‘I dream of wires’ or, how I never became a telephone engineer


         I am the final silence

                                The last electrician alive

                                                And they called me the sparkle

                                                                I was the best, I worked them all

                                                                                                New ways, new ways

                                                                                                                I dream of wires … the old days

                                                                                                                Gary Numan (1980) I Dream Of Wires

New ways, new ways

The mist hanging low in the valley was a familiar sight. But it was the dampness of the air that struck me that morning as we stepped out of the car. The air hung around us, poking tendrils into any building open to its reach. We’d travelled up from the coast, along the valley’s ample, empty dual carriageway and its ridgeline dense with bracken and monolithic spruce plantations. The Japanese were coming…

Gwent – a county now without an official name – typified that post-industrial landscape I’d worked amidst in South Wales in the 1990s. The roads, the low grey ‘business park’ sheds parachuted in by the Welsh Development Agency as the vanguard of hoped for inward investment, like signal flares scattered across this troubled landscape.

I’d first been in this valley in 1992, to visit the Ebbw Vale garden festival. A former steel works site, temporarily tweaked to ornamental gardens in celebration of resurgence yet to come. It had taken two early morning bus rides on that occasion to be standing, in the soon to be familiar mist. And on yet another occasion, this time in the dark, another bus ride – this time a chartered one, taking the creative class out from Cardiff (the imperial enclave) for the evening. The destination then: another abandoned Ebbw Vale steel works but this time a night of experimental theatre, celebrating (or mourning) the death of hot metal in this valley, and a memory of a man – Prometheus – hanging from a gantry crane as it sped overhead during Brith Gof’s performance. Then yet another  day in this valley, civic dignitaries assembled for a visit to the valley’s hazardous waste incinerator, huddled amidst a sea of still amply stocked superscale scrap yards. That plant, a strangely low key assembly for all the local notoriety. Like a few tubes welded together and a big chimney, but all outdoors amidst that mist.

But the destination for my mid 1990s early morning mist enveloped car journey back up this valley road was a nondescript factory unit. Standing at the door of the vast industrial shed, all I could see were conveyor belts and stacks of stock, lines receding into the dark distance. Then, as I walked those lines, women sat, their arms moving in uniform motion – an epitome of the valley’s new working class. But observed up close their actions ran backwards. They were de-manufacturing, taking old telephones apart and throwing the salvaged components into coloured bins. These were disassembly lines. And the stock?:  the nation’s heap of discarded telephones, principally the Series 700 (introduced in 1959) and the Trimphone (released 1966). In 1984 the privatisation of Post Office Telephones had opened the flood gates to an influx of new models, an international direct-to-user explosion of choice.  This heap of phones was testament to the old days – the days of limited model choice, and patient waiting in line. The plant was slowly working through the heap. Once it was gone, they would be gone too.

As I wandered the plant, amidst hundreds of thousands of waiting dead phones, there was no sudden stir in unison, no throwing out of one last resistant death-ring cacophony.

A lineman for the county

                I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road

                                                Searchin’ in the sun for another overload

                                                                I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine

                                                                                                And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

                                                                                                                Jimmy Webb (1968) Wichita Lineman

In the early 1980s, as a young teenager, I’d wanted to be a telephone engineer. I’d written off to the GPO and received a manila envelope (possibly my first) in reply. Inside was a collection of leaflets telling me about the training programme for line engineers – and featuring photographs of the General Post Office Engineering Department Central Training school at Yarnfield near Stone, Staffs.  I saw happy mustachioed young men in flares and open necked shirts playing pool, eating and happily learning about multicoloured wires amidst the campus’ 1960s style wood and metal institutional architecture. The flares put me off a bit, but at the time it looked like a possible career that would set me up with a job for life.

And there was something romantic in it too. That problem solving, service restoring ethic, the mission and tasking, the promise of camaderie, of accumulated skill, of machine/human entanglement. But it was the prospect of a van, copious tools, an open road and a fakir like opportunity to escape the world by clambering up telegraph poles that did it for me the most.   On my way to school my heart would skip a beat as I saw convoys of vans setting off each day from their depot, with cable reels in tow, mounted ladders- a medley of big, small and irregular vehicles each with their own purpose, like a break-out from a toyshop. A Tonka rebellion.

Actually the convoy wasn’t telephonic. The vehicles belonged to the South West Electricity Board, their livery a municipal grey and green giving the whole despatch a vague military hew.  But that daily parade served as a nice proxy.

Somehow the idea faded though. Books took over. I never got a yellow van.  The privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 took something from the romance of being a telephone engineer. It no longer seemed like a public service, an institution, a job for life. Thereafter phones, and phone services were just commodities. My mind turned to other things.

Many of my school friends followed the lure of the van, but into the military rather than BT. Thus in the 1990s whilst I played my small – ambivalent – part in the deindustrialisation of South Wales my friends variously soaked up tank churned mud in Catterick, cheap beer in Rhineland pubs, gamma rays in the bowels of Nuclear Submarines or deadly bullets in ‘small wars’.

Hey baby, I’m your telephone man

But there was another thing that put me off. Being a telephone engineer was a fantasy of escape, of independence and yet it posed (to an innocent 13 year old boy’s mind) the scary prospect of oppressive human encounters within warm homes. I was genuinely fearful of what my customers might demand of me as ‘extras’. Remember, this was the early 1980s, Benny Hill and Robin Askwith (the Confessions of a Window Cleaner etc films) still fed the then still dominant image of the predatory desires of bored housewives and those calling upon them. It all sounded too complex, all this human stuff. There was even a song in testimony to what I feared…

                “I got it in the bedroom, and I got it in the hall

                                And I got it in the bathroom, and he hung it on the wall

                                                I got it with a buzz, and I got it with a ring

                                                                And when he told me what my number was I got a ding-a-ling”

                                                                                                                Meri Wilson (1977) Telephone Man





Image source

GPO Telephone pole man – http://www.dennishanna.com/street%20scene.jpg


‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

‘They came in tiny parachutes

dissolving through the atmosphere

From planes not seen or heard’

Slab (1987) ‘Undriven Snow’


This blog essay is about the atmosphere, specifically the alien-ness of matter in the atmosphere. It is about attitudes towards the vastness of an uninhabitable portion of our world and specifically the material strangeness invoked by news of a gravity defying plan to inject earth into the sky.

Sky – the final frontier

Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has characterised the twentieth century as the era of ‘explication’ of the atmosphere. In his book he points out how during the last century the sky came to be knowable, occupy-able and weaponise-able in ways previously beyond comprehension. Before the ‘modern’ era, the sky was unattainable, majestic and unbounded. The sky was heavenly, or at least a transition to a ‘higher’ realm beyond. Up was blessed, down was cursed. Sky was rampant ‘other’ – nature bringing events to man (life giving rain and sun, and death bringing storm and drought) at times and places of its choosing.

What Sloterdijk presents is a glimpse of how the heavens were brought down to earth, rendered human (or at least brought within the reach of human influence) during the last 100 years. He builds his argument around the advent of airborne warfare, and specifically chemical warfare (direct attack against atmosphere’s life sustaining properties). I instead want to look at human interaction with the sky from the perspective of atmospheric engineering, specifically via one ubiquitous powder, nano particles of titanium dioxide.

Titania’s white power

I’ve been preparing a lecture this week in which I’m trying to show the breadth of environmental law in a very short teaching slot. I’ve chosen titanium dioxide as a case study, and I’m really glad that I’ve taken my investigation in that direction. Because TiO2 offers even more holistic weirdness than I’d thought it would.

Titanium dioxide (otherwise known as Titania), is a mineral pigment made from titanium ore. The ore is extracted from the ground in vast open mines, it is then shipped around the world to large energy (and acid) guzzling production sites. The resulting pigment gives plastics and rubber opacity and whiteness and is used in a diverse range of everyday products such as art paints, printing inks, paper, ceramics, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food (where its presence is as food additive ‘E171’). Our modern world would look very different without this white power additive. In the US per capita titanium dioxide ‘consumption’ is 3.4kg per year (est. 1991).

Titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, and over 90% of extracted ore is processed into millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide pigment. It was adopted in the twentieth century as a replacement for the toxic pigment, white lead. First extracted from ore in 1908, commercial pigment production commenced in 1918. In the 1990s it was discovered that titanium dioxide when irradiated by sunlight has photocatalytic and hydrophilic effects which have now been commercialised into coatings that rendering glass ‘self-cleaning’, and enable coated paving slabs in Japan to ‘eat’ atmospheric pollution (Emsley 2012).

Painting the sky

It is a proposal to inject millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a way of tackling climate change that has caught my attention. Ker Than (2012) describes a plan proposed by Davidson Technology, to disperse the white power using high-altitude balloons so as to form a sunscreen layer a millionth of a millimetre thick that would absorb and reflect sunlight, offsetting some of the climate changing global warming effects attributable to greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from other human activities. Titanium dioxide has the highest refractive index amongst known materials – it is the whitest of whites (although some TiO2 nano-particles are actually transparent: TDMA 2012).

Than’s depiction of the delivery method, of hoses flying up skyward, paints a surreal picture – very Dali-esque (or Heath-Robinson, take your pick):

For Davidson’s project, a slurry containing titanium dioxide would be pumped skyward via flexible pipes, which would be hoisted aboard unmanned balloons flying about 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. A “hypersonic nozzle” would then spray the slurry as fine particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

Than also notes that this would be a long term project – the injection having to continue for centuries until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reduce (which would require changes to on-the-ground manufacturing and carbon dependency).

According to Than Davidson estimates his own plan’s costs as around $900 million per year, plus up to $3 billion per year for the titanium dioxide. Presently (2010 figures) world production of this mineral powder is just under 4 million tons (1.48 million from US production sources, 2.19 million from China), with five multinational companies having a 64% market share (Mowat 2012). Taking the current price per ton as around $3,000 (Hemmerling 2011) this suggests the plan would require an extra 1 million ton of titanium dioxide to be produced each year, with an attendant 20% increase in ore mining, processing and distribution of this white dust to the remote balloon launch sites from which it would be shuttled and pumped up into the sky.

Matter out of place       

As an environmental lawyer what strikes me about this potential interplay between mineral earth and sky is the fine line between pollution and ‘solution’. As Mary Douglas (1966: 50) said, dirt is “matter out of place”. It’s all about context. Intentionally injecting titanium dioxide into the atmosphere is portrayed in Davidson’s plan as environmental augmentation of the air, yet more often the titanium dioxide industry has been framed as a polluter of land and water. Depending on the precise production techniques used titanium dioxide production waste includes dilute sulphuric acid, solid residue (chloride or sulphate salts), ore and pigment dust and gaseous emissions (Lane 1991).

The titanium dioxide industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to be singled out for special legislative attention by the European Commission. In 1972 Corsica brought legal proceedings against an Italian titanium dioxide plant following sufferance of ‘red mud’ discharges afflicting the Mediterranean coast (production of each ton of the white powder produces a greater volume of waste that has to be disposed of, traditionally via pumping it into the sea)(Hague 1992). The Commission was concerned that inter-state disputes about this aquatic pollution could undermine the harmony of European trade in this increasingly important industrial commodity and thus a Directive was issued in 1978 to harmonise how each member state should regulate these plants and their emissions. Subsequent Directives focused upon environmental monitoring of the effects of permitted disposal routes for this waste, including dumping on land or injecting it into the soil.

These measures were early instances of international environmental law – born of a realisation that drifting plumes of red mud have no notion of national borders. As with the sea, so with the sky. Pollution emissions or remedial nano particle infusions into the sky would also need international consensus before emission, for clouds will drift where they will.

Aerography and appreciating the alien-ness of the sky

In the twentieth century we came to view ‘airspace’ as national territory, rather than private property. Technically, under English common law principles (as recorded by William Blackstone in 1769), a landowner owns the column of air above his land, right up to the ‘top’ of the sky. Whilst legislation abrogates this principle in order to allow aviation to cross his airspace, no provision has yet been made to allow the installation of an upper atmosphere sun shield above plots of land. Outer space (the space beyond atmosphere) is via international treaty terra nullis, owned by no-one. But in theory at least airspace within the atmosphere is private property of the surface owner.

Ownership of the sky is pretty irrelevant unless you can defeat gravity. The sky is not naturally inhabitable or meaningfully possessible. Matter is not normally installable in the sky. Gravity is a timeless force that normally keeps our thoughts, actions and concerns at or near ground level. But the titanium dioxide plan, is another instance of the gravity defying explication of the sky that Sloterdijk has conceptualised, and if ever implemented would have material consequences upon the ground (more titanium ore mining, more processing, more soil and water pollution, more energy consumption) and also novel legal ramifications in terms of sky-ownership.

Perhaps the danger here is that – via this march of explication – we are trying to conceptually and physically approach the sky as we do land. Introducing a collection of essays acknowledging geography’s fixation with the geo (i.e. land and matter)Jackson & Fannin (2011) speculate on what a genuinely understanding ‘aerography’ would need to look like, and how it would to differ from geography in order to break free of what Henri Bergson called ‘the logic of solids’.

We would laugh if anyone were to suggest that the sky was a solid, but if we are at the brink of demarking it as territory into which material can be permanently inserted then we are at risk of transposing that solids logic into an alien world to which it may never be suited, regardless of the reach of our gravity defying technologies.

The permanent colonisation of sky-space by matter could also, of course, have unforeseeable chemical and/or climactic effects. In time would have to reap what we sow: the atmosphere might resist the explicatory logic of the human plan and reassert its sovereignty of the sky.  Perhaps here we can leave the last word to another Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i):

“…the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.”


References and sources:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Emsley, J. (2012) ‘Fujishima is suggested as a possible Nobel Prize winner “for the discovery of photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide known as the Honda-Fujishima Effect” Science Watch, http://sciencewatch.com/nobel/predictions/titanium-dioxide-photocatalysis

Hague, N. (1992) Manual of Environmental Policy: the EC and Britain, Longman: London.

Hemmerling, K. (2011) ‘Titanium Dioxide could give these 10 stocks a boost’ http://seekingalpha.com/article/259447-titanium-dioxide-could-give-these-10-stocks-a-boost

Jackson, M & Fannin, M (2011) ‘Letting geography fall where it may – aerographies address the elemental’ Environment & Planning D: Society & space, 29, 435-444

Lane, D.A. (1991) ‘Pollution caused by waste from the titanium dioxide industry – Directive 89/428’ Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14(2) 425-434

Mowat, R. (2012) ‘TiO2 Titanium Dioxide Companies’ http://www.vanadiumsite.com/titanium-dioxide/ti02-companies/

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror From the Air, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles (trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran)

Than, K. (2012) ‘Sunscreen in the sky? Reflective particles may combat warming’ National Geographic Daily News http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2012/05/120529-global-warming-titanium-dioxide-balloons-earth-environment-science/

TDMA (Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association) (2012) About Titanium Dioxide TDMA web site: http://www.tdma.info/

Photo credit: Nikki Clayton – http://www.flickr.com/photos/clikkinayton/8144742751/sizes/z/in/photostream/

‘Until at last the swollen gasometer came into view’: thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of industrial estates

“Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate”

Ever since I first heard it late one night on a TV documentary sometime in the 1990s the early Fall song ‘Industrial Estate’ (1979) has captivated me. It bubbles up in my mind from time to time, reminding me that one day I need to figure out the anti-aesthetics of the industrial estate. Why, are these places so, ‘non’. Why, to most, are they zones bereft of any value at all? Why did my father wince every time someone mentioned manufacturing or industry?

In the monotony of this song I thought I’d heard a lone-voice call for the valorisation of spaces of light engineering and logistics, a call to acknowledge the everyday mundane reality of these places. In a way I had – but I think my southern ears had also read-in something extra, something not to the fore in late 1970s Manchester. An early nostalgic ruin porn perhaps, something captured – for post-industrial posterity – in the irony of @VenusInGortex’s   recent tweet-haiku:

“We penetrated deeper into the industrial estate,

its graffiti pregnant with mystery,

until at last the swollen gasometer came into view… “

Lucifer over Lancashire

According to Reynolds (2005) Industrial Estate “immortalized the pollution-belching Trafford Park” (174), pointing to the song’s line “The crap in the air will fuck up your face”. No, perhaps this wasn’t a whilstful psychogeographical ode to the beauty of the banal after all. This was actually an angry realism. Geo-reportage, in keeping with the post-punk angst, a song in fragments about going to work in this work-world:

“Well you started here to earn your pay
Clean neck and ears on your first day
Well we tap one another as you walk in the gate
And we’d build a canteen but we haven’t got much space”

This was remembered place of work and worthlessness. Smith had worked as a clerk at nearby Salford Docks (the early Fall song ‘Container Drivers’ capturing that lifeworld perfectly). This was part of a mid twentieth century working-day reality. By Smith’s teens “Dark satanic mills” of the Victorian mill towns of Lancashire had been augmented by the engineering and logistics sheds of the vast Trafford Park industrial estate, which had grown and grown from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Betjeman over Berkshire

Lowry could paint these places, Smith would later write elliptically of their last days, and poets would at times venture to depict them with alienated anti-wonder:

 “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath…”

So wrote John Betjeman in his 1937 anti-eulogy to Slough and its industrial estate (the largest in Europe). Betjeman’s association of bombs and industrial estate was a surprisingly fitting one for the one thing that connects many industrial estates (and certainly the first wave of sites like Slough, Park Royal and others on the London periphery) is their link to either munitions manufacture and/or marshalling materiel for onward shipment to the Western Front in the First World War. By 1918 the Government had built 240 munitions related factories, many of which drifted into industrial estate type use after that war (just as RAF airfields did in turn after 1945). By 1918 the Slough site was home to 17,000 army surplus vehicles and 1.8 million sq ft of covered workshops. The site had been acquired (as a farm) by the government in order to amass vehicles there for a proposed motor-borne assault in the Western Front in 1919. In 1920 a group of investors bought up that stock, and the land on which they sat, first selling the vehicles and then mobilising the land as an estate for industry and its sheds.

Such places were ripe for development as monocultural light industrial zones, Ebenexer Howard’s advocacy of zoning based urban planning finding traction in the ensuing decades (aided by the rise of the motorised distribution of goods and workers). In the 1930s a second wave of government initiated industrial estates were developed, such as Treforest in South Wales, to address the decline of primary industry there.

During the Second World War large swathes of manufacturing capacity across the country, and its attendant real estate were requisition (or contracted into) the war effort. This was occasionally laid bare for me when I was working as a lawyer, somewhere buried in the ownership paperwork for a site would be a wartime lease revealing the factory’s temporary secondment as a Spitfire factory, or paperwork revealing (the once top secret) fuel and other supply pipelines laid to keep the nation’s vital industrial fluids flowing.

Enchanting the estate

In their book Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology(2000) Stratton & Trinder seek to raise the banner for the importance of industrial estates in the story of the last 100 years, to foreground the engineering works, the canning factory, the munitions shed and the rise of logistics. Fittingly they set out to challenge:

“the conventional wisdom in deploring certain aspects of the twentieth century – the monotony of work in car factories or the horrors of living in towerblocks…”

As their method they advocate writing:

“…from the first hand experience of sites and landscapes…taking a sceptical, irreverent and sometimes counter-intuitive attitude to received views of twentieth-century artefacts and places.”(2)

It may feel odd to do so, rubbing as it does against modern sensibilities, but industrial estates deserve their fair share of attention – and given some attention they will coyly reveal more colour than their drab forms and colours might at a first glance promise.


Reynolds, S. (2005) Rip it up and start again – post-punk 1978-1984, Faber & Faber: London

Stratton, B. & Trinder, B. (2000) Twentieth century industrial archaeology, E&FN Spon: London

Wikipedia “Slough Trading Estate”

a.k.a New Uses for Old Bunkers #27: what did the industrial estate do in the war?

Aural history – time travel, double glazing and the lost sounds of the Seventies

“…how do we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong sense of place?” (Toop, 2007: 112)

This blog-essay is about everyday soundscapes, what causes them, how they can be charted and why and how they disappear.

The drop forge in the valley

 “I remember lying in bed at night and listening to the drop forges drifting across the valleys.” (PoS 2012)

So recalls Martyn Ware, a founding member of the first incarnation of Sheffield’s electro-pop pioneers The Human League. Ware accounts for the percussive influence of Sheffield’s then remaining heavy industry upon their early dystopian music, a musical transcription of the pounding of the city’s foundries’ drop forges which is particularly to the fore in their early song ‘Almost Medieval’ (1979). To this stentorian beat Phil Oakey narrates the tale of an unsettling journey back in time to the pre-modern era, thus:

 “step off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit

 Behind the office swings the man on the gibbet…”

The point is made clear at the outset, for the League the past was grimmer (and grimier) than we might like to think, and everything was different there. In this early version of the world all the modern certainties are gone, and everything is degenerated. It is also sensorially different – it is a world of alien sights, smells and sounds. This is a “small world, dimly viewed through cataracts.”

I too caught a brief aural glimpse of Sheffield’s dull industrial thud when I first arrived here a decade ago. Early, on still summer mornings, already half awoken by vicious sunlight streaming through thin curtains, I would be fully roused by the kicking into life of the last remaining drop forge down in the valley. In response I bought blackout curtains and secondary double glazing. But still this behemoth found its way to me, the sheer force of this power press’s vibration through the neighbourhood’s ground and onward into the fabric of my home and the soft tissues of my head. After a couple of summers of annoyance the forge closed and eventually its structures were demolished. The site now sits empty and weed ridden, a scrub-gap between the local KFC and B&Q.

Listening again to ‘Almost Medieval’ a few weeks ago got me thinking about the soundscapes of my own past, and of their unattainability. The Human League portrayed their imagined trip back in time as considerably less than pleasurable. But it is the alien quality of the experience (rather than its repulsion) that intrigues me the most. In response to the song I recall a soundscape experienced from my childhood bedroom. A sound finding its way into that room via the windows. A particular set of sounds – cars ascending a gentle rise, driving up the valley in which my suburban home was situated. A particular car and engine tone, a particular interaction of rubber on tarmac, a particular reverberation of that sound within the funnel of the valley. This was all delivered into my bedroom until we got secondary double glazing (and a few years later proper double glazing – the old ‘crittall’ metal single glazed frames having finally been removed). On the arrival of these enhanced interfaces, those sounds faded from the sensory experience of being in that room. Only on summer days with the windows open would that outdoor soundscape tentatively venture inside again.

The impossibility of reclaiming soundscapes

So, I started wondering whether – if I went back to that house now and opened the window – would I hear that soundscape again?

I don’t think I would, and here’s why, a combination of reasons:

1)      As we age our hearing capabilities change. The range of our hearing recedes. Only the truly young can hear into the high pitch spectrum. So, if I went back now there are acoustic fractions of the soundscape that I simply could not register anymore, no matter how much I might want to.

2)      Cars have changed. So have their engines and the petrol inside them. Lead free fuel burns differently, engines are more powerful and the gentle rise is now achieved in lower gear than that prevalent in my childhood.

3)      There are more cars. There would be more traffic noise. A more complex set of sounds than the lone small car that I nostalgically imagine drifting past my window.

4)      The arrangement of gardens has changed. Many of the front garden trees have been removed to create car ports. Those that remain are bigger. Back gardens are now more paved, and the pigeon lofts at the top of many of them when I was young have decayed into nothing. All of these factors would result in a different echo profile for the car-sounds within that valley.

5)      Extension of the surrounding suburbs has reduced the proximity of that street to the countryside, resulting in fewer birds and their song (and less variety of those birds that are still there).

So, those sounds, and the environment that combined to produce and propagate them, have gone. Travelling in space to the place where those sounds once were will not achieve rediscovery of that soundscape, even if the double glazing is removed, or the window flung open. These then were the sounds of the Seventies, a product of a moment in time and its physical (and human) parts.

Sound and the Seventies

I recall also that there was a portion of that childhood soundscape that came only at night: Concorde’s sonic boom as its shot overhead Atlantic-ward. Unlike the gentle rumble of suburban traffic noise, the arrival of the sonic boom with the launch of Concorde’s supersonic trans Atlantic service from 1976 proved to be a very public, and hotly debated, development in the national soundscape, and noise pollution came to be THE pre-eminent environmental issue for much of that decade, before declining subsequently to its more recent ‘cinderella’ status.

During the late 1960s a number of developments co-incided to raise noise’s profile. Concorde and the ‘threat’ of supersonic aviation was one. The ‘great’ motorway building phase was another. In turn these developments led to new laws focussed on control of construction site noise, occupational noise exposure and principles of compensation for land blighted by these new noise-bearing transportation schemes. Meanwhile technical standards and controls started to appear by which the permitted noise emissions of vehicles and other machines came under control. Noise – for a while – was a very hot political topic.

I have a copy of a 1971 book, The Assaults on our Senses by John Barr. Evidently Mr Barr had already made something of a career out of chronicling the way that the modern world was dragging everything to hell, his previous work having been titled Derelict Britain. Barr’s 1971 book attempted a sensory engagement with environmental problems as they were then framed in public consciousness. First, he presented sight and squalor offending that dominant sense. Then he moved on to hearing, and the offence of noise. In doing so he drew a distinction between ‘noise on the ground’ and ‘noise in the air’. In his discourse upon aviation noise Barr was very much ‘of his time’, with anxieties about the imminent introduction of Concorde’s transatlantic flights, the feared impact of its sonic booms upon dairy herds and human mental health to the fore. Evocative campaign groups, long since gone, are name-checked in his book: the British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (founded 1966), the Anti-Concorde Project (1967) and the UK Federation Against Aircraft Nuisance (1968).

But for Barr:

“Not even the thunderclaps of super-sonic airliners in the 70s will displace ground-level noise as the most continuously irritating, physically and psychologically damaging, ingredient of Britain’s urban climate” (71)

Barr draws a bleak picture of a world drowning in sound, of industrialists rubbing their hands with joy at the productive clamour of their workshops, and of a cacophony of cars. But amidst this assault on noise, Barr momentarily falters, acknowledging the habituation of most to the everyday sounds of life, and chillingly depicts the horror of pure silence, the sensory deprivation of a sound-proofed chamber in which a subject is left alone with only his heart beat, breathing and the movement of his eyelids as acoustic companion. Even Barr concedes that sometimes, some sound may be better than none at all.

But like Barr, most of the debate (and legislation) about noise, as originally and influentially framed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still focuses resolutely on noise as ‘pollution’, noise as something undesirably and that threats to the tranquillity of silence. This approach remains evident in the urban noise mapping required by EU derived ambient noise mapping laws – the map as a register of zones requiring action (‘acoustical planning’) to reduce ambient noise and thereby improve human qualities of life.

Silence, and the individualisation of soundscapes was often what these laws and policies espoused. And here I think of Richard Sennett, who portrayed evidence of a widespread retreat from the public realm in his The Fall of Public Man (2003). Whilst he used the notion of individuals retreating into their homes and shutting out the ‘public’ world outside metaphorically, as symptomatic of a wider retreat from living with a public realm, we can actually take this image literally. There was a physical retreat, an attempt to block out the world beyond the private realm of the home: this was the rise of double glazing in the 1970s.

Yes the double glazing craze was partly driven by energy efficiency (the 1973 energy crises certainly focussed the minds of homeowners on their spiralling fuel costs), and a vague sense of being ‘modern’ via home improvement – but there was also much made of the new technology’s ability to muffle the home against the noise of the outside world too. It is no coincidence that the raft of compulsory purchase laws made in the early 1970s, and their calibration of compensation principles for homeowners afflicted in the wake of new motorway schemes and airport expansion often offered up double (sometimes triple) glazing as their recompense: the victim fortified indoors in the face of an unstoppable march of concrete laying outdoors.

Thus, modernism’s project aspired to a technocratic control over soundscapes, ambient sound as an unwanted by-product of unstoppable progress, an externality, something to be channelled, muffled, designed out by the technocrats, the planners and the lawyers.

Charting soundscapes

Yet in recent years due to a congruence of technology and aesthetic sensibilities, some ambient soundscapes have come to be seen as a resource to cherish, a facet of place to characterise and/or an engine of regeneration (the vibrant consumerist ‘buzz’ of the plaza anyone?). Alongside the established ranks of the motorway scheme’s acoustic engineer and the ‘noise policing’ of Environmental Health Officers  we now see poets, ‘sound-artists’ and other enthusiasts attempting to valorise ambient soundscapes. Notable projects have included The London Sound Survey , the British Library’s UK Soundmap project and the Positive Soundscapes Project. These initiatives (and many others) create a strange mesh of acoustic science and aesthetic poetics.

There is a conservationist sensibility to the fore here – born of a realisation that soundscapes can be lost for ever. And this sentiment can come to the surface now, because technology enables us to have a realistic stab at capturing soundscapes in a meaningful way. Smartphone apps, social media and digital recorders enable collaborative archival ‘capture’ of samples of soundscapes for posterity, with linking of those samples to maps via geo-coding enabling an interactive place-sound (and time) based interrogation of the aural archive.

Perhaps when they are grown up, my kids will be able to salve their adult nostalgic yearning for the lost soundscapes of their youth by logging into one of these archives and re-living the sound-moment courtesy of a passing enthusiast’s carefully executed and geo-logged sampling of the local sound-world outside their bedroom windows earlier today.


Barr, J. (1971) The Assaults on our Senses, Sphere: London.

PoS (Port of Sheffield) (2012) The Port of Sheffield Digital Trail at http://www.theportofsheffield.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/PoS_Booklet_final.pdf

Human League (1979) ‘Almost Medieval’, Reproduction, Virgin: London (Song). Available as a rather odd mash-up of various 21st century ‘knights and castles’ films, 1979 performance footage of the Human League performing the song and shots of office life and buildings:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKTngFdEueQ

Sennett, R. (2003) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin: London.

Toop, D. (2007) ‘To move with sound’ in: Carlyle, A. Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment in artistic practise, Paris: Double Entendre (reference via Taing, Z. (n.d.) ‘Sonorous City – London Soundscape Project’ at: www.zaitang.com/…/ZaiTang_KandKleeElecAcouEssay.pdf)

Picture credit:

Interior View of the Old Duff-Norton Plant (Allegheny Drop Forge), 1925 Otto Kuhler (1894-1976) via http://www.bornoffire.org/exhibition/getart_gallery.cfm?ID=32

New uses for old bunkers #9: soundscapes for silent sentinels

Bunkers sit there, staring out to sea or at some other horizon of potential change. Day in, day out, these abandoned hulks must watch the same vista through their wide but thin rectangular window-slits. Come rain, come shine. Inhabited by the curious, or left well alone. They sit there staring, concrete slowly sinking into the ground beneath, or yet more slowly – glacially – eroding grain by grain.


And when they were in wartime use, humans stood at those windows watching those horizons. Brewing coffee or tea to take the edge off the chill or the heat-blast of the exterior world poking its climatic tendrils in from time to time. And – like the rough hewn surfer in that iconic 1990s Guiness advert, they waited. But they waited without knowing how long it would be, or whether it would ever be, that the horizon would populate with the enemy’s horde. And there would be no pleasure if that ‘perfect wave’ crested for them. The watching, the waiting of the sentry carried the mundane terror of contingency. The nothing-view was boring. The seat was cold and damp. But at least nothing had happened so far…

In this blog-essay I will look at some of the ways that contemporary artists have sought to engage with the bunker’s role as a silent sentinel, now left to watch the horizon alone. The image above is from Louise K. Wilson’s 2005 installation work at Orford Ness. I will say something of Wilson’s work below. But first I want to align this iconic image with audio recorded by Nick Sowers as part of his “acoustic taxonomy of bunker sounds” (Sowers 2011).

Stripped of visual context (and the very interesting account of his particular bunker hunting project in his article at:  http://places.designobserver.com/feature/soundscapes-atlantikwall/26878/) Sowers’ aural account may come close to true ambience – in the sense of being difficult to find anything tangible to grip onto. But if you listen to his short recording whilst looking at the above photograph, Sowers’ soundscape becomes haunting.  I won’t spoil the experience – suffice it to say that Sowers’ is not the only voice that drifts into what – at first – seems to be a straight, ambient field recording. The effect leaves me feeling that I’ve caught a glimpse of that mundane watching-life enacted there by this place’s former inhabitants. Powerful stuff, but I’m not sure who would have the appetite for sitting through all 300 bunker recordings.

It is the absence of a visual element that makes Sowers’ work hard to place. Such sounds become easier to assimilate as ‘art’ where there is a visual dimension. Here we can invoke Emily Richardson’s short film Cobra Mist (2008). Like Wilson’s project, this piece also concerns the former top secret MOD site at Orford Ness. But in keeping with Sowers’ work what strikes me is the way in which Richardson captures the silent sentinel nature of the remaining (seemingly) ‘post-human’ (to nod to Sebald here) character of these military ruins. Richardsone employs 360 degree camera rotation and timelapse photography to capture poignantly both the passage of time and the eternal ‘watching’ performed by these structures (or at least presented as such – I realise that suggesting that buildings ‘watch’ is rather anthropomorphic).

Richardson’s film also presents a link to  the ascendancy of nature at this place (a classic trope of Romantic ruinology). Indeed the soundtrack to the film is composed of field recordings made on-site by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson (who was an early member of industrial music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, and is also an eminent ambient music ‘performer’). Richardson describes the haunting soundscape of this place thus:

“birds bursting out of the old vents that they nest in, water dripping from open roofs, the feint whisper of the World Service from the mast in the aerial field, the sound of the sea in the shingle and the wind whistling through metal railings.” (Richardson 2010: 48)

For her project Wilson also notes (and exploits) the sonic character of the ruins, that through their design features (either as intended or as encountered via dereliction) certain buildings have become “exceptionally reverberant” (Wilson, 2006: 29) both figuratively and literally. She notes how in the former Control Room “the wind intermittently enters the building through discrete wall holes to produce ‘symphonic voices’” (29) and in an echo of this arranged for a choir, the Exmoor Singers, to perform madrigals in the Control Room (closely crowded around a deactivated nuclear bomb).

Quite a few contemporary artists have engagedwith bunkers and other dark remnants of the Twentieth Century in recent years(see for example Schofield’s (2005) commentary upon this), but it’s with Sowers’ that I want to close this piece.

In his article Sowers positions his sonic surveys in the context of search for re-use of these now abandoned structures, thus:

“By recording these sounds, I hope to measure what the photograph cannot: the living presence across a duration of time captured by the bunker’s interior. One question persists, nearly two years after making these recordings: is there a way for recorded sound to suggest a kind of reoccupation, where the husk of military form provides fertile space for a new existence?”

Sowers’ work certainly adds something to the phenomenology of the bunker – and reminds us that our visual senses are not our only organs of perception. But I’m not sure that the afterlife of many of these bunkers lies specifically in their acoustic properties. However, I would certainly agree that sound can be used to (temporarily) energise some of them. At 14,000 bunkers along the length of the Atlantik Wall, running from Southern France to Northern Norway, only a fraction can become curated tourism or performance venues. But perhaps that’s Sowers’ point. But taking notice of the aural dimension – and taking it upon ourselves to visit, explore and listen to these places, a passing-through ‘use’ is created by whoever chooses to explore them.

As Sowers’ notes, the vast majority of bunkers are engaged with incidentally, thus:

“A bunker is an odd collector of things: seaweed and shore plants, graffiti art, the detritus of bottles and trash you would expect to find in any abandoned shelter. Children play on bunkers while sunbathers seek respite from the heat in their shadow. This soundtrack captures bunker space as a landscape continuous with the beach, a concrete hole which gathers sand and beachcombers.”

With thanks to @fifepsy and @Origin010 for pointing me in the direction of Sowers’ article.

Richardson, E. (2009) ‘Cold war kid’ in The Guardian & Observer Guides to Secret Britain – Part 2, London. Further details of the film are at: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/cob_mist

Schofield, J. (2005) Combat Archaeology: material culture and modern conflict, Duckworth: London.

Sowers, N. (2011) ‘Soundscapes: Atlantikwall’, the Design Observer Group http://places.designobserver.com/feature/soundscapes-atlantikwall/26878/

Wilson, L.K. (2006) ‘Notes on A Record of Fear: On the threshold of the audible’, Leonardo Music Journal,16, pp. 28-33. Image and audio resources for A Record of Fear are available at: http://www.lkwilson.org/index.php?m=proj&id=26&sub=overview&prev=



On the perils of noticing everything: the urban gothic and the wandering mind of Mark E. Smith

I watched Out of Control?, a BBC2 Horizon documentary last night with an increasing sense of disappointment. The show was heavily trailed as a revelation of how neuroscience could now show that we are not really in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think, due to the amount of data that our subconscious actively blanks out. However, the parade of media savvy scientists prodding brains, playing with scanners and setting up cheeky ‘experiments’ with college kids chasing after a remote controlled helicopter left me with no sense of revelation. ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ me thinks: poets, artists and philosophers (and a fair few psychologists) have been exploring this territory for over 100 years.

It’s probably very healthy that our brains deny us the ability to notice everything around us. Whilst walking the dog this morning I was struck by the apt opening lines of The Fall’s song, The Horror in Clay. The song is classic Fall, barely listenable but with artfully collated blasts of sound, image and insight. The song seems to be something to do with the discovery of a part-made statue, and mixes narration of the story of this article’s discovery, systematic transcription of its features, and the occasional interruption of the whole event by extraneous sound. There’s something about Cornwall and Sheffield in their too. At one point an aeroplane’s passing overhead obscures the monologue, for no apparent purpose other than to (I think) underscore this ‘song’s’ attempt to depict the incoherence of noticing everything. Mark E. Smith – the embodiment of The Fall – opens this performance with the following quote, which he attributes to US horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft:

“The most merciful thing in the world is man’s inability to correlate all of his mind’s contents. But the sciences one day, some say it is already upon us, will eventually open up such terrifying vistas of reality that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee into blissful sleep, peace and safety of another new dark age. ”

The song appears to be based upon Lovecraft’s opening chapter of his 1928 first book, The Call of Cuthulu. The statue is an attempt to depict a creature encountered in the sculptor’s disturbing dreams of “great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” (Lovecraft, 2002: 143)

The theme of immanent horror irrupting within ‘daily’ life is a recurrent feature of both horror stories and The Fall’s songs, which are rooted in telling observation of the edgelands of Smith’s Manchester. In songs like Container Drivers and Industrial Estate Smith casts the wordsmith’s gaze onto the spectacular (and the grotesque) within the mundane, valorising features of life that simply do not get a look-in in conventional aesthetics.

In City Hobgoblins Smith summons a mundane tapping sound which then irrupts into the occult: “Tap, tap, tap, tap…you think it’s the pipes….but [then] it turns on the lights, the city hobgoblins…”. The song depicts the state of being within a built environment riddled with disruptive ‘noise’ and delves grotesque causal mechanisms – ‘gremlins’ if you will – offering fanciful but potential explanations that we may chose to dismiss out-of-mind for much of our lives.

Bracewell (1997), in his analysis of the dark aesthetics of a certain northern-industrial culture – in an essay entitled Lucifer over Lancashire, attributes Smith’s warped aesthetic in part to the Manchester region’s built environment, thus:

“The industrial heritage of the north, shaping the monolithic  Victorian mill towns and ports,…produced an architecture which was simultaneously mean, and dramatic with civic grandeur…The discrepancy, in architectural and political terms, between the immensity of the workplace and the terraced cottages of the workers created the image of the northern townscape, surrounded by the wilderness of moorland, that would become as predominant a cultural force in England as Edwardian Arcadia or Swinging London.” (165)

He then sketches the physical roots of the north-west’s ‘mythological darkness’ (Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, industrial decline, heavy rainfall, bleak moorland, “the moaning factory whistle [and] the brooding terraces” (Bracewell, 1997: 172) and maps a parallel cultural passage of an attendant northern ‘cult of fatalism’ from Emily Brontë to Mark E. Smith.

Bracewell summates Smith’s craft thus: “Smith’s writing [is]peopled with social misfits, mutants and autistic enthusiasts; their first person narration, more often than not, played with lunatic conviction as cock-eyed shamanism – delivering accounts of fantastical or disturbing occurrences between the pub and the Post Office, the High Street and the hotel. Writing from the point of view of an anxious victim of hostile forces, recounting his strategies for psychic self-defence…”(184)

At his best, Smith achieves something quite remarkable – a simultaneous summoning of the mundane and the spectacular from “deliquescing precincts, portakabins, blank British countryside and lurid psychological interiors” (184). But it’s a world happily taken in small portions – you wouldn’t want to really believe in, or actually see, the city hobgoblins…

Bracewell, M. (1997) England is Mine, Harper Collins: London.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2002) The Call of Cuthulu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics: London

Lyrics transcription for The Fall’s The Horror in Clay: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-horror-in-clay-lyrics-fall.html#ixzz1p5SYRXsx

BBC (2012) Out of Control? BBC 2 Horizon documentary, 13 March http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01dlglq

Strategies against architecture – and the formative influence of ‘metal bashing’ in the 1980s

A couple of years ago I took a group of Real Estate students to Berlin on a field trip. Whilst planning a context-setting lecture on the tortured physical history of the city (in the spirit of Ladd, 1998), I had the idea of opening with a blast of architectural noise from German ‘industrial’ music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, recalling an 1980’s NME article that had announced to me that an architecture professor was using their music to inspire his students to think about ruination and materiality. The group’s name had always stuck in my mind, as it translates as “collapsing new buildings built after 1945”. Not many bands have ever been quite so of, and about, the built environment.

As it turned out, caution got the better of me and I decided not to enhance my presentation with a trip down memory lane. Yet, ironically, as I stood up to speak a workman’s drill kicked-in in a hotel room nearby, and my attempts at provocative comments on the culpability of surveyors within the city’s Nazi and Soviet eras were drowned out anyway.

I dallied with Neubauten’s music in the mid 1980s, and also with the Anglophone variant offered up by Test Dept. Both bands focussed upon making angry-abject (Neubauten) and angry-militaristic (Test Dept) performances by pounding, grinding and crushing found metal objects, in order to foreground the rotten state of West German culture (Neubauten) or the death throws of industrial Britain (Test Dept).

I was reminded recently of the experience of seeing Test Dept live. I never got to see Neubauten, but by all accounts a performance combining members of Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle and other luminaries of the industrial music scene under the Stockhausian banner of The Concerto for Voices and Machinery at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1984 was something special – the audience got on stage and started to use ‘the band’s’ instruments (pneumatic drills, hammers, angle grinders) to start demolishing the ICA. I first saw Test Dept when they staged a re-enactment of the Gododdin saga, an epic poem about the AD 600 defeat Celtic tribes by the invading Anglo-Saxons. This took place in Cardiff’s disused Rover Car Factory in 1989 and was a collaboration with Welsh performance artists Brith Gof, who went on to stage a recreation of Frankenstein in a disused steel works in the wilds of the Ebbw Vale circa 1994. The image of a massive gantry crane hurtling over the audience with two actors dangling precariously from it in the cavernous space of the vast factory-hall haunts me to this day. Ah, it brings it all back. Oh, and Brif Gof is Welsh for… “feint recollection”.

So, rave parties were not the only ways in which exciting alternative uses were found for these recently abandoned spaces in the 1980s and 1990s.

These recollections got me thinking about the formative influence of this metal bashing  and the (so called) ‘industrial culture’ of the 1980s, its angry observation of decay, decline and ruination and its foregrounding of the materiality of abandoned factory spaces and places. Flicking back through You Tube, the rawness of the anger I found in these performers’ early work slapped me round the face. I’ve given a link below to the opening excerpt of Neubauten’s 1985 performance film Halber Mensch. I’m struck by the long (and silent) tracking shots of the abandoned Ruhr factory and its piles of industrial debris. It is very reminiscent of the extended post-human opening sequence of Sophie Fiennes’ (equally industrial ruin-focussed) 2010 film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow about Anselm Kiefer’s  installation project at La Ribaute, a former silk factory.

Meanwhile for Test Dept I’ve chosen an audio clip taken from their 1984 collaborative performance with the South Wales Miners’ Choir at the height of the miners’ strike, a strike which unsuccessfully sought to prevent the subsequent (near) extinction of the UK deep-mining industry. The striking miners were viewed by Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’ for their efforts.

Musically both excerpts are visceral yet incidental. For me (in the footsteps of Edensor 2005), it is the focus on ruin and the new-use-finding qualities of this engagement with industrial debris that has the most enduring resonance. As Test Dept put it in an interview in 1987, their aim was:

“uncovering the stone, the beetles, the dirt and the filth…lifting the stone away so that you get a slightly clearer view of the things that frighten you.” (Neal , 1987: 165).

Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins – space, aesthetics and materiality, Berg, Oxford.

Einstürzende Neubauten (1985) Half-Mensch, Mute Films, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQnOFNh9HtE&feature=related

Fiennes, S. (2010) Promotional website for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow: http://overyourcities.com/index.html

Ladd, B. (1998) The Ghosts of Berlin – confronting German history in the urban landscape, University of Chicago Press, London.

Neal, C. (1987) Tape Delay, SAF Publishing, Harrow.

Test Dept (1984) Shockwork,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xgrkFOAF0Y