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

Fear and trembling? Metal theft and the voice of God

In the course of preparing for a talk I’m giving on metal theft later this week I’ve stumbled upon a rather interesting conjunction of the sacred and the profane.

Theft of lead from church roofs has hit the Church of England and its main insurer, Ecclesiastical, very hard recently: in 2011 an estimated £10million for the CofE and £4.5million for its insurer (via 2,500 claims). This claim rate tops the level reached at the height of the pre-credit crunch metal theft wave (2,400 in 2008).

With over half of Britain’s Grade I listed buildings on its books, the church’s insurer has recently launched a campaign to show how lead theft from church roofs might be best deterred.

In launching its ” Hands Off Our Church Roof” campaign the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, invoked imagery reminiscent of barbarian pillage, describing the crime wave thus;

“Since the metal vandals have descended in such hordes over recent years our duty of maintenance has become nearly impossible. New Government legislation will undoubtedly help, but we all need to remain vigilant and try to get a step ahead of these well-organised raiders.” (Quotes from Bingham 2012)

Sharing the platform with the Bishop, actress Liz Hurley incisively added the observation:

“Beautiful old churches are at the heart of so many of our communities and I find it truly shocking that anyone would steal lead from a church roof. I heartily endorse the campaign to have alarms fitted.”

Her prescence also gave the press ample scope to make ‘the actress and the bishop’ jokes. A temptation which I will – of course – resist…

But what grabbed my attention the most was the suggestion that the alarm system could be characterised as ‘the voice of God’. You get a brief glimpse of this effect in Ecclesiastical’s video. A creeping figure prowling the shadows of the churchyard. Shinning up onto the roof via a carelessly unsecured wheeliebin.

A few moments later the trumpets of Jehovah ring out (well an electronic alarm) and a  recorded message (a deep-ish voice but more likely New rather than Old Testament in tone) booms out, warning the would-be thief that this premises is aware of him. That the church has sensed his presence, and is summoning human assistance. That the eye of an omniscient observer is upon him.

I’d love to hear the full message and watch CCTV of how mortals react to this spiritual ambush.

 

 

Bingham, J. (2012) ‘Voice of God to scare church raiders’, The Telegraph, 23 February

Details of Ecclesiastical’s campaign: http://www.ecclesiastical.com/churchmatters/churchguidance/churchsecurity/roof-alarms/index.aspx

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=

 

 

Riding the ripples: railway suicides and the infrastructural imperative

“The metropolitan type…creates a protective organ for itself against the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it.” (in Leach 1997: 70)

So wrote Georg Simmel in a 1903 essay considering the strategies by which the human individual defends himself against the domineering (and numbing) effects of urban living and its systems. But what if we turn this on its head and consider the strategies by which such systems adjust to individual human interventions which may threaten to disrupt their processes?

In this essay I will try to explore this systemic adaptation in the context of railway suicide events.

Is it possible to write respectfully about the infrastructural impact of railway suicides?

I hope so. The following is not intended as insensitive. I’m heartened that the Samaritans, the UK’s suicide counselling charity urges writers to engage with suicide and break down its taboo, and that the subject is also an established fertile ground for medically inclined researchers (Samaritans 2008).

But linking railway suicide and its knock-on logistical and infrastructural effects risks the opprobrium incurred by contrarian journalist, Jeremy Clarkson who declared on BBC TV’s The One Show last December that those who seek to end their lives via railway suicide are ‘selfish’ due to the ensuing travel disruption, and the distress caused to those who must witness and deal with the aftermath of such incidents.

Clarkson’s comment was first made during the same TV appearance on in which he also remarked that strikers engaged in the recent UK public sector pensions protest strike should be shot in front of their families, as punishment for the disruption caused by their strike action to public services. Whilst Clarkson’s strikers comment was to ultimately cause greater public outcry, it was actually his comment on suicide that triggered an instinctive on-air apology to viewers by the presenter.

In reaction the Samaritan’s Chief Executive attacked Clarkson’s comment, as revealing his ignorance about research into the motivations of those who seek to end their lives. She pointed to research that many who attempt suicide, do so in the belief that their families (and the world in general) will be better off without them – and that therefore the act may be seen by the perpetrator as self-less rather than selfish (Coleman, 2011). But Clarkson’s comment cannot be fully defeated by such research on motive – for his comment was about the effect of the suicide, the consequential disruption caused to the railway network in the aftermath of the incident. And this effect does exist, even though we may struggle to find a comfortable way to talk about it.

The annual cost to the network of the railway suicide related disruption is £50 Million, with around 200 railway suicides per year (Samaritans 2011). A crude apportionment therefore suggests that each suicide ‘costs’ the network £250,000 (plus the non-financial emotional cost to those touched by suicide events). But it is unclear how the £50 million is made up – does it include ‘security’ costs? Is it purely response and aftermath of actual incidents? What of near-misses? And how far does the calculation trace the knock-on effects, the ripples into the lives and activities of the affected travellers?

Railway suicides and infrastructural ripples

This essay was prompted by my experience of a recent journey from Sheffield to Devon. Our train arrived at Sheffield on time – but was two carriages short. The guard soon explained that this was a hastily despatched replacement train – the full length train having been halted earlier between Darlington and York ‘due to a fatality.’ Indeed having subsequently looked into the incident this portion of the line was closed to all traffic for a period to enable physical and forensic response to the incident.

In the crowded journey that ensued, it was interesting to listen in to how, over the course of our four hour journey, successive train crews and the ebb and flow of passengers joining and leaving the service made sense of the train’s (slight) delay, its overcrowding and cancellation of seat reservations. In ‘passing on’ the story of this journey to new arrivals as the journey progressed, passengers dispensed with the carefully framed phrases of the guard and increasingly confidently announced – matter of factly –  to their new companions that the travel problems were due to a suicide, before moving on to trade stories of consequential disruption to onwards connections.

The passengers’ succinct discourse upon the cause of this journey’s character saw language attempting to bridge the humanitarian and the logistically frustrated. Here were people with disrupted journeys, missed connections, no seats trying to be both respectful to the suicide – in abstract and increasingly remotely –but also emoting against their predicament (and in a circumstance that blocked off the easy option of railing against the train operator).

This got me thinking about the suicide’s ripple effect. The journey transmitted the very local, and very personal, fatal event in North Yorkshire down the backbone of the country, such that it could reverberate 300 miles away via missed connections in Plymouth. It also amplified the event in terms of the cast, the number of people involved. As travel plans were re-jigged, these ripples played out across a railway-day, the system’s equilibrium only being restored following the ‘down-time’ of the night.

Yet, as with ripples on a pond the energy of the wave reduced as it fanned out. By mid route, most passengers had accommodated to their discomfort in this shorter-than-normal train. The suicide as root-cause became an abstract passing comment. The suicide event saw a life converted into a message on the line, but a message quickly attenuated by the system that it had caused some momentary perturbation to. The railway system transmitted the event, but in a way that stripped, normalised and ultimately absorbed it.

To underscore my point, I’d like to contrast these observed  ripples-at- a-distance with a depiction of the ripples at a point closer to a similar event (but still not actually present there). My example is an account of the spread along the carriage line of the news of MP William Huskisson’s fatal trackside contact with Stephenson’s Rocket as recounted by a passenger one carriage away from the event, at the 1830 opening ceremony of the Liverpool to Manchester line:

“Presently a hundred voices were heard exclaiming that Mr Huskisson was killed; the confusion that ensued…the calling out from carriage to carriage to ascertain the truth, the contrary reports which were sent back to us, the hundred questions eagerly uttered at once, and the repeated and urgent demands for surgical assistance, created a sudden turmoil that was quite sickening.” (quoted in Garfield 2002: 157-158)

I have no reason to doubt that even in today’s numbed world, such ripples would be similarly felt by those at or near to the event itself (although I do share Simmel’s general concerns about the numbing effect of metropolitan life – the ‘death of affect’ as J.G. Ballard termed it, the rise of a pervasive ‘ambivalence’ theorised in similar terms by Zygmunt Bauman). But, add 300 miles (and the time taken to travel on that distance) and voices become more muted, and themes more fractured, as the event fades in its visceral specificity.

The infrastructural imperative

Watching this ripple-fade effect at a vantage point remote from the suicide event itself, left me wondering whether this muting effect is inevitable, necessary and/or appropriate. I have no clear answer, other than a managerial gut feel that there is a systems logic (a homeostatic effect) at work here, via a playing out of a utilitarian moral equation – that the ‘train on-time’ benefits for infrastructure users (small for each person, but large in aggregate across an entire journey’s user-population) and the enormity of the suicide event for those (in relative terms, few) emotionally or physically proximate to it, interact and ultimately resolve to produces plot points at which the extra-ordinary domain of the suicide event must progressively yield to the mass transit imperative. I’m left thinking that it is inevitable that people treat the event in an increasingly abstract and dispassionate way as time and distance work there attenuation effects such that the system (the rail network) and its users strive to restore equilibrium as quickly – and as respectfully – as possible.

Clarkson advocated that trains involved in suicide incidents should continue their journey as soon as the line itself was physically cleared (and he graphically declared himself unconcerned with the fate of matter beyond the track: see Mirror, 2011), and I recall a BBC documentary last year on an Indian railway upon which fatalities appeared an almost daily occurrence, and a dispassionate ‘clear the track and carry straight on’ ethos appeared very much to the fore. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, but accept that the system must carry on and maintain equilibrium.

But where should the precise point of balance be struck? How much delay is respectful? How much is a careful causal, forensic site analysis worth? How utilitarian should the calculation of the imperatives of continuation be? How much should travellers pay towards addressing suicide and other incursions to the railway network? All are questions with no right answer – yet making no decision upon them is not an option. The UK approach represents a set of operational and policy decisions, embodying explicit and implicit judgments about how the individual vs system rights and benefits can best be balanced. It is one balance-point, but as the Indian example shows (and as Clarkson contends), it is not the only possible balance-point.

Countering railway incursions

Simmel wrote in his essay of the strategies developed and deployed by the individual to resist being “levelled, swallowed up in the socio-technological mechanism” (70). This Simmel quote can also be flipped, and applied to the railway system’s own defence against the incursive acts of the human individual, and whether as metal thief, urban explorer or potential suicide.

Railway intrusion incidents and fears contributed greatly to the evolution of both railway safety legislation and occupiers’ liability jurisprudence during the twentieth century (on the latter see Bennett 2011). On the policy side, the House of Commons Transport Committee’s recent recommendation of a specific new offence of trespass upon railway property (prompted by rail cable metal theft);  the earmarking of railways as ‘critical national infrastructure’ (e.g. by CPNI) ; and, at EU-wide level, the major collaborative RESTRAIL (REduction of Suicides and Trespasses on RAILway property) research and best-practice promoting project which commenced in 2011 (www.restrail.eu) are all examples of a heightened current focus upon defending railway infrastructure against incursions and their ripple effects.

And there are some signs that this heightened focus may be bearing fruit in relation to suicide related railway incursions. In 2010 Network Rail announced its £5 million partnership with the Samaritans aimed at reducing railway suicides by 20% by 2015 via a programme of public awareness and ‘front line’ staff training and support (Network Rail 2011). Review of the first year of the programme suggested that the programme had contributed towards the 11% fall in the UK rail suicide rate reported in the Railway Safety & Standards Board’s official data (Samaritans 2011) – although it should be noted that the baseline year (2009/10) was 13% higher than the nine year average presented in RSSB 2010, so any conclusions on the ‘success’ rate of such programmes have to be tentative at this time.

Bennett, L. (2011) Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability. International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2), 126-145 (Also see draft available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/ )

Coleman, J. (2011) “Backlash against Jeremy Clarkson after he calls railway track suicides ‘selfish’” The Guardian, 3 December. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/03/jeremy-clarkson-people-trains-selfish

CPNI (n.d.) Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure website: http://www.cpni.gov.uk/about/cni/

Daily Mirror (2011) “Jeremy Clarkson blasted for ‘selfish’ train suicide comments”, Daily Mirror, 3 December. Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jeremy-clarkson-blasted-for-selfish-train-280159

Garfield, S. (2002) The Last Journey of William Huskisson, Faber & Faber: London.

Network Rail (2011) Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd Annual Reports & Accounts 2011, Network Rail: London.

Railway Safety & Standards Board (2010) Annual Safety Performance Report 2009-10: a reference guide to safety trends on GB railways, RSSB: London. Available at: www.rssb.co.uk.

Samaritans (2008) Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self harm, Samaritans: Ewell. Available at www.samaritans.org.

Samaritans (2011) Reducing suicides on the railways Samaritans’ partnership with Network Rail – Media Briefing, available at: www.samaritans.org.

Simmel, G. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Leach, N. (ed) (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge:  Abingdon.

NB:  The Samaritans’ 24/7 UK helpline for anyone contemplating suicide or self-harm is: 08457 909090 and via email at jo@samaritans.org

Thoughts on the songs that railings could sing: tracing taste and law via wrought iron

Recent years have seen publication of a number of serious studies into the essence and cultural history of barbed wire (Razac, 2002; Krell, 2002). Here I want to sketch out some thoughts on a similar, but more mundane and far less signified, border technology: metal railings. I’ve been thinking semi-seriously about railings recently, and over recent days have paid more attention to them (or their absence) in my neighbourhood.  Thinking about railings can open up some interesting areas related to my ongoing projects on meaning-making, law’s role in normative replication and ruination in the built environment.

The following is presented in the spirit of Sartre’s realisation that phenomenology gave him licence to study anything and: “I was carried away: nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of philosophical object… [for] truth drags through the street, in the factories…” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3). But as I’ve said above, ‘semi-seriously’. I’m fully aware that lingering over the mundane can seem obsessive, otherwise odd or pointless. By studies in this vein I’m not saying that the mundane is more important than conventionally foregrounded subjects of study, just that bringing the mundane under the spotlight too can be a worthwhile endeavour.

Replacing railings

I’ve always been fascinated by the wholescale removal of railings as part of wartime ‘scrap drives’ – and the way that the truncated stubs of railings, sit on many front terrace walls. That something the Victorians who built the urban terraces that I’m writing about here could invest with such significance and artistry could be rendered to commodity by the exigencies of war. What concerns me here is how and why there was (only) a partial return of these low level metal perimeters after the war.

Looking around my neighbourhood in recent days I see various patterns in how the railings repopulated my streets. This revival of railings was far from total, many walls remain in ‘stubbings only’ state. But where the railings have recurred we can see a wide variety of interpretations of what railings should look like – of heights and styles. But what I notice most is approximate uniformity – a vernacular defined by some awareness of how everyone else is expressing the railings urge, a general conformity to scale, colour and often similar echoes of a standard twisted (two swans kissing-like) motif. Few hedges or wooden fences have interceded. In particular I’ve noticed that identical railings seem to occur in adjacent pairs.

Thus, in fanciful mode, a street scene presents as a musical score – a sequence of code permutations around a fairly stable ideal-type, expressed in metal. If you translated the railings into musical notes, they would make a tune – there would be sequences. But it wouldn’t reach the top of the charts…

But, I’m more interested in the stories that lie behind the design, selection and emplacement of these ‘replacement’ fences. I wonder, for example, whether the pairs I’ve spotted reflect an effect of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, bulk-purchase discount arrangements or simple convenience of being able to approach a workman ‘on the job’ next door. In some cases perhaps notions of aesthetic order came into play – that the frontages of the two adjacent houses needed to be retained.

Much has been written in recent years about ‘gated communities’. Perhaps at a symbolic level householders have come to feel safer, more private by reinstating their railings. But these were only ever token barriers. Even in the Victorian era of their birth they were insubstantial. All they could do was symbolically delimit the tiny front yards of these houses as a private space. At best they were an aspirational echo of the actual exclusionary effect of identical style (but much taller) railings to schools, parks and cemeteries of the time. The railing replacement rate of the few local streets I’ve looked at here in northern Sheffield is around 40%. So, 60% of properties are railing-less, and have been in this state since the 1940s – so, this doesn’t suggest that absence of railings made many householders feel exposed.

It would be difficult to get to the heart of the individual stories that lie behind railing reinstatement (or non-replacement). Each house has had a succession of owners across that period, any one of who may have been instrumental in that decision to reinstate. What perhaps might be achievable is a study of those few houses where the original Victorian railings remain in situ – to try and account for why these railings weren’t surrendered to the scrap van in the 1940s, and what the legal and or community response to such refusal may have been .

Railings as ruins

Walter Benjamin and others in the German Romantic tradition saw ruins as having revelatory power – that we see the true essence of something in its moment of decline. I find this approach helpful to understand why I’ve always been captivated by abandoned railings. In particular I recall encountering rusting municipal railings on deserted seaside pathways. These railings’ decay is more than the physical effect of corrosive sea air, it also speaks to a possible municipal abandonment. The walks I’m thinking of have every appearance of paths dreamt up by a ‘parks department’ planner sometime during the leisure optimism of the last century. “Build it and they will come” – but they probably never did. That pathway is now surplus, unloved and far from the repair prioritisation of the Council (or more likely its outsourced ‘street maintenance partner’). I get a similar impression when I glimpse rusting roadside railings in remote areas. Someone thought these railings necessary once. Perhaps as a necessary adjunct to a proud new municipal road scheme. But now the lie of the land has changed, the railings are difficult to reach – off road the vegetation is too overgrown, and the road is now too busy for maintenance crews to stop there and maintain them from the roadside. Also, such features are ‘first casualties’ in public cuts – the time and costs of scraping down and repainting an extensive set of railings is unaffordable in a world of cuts that, in some authorities, is seeing every second street light bulb removed as a costs saving measure.

Yet, I’m haunted by the thought that those railings were part of someone’s life’s work – a whole sequence of municipal history lying behind them. A decision process through a ‘need’ being identified, a barrier being found as the solution, design decisions being made about what should be provided, and a team sent to install and maintain that feature. But then the money ran out. Upkeep is a different type of expense to instalment outlay (and perhaps a different department). Indeed the abandonment of these municipal railings may in part be down to local government reform in 1972 – the splitting of local authorities into ‘district’ and ‘county’ councils – perhaps these orphaned railings got forgotten through that process?

As ruin then, these railings remind me of the optimism of modernism, and the less confident (and less provident) eras in which we now live and walk.

Railings as safety

The modernist era also had a great faith in the importance of segregating pedestrians from vehicular traffic. In the era of the underpass the separation sought was total – but it was never achieved. Underpasses were soon unsafe for other reasons. Thus segregation was largely via street barriers to control the flow and interaction of humans and cars. The vogue now is towards removal of this “street clutter”, to follow Scandinavian studies that suggest that removing these railings and other physical devices will encourage pedestrians and drivers to take greater care for their own, and others’ safety. In time this may see the decline of pedestrian railings (but don’t hold your breath).

But whilst there has been a backlash against these features at ground level, recent decades have actually seen the proliferation of such barriers on the top of buildings. ‘Edge protection’ came to prominence via the implementation of EU derived safety laws in 1992. Flat roofed buildings to which public or workers are likely to have routine access now need edge protection. Look up at rooftops and you will start to notice this latest accretion there.

Whereas railings were a symbolic vestige of private space in the Victorian era, their municipal occurrence in the present day is more often justified by matters of ‘public safety’, and the design and selection of railings is shaped by technical codes and specifications of law. The spacing and width of balustrades is a matter of law rather than aesthetics alone (the minimum gap between railings is calibrated by reference to the average width of a young child’s head rather than by notions of design flourish).

Conclusion: what makes railings – taste, law or metal?

In the case of the reinstatement of railings to Victorian terrace housing we are looking at a taste driven process – the realm of the householder’s aesthetic sensibilities. The streets described above are not designated conservation areas therefore the law’s writ and concern is not engaged in the question of whether or not these features should be present, and if so in what style and colour. But there are patterns in the reinstatement – suggesting that law is not the only normative order shaping local behaviour here. Elsewhere, law is more to the fore, and can account for the form and emplacement of, and subsistence (or abandonment of) railings.  The survival of railings is a function of the interplay of taste, law and the material vulnerabilities of metal to rust, theft or requisition.

Kearney, R. (1994) Modern Movements in European Philiosophy, University of Manchester Press: Manchester.

Krell, A. (2002) The Devil’s Rope – a cultural history of barbed wire, Reaktion Books: London

Razac, O. (2002) Barbed Wire – a history, Profile Books: London

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