ALL-SEEING IS usually taken to mean the same thing as all-knowing and, until quite recently, it was thought to be the prerogative of the Biblical God. But people can be ambitious. In the late 1780s Jeremy Bentham proposed a new design of prison called a Panopticon, the design of which would allow the governor and staff to see everything the inmates did. It would be, wrote Bentham, a ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’.
More obscure are early anticipations of systems in which everything can be heard. A blog post I wrote a while back alluded to Charles Babbage’s theory of the persistence of sound and its influence on Charles Dickens. The theory is foremost a moral one: the sound of everything we say and do becomes attenuated but never entirely disappears from the atmosphere, and so will be there on the Day of Judgement as evidence of our conduct. It’s explained in Chapter IX of Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.
Before that, another Panauditon had been dreamt up by William Baldwin in his 1552 novel, Beware the Cat. The narrator drinks a magic potion which allows him to hear everything happening within a hundred-mile radius of London. This overwhelming experience ends badly.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame was written while he was still living in London at the end of the 1370s. It’s an allegorical poem in which the narrator falls asleep and dreams that a giant eagle carries him to the realm inhabited by Fame, personified as a goddess. It’s where all the utterances ever spoken float up to and linger, particularly those concerning people’s reputations. In Middle English, ‘fame’ denoted reputation in general, whether it was good or bad, and was etymologically related to acts of speech similar to what we understand as ‘hearsay’ .
This would have been a topical subject for Chaucer’s audience. The act of scandalum magnatum, meaning the defamation of the King and his ‘magnates’ so as to produce discord, had been established by the First Statute of Westminster in 1275. Against a backdrop of political intrigue and popular discontent, the definition of ‘magnates’ was clarified in 1378 to include peers, prelates, justices and various named officials . This post is concerned with the different ways sound features in The Hall of Fame, and particularly how they might have been influenced by Chaucer’s life and experiences in medieval London.
The poem is over 2,000 lines long and you can find a version in Modern English as a PDF via the eChaucer site. A slightly livelier rendering can be found on Richard Scott-Robinson’s eleusinianm site. Three sound-relevant sections of the poem are examined here in the sequence they occur. In the first, the giant eagle tells the poet about the nature of sound and why it travels upwards. In the second, the poet encounters Fame and hears great multitudes petitioning her about their reputations. In the final section, Chaucer describes a vast wickerwork structure in which everything that’s ever said is gathered together and can be heard.
The dream begins with the poet finding himself in a glass temple containing brass tablets on which is engraved the Aeneid. A huge eagle then appears to snatch the poet up in his claws before flying off. Whilst in flight the eagle lectures him on the nature of sound and how it inevitably rises to the House of Fame:
The eagle’s chummy familiarity (at one point he addresses the poet as ‘Geoffrey’) suggests he may represent someone known to Chaucer and his well-to-do circle, underlining the theme of reputation. An educated audience would also likely have recognised the allusion to the Roman philosopher Boethius’s theory of sound waves. The part about sound rising might also be drawn directly from Chaucer’s own experience of living in the city.
Chaucer was born in London around 1343 and spent his childhood at the family home between Thames Street and the Walbrook stream, near where Cannon Street station is today. 14th-century records describe it as a ‘tenement’ but this was meant in the old sense of a property holding. Chaucer came from a wealthy background and the home was a substantial one, likely consisting of cellars, a large main room or hall plus kitchen at ground level and upper rooms called ‘solars’ . These may been reached by stairs and a wooden gallery encircling the main hall , and we can imagine the gallery providing a good vantage point for the young Chaucer to eavesdrop on adult conversation rising from the hall.
What is known for certain is that, between 1374 and 1386, Chaucer lived above street level while working as a customs official, responsible for the important commodity of wool. In anticipation of starting the job he took out a lease from the city authorities for an apartment above the Aldgate and was living there when he wrote The House of Fame.
Despite London losing around half of its population during the Black Death of 1348–50, the city would have been a thriving mercantile and administrative centre during the time of The House of Fame. The poll tax of 1377 counted just over 23,000 lay tax-payers in London , suggesting a total population of as many as 40,000 with a density equivalent to modern-day inner London boroughs like Hackney and Kensington & Chelsea. The sounds of the streets and the ceaseless daytime traffic through the Aldgate would certainly have risen to Chaucer’s lodgings, pressing on him most during time spent alone. The eagle may be alluding to Chaucer’s solitary home life when he again assumes familiarity with the poet:
After the eagle has set him down safely, the poet climbs a hill at the top of which he finds ‘a building that was so beautiful that no living man could possibly have the ability to describe it adequately’, although Chaucer has a good try. It is made of beryl and gold, and filled with musicians and shouting multitudes:
Crowds of people ‘from every region of the Earth’ swarm forward to petition the goddess Fame, who is equipped to see and hear everything around her:
The requests range from everlasting renown to complete obscurity, and Fame variously grants, refuses or delivers their complete opposite in an unpredictable way. Her decisions are broadcast around the world by Aeolus, the god of the winds. A ‘rabble’ ask that, although they’ve all led lives of indolence, they be remembered as being loved madly by women. But they’re out of luck:
Chaucer places one significant limit on how arbitrary Fame can be in her rewards and has her refuse the request of a group of traitors to be remembered well. Otherwise the sounds of crowds and music, heralds’ proclamations and petitions from groups are magnifications from events in city life with which Chaucer would have been familiar. An account from 1417 of Henry V’s victory parade through London shows how extravagant these could sometimes be.
The poet is left with unanswered questions. During their flight together, the eagle had promised he would be shown how utterances, once in the House of Fame, become physically embodied in the forms of those who spoke them. On explaining that he hasn’t yet seen this, a helpful stranger leads the poet to a valley where a vast wicker structure, sixty miles long, revolves ‘as swiftly as thought’ with a great roaring noise like a stone being hurled by a siege engine. This sound detail is significant because it links the workings of the House of Fame with warfare.
Chaucer would have had first-hand experience of artillery pieces like trebuchets at the siege of Reims in 1360, where he was captured and ransomed by the French, and during later military expeditions under the leadership of John of Gaunt.
Trebuchets were among the most impressive machines of their time and it is hard to imagine what else might have sounded like them. Chaucer’s job of supervising the collection of wool duties in London would have given him an acute understanding of the importance of such revenues in funding armies and their siege engines, and how in turn warfare contested England’s access to the wool markets of continental Europe.
From his vantage point, the poet sees how wicker house is ‘full of things hurrying’, suggestive of rodents swarming around the Thames wharves and warehouses, and from it new sounds can be made out, not only ‘loud creakings’ but also voices:
The eagle returns and lifts the poet inside the wickerwork so he can finally know what happens within the House of Fame.
All the truths and lies ever uttered exist in a state of competition within the House of Fame, before combining in synthesis and escaping to the wider world. It is a house in the sense that it is a single, unified structure, but in all other respects a metropolis: London as a combined rumour mill, information centre and war machine.
In recent years there’s been debate among scholars as to how London influences Chaucer’s works against earlier claims of its absence . I hope I’ve shown how Chaucer’s own experiences of living in London, both in his lodgings above the Aldgate and at large, inform The House of Fame. But it also illustrates the primacy of the spoken word, of gossip, dispute and rumour as representing the essence of city life in medieval thought. This was a world in which the social metaphors of eavesdropping and being close to or distant from others were much more strongly grounded than today in the physical realities of proximity and being within earshot.
In attempts to study and even simulate the sounds of the past a distinction can be made between what I call the easy and the hard problem of sound history. The easy problem involves the realm of artifacts and animals: the acoustics of buildings, musical instruments and machinery, the layout of the streets, the presence and numbers of livestock. Many such issues can be abstracted away from their social context. But the hard problem is always a social one because it asks who was saying what to whom.
1. Flannery, M. (2012). John Lydgate and the Poetics of Fame, Boydell & Brewer.
2. Plucknett, T. (1956). A Concise History of the Common Law, Little, Brown and Co.
3. Benson, L., Pratt, R., & Robinson, F. (1986). The Riverside Chaucer, Houghton Mifflin.
4. Brewer, D. (1978). Chaucer and His World, Eyre Methuen.
5. Saul, N. (2008). Fourteenth Century England: Volume 5, Boydell Press.
6. Butterfield, A. (ed) (2006). Chaucer and the City, DS Brewer.
YOU’RE SUPPOSED to redecorate your home every five years, according to popular wisdom which probably emanates from Dulux’s marketing department. Websites, however, do indeed show their age quickly.
I mourn the end of simpler times when anyone could put up a site about UFOs from Antarctica and, with a cheap program like HoTMetaL, stamp their personality on it by sticking pink text over an acid-green background. More grounded individuals could produce hobby websites rivalling those of big organisations in their design and functioning. That’s become harder to do for all kinds of reasons: commercialisation, mobile devices, the carousel of technical advances and user expectations.
That said, I was starting to get fed up with aspects of the London Sound Survey’s appearance and so have spent the past fortnight rejigging the dozens of templates which make up the site. The new look is slightly wider and hopefully less claustrophobic than before. Each page now has a more extensive range of navigation links and better access to the text-only versions for blind and visually-impaired visitors. An obsolete plugin has been stripped out of several sections, making audio playback more reliable.
Later this year I’ll be making a big change to the site’s content management system. In the long run this should pave the way for some new features.
MOST PEOPLE SIT on the port side of the top deck of a bus when they have the choice. That way you have a better view of the shop fronts and of pedestrians as they pass along the pavements below.
Sometime around the end of the 1990s I was on a number 45 (probably) from Blackfriars heading south down Camberwell Road. Something outside caught my attention; in fact, impossible not to notice. It was a woman dressed entirely in white, with a white face and white hair.
As she and the bus drew level I could see from the set of her features that she was a black woman who had applied some kind of heavy make-up all over her face. Her white hair looked matted as if a chalky paste had been painstakingly worked into it. Everyone on the port side of the top deck was looking at her. This was my only sighting of the White Lady of Camberwell.
The other day I came across a photograph of her on a Facebook local history group, but I’ve no idea where they got it from.
She’s hasn’t been seen for some years now. According to some posts on the East Dulwich Forum, her name was Alison, she had a gentle manner, spoke in a polite, child-like voice, and had been traumatised by some kind of serious assault. There’s a recording on the Survey of a preacher at Elephant and Castle who was known locally as the ‘Lady in White’ but they’re not the same person.
Memory plays tricks, especially when distinctive people and events are concerned, but it does seem that very visible eccentrics like the White Lady of Camberwell are becoming rarer in London. Here are some of the others I remember seeing about town.
I saw him once during my late teens standing on King Street, Hammersmith in the small hours. He was a short man in late middle age, dressed in the shabbily respectable fashion which even then was a relic from earlier times. He held a clipboard in one hand and a pocket watch or stop watch in the other as he looked intently at a set of traffic lights. As the lights went through their colour changes he wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to the clipboard.
A few years ago there was a discussion about him on the Robert Elms Show on BBC Radio London. He’d been seen all over London. No-one knew his name but it was claimed that the Traffic Light Timer was a former civil servant who’d suffered a nervous breakdown.
I first saw him shortly after I’d left school and got a job in an off licence in Turnham Green, west London. He was a tall, well-built black man, very raggedly dressed, who was walking slowly down the road. He pulled a small flat-bed cart behind him, like the sort used by railway porters. The cart was piled high with junk and a line of cars was being held up by him. Some beeped their horns but he paid them no attention.
The pop artist Peter Blake, who lived in Chiswick for a while, recalled the Tramp with a Cart in the course of TV interview, perhaps on Arena or something like that. Blake said the tramp would sometimes square up and adopt a boxing stance to those drivers who got out of their cars to berate him. The last time I saw him was in the back garden of a semi-derelict house near the Hogarth Roundabout. The fence had been smashed down so you could see him sitting in the garden beside a small bonfire he’d built. He seemed relaxed as he roasted something long and slick-looking on an improvised spit.
He was an old Irish beggar, short and slight of stature, who made money by accosting people in the Camden Town area and telling them jokes before asking for money. Night-times must have more lucrative for him as he worked the queues at venues like the Underworld and the Dublin Castle. I managed to record him in Camden during 2010 but I haven’t seen or heard of him since.
This is someone I’ve never come across but was told about recently by my friend Nick Hamilton. The Shirtless Italian Man has been seen in many different places around London for several years. He walks around briskly in a pair of Bermuda shorts, almost always bare-chested with no shirt or other top on. In the coldest weather he may wear a t-shirt but that’s it. He often carries a bulging shopping bag in each hand and has curly hair arranged in something like a mullet.
Public interest in such people is widespread and often sympathetic. Which London characters do you remember?
ADDITION: Thanks to @frozenreeds on Twitter, who found out the origins of the photograph of the White Lady of Camberwell above. It appeared on the Walworth Saint Peter blog in this post from 2014 and was taken by Lorraine Atkinson.
A SOUND MAP nearly always consists of a Google Map on a webpage sprinkled with little placemarkers. The placemarkers are like a randomly-shuffled index and when you click on one, an audio player appears in a popup box. They have no preferred sequence, they usually aren’t sorted into categories and they are not reached through the unfolding of a taxonomic hierarchy. They’re just there, meaning a geographically accurate depiction of where the recordings were made to within a few tens of meters.
Sound maps are pretty useful in giving access to large numbers of recordings made over a wide area. With projects like Radio Aporee and Cities and Memory that area can extend to many countries. They’re also the obvious way to depict the dispersal patterns of sets of recordings where that’s of relevance to the recording agenda, as with the 12 Tones of London stats-driven project on this site.
However, if you think that sound maps are the final word in presenting recordings of places then take a look at Tapan Babbar’s new website Sounds of Mumbai. This includes a clickable sound map but, most of the time, it’s wisely consigned to the background. What makes Sounds of Mumbai stand out is its impressive use of photography. As each recording plays, a photograph of the place or event fills most of the screen and this makes all the difference.
A purist might claim that field recordings are best experienced while lying blindfolded in a flotation tank, but I found the only slightly distracting elements to be the jiggling levels meter wrapped around the central play button, and the forward and back buttons which wobble impatiently when the cursor hovers on top of them. Auditory attention seems to face competition from fast-moving images rather than static ones.
The site has only thirteen recordings and it’s most likely meant as a portfolio entry demonstrating Babbar’s skills as a web designer. But I was left feeling dissatisfied with parts of the London Sound Survey. Imagine how much better the Thames Estuary section would work if its recordings were heard in conjunction with full-screen photographs showing the marshlands and windy expanses of the Hoo Peninsula, or the low-tide prairies of mud and sand at Shoeburyness.
For the past year and a half I’ve been trying to turn away from sound maps towards sound graphics. A sound graphic is defined here as a webpage main content block in which the positions of sound-playing elements or links are meaningful but do not show with any precision where the recordings were made, or else represent values unrelated to location.
One reason for this was the relative success of the Waterways diagram, which in turn hitches a free ride on Harry Beck’s schematic of London’s tube network. Other reasons are to do with what I see as the limitations of sound maps in general and how life can be more fun when you escape their confines.
First, sound maps hog a lot of page space while leaving little room for graphical ingenuity. This wouldn’t matter so much if Google’s street map layer was absorbing to look at – but it usually isn’t. In contrast, the alternative aerial photographic view can be endlessly fascinating, to the extent that site visitors may lose interest in listening to recordings altogether.
Second, a sound map immediately elevates a recording’s location to being its most salient feature. But this may not always be the most interesting or useful thing to know about the recording, and it may not be the most important source of difference among a set of recordings.
Third, the map layer imposes the need for audio placemarkers to be located precisely and for the spatial relations between them to be geometrically accurate. This obviously creates problems for recordings whose locations are only known vaguely or not at all, or else for a series of recordings made at different times in the same place. But it imposes other constraints which can be illustrated by returning to the example of Beck’s tube map.
Consider how much more convenient and attractive Beck’s design is compared to a geographically-accurate version. The difference isn’t simply about the design rules Beck imposed on himself, how the line orientations were limited to just four different angles, or how all the tube stations had to be equally spaced. It is that Beck’s map foremost embodies a series of propositions about the tube network rather than being an analogue of its geographical layout.
They’re things like It’s eight stops to Covent Garden or You have to change at Bank. Everyday navigation consists of more kinds of propositions: distances estimated as travel times, turn left when you reach the Dog & Duck, the quick route versus the scenic route, places best avoided. It seems unlikely that mental maps resemble the AA Guide or the London A-Z.
Sound graphics have the potential to tap into such forms of knowledge as well as depict different kinds of measurement, including categorical groupings, cyclical time, the ordinal levels of first, second, third and so on, log ratios, and simple counts. Here are the ones I’ve come up with since late 2013 with brief notes on how and why they were put together.
Richard is a wildlife recordist who, in 2013, was living in the borough of Hackney. He’d been getting up early each morning for a year to make recordings from a fixed point overlooking his back garden. He very kindly offered to share them with this site so we settled on a selection of a hundred recordings spaced evenly throughout the year.
The obvious answer was to structure the links to the sound files in calendar form, but this wasn’t doing much for the wow meter. Thinking about the mutability of time and distance yielded a better solution in the form of the solar year and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The main graphic was made using a 30-day trial download of a 3D modelling program, and then overlaid with an HTML image map. Each blue Earth has a hotspot which, when clicked, loads an individual webpage with the appropriate sound file and its metadata into an iframe at the top of the graphic. Here’s the link to the Hackney Year.
This simple method is described at length in a blog post from 2011. It’s a handy technique when all the recordings for a particular project have been provided at the same time. However, additions involve making a new underlying graphic each time, uploading it, and amending the HTML code. This can become a chore so it’s not the best method for an open-ended project.
Early in 2014 the recordist Andre Louis and myself agreed to create a page for some of his work. Andre lives in west London and is blind. Blind people don’t have supersenses to compensate for the loss of sight, but they do pay more attention than most sighted people to what they can hear, smell and feel. I am always struck by the precision with which Andre listens. He will pick out sound details in the environment and infer meanings from them which I might simply not detect.
Knowing that this would be an open-ended project, and not being able to predict Andre’s future movements or preferences, meant that the sound graphic had to encompass the whole of London. Andre had written a short piece about why he records in London and what it means to him, so I rendered this as a block of Braille in the shape of the city. The individual Braille dots could act as placemarkers linked to the appropriate recordings. Here’s the link to Andre’s London.
To avoid the hassle of changing both the graphic and the underlying HTML each time Andre added a new recording, each placemarker dot consists of a DIV element targeting an iframe at the top of the graphic. When a new recording is added to the site’s content management system, a new dot is created automatically and its position set using inline CSS with the left and top values taken from fields in the content management system entry. This is a lot quicker than updating an image map, although professional web designers will argue that inline CSS is a Bad Thing. They have some good reasons for doing so but, on the other hand, it works.
Being too old and too weird to get ahead at the British Library I decided to take voluntary redundancy. I’d been there for 15 years and felt contradictory emotions of disappointment and relief as the leaving date approached. A Library-related project would serve as a form of closure. I made a bunch of recordings around the building in public areas, inside the reading rooms and in staff-only nooks and corners. Colleagues came up with some useful suggestions of sounds worth capturing.
I originally thought of arranging the recordings on a geometrically-accurate diagram of the Library building, but then remembered how verisimilitude in art can be cheesy, just like those ultrarealistic airbrush paintings from the 1980s of nubile female robots holding cocktails. Better to represent it in a stylised way which would draw more on an idea of working there, as well as exploring the vertical dimension in sound. This had interested me for a while, particularly in the ways that large buildings tend to reproduce a class structure based on elevation.
The proles often labour in basements or at ground level, where post rooms and delivery bays have to be situated, while senior executives bag themselves offices with impressive views on the higher floors. It’s not quite that straightforward at the Library, but there are big differences in sound and appearance between the Library above ground and its huge basements. Here’s the link to the British Library sound graphic page.
Using CSS relative and absolute positioning makes it easy to assemble all the individual elements. The graphic has audio players directly embedded within it, rather than using links and an iframe, and the one I used was the HTML5-based Pickle Player. (This has recently superseded by an update in the same firm’s Wimpy Player.) It costs money but it’s a one-off payment and there are several reasons why it’s worth the cash. It’s easy to install, a content management system can spawn endless different instances of the player as required, and it’s completely skinnable. You can only use one player skin per webpage, but making the skin mostly transparent allows variety with background images in container DIVs.
Thinking about how Andre and other blind people must rely strongly on sound to help build their knowledge of places, I thought it would be an idea to make some sound graphics with almost no useful geographical information. You’d have to listen to guess where you were. The array below presents 36 recordings made in a grid pattern. The distances between them are given as walking times in minutes, and each recording was made while facing north, the aim being to help the listener orient themselves. Here’s the link to the London Unseen page.
CSS relative and absolute positioning again plonk player instances in the right spots. Also, it’d make a nice tea towel.
I’ve always loved visiting the kind of semi-derelict and apparently unclaimed areas which exist around the edge of the city. Knowing how they’re impermanent and that, somewhere, a developer wants to ‘realise the vision’ of turning an expanse of rough ground into a theme park, can add a pre-emptively elegaic sense to such explorations. The aim was to make collages of sound recordings and pictures along with fragments of maps, with the latter being presented in ways that would render them fairly useless as detailed navigational aids.
Four different areas now have their own sound graphics and they present a record of experiences, including the act of looking at paper maps and having to refresh one’s visual memory by doing so repeatedly, rather than definitive accounts of those places. Here’s the link to the Edgelands section.
CSS transforms make possible the slow fading of one image into another, with different time values set for each image pair.
These examples show, I hope, some of the potential in thinking in terms of sound graphics. It’s another approach to consider alongside all kinds of possibilities for organising and presenting sound recordings on webpages, not least simply writing well about them.
I’m never satisfied for long, and beyond the fun had mucking about and experimenting with these graphics, there remains the sense that something more is needed.
The fundamental issue in recording is the relationship between the recordist and their subject. When that changes, everything else follows.
THE RADIO PRODUCER and sound artist Mark Vernon has sent me a clipping from the June 1924 edition of Popular Wireless Weekly, a magazine for radio enthusiasts which was published between 1922 and 1934.
It’s an editorial piece written in the facetious style which educated English people used to adopt when they were excited about something, but didn’t want to appear so. The cause of the excitement was the BBC’s first live outside broadcast the previous month in which the cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanied a nightingale’s song. This became an annual fixture lasting almost 20 years and there’s a Radio 4 retrospective about it available for listening here.
The mentions of Wembley refer to the British Empire Exhibition which ran from 1924 to 1925.
With the exception of the nightingale and cellist, the BBC were generally reluctant to take their microphones out of the studio environment, and the earliest location recordings (as distinct from live broadcasts) didn’t begin until 1934 with Lawrence Gilliam’s feature ‘Opping ‘Oliday.
However, someone at the BBC may have recalled the Popular Wireless editorial when they commissioned a short series entitled Unusual Recordings, which included the sounds of a transatlantic cable-laying ship and various other workplaces. Only one of the programmes survives to the present day: it’s of Victoria Coach Station in 1935 and you can listen to it right here.
Popular Wireless Weekly was an early forerunner of those magazines where you have to buy every edition to collect the parts for a model battleship or tyrannosaur. The Weekly, of course, sold radio kits piece by piece and the Radio Museum website has the pictures and plans for its ‘Northern Star’ wireless set from 1933.