Saturday, 31 December 2011

Time has no divisions

I wonder how many diaries will be started tomorrow, and how many will outlive the month? In my experience of reading them, the most diligent diarists don't tend to write much on new year's day, as though they felt that the date itself was already too overburdened with significance. (This blog, by the way, waited until 17 January 2009 to get going.) Here is a brief selection of those that did bother to write something on the first day of the year. Happy new year everyone.

'Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and to sleep again.' - Samuel Pepys, 1 January 1662

'We were kept awake last night by New Year Bells. At first I thought they were ringing for a victory.' - Virginia Woolf, 1 January 1915 (her first diary entry).

'I felt the "blues" I'd missed last night enfold me like a mist, helped no doubt by an article in an American magazine the Atkinsons sent in, speaking of war as inevitable after 1951, and hinting at atomic bombs being puerile when compared to the germ bombs Russia was concentrating on. All my fears and conjectures of before this last one rushed over me.' - Nella Last, 1 January 1950

'It is the first time in my life that this day has been a national holiday. The only papers were evening ones! It is little short of scandalous.' - Kenneth Williams, 1 January 1974

'New Year's Day. These are my New Year's resolutions:
1. I will revise for my 'O' Levels at least two hours a night. 2. I will stop using my mother's Buff-Puff to clean the bath. 3. I will buy a suede brush for my coat. 4. I will stop thinking erotic thoughts during school hours. 5. I will oil my bike once a week. 6. I will try to like Bert Baxter once again. 7. I will pay my library fines (88 pence) and rejoin the library. 8. I will get my mother and father together again. 9. I will cancel the Beano.' - Adrian Mole, 1 January 1983

'Through a chink in the bedroom curtains my unenthusiastic eye caught an early-morning glimpse of the New Year: it looked battleship-grey. As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet - never something on which I like to dwell. They appeared to be crumbling, sandstone monuments, the soles criss-crossed with ancient, indecipherable runes, which probably hold the secrets of eighty years of living and partly living - of happiness and fears, of distresses, of rather embarrassing successes and expected failures.' - Alec Guinness, 1 January 1995

Mundane quote for the day: 'Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm of blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and  fire off pistols.' - Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Millennium resolutions

At the end of 1999, the Daily Mirror published a nationwide survey of New Year's resolutions by teenagers. The top 10 resolutions for the next millennium were:

1. Watch less television.

2. Exercise every day.

3. Become a pop star.

4. Drink more water.

5. Get drunk more often.

6. Study harder.

7. Buy fewer CDs.

8. Ask parents for less.

9. Keep secrets better.

10. Enjoy life more.

I hope these now late 20-somethings managed to keep their 21st-century resolutions.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Christmas cookbook nativity

A slightly longer version of my piece in Monday's Guardian.

Unlike the celebrity memoir, the cookbook aimed at the Christmas market seems to be remarkably recession-resistant: last Christmas, Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals became the fastest selling non-fiction book ever, and books by Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Lorraine Pascale and others are among the bestsellers so far this year. A pagan Rip van Winkle, just waking up after a 2000 year sleep, would feel quite at home, observing a celebration taking place around the winter solstice organised around feasting, with little evidence of the intervening two millennia of Christianity. The kitchen has replaced the church as the focal point of Christmas: it is where we are supposed to unleash our creative, sociable, better selves.

The Christmas cookbook nativity goes like this. In the autumn of 1995, a visionary woman emerged out of the culinary wilderness, and her name was Delia. She had written a book, with a TV series attached, called Delia’s Winter Collection. And although this book created great anguish across the land, for it produced a terrible cranberry famine, it did help to slay a 95-year-old tyrant called the Net Book Agreement, which was cruelly forcing all books to be sold at the full price. Suddenly a small number of titles could be sold at huge discounts and millions came to our modern shrine, the supermarket, to pay homage to a new-born phenomenon: the hardback bestseller. Between 1960 and 1995, Elizabeth David's most successful book, French Provincial Cooking, sold just under 250,000 copies; by the end of 1995, Delia’s Winter Collection had sold a million.

Wise men began to spread the good tidings. In his 1999 book Living on Thin Air, Charles Leadbeater saw the cookery book boom as a paradigm of the new economy, “a worldwide upgrade of the software which runs our kitchens”, introducing us to food from around the world in a way that proved that “globalization is good for our palates”. While a chocolate cake could only be eaten once, Leadbeater pointed out, the same chocolate cake recipe could be endlessly replicated without anyone being worse off - just like the new weightless, knowledge economy which would be driven by ideas, information and networking.

People don’t talk so much about the new economy now: its vision of an endless expansion of knowhow and opportunity in which everyone would benefit has not yet materialised. And Delianomics didn’t explain the relationship between our obsession with cookery and our continuing culinary illiteracy: a new generation of amateur chefs with Smeg Ovens and River Cafe Cook Books was also sustaining the biggest market for ready meals in Europe. But the celebrity cookbook is still thriving, probably because people buy it for reasons more complicated than just following the recipes. These books are often given as presents and, as the sociologist Marcel Mauss pointed out in his classic 1925 work, The Gift, the ritual of gift-giving is a tangled web of mutual obligation, duty and status-seeking which doesn’t necessarily follow conventional economic rules.

Leadbeater called the exchange of cookbooks at Christmas “an annual, global knowledge transfer on a vast scale”. In retrospect, it seems to be the product not so much of a democratic exchange of information and skills as a heavily centralised and constrained market. Television programmes have become commercial opportunities to spawn books and merchandise, and the big chains can afford to offer such large discounts that small, independent booksellers are forced to buy celebrity cookbooks from supermarkets because it is cheaper than buying them wholesale. The books themselves are packaged not just as collections of recipes but as fetishised objects: food photography, in which meals are made to look delicious with the aid of hairspray and cigarette smoke, is now an art form and industry in its own right. These books may teach us how to cook, but they also promise to satisfy more nebulous cravings and desires.

Not that there is anything new about that. Before the 1970s, it was difficult to purchase Elizabeth David’s more “exotic” ingredients (like anchovies or aubergines) outside of Soho delicatessens or the food shops off Tottenham Court Road. For the middle classes, David’s sensuous descriptions of continental foodstuffs had a partly vicarious appeal, evoking fond memories of the foreign holidays they were beginning to take in places like Tuscany and Provence. The best food writing is, like David’s, an artful combination of precision and sensuality. And the cookery book may be selling us desires, but, should we ever get round to following the recipes, they are satisfiable ones. The new economy may be an insubstantial memory, but meals can be tweaked to take account of straitened circumstances and, however long our age of austerity lasts, we are unlikely to go hungry.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Christmas Poem

A poem by Chris Green called 'Christmas Tree Lots':

Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,

they pull themselves up, arms raised.
We drop them like wood;
tied, they are driven through the streets,

dragged through the door, cornered
in a room, given a single blanket,
only water to drink, surrounded by joy.

Forced to wear a gaudy gold star,
to surrender their pride,
they do their best to look alive.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Great Snow

In his unfinished story ‘The Great Snow’ the English nature writer Richard Jefferies, best known for his post-apocalyptic novel After London (1885), describes a London that has been  entirely buried by a mammoth snowfall. The dome of St Paul's just about pokes out above the snow drifts; polar bears plod along the frozen Thames. A demagogic preacher addresses the remaining population:

'Where now is your mighty city that defied Nature and despised the conquering elements – where now is your pride when so simple and contemptible an agent as a few flakes of snow can utterly destroy it? Where are your steam-engines, your telegraphs and your printing-presses – all powerless and against what – only a little snow!'

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Soon the success or failure of Christmas will be rung up on the high-street tills. If we have spent more than last year we shall be succeeding as a nation. Supermarkets must look as though the Goths and Vandals have swept into them and the young shelf-fillers will see where they broke through their lines.’ - Ronald Blythe

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cognitive aliens

Last week I introduced and led another Conversation Dinner at the School of Life in London and was again touched and surprised at the capacity of a sample of strangers - admittedly a self-selecting sample - to conduct a pleasant, informed conversation with each other. All the more so as I've been toying with the sobering thought lately how often we are simply cognitive aliens who talk different languages to each other while happening by accident to live on the same planet and look vaguely alike. 'Cognitive alien' is the term used by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to describe children up to (I think) the age of seven. Piaget argues that there is no point trying to converse with a young child in the way that we would with an older child or adult: they are simply aliens who inhabit an entirely different mental universe to us. It's not their fault they won't do as they're told; their brains are just wired differently. 
The only problem with this theory is that I often think it is also true about adults: they might as well be speaking in tongues for all the sense they make to each other. There seems to be an assumption in current affairs TV and radio that talk and discussion are a public good in themselves, but I wonder how much good the debate about Europe, the economy, the public and private sector and so on actually does, given that it simply seems to entrench people even further in their own versions of reality. Any author will be familiar with this feeling: people just get the wrong end of the stick about what you have written, or maybe you have failed to make it clear - but the tone and voice underlying your words (and sometimes even, although this is usually the least important thing, the content) has simply bounced off them as if you were two surly magnets repelling each other. 'A joke isn’t a joke if it has to be explained, let alone justified,' Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in 1994, 'and the same goes for many sorts of allusion, nuance, and affect – the invisible bits of writing and conversation that actually make it possible.' More often, what you have written is simply ignored: the writer Gilbert Adair, who died last week, liked to refer to himself as 'unread Adair'.

Still we remain what David Attenborough, in the last episode of Life on Earth, called the 'compulsive communicators'. It's just something we do and can't help doing, and sometimes our misunderstandings and misreadings of each other can be creative, funny and life-enhancing. So thanks to everyone who came to the Conversation Dinner for reminding me that, however hard it is, we shouldn't give up on trying to converse with other.

Mundane quote for the day: Habit, n. A shackle for the free. - Ambrose Bierce

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Höger Day

In October 1961, in part of a post-Suez spirit of Europhilia that led to the first serious discussions about a channel tunnel, the minister of transport Ernest Marples announced a public inquiry to explore the feasibility of shifting to driving on the right. Soon there was a precedent that showed it was possible for a country to make the switch.    

Nazism had ironed out some of the differences in continental practice, Austria and Czechoslovakia having switched to right-side driving when they were invaded in 1938. So after the war, there was only one mainland European country still driving on the left: Sweden. As the number of vehicles crossing its frontiers rose in the postwar era, Sweden began to worry that it was the only country left driving on the left, particularly since it had frontiers with two right-hand driving countries, Finland and Norway. Almost all Swedes bought cars with steering wheels on the left.

In 1955, the Swedish government held a plebiscite on the issue. 'Leftists' and 'rightists' waged a fierce propaganda war, at the end of which 82 per cent voted to keep left. But the two main parties ignored this thumping majority and in 1963 cut a deal to force the change through. In a project masterminded by Lars Skiöld, director of the Right-Hand Traffic Commission, Sweden would switch to the right at 5am on Sunday 3 September 1967, the so-called Dagen-H or Höger Day (Right Day). A joke doing the rounds before Höger Day was that the Swedes, being confirmed social gradualists, would make bicycles switch to driving on the left first, then cars, then buses, trams and lorries.

What happened instead resembled a Situationist artwork, a poetic transformation of daily life. The changeover was preceded by a ban on all but essential traffic, while new traffic signs were uncovered and old ones covered up. Despite the early hour and the ban on traffic, traffic jams developed as tourists and TV cameramen swarmed on to the road to witness the change. At 4.50am all the traffic on Sweden's 60,000 miles of road was moved over to the right side, and ten minutes later it started moving. Within two days of the changeover, the police registered 13,000 cases of relapsing to the left side, and 58 per cent of drivers admitting doing so in the first week. Despite a big increase in head-on collisions, though, the overall accident rate was actually lower than normal. During the first year, road deaths dropped by 17 per cent – before returning to their previous levels.

Why, if Sweden had managed the seemingly impossible, could Britain not do the same? A big problem was that Britain had a much bigger bus population than Sweden, and ministry of transport studies showed that the conversion of buses to have entrances on the right-hand side would have been the costliest aspect of the operation. The issue rumbled on and, after Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, some Europhobes were worried that the Economic Commission for Europe would press for uniformity. But by the end of that decade, the costs - in new road signs, road layouts, right-hand drive cars and buses - were too high to contemplate a change. Driving on the left side of the road has become so ingrained that the suicidally absent-minded motorist who drives the wrong way down a British motorway today – a fairly common occurrence in the 1960s – usually makes the evening news.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Anarchy in the UK?

It is exactly 35 years since the Sex Pistols appeared on the live teatime magazine programme, Today, on 1 December 1976, to promote their first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – a mere two-minute segment of the show in which the presenter Bill Grundy invited the group to ‘say something outrageous’ and they responded with some rude words. The tabloids played their required role in publicising a band clearly seeking notoriety, introducing the Sex Pistols to the nation as part of ‘the new “punk rock” cult’ which ‘specialise[s] in songs that preach destruction’ (Daily Mail, 2 December 1976). Thames Television broadcast an immediate, full apology on screen twice later that day, while Grundy was quickly suspended and his career never recovered.

Historians of punk have tended to see this moment, combined with the release of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at the end of November, as a pivotal event. In his book England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage argues that the song’s ‘ringing phrases … were powerful enough to insert the idea of anarchy, like a homoeopathic remedy, into a society that was already becoming polarized’. But punk’s success in ‘inserting’ these ideas into society may be exaggerated. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ sold 1800 copies on the day after the band’s appearance on Today but by Christmas it had only reached number 28. The number one record was ‘When a Child is Born’ by the easy-listening singer Johnny Mathis, with ‘Under the Moon of Love’ by Showaddywaddy (a rock’n’roll revivalist band discovered on New Faces) at number two. The atmosphere of moral panic around punk soon abated, reignited briefly during the Jubilee summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ improbably described the Callaghan government as a ‘fascist regime’. But the cultural work had begun to incorporate punk safely into the mainstream. An issue of Woman’s Own in October 1977 carried an article, ‘Punks and Mothers’, which showed photographs of smiling punks with their mothers accompanying a text which stressed their benignity: ‘It’s not as rocky horror as it appears … punks as it happens are non-political … Johnny Rotten is as a big a household name as Hughie Green.’

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

George Harrison day by day

Ten years ago today, George Harrison died. I thought I'd commemorate this by collating just a few of the many rather charming quotidian references to Harrison in Michael Palin's diaries.
Saturday, September 6th 1980

George is mending an electric hedge-cutter which cut through its own flex. As George tinkers in homely fashion with his garden equipment ('I was an electrical apprentice,' he assured me. 'For three weeks.') the boys and I swim in the buff in his swimming pool, surrounded by lifelike voyeuristic models of monks and nuns.

Saturday, January 9th 1982
Call George in Henley at nine o'clock. After a few rather terse exchanges he says 'You're obviously not a Dallas fan, then' and I realise I've interrupted a favourite viewing.
Sunday, June 16th 1985
George H calls from Australia. He's in a Sydney hotel room (it's 2.30) and for some reason announces himself as Jane Asher. He sounds at first rather sleepy and, as the call goes on, rather drunk. I'm reminded of GC's inexplicable midnight calls, except there is no invective here, just a rather sad GH reflecting on the joys of chewing 'Nicorette' gum, and anxious to tell me that he's given up smoking, and drugs, and his only vice is Carlton Lager, three of which he's just consumed. He wants to know if I will come to China with him and his acupuncturist next year.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Enter your pin please

Reading Clive James's new book A Point of View, an anthology of his ten-minute talks on Radio 4 from a few years ago, I found this passage:

'People really do define themselves by their jobs, even when their job is humble. That's why the lady behind one of the many counters of the department store proclaims her ownership of the goods you wish to purchase from her. ('I've only got it in these two colours at the moment but I should have the complete range in again by Saturday morning.') At the supermarket, the person on the cash desk will ask you to enter your pin number even after you have already begun to enter it. ('Can you enter your pin number for me?') The person is really telling you that he or she is an indispensable part of the process. We should try not to smile knowingly: in the same position we would do it too. And in any kind of cooperative venture, to make light of somebody's job is the quickest way of making an enemy.'

Work defines us. 'Why do half the things we do,' asked Thomas Traherne, 'when one could sit under a tree?' But sitting under a tree would soon get boring, wouldn't it? Thoreau said we should not calculate our wealth by how much we earn or own, but by how much free time we have left over when our basic needs have been met. Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays, seems to have this Thoreauvian idea of work, because he refers to his large salary as 'compensation', as though it  were keeping him from more important stuff he could be getting on with. But Thoreau always seemed to me to be pretty confident, if not overconfident, about finding things to do with his free time.  

I have been on a research fellowship this year so I haven't been doing any of my normal teaching or admin. In September, although I was officially on leave, I kept being interrupted by knocks on the door by people who didn't know I wasn't officially supposed to be here. But people twigged soon enough: the knocks became more spread out, the phone stopped ringing, emails became less insistent. Much office conversation is spontaneous and accidental, and people don't stop by unless they need to. An MIT study conducted in the 1970s found that office workers are four times more likely to talk if they are sat six rather than 60 feet apart, and that people seated more than 75 feet apart hardly speak at all. We like to imagine we are in some way indispensable; in fact everything goes fine, if not better, in our absence. It is salutary to get this little inkling of a semi-posthumous existence when our jobs will go on without us.

Absorption in daily activities, even if they are as meaningless as the emptying of an in-tray, is a way of giving our lives rhythm and pattern, and the idea that there is something better we could be doing with our time is perhaps a comforting delusion. 'Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame', reflects Mrs Dalloway. 'All the more … must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries …'

According to Clive James, the most tragic line in Shakespeare is 'Othello's occupation's gone.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'Our life becomes divided between "work" time and "free" time. Both are part of that grand illusion, the Spectacle. Within the society of Spectacle all time is spectacular time. Sometimes we are the commodity and sometimes the consumer. In our "free" time we buy back what we made during our "work" time. "Work" time and "free" time serve each other.' - Guy Debord

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A single oak tree

I’ve posted before about the work of the painter Stephen Taylor, who spent three years in a field in West Bergholt, East Anglia painting the same oak tree in different lights, seasons and weathers. Now he has collected much of this work in a book entitled Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Painters (Princeton Architectural Press). ‘The branches from the lower part of the trunk had been pollarded (cut back), so its upper part seemed to float,’ writes Taylor, explaining how he chose the tree. ‘From the field in winter, it had a dramatic, clear structure against the sky. In summer, it was a magnet for birds, and as the sun crossed the sky it reflected sunlight in such a way that you did not see its shaded side, making the tree look quite flat. The whole thing lit up like a colour-changing emblem.’

As the series progresses you see the tree losing and regaining its leaves, developing a film of snow and being populated by crows, and the colour of the surrounding field changing dramatically as the crops are rotated. Taylor started painting the oak in June 2003 – looking for a ‘still point of the turning world’ after the death of his parents and a close friend - and finished in August 2006, sitting in a crop of rape when the seed pods were a garish green.

Taylor’s oak is, he estimates, 250 years old. There is something about the sturdiness of the oak that appeals to the English imagination. Ironically, as Richard Mabey reminds us in his book Beechcombings, much of this dates back to the birth of scientific forestry in the late seventeenth century. In Sylva: A Discourse of Forest Trees, published in 1664 to encourage tree-planting to provide timber for the navy’s warships, John Evelyn was probably the first to use the phrase ‘hearts of oak,’ which David Garrick later reworked for his 1759 sea shanty, now the Royal Navy’s official marching tune: ‘Hearts of oak are our ships / Hearts of oak are our men.’

As he points out, Taylor was painting just a few miles from Constable Country. Interestingly, Constable gave his famous painting of a cart and horse standing in a millpond the title, ‘Noon’. It was someone else who named it ‘The Haywain’. Artists, aware of the changing light, are far more sensitive to the time of day than ordinary people are: Monet’s Rouen cathedral series, which Taylor’s oak series has echoes of, are meant to show it at different times of the day and year.

John Mollon, professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has described Taylor’s work as ‘parsing nature’. I wish I could notice the day as it passes as lovingly and perceptively as Taylor does in these paintings. My days hurry by in a homogeneous haze of fluorescent strip lighting and computer screen glow.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Quiet pleas

I wrote this for the Guardian a few years ago:

On 11 November 1937, an ex-serviceman, Stanley Storey, interrupted the two minutes’ silence at the Cenotaph. Breaking through the crowd and running into the road, he screamed “All this hypocrisy!” and something else that sounded like “Preparing for war!” Half a dozen policemen gave chase and, just yards from the Prime Minister, clambered on top of him and muffled his cries.

It turned out that Storey was an escapee from a mental asylum. But his shattering of the two minutes’ silence struck a chord. The Daily Mirror argued that the silence was now “a silence of shared impotence … what is the use of paying homage when every day we drift nearer and nearer to another war?” According to a 1938 Mass-Observation survey, 43 per cent of people were against continuing the tradition of the silence.

Nearly seventy years later, however, the silence remains unbroken. The British Legion, which has long campaigned for its observance on Armistice Day proper as well as Remembrance Sunday, is organising a big event this Saturday on the same scale as the Cenotaph service: an hour-long ceremony in Trafalgar Square which will culminate in the two minutes’ silence, followed by an RAF flypast, the Last Post and the scattering of poppies in the fountains.

The ebbing and flowing of observation of the silence has always mirrored political anxieties. In 1919, with much of Europe in revolutionary turmoil, it seemed like a good idea to have a secular ritual that could unite the people without demanding too much of them. “Capital and Labour were as one for two minutes,” the Times wrote approvingly of what was then called the Great Silence, “and the eloquence of the agitator was stayed by an impelling force.” The government moved the silence to Remembrance Sunday after World War II because it felt that commemorating the exact time of the 1918 Armistice was disrespectful to the dead of the more recent war. The revival of the silence on Armistice Day dates from 1996, following a two-year-long, rather bullying crusade by the tabloids to get the BBC and high street stores to observe it. The crusade began as a backlash against John Major’s ill-advised plans to “celebrate” the anniversary of the D-Day landings with spam-fritter frying competitions.

But the two minutes’ silence is more than simply a vehicle for the righteous anger of tabloid editors – partly because it hauntingly confirms John Cage’s observation that “there is no such thing as silence”. Jonty Semper’s CD, Kenotaphion, collects together recordings of the silences held at the Cenotaph since 1929. In each case the chimes of Big Ben are followed not by silence but by ambient noise: birdsong, distant traffic, shuffling feet, babies crying, the rustling of leaves. This is why the BBC lobbied hard in the 1920s to broadcast the silence from the Cenotaph. It knew that simply shutting down the airwaves for two minutes would not have the same impact as this resonant near-silence. The silence was a paradoxical by-product of mass society: a temporary stilling of the chaos of urban life which required all the accoutrements of modernity, like radio time signals and newspaper propaganda campaigns, to make it work.

Collective silence is now the default option to commemorate events of very different import, from the Indonesian Tsunami to the death of ex-footballers. No one is sure what these silences are for. So we have arguments about “silence inflation” - whether to raise the bar to three minutes for large-scale disasters – or wonder if it is more appropriate to clap than stand there silently. We seem to want silence to carry a freight of meaning that it can never bear, and to prescribe what effect it should have in a way that is likely to lessen its impact. The two minutes’ silence on Armistice Day, initially intended as a one-off, became a national tradition precisely because its meanings were so unstable and various. As one journalist wrote in 1919, it was an opportunity to unite in “thanksgiving, rejoicing, pity, life-long pride and grief”. The silence works by maintaining a delicate balance between public coercion and private reflection. All it requires of us is that we are silent.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Britain in a Day

Today, Saturday 12 November, the directors Ridley Scott and Morgan Matthews have invited Britons to capture their day on video camera and to upload their clips to a dedicated YouTube Channel:

The resulting archive will be edited into a film that will be shown in cinemas and on BBC2 next year.

It follows Life in a Day, a similarly crowdsourced film about a single day – Saturday 24 July 2010 - lived all over the world. They received 85,326 clips from 198 countries, from Burkina Faso to French Polynesia. The film, which was shown on TV a few weeks ago, opens with the sound of a thousand concurrent breaths. Highlights include the Mexicans who produce a time-lapse film of the life of a pizza, from the dough being kneaded to the empty plate being washed up, and the man who takes viewers on a tour of Roanoke, Virginia, stopping to appraise his favourite lifts.

There is of course an Ur-text for these films and other similar projects: their inspiration is the Mass Observation Day Surveys, the first of which was on Friday 12 March 1937. Volunteers were asked simply to describe what happened to them on the 12th day of each month, however mundane. On 12 March, in Liverpool, a young office worker accidentally knocked down an elderly woman on his bike, and a labourer told him off for not ringing his bell. He went out at lunchtime to buy a hat for his wedding, and then ate at a Lyons Corner House with a friend. In a Birmingham suburb, a housewife was awakened from a strange dream about the author Aldous Huxley by her five-year-old son singing nursery rhymes. She waited for a man to call to read the gas meter, before going out to return some library books. In Northumberland, an accountant rose at 7.50am and decided to postpone shaving because he was going to a dance in the evening. At lunchtime he withdrew some money from the bank. On the evening train home, he noticed his fellow passengers had made little circles in the steamed-up windows with their coat sleeves so they could look out, which reminded him off ‘wiping the bloom off a plum’.

As the Belgian situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem once wrote: ‘There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies.’ One problem: I don’t have a video camera. Enjoy filming, the rest of you.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The early editions of the evening papers had startled London with enormous headlines: “Remarkable story from Woking.”’ – H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Under the office

I’ve posted before about Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s wonderful book, The Office, a novel-cum-essay published in 1970 which is really more like a prose poem about those ‘minute rhythms like the slow breathing of the IN Tray, emptying and filling, filling and emptying’. Jonathan wrote to me to tell me that he has now written a play, Under the Office, based on this earlier book, which is to be performed at the Stahl Theatre at Oundle School between 24 and 26 November. It’s a bit far for me to go but if any quotidianist is reading this and in that area …

Office life is never news because, however unfulfilling it might be, it seems unproblematic and apolitical. Office politics are not real politics; they are petty, gossipy, personal, unchangeable. Office life is invisible to anyone who isn’t a part of it. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the dynamics of modern, deregulated economies are increasingly hidden in this way: ‘The place of the visible character of work, concentrated in factory halls and tall buildings, is taken by an invisible organization of the firm.’ City-centre offices might serve as the company’s brand statement, with their high-rise towers, mirror-glass walls and welcoming atria. But the essential drudgery takes place where land and labour are cheap: in anonymous, shed-like buildings in out-of-town office parks, surrounded by parking lots and security barriers, without even a logo outside identifying the company.

Since this kind of mundane existence is how many people fill their days, it is odd that we reflect so little on its history and politics. With a few exceptions, like C. Wright Mills and David Lockwood in the 1950s, sociologists have steered clear of office life, preferring to focus on more obvious forms of social inequality. It has mainly been left to creative writers to cover this terra incognita. In Joshua Ferris’s novel, Then We Came to the End, rituals like ‘the great unsung pastime of American corporate life, the wadded paper toss’ continually subvert the managerial insistence that our working lives be creative and meaningful.

After World War II, William H. Whyte noted the rise of a management style that sought moral legitimacy through its emphasis on the employee’s ‘personality’ and ‘soul’. Whyte’s ‘organization man’ was suspicious of authoritarian leadership and viewed the group as the appropriate space for negotiating and resolving problems. But as Whyte noted perceptively, ‘if every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything’. He invented a term, ‘groupthink’, to describe the forms of irrational collective psychology that developed in office cultures in which the overriding aim was consensus.

By the early 1980s, human-relations management had mutated into an evangelical new concept: corporate culture. In their book In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argued that the best companies had strong cultures, in which all employees felt part of the firm and bought into a common ideal. This book, the first management text to make the New York Times bestseller list, appeared at an opportune moment – in the middle of a recession in America, when the Japanese work model of company songs and other rituals of belonging seemed to be the future. Britain was also going through a recession at this time, as well as supposedly suffering from the more chronic ‘British disease’ of mediocre management and demotivated workers. Fostering a strong corporate culture, particularly by urging workers to have a positive, can-do attitude, soon became a ruling motif in transatlantic business life.

But the decline of formal office hierarchies comes at the cost of uncertainty about where work begins and ends. The academic Andrew Ross, who spent several months in a trendy, Manhattan media firm in the late 1990s, calls it ‘no-collar’ work. Its first-name etiquette and dress-down culture tend to blur the distinctions between the office and our social lives, reframing work as an ‘existential challenge’ and enlisting ‘employees’ freest thoughts and impulses in the services of salaried time’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘An unreasonable world, sacrificing bird-song and tranquil dusk and high-golden noons to selling junk – yet it rules us. And life is there. The office is filled with thrills of love and distrust and ambition.’ - Sinclair Lewis, The Job

Monday, 31 October 2011

M25 at 25

A slightly longer version of an article by me in Saturday's Guardian:

The M25 is 25 today. On 29 October 1986, Margaret Thatcher cut the ribbon across an eight-mile section of the London Orbital near Watford, the final and crucial bit that closed the circle. If there are any official commemorations of this anniversary, I have missed them; a birthday party for the most hated road in the country would perhaps not be well attended. Our antipathy to the M25 reveals much about shifting attitudes to roads over the last half century. In its thrilling early days, the motorway system was known by its epic cross-country routes (the M1 being called, with some fanfare, “the London-Yorkshire motorway”) but it is now the M25, mentioned daily on traffic reports as a vortex from which none can escape, that best sums up the public mood. The motorways that once carried hopes of uniting the nation now evoke images of eternal circularity, encapsulated in those mythical tales of foreign tourists (or, in some versions, confused pensioners or naïve northerners) who drive round the M25 for days in the mistaken belief that it is the M1.

But perhaps the anniversary should be celebrated, if only as a reminder of how distant the year 1986 now seems. For one thing, the M25 was opened by a prime minister prepared to attend a road opening and celebrate it as “a showpiece of British engineering skills, planning, design and construction”. In response to those who were arguing that the road was already congested, Thatcher said: “I can’t stand those who carp and criticise when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement and beating the drum for Britain all over the world.” The M25’s popularity, she argued, was a sign of its success, and criticisms of it put her in mind of an old saying that “nobody shops at Sainsbury’s because of the queues”.

The prime minister was not alone in this attitude: the inauguration of the M25 was the last major road opening to generate real public excitement. The queues at both ends of the final section were much longer than usual because drivers were itching to be the first to complete an orbit. When the Guardian’s Terry Coleman drove along it shortly after the cones had been removed, he saw crowds waving from the bridges just as they had done when the M1 opened in 1959. His main complaint was that, at just three lanes, the M25 was not big or bold enough. It was also “absurdly too far out from the centre, which must be obvious even to those bicycling protectors of disused allotments, and the like who ensured by their protests that it should not be closer in”. The M25, Coleman argued, summed up “the mangy poverty of our present expectations”.

The completion of the M25 now seems to symbolise the high water mark of Thatcherism. It was accompanied by that mid-1980s phenomenon, a huge surge in house prices, all the way round its perimeter. Property prices in west Kent, in towns like Sidcup and Sevenoaks, rose by a quarter in 1986, exceptional even for the south-east equity bonanza of the period. The M25 also opened just two days after Big Bang, which ended restrictive practices in the City and ushered in a frantic era of takeovers and salary hikes. Some of these high-flying City traders quickly realised that the M25’s 117-mile circuit could serve as an illegal racetrack. They would meet up at a service station in the early hours of a weekend morning and race round the Orbital in their Porsches and Ferraris, the Dartford tunnel serving as an impromptu pitstop. The story of these Cannonball runs was uncovered by a young reporter for The Times, called Boris Johnson.

It all seems so eighties, a vanished world of red braces and mobile phones the size of bricks. But the M25 is still here and, even if nobody loves it, it hasn’t taught us much. The coalition government has made the same connection as Thatcher did between roads and entrepreneurialism, and recently declared an end to the “war on the motorist” by raising motorway speed limits. City traders no longer use the M25 as a racetrack, but the mood of braggadocio that inspired those midnight runs survives in certain quarters, undented by recent events. 1986 seems so long ago; and yet so little has changed.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The art of walking

I’ve just finished reading The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, Literature, Theory and Practice of Pedestrianism by Geoff Nicholson. Along with accounts of many other eccentric pedestrians, Nicholson tells the story of Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), who took part in a number of bizarre pedestrian contests, one of which was set him by ‘an unnamed Duke’ who bet a thousand guineas that he could find a man to walk the ten miles from Piccadilly to Hounslow within 3 hours, taking 3 steps forwards and 1 step back. In 1809, Barclay himself bet someone else a thousand guineas that he could walk a mile in each of a thousand consecutive hours. He began on 1 June on Newmarket Heath, walking a single mile, every hour once an hour, on a set course in Newmarket in Suffolk. It only takes about twenty minutes to walk a mile, so there must have been a lot of hanging around. An enormous crowd gathered to cheer him on as he completed the feat on 12 July.

Nicholson suggests that the longest ever uninterrupted walk was probably taken by the adventurer Sebastian Snow (1929-2001) who walked 8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama canal in 19 months. ‘By some transcendental process,’ Snow wrote in his book The Rucksack Man, ‘I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire [horse], my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.’ He had intended to walk all the way to Alaska but got bored.

Nicholson does not mention another epic walk, made by the comedian Ronnie Barker, as recounted in his autobiography, Dancing in the Moonlight. As a young man he worked unhappily as a hospital porter until, desperate to get into acting, he joined a touring mime company in 1950. After a few weeks of ‘misery and despair’, the tour collapsed in Cornwall without enough money for train tickets, and Barker had to walk all the way back home to Oxford.

Another great pedestrianist was Phyllis Pearsall (1906–1996), the founder of the London A-Z. (Nicholson once wrote a novel, Bleeding London, in which a character tries to walk every street in London using the A-Z.) Here is the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Back in London in 1935 Phyllis Pearsall made a living painting portraits, but she was disillusioned by the pretentiousness of the art world and ready to take on a new challenge, and when she got lost one evening in the streets of London and subsequently realized that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 she decided to produce her own. Starting with the Ordnance Survey sheets she walked the streets of London for eighteen hours a day, compiling a 23,000 card alphabetical index of streets, which she kept in shoeboxes under her bed, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936.

What the ODNB doesn’t mention, but which I read somewhere, is that Pearsall then took 250 copies of the A–Z in a wheelbarrow to W.H. Smith’s, and they bought them from her.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living-room shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.’ – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, cited in Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Motorway rambles

Classic literature is full of warnings about the the vanity of human wishes and the transience of life and fame. ‘Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, Live register’d upon our brazen tombs, And then grace us in the disgrace of death,’ as Shakespeare writes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The paths of glory lead but to the grave, and so on. As Macaulay wrote rather beautifully of the puritans: ‘Their palaces were houses not made with hands; their diadems crowns of glory which should never fade away.’

Mind you, that was before they discovered lamination. I wonder if Shelley would have felt differently about Ozymandias if he’d been immortalised in a non-biodegradable table mat. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that it was very nice of the photographer Edward Chell to send me some of the table mats from his recent photographic exhibition, ‘Gran Turismo’, at the Little Chef, Ings, on the A591 into Windermere, some of which incorporated quotes from On Roads. Chell has another solo exhibition, Viewing Stations, investigating the landscape of the motorway verge, in London in November. You can find out more here: Chell is also co-editing a book, In The Company of Ghosts; the Poetics of the Motorway, to be published by erbacce-press next spring.

I note that, in his new memoir, Alan Partridge writes that one of the programme ideas he unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC, co-devised with Bill Oddie, was Motorway Rambles: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special permission from the Transport Police. Chell is one of several people – others include the vicar John Davies, who wrote a rather excellent book a few years ago about walking the M62 - demonstrating that this is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity but a worthwhile and enlightening one.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The question should be, then, not how we break through the sludge of habit to rediscover the hidden strangeness of things, but how we ever managed to convince ourselves that anything was not a dissemination of intelligence. Boredom is the amazing achievement, not wonder. Our senses can catch only a narrow portion of the spectrum: the cosmic rays, rainbows above or below the range of visible light, or tectonic groans of the earth all elude us. What the moralists have said about the universe, science since Faraday has proved to be empirically true: We are immersed in a sea of intelligence that we cannot fully understand or even sense.’ – John Durham Peters

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

An ecstasy of concrete

A few blogposts ago I quoted from a letter written by Dennis Potter while the Hammersmith flyover was appearing outside his window. I’ve since discovered a contemporaneous piece by him in the Daily Herald, ‘Flyover in my eyes’, from 18 November 1961, in which he is rather more positive about this new piece of architecture. ‘Our second baby was born one warm night in July …’ he writes, ‘while a grotesque new machine was dropping concrete girders into position with all the gentility of a front-row Rugby forward bearing down on a tiny full-back.’ The Potters lived ‘on the top floor of a block of flats on a bloodshot-eye level to the thing.’ The Hammersmith flyover was ‘a beautiful thing, a cross between a Roman aqueduct and a Hollywood epic, soaring over earth-bound streets in an ecstasy of concrete, cable and sheer bravado.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science; without the dyer’s art there would be no chemistry; metallurgy is mining theorized.’ – Clifford Geertz

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Seen from the window

In his autobiographical essay, ‘Seen from the window,’ Henri Lefebvre describes looking from the balcony of his apartment in central Paris on to a busy intersection over a period of several hours. After a while he starts to notice patterns in the apparently chaotic street scene: the rhythm of the changing traffic lights, the synchronised movements of vehicles and pedestrians, the contrast between feverish activity and moments of relative calm. In order to notice such patterns, Lefebvre suggests, you need the patience to watch mundane events unfolding in time:

The characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual. To extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time. Otherwise it only serves as a glance to enter into the murmurs, noises and cries … Over there, the one walking in the street is immersed into the multiplicity of noises, rumours, rhythms … But from the window noises are distinguishable, fluxes separate themselves, rhythms answer each other.

I’ve been looking out of the window more often than usual lately. I am on a research fellowship this year so am not teaching, and my office at work is directly above a terrace where students and members of staff walk and sometimes chat between classes. I used to see people gossiping, laughing, exchanging cigarettes and lighters, and blowing their smoke into the air: that international, wordless language that breaks down the inevitable awkwardness between people who are not quite strangers and not quite friends. Now, because the terrace constitutes part of the building and is covered by the smoking ban, the smokers have been banished to the steps below the Anglican cathedral, where they sit on their own looking, at least from a distance, pensive and disconsolate. Now, instead of cigarettes, a hundred mobile phones flip open as soon as the students come out of lectures. You could write an MA thesis about the anthropological significance of the facial and hand gestures that people adopt when they are talking on their phones. The person on the other end of the line can’t see you, you know! And of all the windows in all the world, these little gestures, tics, glances and snatched conversations came to be seen by me out of mine.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’ - Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Crisis? What crisis?

I’ve always been interested in the resilience of ordinary life, the way our basic routines survive even in the midst of a crisis, or regroup after a catastrophe. The governor of the Bank of England announced this week that we are living through the worst economic crisis in living memory. Everyone tutted and turned over to the Great British Bake Off. At the fringe meetings of the Conservative Party Conference, the hot issue was the smoking ban in public places. I cannot decide if this evasive attitude is healthy or not. It reminds me of the IMF crisis at the end of 1976, when ordinary life in Britain carried on against a background of talk of imminent chaos. There was a great deal of excitement, for example, about an ostrich glove puppet called Emu, worked by the entertainer Rod Hull, who had just achieved national fame by attacking Michael Parkinson on his chat show. Emu’s children’s television programme was attracting eleven million viewers and the Observer suggested that ‘the whole nation … has gone Emu crazy’. There was even greater interest in the appearance of the newsreader Angela Rippon’s bare legs on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, the details of which were leaked to the press in the days before broadcast. ‘The excitement surrounding Ms Rippon’s perfectly agreeable legs convinced me that everybody had gone mad,’ wrote the jazz musician and critic George Melly. ‘Angela Rippon had – wait for it – legs! Did people really imagine she hadn’t? … She reads the news very well, clearly and crisply, but the secret is out. Under that tidy desk is a pair of legs!’

It is now normal to read these popular entertainments as a kind of wilful distraction from political events. But perhaps these trivial preoccupations point to a more complex account of late 1976 than the media rhetoric of crisis suggested. The mid-1970s ‘crisis’ was experienced most keenly by opinion-forming elites. The early and influential converts to monetarism – mostly in The Times and the Financial Times - tended to talk up the possibility of impending national disaster, and to remind readers of the dire predictions about Britain’s future in American right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, which had more than one eye on US domestic politics in seeking to present the UK as a cautionary tale. These moments of banality in daily life in the run-up to Christmas 1976 suggest that not all Britons were convinced by these apocalyptic narratives.

In early 1977 a Gallup international survey revealed that Britons believed themselves to be among the happiest people in the world. In 1978 the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, argued in Britain: A Future That Works that the ‘voices of doom … the scribes and prophets of disaster’ had been wrong about the UK, that its levels of state spending and taxation were normal by European standards and the overall postwar trend of rising affluence, which had doubled living standards since the war, would survive the world recession. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked, ‘that the whole episode is a case of hypochondria?’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘”I see the news is bad again.” The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as “the news”.’ - Raymond Williams

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The modern English style

Some cobbled together words occasioned by the return of Strictly Come Dancing to our screens.

As the historian Ross McKibbin reveals in his book Classes and Cultures, ballroom dancing has long been a political minefield. The Official Board of Ballroom Dancing, established in 1929, was specifically formed to stamp out the ‘freakish’ steps of jazz-inspired crazes like the Charleston and the Varsity Drag, which threatened to ‘turn the ballroom into a bear garden’. The OBBC sanctioned only four official dances – waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and tango – and rigorously policed any illegal steps, lifts and sidekicks. Victor Silvester’s seminal textbook, Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927), claims that the basic principles of ballroom are ‘as permanent as the law of gravity’.

This ‘modern English style’ was an attempt to stem the inexorable invasion of imported American music and dance. One dance teacher lamented ‘the admission of jazz music and dubious steps into decent places’, insisting that they originated ‘in low negro haunts and had au fond a prurient significance’. The ruling bodies were terrified that dancing might be seen as sublimated sex, and indeed the churches often condemned the dance halls for their vulgarity and immorality. So the dancers’ feet had to be parallel, their hips straight and their knees kept together.

The social research organisation, Mass Observation, thought these rigid rules threatened the whole future of social democracy. The ballroom was creating supine, apathetic citizens by pointing them ‘away from social feeling and activity and towards a world of personal superstition and magic’. Mass Observation even calculated that people who went to dancehalls were 12% less likely to vote than average (an uninformative statistic, since under-25s were the most likely to go dancing and, then as now, the least likely to vote). The regimented ranks of ballroom dancers were sleepwalking to ‘the paradise-drug of the American dance-tune’ with ‘the same surrender of personal decision as that of uniformed Nazis’. Mass-Observation claimed in 1939 that anti-fascists broke up a demonstration by Walter Mosley’s black shirts by ‘doing the Lambeth Walk’, and they suggested that the communal, improvised nature of this dance could teach us ‘something about the future of democracy’. The Lambeth Walk was frowned on by the dancing professionals, along with other communal dances like the Conga and the Hokey-Cokey.

But even Mass Observation conceded the startling contrast between the ‘mechanized barbarity’ of dancehall music and the wordless decorousness of the dancers’ movements. In order to request a dance, a young man would simply touch a potential partner lightly on her elbow, and they would move silently on to the floor. It was quite normal for partners to dance for hours without speaking to each other, before going their separate ways. The ballroom was a world of conscious artifice and unspoken courtesies, as pointlessly beautiful as the laws of cricket. Its rules were simultaneously hierarchical and egalitarian. Dance steps were rigorously policed, but every local palais had learner nights where the most physically inept could be taught the same basic moves.

The modern English style was one of Britain’s last imperialist successes, spreading unopposed throughout Europe, America and the Empire. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes about spending endless hours of his student days in the early 1940s practising foxtrots and waltzes to a crackly phonograph record, encouraged by his idol, Victor Silvester.

Mundane quote for the day: 'You are always alone with the oddness of modern consumption. Walking under the white lights of Sainsbury’s you find out just who you are. The reams of cartons, the pyramids of tins: there they stand on the miles of shelves, the story of how we live now. Cereal boxes look out at you with their breakfast-ready smiles, containing flakes of bran, handfuls of oats, which come from fields mentioned in the Domesday Book.' – Andrew O’Hagan

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Rendering unto Caesar

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Pylon appreciation

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

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

This is from Rob Young’s book Electric Eden:

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

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

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Trains of thought

This piece by me was in the Guardian on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 September 2011

White dot

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Writing at the terminal

You may have read that the novelist Tony Parsons is currently employed as writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport, following the successful residency of Alain de Botton a couple of years ago. There is a piece in today’s Guardian suggesting that this scheme for installing writers in everyday spaces could be rolled out nationally, starting with J.K. Rowling in the endangered Preston Bus Station ( I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people remaining sedentary in places of transit, and my book On Roads included several of these characters, including the couple who lived for 22 years, on and off, in a Travelodge overlooking the A1. John Wain foresaw all of this in his unjustly neglected novel The Smaller Sky, which is about a middle-aged scientist, Arthur Geary, who decides to live his whole life underneath the glass canopy of Paddington Station, where he finds solace and ‘perfect anonymity’.

In his recent documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis tells the story of Bill Hamilton, a brilliant but eccentric evolutionary biologist who thought that all human behaviour could be explained genetically. As Curtis explained it, Hamilton would sit for hours on the platforms of Waterloo Station, looking at the commuters, trying to figure out the secrets of human behaviour as an entomologist might examine the movements of ants. I think Curtis meant to suggest this was how deranged Hamilton had become, a judgment which, as a student of the everyday, I naturally flinched at. Whether or not people behave like ants, I am sure you could discover a lot from spending time in a commuter station and watching closely the patterns of lovers kissing and parting, and people dashing for the train or anxiously peering at the annunciator boards or just looking for the toilets.

According to Hamilton’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the truth may be more prosaic. Hamilton was not looking for the secrets of life but for somewhere to work. He ‘found it difficult to interest his fellow biologists in his work, and to get it published. He had failed to interest any potential PhD supervisors in the basic problem. They seem to have feared that it had something to do with eugenics. He did the work alone—in libraries, in his bed-sitting room, even on the platform of Waterloo railway station. He had no desk in a university department.’

Hamilton later wrote of his time at University College London: ‘I never had a desk there nor was ever invited to give any presentation to explain my work or my occasional presence to others. Most of the time I was extremely lonely. Sometimes I came to dislike my bed-sitting room so much that I would go to Waterloo Station, where I continued reading or trying to write out a [mathematical] model sitting on the benches among waiting passengers in the main hall.’

I am a fan of Curtis, by my way, but my ‘leap in logic’ warning light usually comes on about halfway through his brilliant documentaries, which I think of as works of art rather than argument … which is why I like them.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘We rarely get to prepare ourselves in meadows or on graveled walks; we do it on short notice in places without windows, hospital corridors, rooms like this lounge with its cracked plastic sofa and Cinzano ashtrays, where the cafe curtains cover blank concrete. In rooms like this, with so little time, we prepare our gestures, get them by heart so we can do them when we're frightened in the face of doom.’ - Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs*

*Thanks to Marc Hudson for sending me this quote. His own rather excellent blog is worth a good look at

Sunday, 24 July 2011


I’ve recently been introduced to the work of a brilliant writer and oral historian, the late Tony Parker. His best known work is probably The People of Providence, about the inhabitants of a London slab and tower block housing estate in the early eighties. But my favourite book of his is Lighthouse, about the Trinity House lighthouse keepers, partly because when I was quite small I briefly harboured an ambition to be one. (It’s a good job I never acted on it; most of the lighthouses are now automatic.) The first thing you learn is that lighthouse keepers never use the word ‘lighthouse’. They say ‘lights’ and divide them into three types: land lights, which are on the mainland with living quarters nearby, rock lights and tower lights. Tower lights are the most isolated and the most dreaded, without even a bit of rock to walk around on and get away from your fellow keepers for a bit.

Lighthouse keeping is a somewhat melancholy profession, partly because promotion is not on merit – it is difficult to outshine your colleagues in job performance, after all - but on vacancies or ‘dead men’s shoes’. There is little to do on a light except linger over meals and make ships in bottles.

The lighthouse keepers are often articulate about their strange, lonely lives:

‘Somehow you’re the only person left in the world, everyone else has disappeared; there aren’t any other people anywhere, no one else alive but you … Sitting on your own looking out of a lighthouse window; it’s a funny sort of existence.’

‘The first day or two on land it hurt you to walk even half a mile on the flat; it was like someone had been kicking at the back of your knees, because all your leg muscles was used to was going up and down the stairs.’

‘Sometimes when I was on middle watch in the middle of the night I used to switch on the radio transmitter and sit and listen to ships talking to one another, just so I could hear the sound of people’s voices.’

There is also a cautionary tale for authors. Parker asked one keeper, Barry, what he thought of a Margaret Drabble novel he was reading: ‘He struggled, opened the sitting room window and threw it out into the sea.’

Now that is what I call a bad review.