerial was poised from the roof, like a new kind of flag deprived of its drapery either because the color and motto were undecided or because the object of loyalty was vanished or dead or had never existed.’ Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Gumming up the works

The artist and writer Joanne Lee kindly sent me the latest offering from her own Pam Flett Press, ‘Gumming up the works’. It begins as a meditation on those blobs of chewing gum that dot across urban pavements. I learn that the common Lecanora muralis has the vernacular name ‘chewing gum lichen’ because it is ‘a dead ringer for discs of trodden gum’. And that in 2012, the French state-owned rail company SNCF ‘commissioned a huge sculpture of green gum, around which passengers had to navigate to access the entrance of Marseille railway station. It formed part of a campaign titled Il n’y a pas de petites incivilities that sought to deal with a variety of antisocial or aggressive behaviours, including the littering of gum and discarded cigarettes.’

Like its predecessors, though, Gumming Up the Works is also a series of riffs on Lee’s extensive reading from Jarvis Cocker to Carlo Ginzburg. I felt some sympathy with this little lament halfway through:

‘I fail to achieve objectivity: my projects are way too personal and autobiographical for peer-reviewed publication, but too cluttered with footnotes and academic debate to find a place in a publisher’s non-fiction lists. My investigations are deficient in a formal academic methodology and instead oscillate between a series of temporary critical alliances, chance encounters, and obsessive fandom … I easily forget the bigger picture, instead getting sidetracked in juicy digressions, fixated upon all kinds of minutiae or enjoying the jewel-like quotations I’ve mined from unpromising sources.’

In fact, what I was sent is really a companion volume of footnotes to a spoken word recording which you can listen to here:

Monday, 24 February 2014

1950s driving test

According to Anna Massey’s memoir, Telling Some Tales, it was a bit easier to pass your driving test in 1955. ‘My examiner was a nervous man who asked me if I knew that I’d driven through a red light,’ Massey writes. ‘I told him I thought it was green, and he said “Fair enough,” and passed me.’ (p. 54)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Examined Life

I enjoyed Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, a series of case studies culled from his quarter of a century working as a psychoanalyst. They are like surreal short stories that end with insights and aphorisms, a bit like Raymond Carver crossed with Adam Phillips. In one chapter, ‘How paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent a catastrophe’, Grosz writes:

‘Paranoid fantasies are a response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference … they protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares. The thought “so-and-so has betrayed me” protects us from the more painful thought “no one thinks about me” … It is less painful, it turns out, to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten … paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard.’

For Grosz, what we need most of all – far more than limitless praise or love – is the sense of being attended to, of being noticed, listened to and worried about.

I’m writing a book about shyness, and it occurred to me after reading this that shy people might be more inclined to paranoia, because they find it harder to make an impression on the world, and are more likely to feel unnoticed, overlooked, invisible. But I don’t think I have ever suffered from paranoia. Instead, I have what seems to me to be – although I suppose I would say this, wouldn’t I? – an entirely rational sense of my own insignificance.

Friday, 14 February 2014

You are my fellow feeling

I’m not really a fan of Valentine’s Day, but it did make me think of this. In June 1948, Alan Turing and a small research team at Manchester University persuaded a stored-program computer to work for the first time. Turing became a proselytiser for artificial intelligence, believing that this ‘mechanical brain’ would one day be able to compete on equal terms with a human brain - to the extent that it would be able write sonnets as well as Shakespeare, although he conceded that the comparison was ‘a little unfair’ because a sonnet written by a machine would be better appreciated by another machine. Using the 1951 model of the Manchester computer, nicknamed the Blue Pig, Turing and his colleague Christopher Strachey created a programme (using algorithms for building sentences and synonyms for love from Roget’s Thesaurus) that could produce love letters, such as:

Darling Sweetheart
You are my fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully


Honey Dear
My sympathetic affection beautifully attracts your affectionate enthusiasm. You are my loving adoration: my breathless adoration. My fellow feeling breathlessly hopes for your dear eagerness. My lovesick adoration cherishes your avid ardour.
Yours wistfully

M.U.C. stands for Manchester University Computer. He/she sounds like a keeper.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Customers who bought this item

I’m not sure why, but in a bored moment I went on Amazon to track all my past orders, to see if it could tell me something about what I’ve actually been doing for the last 15 years of my life. I discovered that the first book I bought on Amazon was on 25 March 1999: Cynthia Ozick’s Fame and Folly. That was back in the days when the internet was steam-powered and you had to dial it up and it tutted for a bit and then responded if it felt like it. I bought 13 items in 1999 and things carried on at that manageable pace for the next few years. As late as 2006, I only put in 11 orders. I must have still been two-timing Amazon with bookshops, an online-shopping commitment-phobe. I kidded myself that I was a recreational user, that I could kick the habit any time I wanted. But then things got out of control. I started buying birthday and Christmas presents and non-books, weird things like earplugs and hot water bottles. Perhaps the tipping point came when I bought my first big ticket item, an iPod, on 20 January 2007. There was no going back from there. Last year I put in 87 orders – and they often included multiple items. Yes, I am the reason your indie bookshop closed down. It’s my fault that low-paid workers have to walk 20 miles a day in vast warehouses to fetch my orders while computers track their every move. I claim to be angry about big companies employing vast teams of accountants to dodge corporation tax – but as it turns out, I’m not.

It’s an evocative and slightly melancholy list. By clicking through the years I can see my nephew and niece growing up: Doctor Who Sonic Screwdrivers and Harry Potter Interactive Wands give way to Nintendo Wii games and One Direction pencil cases. I can see all my brief passions and interests flame up and then fizzle out. I note that I have bought five USB sticks, as they progressively get lost or they become bent and decrepit. Every single order I put in, in some small way, was an investment in the future. I must have thought on some level that it would make me more knowledgeable, more productive, more interesting to others, happier.

That was my life in 548 orders.

Soft Estate

Last Thursday, I went to Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre to see Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts talk about their book Edgelands. I was pleased to hear they actually wrote the book together in motorway service stations – something it has in common with the Meg and Mog books, which were composed by Helen Nicoll and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, at Membury Services on the M4. Their talk formed part of a series of events tied up with Soft Estate, an exhibition of the work of Edward Chell and other artists who are interested in motorways, the areas around them and other types of edgeland.

Soft Estate is the Highways Agency term for the landscape around motorways and trunk roads which offers a refuge for wildlife. As long ago as the late 1960s, conservationists began to realise that the motorway verges could serve as nature reserves, particularly in the arable south where pasture was disappearing rapidly. When the M1 was finished in 1967, the conservationist Michael Way coordinated a botanical survey of the entire roadside verge between Hendon and Leeds and discovered that, just like the railways, the motorways were eco-havens. Pollen and seeds hitched a ride on car bumpers or blew along the wind tunnels created by moving traffic and roadside cuttings. In 1974 the nature writer Richard Mabey – who contributes an essay to the Soft Estate book - calculated that there were nearly half a million acres of roadside verge in Britain, an area of land bigger than the statutory nature reserves. By now the UK had joined the Common Market and prairie farming was about to grow fat on European subsidies and the Common Agricultural Policy – so more hedgerows vanished and nature again retreated to the roadside verges.

In fact, the roadside verge is really the modern equivalent of the hedgerow – although it has yet to acquire its Edmund Blunden, the poet and conservationist who in 1935 misquoted King Lear’s fool to foretell that ‘when there are no more English hedges, and the expedient of barbed wire has carried the day everywhere, “There shall the realm of Albion / Be brought to great confusion.”’ We normally think of verges as the motoring equivalent of a screensaver, an endless green sward interrupted by the occasional abandoned tyre or stray plastic bag. Yet as Mabey showed, it was part of an ‘unofficial countryside’ that was valuable almost because it was so unnoticed and unloved. The roadside was deceptively diverse, cutting through every type of landscape and geology, and including not only the grass embankments but also the balancing ponds and settling pools needed to drain the carriageway of rainwater, which often attracted wildlife. It was the dogged, unlovely nature of the roadside - from the rare fungi and algae that thrived in the drip-zone under crash barriers to the wild flowers that flourished on the poor-quality soil of the verge – that made it ecologically important.

Edward sent me a copy of the book of the exhibition and there are some beautiful-looking things in it, including his own paintings of roadside verge plants made with road dust, and some lovely oil-on-shellac-on-linen paintings of motorway service stations. I’m still hoping to get along to the exhibition, which has a couple of weeks left to run. Details are here:

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A huge metallized dream

I did this review for today’s Guardian:

Writing in the 1950s, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes argued that cars were “almost the exact equivalent of Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them purely as a magical object”. Those of us who still congregate for the Top Gear liturgy on irregular Sundays have noticed that church attendance has dwindled recently, but the car remains an object that invites worship. As well as being loaded with the symbolic baggage of money, status and sexual competitiveness, it is a pretext for grown men (and occasionally women) to engage in the unembarrassed sharing of esoteric knowledge and aesthetic delight. And yet like other religions, car worship increasingly provokes anger and resentment from non-believers. In his epic anti-car poem Autogeddon, Heathcote Williams described streets as “open sewers of the car cult”. At Reclaim the Streets events in the 1990s, protestors carried mock road signs with the slogans “Fuck The Car” and “Cars Come Too Fast”. One way or another, people get worked up about cars.

The car is thus an object ripe for cultural and historical analysis, and here are two books that attempt this in very different ways. Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile is a truly global history of the motor car, from Benz to biofuels. It begins in earnest in 1891 with the French engineer Émile Levassor effectively inventing the modern automobile by moving the engine to the front and adding a front-mounted radiator, crankshaft, clutch pedal and gearstick. The book reminds us that Henry Ford created not only the mass market in automobiles but also the market in car accessories, for his Model T was so lacking in refinements that the Sears, Roebuck catalogue included over 5000 items that could be attached to it. It was Alfred P. Sloan, the President of General Motors, who introduced the notion of planned obsolescence and of gradually trading up from entry-level Chevrolet to top-of-the-range Cadillac. Parissien takes us through the golden age of the car in the 1950s and 1960s, when models like the Citroën DS, the 1959 Cadillac, the E-Type Jaguar and James Bond’s beloved Aston Martin DB5 combined beauty and functionality. Then, as the car came to be pilloried for causing congestion and pollution, the automobile industry responded by forging new markets in southern Asia and China and experimenting with alternative fuels and hybrids that mostly sought to eke out the diminishing reserves of oil. But it also responded with the single-fingered salute that is the gas-guzzling SUV, the global market for which continues to grow, unbowed by either austerity or ecopolitics.

Parissien’s is mostly a work of synthesis, culled from secondary sources, but some overarching themes present themselves. You discover how much the car relied on world wars as mothers of technological invention and opportunities for global branding. The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, for instance, established itself as the epitome of luxury in the First World War when it was used to chauffeur generals to the front, and T.E. Lawrence granted it perfect product placement in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, describing it as “more valuable than rubies”. During the Second World War, the first Volkswagen Beetles were designed with a high clearance so they could be deployed on the Russian front. Mainly an account of the car industry, Parissien’s book offers some interesting sidelights in social history. We learn that Vermont was a remote backwater until its Bureau of Publicity began marketing the state to pioneer motorists for leaf-peeping in the fall and skiing in winter, and that in 1931 Barbara Cartland organised a race for MG Midgets at Brooklands to demonstrate the skilfulness of women drivers.

Parissien’s heroes are clearly the resourceful and lateral-thinking engineers, the usually unknown artists who design these magical objects. A refreshing aspect of his book is that, while he gives the high-end models their due, he seems equally charmed by serviceable cars like Flaminio Bertoni’s Citroën 2CV, an “umbrella on four wheels” launched in 1948 for France’s still largely rural population and designed to be driven by a clog-wearing peasant across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs on the back seat. Not all the industry’s efforts at make-do-and-mend were so dependable and lovable. Parissien devotes much space to the tragic outcomes of the British Leyland assembly line, like the Morris Marina, a “skip on wheels” which arrived at showrooms with the paintwork already stippled with rust, and the Austin Allegro, whose pointlessly futuristic square steering wheel did not prevent it being nicknamed “the Flying Pig”. At least neither were as bad as the East German Trabant, made from Duroplast, an unrecyclable phenolic resin strengthened by Soviet cotton wool waste and compressed brown paper, which released noxious fumes that made its assembly-line workers ill and killed quite a few of them.

The Life of the Automobile leaves you with the sense that the car is both an extraordinarily sophisticated object – made from tens of thousands of component parts, capable of delivering its occupants long distances in extreme comfort, and now fitted with stop-start engines, voice-activated controls, automatic parking systems and radar technology to read road markings – and a surprisingly primitive one. For its basic technology, the internal combustion engine, is a nineteenth-century invention and it remains, as the Japanese say, “a third-class machine”, needing a highly-skilled human to work it properly. Parissien sees the automobile’s contradictions already encapsulated near the start of its life in the personality of Henry Ford - “daringly innovative, yet at the same time intrinsically conservative; brashly aggressive, yet apprehensive and hesitant; socially progressive, yet politically reactionary”.

Mark Wallington’s The Auto Biography is more personal and idiosyncratic, his idea being to tell the story of the last 60 years of British motoring through his own encounters with cars. The book begins in 1953 with his father’s purchase of a Ford Popular, a “biscuit tin on wheels” which can only run to a single windscreen wiper, to bring his son back from the maternity ward. Wallington’s narrative arc runs from the excitements of the early motorway age to the disenchantments of the present, symbolised by his father turning road protestor when a bypass is built at the back of his house. The book ends bathetically with the author’s purchase of a charcoal-grey Ford Focus, “a car that specializes in not being noticed”, although “perhaps it’s got a little more grey over the last two years”.

This convivial book is hard to dislike and there are some nice vignettes. Wallington’s father, who plans journeys along the virgin motorways of the 1950s and 1960s with the same meticulousness he brought to his role as an RAF navigator in the war, warms his car’s spark plugs in the oven on winter mornings, so that breakfast smells are “offset by the piquant aroma of engine oil”. In her first trip on the M6, his mother buys a postcard of it at a service station to send to her hairdresser. During the suffocating summer of 1976, as long queues of hitchhikers form at Staples Corner at the foot of the M1, the asphalt melts and “you could peel it off the side of the roads”.

But as these details suggest, this book does not veer wildly from the main routes, presenting us with a series of stock figures from Tufty the road safety squirrel to Swampy the tunnelling road protestor. It has that slight air of condescension you sometimes find in popular histories of the recent past, in which our immediate ancestors are seen as naïve or quaint for getting excited about phenomena like the motorway service station or the Gravelly Hill Interchange that, from our more knowing and enlightened present, are revealed as quite mundane.

Like modern cars, both these books rumble along nicely but seem largely cocooned in their own comforting microenvironment, cut off from the world beyond the dashboard. Neither of them seem much concerned with what the excitements, passions and anxieties generated by the car tell us about ourselves or the society we have become. The car still awaits a social and cultural history that would explore how this miraculous and mundane object, what J.G. Ballard called this “huge metallized dream”, has come to penetrate so deeply into the routines and reveries of our waking lives.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The isle of sorrow

After writing that post about ice skating, I came across this idea of the ice-rink as the quintessence of existential pointlessness in Tove Jansson’s just-reissued Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir:

‘I know what it is that’s the worst thing of all. It’s the skating-rink. I have a six-sided skating badge sewn to my jumper. The key I use to tighten my skates is on a shoelace round my neck. When you go down onto the ice, the skating-rink looks like a little bracelet of light far out in the darkness … Hundreds of shadowy figures skate round and round, all in the same direction, resolutely and pointlessly, and two freezing old men sit playing in the middle under a tarpaulin … Everybody just skates faster, strange shadows making scrunching and squeaking noises as they pass … The skating rink was the isle of sorrow.’

And here is some more material for that history of student life I’m never going to write. I found this in Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Century and Seven More Years, the first part of his autobiography, in which he describes his abortive encounter with the Law Tripos at Cambridge University in the early 1900s:

‘Dutifully I attended droning lectures, desperately scribbling fragments of what I overheard and seldom understanding what my notes were about when I perused them in private. Note-taking seemed to be physical rather than mental exercise … Toiling at my text-books, I discovered again and again that I had turned over two pages at once without noticing anything wrong.’