THERE’S A new addition to the Features section called Sounds of the Musical Museum. The Musical Museum is in Brentford, west London, and it’s a great place to visit.
Owen Cooper, the Museum’s chairman, kindly took the time to demonstrate some of the self-playing instruments in the collection, and he told me a lot about their origins and how they work.
The photo above is of a Swiss musical box made around 1840, and it’s one of the smaller items in the Museum. It’s showcased in the feature along with four other larger (and louder) instruments, including a reproducing piano and a thirteen-foot-tall orchestrion.
LAST YEAR I came across a great-looking website called Sounds of Mumbai. It’s the work of web designer Tapan Babar and it does seem to be a portfolio entry, showing off his skills, rather than an ongoing project. I was struck by how well the large photos worked with the recordings. Some of the moving elements are another matter. I think they’re not needed and there is experimental evidence to suggest that attending to fast-moving images can distract from hearing. Attention is a finite resource for which looking and listening may compete.
The example of Sounds of Mumbai encouraged me to think that some recordings at least might go well with full-screen photos. It took a while to sort out the page template and get it working properly, and thanks are due to one of the website whizzes at Artangel. She had a look at the basic template and made a couple of helpful suggestions. These new efforts are called Features and you can start looking at them, listening to them and reading them via their own index page.
THIS COMING WEDNESDAY, 9th December, I’m doing another London’s Lost Worlds of Sound talk. It’s by kind invitation of Richard Thomas and Jonathan Bohman (one half of the Bohman Brothers improv music duo) and will be held at the Brewer’s Bar, 77 Shacklewell Lane, London E8 – it’s about half-way along Shacklewell Lane. Nearest stations are the Dalstons Junction and Kingsland, and Rectory Road to the east.
This is the start in a series of talks which Richard and Jonathan will be putting on. Next up after me will be David Toop sometime early in the new year, so come along and help get it all off to a good start.
I’ll be talking about and playing a selection of old London recordings, taking you back through time to the very earliest ones made in the city. This has gone down great with audiences at festivals, pubs and historical meetings alike, so hope to see you there. I haven’t drunk in the Brewer’s Bar yet but it looks like a nice place for an evening out. Doors open at 8pm, £5 to get in.
ONE OF THE more irritating things you hear said about London is how such-and-such a neighbourhood has a ‘villagey feel’. So it’s got a Spar shop, a UKIP councillor and a British Legion club then? No – just a Montessori school and a newsagent who puts down his mobile phone and makes eye contact when a customer asks for something.
No-one’s going to say that Oxford Street has a villagey feel, which is one of the few saving graces of a generally unpleasant part of central London. It’s not just the record-breaking pollution levels and its role as a magnet for some of Europe’s most talented pickpockets. Oxford Street has a fundamental malaise, more apparent towards St Giles Circus in the way that a stick of celery goes rotten from one end first, but extending westwards and complemented rather than dispelled by the gold-digger bling of Selfridges.
Over the past few years I’ve gathered a number of recordings from along Oxford Street. The general soundscape is one of loud, slow-moving traffic becoming most intense at the midway junction of Oxford Circus. The sounds of footsteps and snatches of conversation arise from dense, hurrying crowds which become most packed around the entrances to Oxford Circus tube station. There, in the warmer months, loudspeakers mounted above ground play recorded messages reminding people to take bottles of water with them when travelling on the tube.
The big department stores predominate west of Oxford Circus. Eastwards there are smaller shops, the flyblown Plaza shopping centre and, in the past, the infamous box shops that took over vacant premises for a week at a time. In them, a man with a microphone headset would tell onlookers how each brown cardboard box in a big pile before him contained some covetable item like a games console which could be theirs for just ten or twenty pounds.
Sceptics demanding to see inside the boxes first might find themselves deftly knocked off balance by a stockily-built assistant who had been hovering at the box shop’s entrance. He’d immediately help the questioner back to his feet, patting down the back of his coat or jacket with slightly more force than necessary: “You alright?” – this being delivered with a blank, stillborn facial expression. Predictably, the boxes either contained useless ballast to give them heft or else goods which didn’t work.
The box shops are now gone. What remains becomes cheaper and tattier as Centrepoint looms larger. Outlets selling trainers and cheap High Street clothing brands to youths give way to discount sports clothes shops, which in turn make way for sellers of tourist souvenirs which even visitors from Mongolia must realise are dated and tacky: t-shirts reading ‘Good girls go to Heaven but I went to London’ and baby-faced dolls in policemen’s and beefeaters’ costumes, each in its own chloroform-filled perspex killing tube.
The west-to-east wealth gradient of Oxford Street mirrors that of London as a whole, an example of fractal-like self-similarity revealing itself at different scales. The eastern end of the Street seems about the right environment for the man who sells bottles of perfume from a small shop unit. He keeps up a stream of sales patter all day:
Oxford Circus is the Street’s pivot and a vortex of uncaring humanity to which eccentric preachers are pulled. The most famous was Stanley Green, who’d patrol between there and Marble Arch. The photograph below, taken in 1977 by Andrew Denny and reproduced from Wikimedia, shows Green with his famous ‘Less Protein’ banner. Green would occasionally call out the banner’s slogan as well as handing out leaflets expounding his ideas on diet.
Green died in 1993 and his banner eventually found its way to the Museum of London. Some years later attention began to focus on a new character at Oxford Circus known widely as the ‘Sinner or Winner Man’, real name Philip Howard. Howard sometimes used a battery-powered PA to help propagate his war on sin, as in this 2006 photograph by Gaetan Lee, again reproduced from Wikimedia:
Howard seems to have grown more fanatical over time in his preaching style, and was accused on one occasion of following someone a short distance whilst haranguing them. In 2006, Westminster Council succeeded in having an Anti-Social Behaviour Order slapped on him to prevent him using his PA. Despite searching for the Sinner or Winner Man several times since 2008, I’ve yet to find him and would guess he’s either given up or is trying to save people from damnation somewhere else.
Howard must have been reasonably lucid in some ways, since the unaided voice alone would struggle to be heard at Oxford Circus. Fairly recently I came across a group of seven or eight men there from a sect describing themselves as the Black Israelites. Each member took it in turn to declaim a different facet of the Black Israelite theology. As you can hear, they’re sometimes indistinct against the backdrop of traffic:
The men also displayed a large placard made from corrugated cardboard onto which had been stuck an assortment of religious-themed images with notes handwritten alongside them in marker pen. The Black Israelites originated in the USA and, like the white British Israelite movement in the early 20th century, their beliefs seem to hold some potential for anti-semitic and racial nationalist thinking. If so, this a rare public expression in London of black nationalist sentiment, which usually limits itself to calls for unity and coded grumbling about the mzungu (a Bantu word for white people) on pirate stations like Galaxy Radio.
Given its estimated 180 million visitors a year, Oxford Street presents good earning opportunities for buskers. They’re usually heard west of Oxford Circus rather than east, where any music being broadcast is typically of the recorded kind, often playing loud enough inside shops to be audible from the opposite pavement. What’s interesting is how the buskers are often more eccentric or unusual than the generally sanitised kind who make it past the selection committee to perform The Deerhunter theme inside tube stations. Take, for example, the odd, warbling style of this saxophonist:
This man seems to roam outside London as well, as I’ve read descriptions which match his style and appearance from places like Guildford and Stevenage. A more recent face on Oxford Street is this human beatbox:
A couple of weeks ago I came across a whippet-thin young man playing a pavement drumkit comprised of pots, pans and a big plastic container:
He’s able to keep this up for long periods at a time, which might explain his lean frame. On the particular day I came across him there was also a Roma Gypsy violinist, a man playing a steel drum and a Scotsman in a kilt with the bagpipes between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch. That doesn’t seem much for a half-mile stretch, but it is fairly typical.
Perhaps the buskers work out among themselves how widely spaced their pitches should be. Or perhaps someone unseen works it out for them and demands that dues be paid, in keeping with the spirit of Oxford Street.
THE ENGINEER AND cartoonist Tim Hunkin has opened an arcade in London full of his entertaining contraptions titled Novelty Automation. It’s in former shop premises at 1a Princeton Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Holborn tube station, and well worth visiting.
I first came across Hunkin’s arcade about ten years ago when it was at Southwold on the Suffolk coast. It was a chance discovery and more than made up for the failure earlier in the day to find the visitor centre at the Sizewell nuclear power station. That’s because there isn’t a visitor centre, only a car park watched by security cameras and armed members of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.
Since sound has an important role in all amusement arcades, I thought it might be worth recording the noises of some of Hunkin’s arcade machines now they’re in London. He kindly gave me permission to do so.
After getting some gold-coloured Novelty Automation coin tokens, I started by feeding them into the air-powered Autofrisk.
Next was Pet Or Meat, an electromechanical version of the old spin-the-bottle game where chance apparently decides the fate of a little lamb.
Inside a wire cage crouches the rabid dog of the Test Your Nerve Machine. “It’s quite loud,” warned Lizzie, who was minding the arcade that afternoon. It was, and there’s another surprise which is felt rather than heard, and which you’ll need to try for yourself.
The sonic star of the arcade is the Small Hadron Collider, a pin-table version of its Geneva cousin. Luck, or maybe quantum entanglement, was on my side that afternoon, as I managed to hit a winning peg.
There are around a dozen more machines in Novelty Automation, all of them informed by Hunkin’s satirical and sometimes mordant humour. This is a hallmark of the tradition of devising what we might call contraptions, machines whose primary function is to entertain through some form of mockery.
The target can be mechanism itself, as with W. Heath Robinson’s over-specified imaginary devices, or the ‘useless machines’ built by the scientists Claude Shannon and Marvin Minsky. Their function is simply to switch themselves off each time someone switches them on; Arthur C. Clarke described them as ‘unspeakably sinister’. Here’s a video of modern-day one in action or, rather, avoiding action:
Humorously pointless contraptions were also a feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in the historical section of the London Sound Survey you can hear the sounds of a smoke-grinding machine.