Friday 27 December 2019

Noise, anti-noise, drama, Jeremy Beadle's private noise research, the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment, and the earliest published story by Mark Gatiss (set in the year 2023)

There are some rustlings afoot: next year promises to be the year that finally sees the release of the long-delayed Oscillatorial Binnage 'post-electronic music' album.  To close 2019, I've decided to dump here, in defeat, a rejected article I've been hawking around magazines and journals for some time.  Regular readers of this blog will recognise the themes of imperilled histories, publicity asphyxia, and the chain of associations triggered by found objects.  The text was originally written to draw attention to one particular pet project I've expended some efforts upon in attempts to make it amenable to BBC radio (often via Resonance FM): a documentary about anti-noise campaigning, or rather, the 'noises' made by these campaigns.  The proposal has consistently met with silence from commissioners who apparently deem it too eccentric, leading me to make ever-'noisier' repeat proposals with equally-futile added razzmatazz.  This prompted some contemplation on the inner paradoxes of noise.

Habitually ferreting in the world of second-hand books ("the last refuge of the unemployable" as a bookseller friend semi-despairingly calls it), I've observed how glitz, high glamour and familiar names sell more readily than, say, old copies of the Philips Bulletin of Recent Developments in the Field of Electronics or similar obscurities that heave with innovation and overlooked histories, yet fail to hold general interest.  All unfamiliar material is background noise to most people.  Appealing to popular taste seems to be the key to getting things noticed, and this same issue was faced by noise awareness campaigners...  How do you effectively insert ideas into the cultural continua and get them favourably acknowledged?

"Six years ago, the city of Dortmund in West Germany found itself engulfed in a rising tide of noise. (...) The leader of Dortmund's noise-abatement campaign is Dr. Helmut Hillmann, the jovial city manager. (...) A natural actor, Dr. Hillmann decided that the way to fight noise was to dramatise it. He shouts at the top of his lungs to simulate the whirrs and roars he seeks to suppress. 'How would you like that when you want sleep?' he demands.  His efforts have made him the public champion of noise victims throughout Europe."

The above quote is from a May 1968 article titled 'The City that Declared War on Noise', removed from an old issue of Reader's Digest by UK television personality Jeremy Beadle and tucked inside his own copy of a 1974 book titled Noise: The New Menace by US science writer Lucy Kavaler.  This book contained many more of Beadle's cut-outs all dealing with rebarbative auditory sensations, and it was found in the basement of Charing Cross Road's Any Amount of Books bookshop in 2013.

A bookplate indicates this copy of Noise was disposed of by Mayfair literary agents Laurence Pollinger Ltd., who were in unresolved negotiations to secure UK serial rights for the US-published title.  It's unclear how it ended up in Beadle's collection.  Kavaler's book dwells on the psychological and physiological dangers of prolonged noise exposure, ending with a chapter on campaigners' activities - 'The People Against Noise' - detailing how noise complainants in America necessarily form residents associations to raise funds for lawyers.  Kavaler also writes about a tenacious anti-supersonic aircraft activist who pestered the US Federal Aviation Administration by letter every three months for six years.  Elsewhere, in an act Beadle would've approved of, Kavaler mentions a Long Island couple who loaded homemade muffins into a "huge medieval catapult" and flung them at airplanes passing very low over their residence.

For those unfamiliar with this book's former owner, Jeremy Beadle, he was best known as a primetime TV prankster.  As a youth in the 1960s Beadle worked as a lavatory attendant in Hamburg, Germany, affording him scope to ply situationist mischief: he'd deliberately block toilets with tea bags, make grunting sounds in cubicles, and place coins in urinals, etc. and would watch people's reactions.  When he found fame with his candid camera prank show Beadle's About in the 1980s and 90s, it's fair to say his style of humour had not evolved significantly.  However, like some other light entertainers of the period his onscreen levity belied wider, profounder pursuits (in the tradition of Barry Humphries, Roy Hudd, Pauline Quirke, Les Dawson, et al); Beadle owned a substantial book collection which was posthumously acquired and dispersed by Any Amount of Books in 2012.  Beadle's friend, the late writer/actor Ken Campbell, had remarked in an interview that it was unnecessary to ever visit the British Library or Oxford's Bodleian Library when he had exclusive access to the "Beadlean Library".  Beadle's eclectic library covered some of the most engaging subjects: esotericism, the uncanny, public nuisances, crime, deception, hoaxes, jokes, disasters, thrillers, as well as seemingly endless trivia.

Beadle's books - most bearing his embossed 'Property of Beadlebum' ex-libris stamp - were shelved across all subject areas in Any Amount of Books' basement.  The Lucy Kavaler Noise book was in the Music section.  Its binding heaved with Beadle's annotated noise-related clippings.  It was intriguing that Beadle had such concern for noise pollution.  Was the 'psychology of noise' a factor in his prank research?  (After all, in his formative toilet attendant days he'd played a radio "very loudly" and juggled toilet brushes to the beat, according to his autobiography).  Or, like noise-sensitive soundmakers Jools Holland or Jimmy Page, did he actively seek silent respite from the hubbub of showbiz?  (Beadle's address label reads "Semley Place, London" - his mother's flat above the busy Victoria bus station).  The truth may be more prosaic - Beadle had a thirst for general knowledge, and apparently collected a bit of everything.  Former Any Amount of Books owner Nigel Burwood explained to me that Beadle "had books on almost anything, especially disasters.  Noise would have interested him, but probably no more than, say, wolf children."  Yet of all the Beadle books I had a chance to examine in the basement semi-regularly over several months, I didn't see another as crammed with material.

Noisy bits and bobs from Jeremy Beadle's copy of Lucy Kavaler's 'Noise'
Kavaler's Noise with its cargo of clippings was a suggestive discovery, highlighting the dramatisations, gimmicks, stunts and the enlisting of high profile figures that all characterised anti-noise campaigning.  Noise-awareness necessitates the noise of publicity.  And publicity needs an element of theatre.  This was also recognised by Scottish doctor Dan McKenzie, who in 1916 published The City of Din: A Tirade Against Noise, a book he dedicated to his wife, Dora Christine McKenzie.  I'd found this book many years ago elsewhere, and was reminded of it whilst shelving Kavaler's Noise next to it.  Dr. McKenzie's 1916 "tirade" took the form of dramatic high-flown prose with as much humour and poetry as hard science.  As well as a throat and ear specialist, McKenzie was a published poet too.  In his later 1923 book Aromatics and the Soul: A Study of Smells, McKenzie remarked how The City of Din was itself a counter-noise of sorts:  "A few years ago I stood before the public singing another song (...) wherein I invoked the wrath of the high gods upon such miscreants as make life hideous with din.  You must not think that imprecations cannot be sung.  All emotional utterance is song, said Carlyle (...) Beside, denunciations are, of course, grunted and growled with more or less semblance of singing in modern opera."

McKenzie went on to co-found the Anti-Noise League in the 1930s, and it's interesting to note that nearly 20 years after The City of Din's publication, copies of the original book remained unsold, most likely due to insufficient publicity, ironically.  Published in the middle of the First World War, The City of Din's medical publisher, Adlard, only produced a limited run for the as-yet-unproven author, but nevertheless, undistributed stock lingered for decades: the catalogue for the Science Museum's Summer 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition offered extant copies priced at two shillings and sixpence: "arrangements have been made with the writer and publishers of The City of Din whereby the proceeds for the sale of the remaining copies will be handed over to the Anti-Noise League".  (In the copy of City of the Din I have, there's an old makeshift bookmark advertising Aspirin tablets, perhaps giving some idea of the sensitivities of its target audience).

Dr. McKenzie's City of Din epitomises the paradox of anti-noise campaigning: the 'noisy' dramatic frissons pushed through the media infrastructure to garner publicity; making 'noise' about noise.  Attempts to silence noise invariably involve counter-noise, frequently literal.  There was a landmark case in 1892: a 30-year-old engraver for printing blocks - Harry Fitzner Davey - had created a home studio for himself at his semi-detached home in Angell Road, Brixton.  He soon found that his musical nextdoor neighbours hindered his delicate work with their incessant music lessons.  Davey retaliated with his own noise by knocking on the wall, "beating on trays, whistling, shrieking, and imitating [the music] being played".  It was in fact his neighbours, the Christies, who, embarrassed by Davey's counter-noise, took the matter to high court and won their case, almost ruining Davey who was fined just over £400 (roughly £35,000 in today's money).  The decisive point bore down on the fact that Davey's counter-noise was made with malicious intent.  Countless similar cases have played out over the years, as some of Beadle's newspaper cuttings indicate.

Noise awareness is itself beset with paradox...  A Noise Abatement Act was established in Britain in 1960.  At a 1961 symposium of noise at the National Physical Laboratory, physicist Douglas W. Robinson remarked: "new inventions, especially the jet engine, have brought into existence bigger noises than man has previously been able to create.  Perhaps the obvious impossibility of living at close quarters with such devices has triggered off a sort of chain reaction down the noisiness scale, so that even domestic refrigerators now have their share of critics on grounds of noisiness": in a culture of noise awareness, humming fridges accrue affinities with genuine wreakers of industrial deafness.  The 1963 Wilson Report, drawn up by the Committee on the Problem of Noise, assessed auditory annoyances, noting that noise such as creaking doors, crying babies or distant parties can have "an emotional effect out of all proportion to its physical intensity", conveying senses of "alarm, neglect, sadness [and] loneliness".  The Report also highlighted that the commonest annoyance of noise is its hindering of sound-based communication, including "the enjoyment of radio and television programmes" in leisure time, and yet radios and televisions are noise culprits too.

Jeremy Beadle's noise clippings - culled from items published between 1967 and 1981 - span a period when the issue was being pushed by newly-formed groups in the UK such as the non-departmental public body the Noise Advisory Council, and the Noise Abatement Society action group.  Dr. Helmut Hillman's aforementioned quote, that "the way to fight noise [is] to dramatise it" was prescient, as subsequent campaigns sought to grab the public's attention with increasingly dramatic flourishes.  In 1972 the Noise Advisory Council convened the 'Panel on Noise in the Seventies' and its 1974 publication Noise in the Next Ten Years offered an idea of setting up a "Quiet Town Experiment".  It recommended that the Government should select an area where authorities, industry and private citizens would be invited to co-operate in "an effort to see to what extent, given the goodwill of all concerned, the ambient noise level of a town can be reduced".  This experiment materialised two years later and represents the pinnacle of the 'dramatisation' of noise: the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.

Darlington Quiet Town Experiment attempted to create a town-wide awareness of noise pollution from 1976 to 1978.  Unusually, none of Beadle's cuttings referred to this extraordinary long-running project which represents one of the 'noisiest' anti-noise campaigns in the UK.  However, I've interviewed a few coordinators of this initiative who tend to view it as a failed experiment.  "I am amazed that 40 years after that 'experiment' anyone should be interested," said its former publicity officer.  School shouting contests, plays, and literary competitions took place across Darlington and its suburbs as part of this experiment overseen by the Noise Advisory Council; a cassette containing a specially-composed song 'Turn It Down' was distributed.  "The World's First Quiet Bingo Game" was held, among other events forming a widespread publicity campaign that notably roped in celebrity motorcyclist Barry Sheene, pictured on a poster captioned "if I can win without a din, why can't you?"

During the Darlington Experiment, a shift from a Labour to a Conservative government signalled the end of the Noise Advisory Council, which was killed off as an expendable quango in 1981 (a New Scientist column titled "Quango's Noisy Death" suggested the Council might've been a bugbear to the government due to its public-facing noisy proactivity).  Before its demise, the Council published its summing up of the The Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.  This fascinating 1981 monograph features a pocket containing five publicity examples, with other specimens peppered throughout the text.  There's a distinct flavour of Scarfolk's fictitious hauntology about these bizarre nuggets of ephemera; it's decidedly fantastical.  One leaflet, for instance, encourages householders to "banish the noisy gnome from your home", with the gnome symbol recurring throughout the campaign.  A survey at the conclusion of the experiment disappointingly revealed only one respondent had realised the "noisy gnome" was associated with noise.

Leaflet from the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.
The role of stories in the Darlington experiment stimulated creativity in schools, fostering noise-awareness in the next generation.  One publication - Children on Noise - collected noteworthy entries from noise-related literary competitions that many schools local to Darlington participated in.  Winning entries were supplied by schoolchildren aged between six and sixteen.  The poems are the exact opposite of the Italian Futurists' early 20th century poetry where, with a "Zang Tumb Tuuum", noise was celebrated.  By the late 20th century the rising generation were waxing poetic on unwanted noise: "Brrrrrm Brrrrrrrm / The motor-bikes go / It makes the tools in the shed go / Rattle Rattle Rattle / Brrrrrm Brrrrrrrm / They make a terrible noise when they whiz round my street..." wrote 7-year-old Niranjani Satha.

Children on Noise also contains stories, some intriguingly futurological.  Almost invoking the fringe science of radionics, 14-year-old Jennifer Simpson wrote: "noise is a form of energy and by the law of physics cannot be destroyed.  If this is true, sound must build up over the years."  In her story, 'The Dangerous Monster: Noise', Simpson develops this premise with the introduction of "Sound Hoovers" that vacuum-up accumulated noise, but these can only be operated by hypersensitive cleaners: "noise build-up cannot be detected by non-sensitive people".  Simpson's story follows the story of Gareth, a sensitive noise cleaner, whose "Sound Hoover" accidentally empties a decade's worth of noise whilst in his car, causing an accident.  The story concludes: "Who can tell what destructive force such as Gareth encountered will not lie dormant elsewhere if noise in its varying forms is not suppressed?"

One story in Children on Noise stands out from the rest for its imaginative complexity.  'The Anti-Noise Machine' is a science fiction tale penned by a future household name (returning here to the theme of celebrity and noise) - an 11-year-old Mark Gatiss, who attended the village Heighington CE Primary School, near Darlington.  Gatiss continues to write and also perform, and is now widely known for his work in The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock, Doctor Who, etc.  In that olde-worlde tradition previously alluded to, Gatiss also has sprawling interests that encompass the art of John Minton and the stories of M.R. James (and he has fronted documentaries on both respectively).  A few days ago, over Christmas, Gatiss' eerily atmospheric M.R. James adaptation Martin's Close was broadcast, and, coincidentally(?), noise was a key feature.  In its opening scene a troubled prisoner is seen clasping his ears to block out an ethereal sonic disturbance: a degraded dirge of an old folk song, The Keys of Heaven.  Last Christmas, another Gatiss ghost story was screened - an original psychological supernatural horror where noise is also apparent: The Dead Room featured a present-day narrator (played by Simon Callow) trying to record a story in an old studio.  He is assailed by a number of sonic cues that trigger delirious memories of a dark misdeed.  Again, the uncalled-for noise is in the guise of a song - Fox's already-unsettling 1976 S-S-S-Single Bed - which becomes increasingly tortured.  Perhaps the threads of noise, in its haunting potency, cropping up in Gatiss' work all link back to Darlington's Quiet Town Experiment?  To end these noisy ruminations, in unsanctioned abandon I'll paste here, in full, the earliest published story by a young Mark Gatiss, 'The Anti-Noise Machine' (published 1978), which, like anti-noise campaigning itself, concludes with a paradox - "if we destroy that [anti-noise] machine, noise will return -  if we don't, we'll be killed every time we shout."

[This blog seems an obscure enough nook to air Gatiss' early literary emission, as it's unlikely to cause any faux pas or be widely seen, swamped as it is by the noise of the internet.  If in the unlikely event Gatiss himself does see this, hopefully he won't mind.  But consider this: 'The Anti-Noise Machine' is set in the year 2023 - three years away - so maybe there's an urgent public duty to prepare people for such things...]


[note: * Stellagram = a futuristic meeting hall]

It was an eyesore, protruding from the buildings it stood gleaming in the sun.  If one had first entered the City of Darlington your first impression would be it was so quiet.  In fact it had to be quiet, if it wasn't it was against the law.  The gleaming eyesore was the enforcer of that law.  It was the District Energy Able Theocomputer Heavy Duty Robot, or D.E.A.T.H. D.R. for short.  In the City of Darlington on the day of 22nd July, 2023, Richard Schlitz began his resistance group.  Schlitz and a group of ten gathered together the instruments they needed and walked from the stellagram* onto the terribly quiet streets.  "On the count of three, start playing." said Olden to another member.  Three was counted and the party started making a terrific noise.  Then a high pitched whine filled the air.  Death Dr appeared round the corner.  A thin tube emerged from the massive body.  Then a pencil of blue light escaped it, with a horrible scream Schlitz and his party were bathed in the blue light, froze, and were gone.  The message was plain, "Keep Darlington quiet or else......"

David Montgomery sat at his desk.  He was on the phone.  "Why on earth should that great lumbering machine have to go round destroying great noises?  Why not 'peacefully'?  The thing's specially programmed not to ruin computer or agricultural machines."  He continued, "For goodness sake, they are human beings you know."  On the other end of the phone, Death Dr's inventor Professor Bernard Krine argued with him.  "Montgomery, in 1978 Darlington tried it peacefully, and no-one would listen, noise inflamed Darlington City and we had to stop it!"  "But why can't we try again, I think they've learned their lesson," retorted Montgomery.  "Destroy my machine and you may as well leave Darlington to rot!"  He slammed the phone down.  Montgomery put his head in his hands.  Tom Montgomery was David's son, he was around 18 when he first started his noise movement.  Today was his final reactionary movement, not in terms of retirement.  As his group began their sound, the whine began again.  Death Dr emerged, Tom and his party crossed quickly to a skyscraper.  Noiselessly Death Dr swept over to the building's third wall, dissolved it with yellow flames and sighted the group.  They were totally destroyed by the blue beam, including Montgomery's son.

"NO, I won't believe it - that dilapidated dustbin has killed my son."
"I'm very sorry David, but it's true," said Gregory Harrison, Montgomery's friend.  "I'm going to destroy it, I'm going to kill it," said Montgomery.  Before Harrison could stop him he rushed outside with a fire axe.  Wielding the weapon Montgomery began screaming - a great noise.  Death Dr fired as usual but missed as Montgomery dodged.  Firing again it again missed.  The huge axe was thrust up at the anti-noise machine.  It hit with dreadful accuracy at Death Dr's computerized brain.  The blue beam cut into Montgomery and destroyed him.  The machine's complex brain was now a complicated mess.  It was haywire: agricultural and computerised machines beware!  Death Dr is out to destroy all great noises!  "Look, don't blame me, it was Montgomery who made my machine crazed ...", the frenzied argument erupted between Krine and the Mayor, it was a signed death warrant.  The noise was enough to register on Death Dr's sensors.  It glided to its creators office, destroyed the wall and dissolved Krine.  The Mayor was next.  "If people had listened in 1978 that machine would never have existed at all. .."  He too was cut off abruptly by Death Dr. The Mayor backed away in terror as he was bathed in blue light and vanished.

"Well, what can we do?  Drop an Atomic Bomb on it?" said Geoffry Blase, a scientist.  "If we destroy that machine noise will return."  "If we don't we'll be killed every time we shout." replied Blase to Henry Ealiey's comment.

Ealiey walked through the desolation.  Crumbled buildings around his heels.  The Bomb had been dropped the people evacuated, and Darlington a ghost town.  He thought, "If only they had listened all those years ago, if only, if only ....."

AGE   11 years
(from Children on Noise [1978])

Thursday 19 December 2019

William English's 'Perfect Binding: Made in Leicester'

About a year ago, the filmmaker William English asked me, a sound designer, to be graphic designer for a book project he was planning.  This was just one of many lateral decisions taken by William English towards producing a uniquely uncategorisable artefact now available to buy: 'Perfect Binding: Made in Leicester'.  Even though I worked closely with William on this book, I'm unqualified to make definitive remarks on it.  It covers an era and culture I'm not 100% au fait with, and further complications are afforded by William's wilful abstractions.  Nevertheless, some opinions and gossip can be provided here.

The book features large roman numeral chapter numberings, and the use of archaic-looking discretionary ligatures on the typeface (stopping short of using the 18th century long s - ſuch a ſtrange flouriſh might've been a ſtep too far).  These unhip, non-modern quirks are deliberately deployed to subvert the book's subject matter, which superficially revolves around 'mod' culture in 1960s Leicester.  Anyone buying it for 'mod' reasons might be perplexed...  The book is a surreal dreamscape shifting between gritty Leicester vignettes: interviews and reminiscences interspersed with arresting, and sometimes baffling, archival matter.

ResonanceFM's Cafe Oto stall
Over the past few weeks 'Perfect Binding' has been creeping into shops.  It was recently spotted at Cafe Oto's Christmas fair earlier this month, where it sat on Resonance FM's stall, along with rare materials from the personal collection of Resonance's programme controller Dr. Ed Baxter (formerly of the LMC) whose Henry Cow posters and public information cassettes threatened to 'outodd' the oddness of 'Perfect Binding'.  It's important to introduce here the fact that Baxter is known for his Baxterisms.  Baxterisms are poetic emissions that paradoxically puncture all poetic pretence.  A Baxterism is both a verbal wrecking ball and a verbal building contractor...  Often contrarian, sometimes maybe temporarily devastating, Baxter had offered a satisfying one-word Baxterism for the title of William English's book: Omphalosophy.  At its production stage, this was earmarked to be its title.  Omphalos is Greek for "navel", and Leicestershire is indeed the centremost county of England; its geographical navel.  (The Ordnance Survey declared a point in Fenny Drayton, a village 15 miles from Leicester, to be England's true centre - a distinctly unexciting fact).  Omphalosophy also signifies navel gazing: a morbidly self-referential state of indulgence that pervades all self-published work to some degree (the blog you're reading now included).  William and I found Omphalsosophy to be a suitably profound and subtly self-mocking title for this work about Leicester-as-a-state-of-mind.  Unfortunately, I found that Omphalosophy had already been used for a book title over sixty years ago.  As newly-formed bands often despair with increasing regularity: "why are all the best names already taken?"

Diagrams from 'Omphalosophy' (c.1953)
'Omphalosophy...' (1953)
'Omphalosophy and Worse Verse: An Inquiry into the Inner (and Outer) Significance of the Belly Button' was published in Iowa, USA, c.1953, coincidentally by another William - a Dr. William Bennett Bean.  It was a slim poetry booklet, with curious illustrations.  One of Dr. Bean's poems discouraged William from using 'Omphalosophy' as a title: a poem called 'Amazonia: USA' presented as a "litany on the decline of the male in our growing matriarchy, written after a sullen view of insurance statistics and newspapers".  Dr. Bean was stubbornly non-progressive on gender matters: "And what I read does most alarm me / A soldier boy who left our army / Between new hormones and the knife / Is now a girl and may be wife", and so on...  Despite its curiosity, we didn't want to be associated with dusty old transphobia, especially as the first interviewee in William English's book is the trans artist Victoria Ashley who had transitioned from Jim Mellors in the 1990s.  But that's not to say that Ms. Ashley herself is any exemplar of progressiveness... Indeed, she's something of a sourpuss in William's interview, moaning that "women are such a scruffy load of bags today, girls going out with just tights on, showing their genitals and fat arses... oh, it really is disgusting."  Nevertheless...

All characters in William's book, in fact, tend to exhibit this individualistic bite - a 'pulling apart' from other people, sometimes to self-destructive extremes (the book suggests this is a peculiarly male trait).  These volatile qualities led William to arrive at the title 'Perfect Binding' - a glue-based form of bookbinding in which 'perfect' is a misleading overstatement, as pages are liable to break apart with regular use.  Similarly, the personalities in the book jostle to disbind themselves from each other, perhaps in an attempt to escape Leicester itself(?).  'Perfect Binding' is actually published as a sewn binding.  Figures forcibly stitched together include some renowned characters such as William's film photographer brother Jack English, co-founder of the BOY boutique Stephane Raynor, and fashion photographer David Parkinson who died young.  But then there are the less-extroverted figures who selflessly and perseveringly sought to animate Leicester's cultural landscape (and who sometimes met with resistance), such as Peter Josephs who set up the Chameleon coffee bar on King Street, and Roger Brian De L’Troath whose short-lived 'Crescent' publication was Leicester's earliest arts magazine.  Beyond this, 'Perfect Binding' documents other figures of such obscurity that they approach the quality of 'thwarted histories': their stories are virtually unknown.  Familiar Leicester names like Colin Wilson or Joe Orton are mere footnotes here.

'Jelly' in 'Perfect Binding'
Leicester clearly isn't the most glamorous location, but it has recently received some attention elsewhere by author Shaun Knapp, notably 'Mods: Two City Connection' (2019).  Whereas Knapp provides a fairly straightforward history, William English's 'Perfect Binding' is proof of lived history's irreconcilable untidiness, as well as the multi-dimensionality of primary source material.  Everyone constructs their own reality; how can this be documented effectively?  For instance, 'Perfect Binding' devotes a whole chapter to the contested origins of a mysterious red suede jacket, worn by Leicester "face" and proto-Mod John "Jelly" Nixon at a time when such sartorial nonconformity might trigger public convulsions.  William English's group interview*, recorded in 2004, with Nixon, Stephane Raynor, and fashionable rogue Bob Hughes sheds no light on the matter, throwing up hazy, conflicting testimony.  The red suede jacket is symbolic of what is uncapturable by historians (but which is potentially explorable by artists!).

We are all inextricably tied to our formative cultural memories, and the 1960s contains William's.  I grew up in the 1990s, an era that holds a certain fascination for me - the ideals of modems, cyberspace and email.  Sometimes I feel that a form of investigative time travel is possible by a mixture of meditation and scrutiny upon archival footage of 1990s TV advert breaks, continuity announcements, or within CD-ROM magazine coverdisk directories, or in gunk plucked out from inside a rollerball-based computer mouse...  it is almost as if by tilting the artefacts slightly - metaphysically speaking - light can be shone down the memory tunnels to illuminate the past from a different, fresher angle, thereby exposing history's complex webbing.  This, I think, is what William's 'Perfect Binding' is getting at.  It's a fresh primary source nugget, preserving all the dimensions of raw absurdity, natural poetry and factual overlap that characterise real life's ongoing historical continua.

William English researching
As well as sifting his archive, over the years William has been leafing through Leicester's local newspapers questing after what I presume to be that aforementioned metaphysical memory 'tilt' ('Perfect Binding' is the result of over a decade of interviews and contemplation).  William ceased researching any newspapers published beyond 1965, as his focus was on the cultural metamorphoses within the first half of that decade.  I, meanwhile, continued casually perusing for graphical inspiration.  This led to the discovery of what would later become the rear cover of 'Perfect Binding' - an extraordinary uncredited long-exposure photograph from the Leicester Mercury of September 5th 1969.  Titled "Picture 'painted' by Leicester’s bumpy roads," it was intended to highlight the issue of Leicester's poor road conditions.  Its creator is as yet unknown.  To end this blog-post, I quote the full caption for it below, as it pits the mundane against the the surreal, with a mildly snooty sardonic thrust... perhaps these are the special ingredients for a 'Leicesterism'?

Rear and front covers for William English's 'Perfect Binding'
"No, it's not another puzzle pic, but a brand new art form which we are calling 'car camera doodling'.  The white-on-black scrawligig was produced by a car passenger holding a camera on a half-minute time exposure to the windscreen of the moving car along Leicester's London Road.  The varying squiggle design was made by lights of other cars ahead through a camera shuddering itself under impact of Leicester's bumpy roads.  The result: A careless, surrealistic picture in the night.  Painted, it would probably fetch a fortune in the trendy art world." (Leicester Mercury, 5/9/69)

* Some of the interviews contained in 'Perfect Binding' were originally partly aired on William English's long-running radio series Wavelength on Resonance 104.4FM.

'Perfect Binding: Made in Leicester' is out now.

Sunday 10 November 2019

Thwarted and Unthwarted Histories: Sound archaeology, and a digression on a Neoist curator

This blog has a recurring theme of 'failed histories', i.e., forgotten stories that hang by the tiniest of threads discoverable only by meticulous scrounging.  Last week I gave a talk covering some of these - 'Thwarted Histories of Electronic Music' - at a salon in Copenhagen organised by The Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology / Institut for Dansk Lydarkaeologi as part of the Gong Tomorrow festival.  'Thwarted histories' was chosen as a title instead of 'failed histories' to provide increased melodrama; 'thwarted' suggests an antagonist...  some sort of external force that acts to condemn things to obscurity.  Maybe this force is traditionalism?  Or prejudice?  Or apathy?

Whatever the thwarting agency may be, the Institut for Dansk Lydarkaeologi (aka IDL) situate themselves in opposition to it.  IDL are dedicated to reviving the legacies of early sonic experimenters whose activities have been neglected (they'll be presenting their researches at Cafe Oto on the 28th November).  IDL's Copenhagen salon was held at the uppermost floor of Huset-KBH, a large old venue with the forthrightly-named 'Bastard Cafe' on the ground floor - the entire place exudes a cyberpunky warmth, or 'hygge'.  Tantalising Danish-language talks included composer Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen on his work with the Gruppen for Alternativ Musik, singer-songwriter Marie Eline Hansen performing fully-conceived reconstructions of obscure pieces originally by Lene Adler Petersen and Henning Christiansen.  Also, IDL's Jonas Olesen presented his intensive researches into acoustical engineer/therapist Christian A. Volf's electronic sound activities stretching back to the 1930s.  Chatting afterwards, Olesen described his excavations into uncharted archaeological strata - it reminded me that the most tenacious historians are often the ones working independently of academia.  Other IDL members Rasmus, Magnus, and Mikkel spoke on the current culture of reissuing rare, out-of-print material (IDL are also a label).

IDL also diffused the 1978 four-channel Bent Lorentzen work Visions (IDL are about to reissue his electronic works).  Bent Lorentzen is a Danish composer who would perhaps be better-known to the English-speaking musical world if only his promised book 'The New Music Theory' had appeared.  Until this salon, my only knowledge of Bent Lorentzen was of this unobtainable unicorn.  Lorentzen's nonexistent 'New Music Theory' is cited by British electronic composer Daphne Oram in her idiosyncratic 1972 work 'An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics' as dealing with "acoustics, electronics and the psychology of music" and, according to Oram, will "soon appear in English" published by J. & W. Chester Ltd.  Lorentzen's publication seems to have been 'thwarted' for unclear reasons.

Two other English-language talks at the IDL salon were illuminating regarding the dynamics of research/sound-archaeology and information dissemination: Felix Kubin gave a poignant, entertaining presentation on the perverseness of the cassette medium and Germany's cassette culture, developed under the spectre of cold war nuclear annihilation (as also detailed in Kubin's Chromdioxidgedächtnis CD+tape artefact on Gagarin Records), and earlier in the evening, following on from IDL's discussion on reissue culture, sound archivist Andrea Zarza Canova was interviewed by IDL's Jan Høgh Stricker about her Mana Records label she co-founded in 2017 (releasing both old and new works: Benedict Drew's abstract electronic protest music Crawling Through Tory Slime is a modern favourite).

Andrea Zarza Canova's descriptions of her early navigations in experimental music were refreshingly evocative.  She explained that several years ago, she'd regularly visit the online repository for avant-garde music, UbuWeb, where one user named 'Continuo' showcased offbeat and rare materials that resonated with her interests.  Over time, Zarza Canova struck up a correspondence with this uploader, who turned out to be a French collector, which led to the first Mana Records release: a reissue of Pierre Mariétan's rare 1987 urban soundscape composition Rose des vents.  The French collector assisted in establishing contact with the original composer, and so a vanished artefact was able to re-materialise as an artefact once again.

Collectors and archivists provide lifelines to imperilled musics on the brink of oblivion.  Zarza Canova's story gave me flashbacks of my pre-YouTube mp3-trading adventures in online IRC chatrooms, or file-sharing service Napster in the mid-2000s... and negotiating with certain users in possession of untold rarities.  This was a rite of passage for a certain generation.  I had often wondered who these esteemed users were - what were their stories?  How did they obtain these rare recordings?  I had the impression that they must've been associated with the artists, or possibly were the artists themselves.  They were loath to chat.  I remember one whose upload speed was only ~10kB per minute: a cause for much distress, since the user had the apparent entirety of cassette releases from It's War Boys - post-punk label I coveted.  "Patience" he urged me.

This blogpost is getting nostalgic.  To counteract this, I should present a present-day wonder: a digression on a collector/uploader operating today...  There is a YouTube user who curates one of the most extraordinary experimental audio collections available online: 'celestialrailroad', who began uploading in 2012.  Much of this channel's content makes the It's War Boys label look like Parlophone.  In 2017, celestialrailroad was almost derailed by the Arts Council-funded Lux organisation making heavy-handed copyright strikes against the channel, temporarily disabling all its content.  I intuited that after this near-calamity celestialrailroad reached even deeper underground towards more wayward things still.  The channel's breadth is extensive - there are It's War Boys relics of course, along with big name experimentalists such as Walter Marchetti, Bob Cobbing, Ian Breakwell, etc., but there are gobsmacking obscurities too; one-off slices of life such as found audio cassette journals, or recordings of aeroplane shows.  Whoever is behind celestialrailroad has a finely-tuned sense of what's what...  A sense of the 'pre-internet perverse' - a sort of authentic, jolting waywardness: off-grid activities somewhere between the definition of 'art' and 'a cause for concern', like something coming through your letterbox in the dead of night wrapped in tinfoil.  Sumptuous grit... (if this makes any sense).

As with the online IRC and Napster archivists of yore, I began to wonder about the character behind the collection.  In February 2018 celestialrailroad uploaded one of the taped phone calls of Captain Maurice Seddon (Royal Signals, retired) from The Seddon Tapes Volume I (on Paradigm Discs).  I'd worked on the audio segues on this LP with William English, the custodian of the Seddon archives (Seddon was the inventor of heated clothing).  English and I vaguely theorised that the head of Paradigm Discs, Clive Graham, could be celestialrailroad.  After talking to Graham at The Wire magazine's Xmas party in 2018, he denied this, but the plot thickened: he too was curious about the channel's mastermind and had been able to discover that it was run by somebody called Wirb Neug, who also had another YouTube channel of the same name, and a Facebook page.

This new information simply raised more questions.  Wirb Neug's Facebook revealed interests in spoken word and rare poetry ephemera, particularly Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum and its milieu, and also the work of provocative playwright Edward Bond.  Among this were status updates on things such as smells emitted by co-workers, photos of a clothes hanger, a re-posting of an old memory about being woken by the sound of a neighbour vomiting.  It was all fascinating.  Many references went over my head.  Further investigations seemed futile - Wirb Neug/celestialrailroad seems to be ensconced in the traditions of Neoism: exactnesses evaporate.  Mirages abound.  Poetry is everywhere.  The following oblique bundle of facts may illustrate the potential complexity: The Celestial Railroad is a modernist piano piece by Charles Ives, based on a short work of fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is itself presented as a dream, which constitutes a parody of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which is, in turn, an allegory.  The channel takes its name from this.

I had pondered whether celestialrailroad could be more than one person, especially as there's one exchange on Wirb Neug's Instagram where a user assuming Wirb to be the creator of a post's content (a Graf Haufen/Karsten Rodemann nugget) receives a reply where Wirb claims to be "a young Croatian woman" living in Berlin.  This is plausible.  But one day, in May 2019, a live video was uploaded (quite uncharacteristic of celestialrailroad)...  It was a Cafe Oto gig with Akio Suzuki, Aki Onda and David Toop, where I just happened to be present.  I remember noticing the person filming, sitting directly opposite me at the other end of the room - and it was neither Graf Haufen nor a young woman, but a youngish man with glasses, probably in his 30s, which jarred with my imagined vision of celestialrailroad as being of an older generation (I believe there are generational boundaries inhibiting acquisition of certain rare materials for specific age-groups - this is observable somewhat in the antiquarian book world, but I digress).  Was this Wirb Neug?  The obsession was nearing an answer...

My Oscillatorial Binnage bandmate Toby Clarkson was in attendance at that Oto gig too, seated beside me.  I asked him to scrutinise all the photos he'd taken that evening, but alas, as an experimental photographer, his leftfield sensibilities compelled him to document only the floor of the venue.  The best photo he obtained merely shows Akio Suzuki's legs as he reaches into his box of soundmaking tools.  The photo is a few hundred pixels shy of capturing celestialrailroad's shoes at the upper right-hand corner.  See below:

Additional contemplation at this time leads to the conclusion that further evidence remains unknown and may remain so.

Appreciate the sonic rescuings of celestialrailroad and Wirb Neug on YouTube.

Sunday 11 August 2019

Excess all Areas - Explosives in Music (The Wire #427)

September's The Wire magazine is packed with essays on audio excess.  The issue is the thematic inverse of last year's Minimalism special (to which I contributed a short text on silence broadcast over the radio).  The opposite noisy extreme is explored this month, where I supply a piece looking at the history of explosives in music - titled 'Bomb Culture' - among many other eye/ear-opening contemplations on overwhelmingness.

This explosives+music history is compressed to bursting-point onto a single page.  One enjoyable example that didn't make the cut (deemed more fire-based than explosive-based) was Michel Moglia's 'L'Orgue a Feu'.  A whole book could be written on the subject...  Aside from everything mentioned in The Wire text, there were of course unintentional explosions in musical contexts too: dangerous blasts from mishandled limelight in Victorian music-halls, exploding magic lantern projectors, etc.  Also, of particular relevance to this Miraculous Agitations blog (where post-electronic soundmaking is the order of the day) are early 20th century pre-electronic endeavours to harness the power of explosive potential as an amplifying agent; pneumatic amplifier technologies (such as compressed air gramophones) powered by compressed air cylinders.

Very fleetingly, the rise of outdoor military quadrille bands in the mid-19th century is cited in The Wire piece (exploring the reasons for such bands' popularity at this time is another story).  It may appear that this aesthetic dogged all explosive+music alliances, most visibly in 1980s industrial music's camo-sporting, goose-stepping, theatrical edgelording (where explosives were often detonated indoors).  All this twitchy militarism may give the misleading impression that musical explosivity is an unhinged, particularly masculine quirk, but assumptions are always crying out to be unpicked...  Readers are advised to seek The Wire #427 to learn more...

Suffice to say, regular visitors to this blog know that I regularly excavate pre-electronic electro-musical culture.  Many of the late 19th century 'electrical music' performers happened to be fond of detonating small bombs via their electrical instruments - the effect was epitomised by Dot D'Alcorn's and Maud Irving's variety acts.  The bulk of my research on this, drawn from archives of rare materials, was self-published as 'The Magnetic Music of the Spiritual World' (bankrupting me in the process).  That 2015 paperback was intended as a sort of draft to hawk around publishers, and I had hoped - and still hope - that a publisher will take the opportunity engage me to get my original researches on their roster.  I trust it's not excessively vulgar to remind prospective publishers of this work, which is busting for wider aeration... otherwise I may explode from the pressure.

Read more in this month's The Wire #427 - 'Excess All Areas'

Sunday 28 July 2019

A Postmodern Cut-Up Text from 1860: 'A Strange Composition' in The Brighton Examiner

Old volumes of The Brighton Examiner are held only by the British Library.  Most are 'restricted access' - their bindings are too fragile for readers to handle.  None are yet digitised.  Through persevering applications, I was recently able to view some 1860s volumes in person.  The newspaper of January 3rd 1860 happens to contain a startlingly postmodern emission, constituting a deliberately mangled text-palimpsest that seemed interesting enough to present here (see below).  But first, I should explain why I was leafing through this restricted newspaper in the first place...

An ongoing project of mine involves close-reading anonymous autobiographies to uncover authors' identities using search macros within digital archives.  Systematically inputting details - dates and places - into databases can triangulate identities in ways scarcely imaginable to those anonymous writers of old.  Sometimes however, progress is scuppered by brick walls: authors may deliberately fabricate biographical details, or, more problematically, the resources that may contain the necessary data might not even be digitised yet.

Roundabout Gossip (1862)
One difficult book beset by both these issues is 'Roundabout Gossip' (1862) published by J. F. Eyles in Brighton.  It contains 158 pages of barbed gossip, featuring thinly veiled references to literary figures, such as travel writer Lady Sydney Morgan, and proto-sociologist Harriet Martineau.  Its narrator calls himself/herself "Timothy Fitzwiggins" of the fictitious "Blackberry Park" in Gloucestershire.  Much like if Frederick Marryat decided to remain anonymous after publishing his fictitious 1829 first-person story 'Frank Mildmay', the red herrings amidst the rich detail leave future researchers lost at sea.  Searching with doubtful data yields only noise and confusion.

A more sensible person would give up at this point, but the book roused curiosity, so I continued digging around.  One possible way of shedding light upon the author of 'Roundabout Gossip' might be through investigating its curious publisher, John Frederick Eyles of 77 North Street, Brighton.  J. F. Eyles was a printer who also published The Brighton Examiner newspaper.  It appears to be the only newspaper in the world to have mentioned 'Roundabout Gossip', appraising it as "a most amusing and agreeable contribution to the light literature of the day".  In business since 1844, J. F. Eyles was suddenly declared bankrupt in July 1860.  'Roundabout Gossip' appeared in the summer of 1862, and though it's unlikely that Eyles wrote the book himself, it's plausible that one of his creditors devised it as a vanity project in lieu of payment (particularly as it was reported that Eyles had secured an amicable arrangement with his creditors in September 1860).

Cheap-paper Literature... (1861)
Throughout this troubled period, Eyles continued to publish The Brighton Examiner, but the only other recorded publication with Eyles' imprint from around this time is a 12-page pamphlet titled 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' (1861): an auction-room dialogue satirising modern literary trends.  I believe the 'Roundabout Gossip' author also wrote this anonymous pamphlet - some phrases are identical.  Both this pamphlet and 'Roundabout Gossip' are characterised by a grappling with modernity: the elderly author is cynical of mass-market literature, the rise of public lecturing, evolutionary theory, progressive religious "Neology", etc.  Both publications actually hover in a satirisation feedback loop, not least because they are both themselves products of modern media (for the 1860s).  'Cheap-paper Literature...' is published on cheap paper.

No libraries hold 'Roundabout Gossip'.  The British Library is the only institution holding both 'Cheap-paper Literature at the Hammer' and copies of The Brighton Examiner (which began circulation in 1853).  For the past year, I've been pestering the library and the British Newspaper Archive to digitise the 1860s issues of The Brighton Examiner.  A special request to view the physical volumes was generously granted by the library a few months ago.  I had hoped that by looking at them, familiar Gossipy phrases might leap out the page, or recurring names might provide a lead, but the mystery of 'Roundabout Gossip' was not solved.

Physically searching newspapers reveals unexpected things.  With modernity in mind, and by way of stressing the interestingness of The Brighton Examiner, I present this highly unusual column that caught the eye: the first issue of 1860 contains a text described tongue-in-cheekly as a tipsy New Year's Eve reveller's "wild bit of writing" found on the pavement "in a wet and dirty condition" on the morning of New Years Day.  It is actually a string of garbled adverts and news items from previous issues - it prefigures the 'cheap paper literature' cut-ups of the next century.

Journalistic Jumbles (1884)
This is not the earliest pre-postmodern anachronism - E.T.A Hoffmann's 1820 satirical novel 'The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr' is often cited in this respect (in which two autobiographies are supposedly merged by accident) - but this Brighton Examiner editorial nugget is a curio, and certainly of a more artistic, laboured origin than examples in the typo-celebrating 'Journalistic Jumbles, or Trippings in Type' of 1884 (which it reminded me of).  The Brighton Examiner's 'Strange Composition' column reads thus:


The following wild bit of writing is said to have formed part of the contents of a bundle of papers picked up on the pave, on Tuesday last, in a wet and dirty condition, by an early matutinal stroller.  The writer, whoever he may be, had rather evidently been "dining out," which, as Monday was a holiday, may to a certain extent be excusable, and hence apparently the general obscurity as to meaning or intention which pervades the composition.  The intelligent reader is invited to make what he can out of it, and so no more of preface.

- Good dinner - Nice wine - read Brighton Examiner - write to the Editor - second bottle - on Monday the powder mills at Hounslow blew up - being St. Patrick's day - Lord Palmerston enquired - if you really want pure gin - aged 76, married to a young girl of 18 - Holloway's pills - gratis to sufferers - Benson's watches - pains in the back - deposit and discount bank - a quantity of new sovereigns were issued at - five shillings a bushel to the poor - selling off at cost price - a railway truck accident - was convicted for keeping a disorderly house - mayor and principal resident gentry took - Kaye's Worsdell's pills - Thorley's food for cattle - committed for trial - Abraham's 16s 6d trousers - a saving of 7d to 1s per pound - to the great joy of the noble family - extra Christmas Holiday - now lying at the London Docks, copper-bottomed - Soup for the Poor - the Borough Improvement Bill - last seen in company with - Mary, alias Moll Hacket, alias Black Moll - Mr Nye Chart played the part to perfection, in fact - Reuben Cherriman, the Dentist - J. F. Eyles, General Printer - Allano, the Clown - Canterbury Hall - Absalom Dell - Maynard's Cough Lozenges - will keep good for 10 years, even in the Indies - try a box of - Garlick's best Wall's End - Can produce a good character from his last place - Dr. King's Liver Pills - Rents! Rents!! Rents!!! - Mr L. Christian - An Act of Deep Gratitude, given away, 2,000 - no use to any one but the owner - The Brighton Sauce - N.B. be careful to have the right sort - Brighton Rifle Corps - Sudden Death - Lewes Cattle Show - Two Grand Concerts - taken up for defrauding a Countryman at hussel-cap - A. Bigge - the Mayor - J. Allfree - Assault and Robbery - Drunken Attempt at Suicide - Parish of Brighton - removed to Bath for the benefit of the air - afterwards tossed and gored several persons - A Bull in a China Shop - made a Freemason at the Grand Lodge - Mr Saunders (Blacksmith's Alms), Mr R. Cherriman - Mr Burn, jun., Mr Measor - Mr Willard - and several other highly respectable inhabitants - Remember the Poor at Christmas - A fine turtle, weighing the - creditors of Mary Jones - to be sold to the highest bidder - warranted sound wind and limb - Mr Nye Chart's Christmas Pantomime - An agreeable Young Lady with a fortune of £10,000 - fell down in St. Gile's - a total wreck, but her crew saved - The Pope's Bull - Mr Dewar - Mr R. Marston - Mr Wilson - Mr English - Mr Wheeler - universally respected - roast goose - pork chops - potatoes and greens - mild ale - gin and cloves - Dublin stout - rum and milk - cod liver oil, - Tamplin's mild - Catt's old - Parsons' good chap - out and out Cavendish - none are genuine but such as have - Brighton Examiner - evening concluded with the utmost festivity - jolly companions - won't go home till morning - now number 999 - move on - George Wight - all right - not tight - not a bit - no - no - - report - you - in - the - morn - ing - - bed quite wet - candle top of the gas light - I - sa - y - - - -.

[The remaining portion, occupying 20 sheets of large-sized letter paper, quite unintelligible at present, but when dry, we may be enabled to make out some more.]

Adverts in The Brighton Examiner, 1860, published by J. F. Eyles