ONE OF THE biggest changes in London over the past few decades is how the focus for what’s new and fashionable has shifted from the west to the east.
Biba, Seditionaries, Better Badges, Kensington Market, the Clarendon, the Hammersmith Palais and Acklam Hall are long gone and Rough Trade moved to Brick Lane five years ago. Camden has quit London altogether for the globalised grunge dimension which seemingly stands beyond time, space and style.
East London is now the venue for spectacle and, as spectacles go, the Emirates Air Line cable car system is pretty impressive.
This is what it sounded like last Monday standing directly under the cables by the North Greenwich terminal:
Recordings of transport-related sounds were one of the two main areas of interest for amateur recordists in the post-war period, the other being birdsong. In the 1960s Argo released dozens of LPs featuring steam engines going about their business. Trains in Trouble was one of the more arresting titles.
All of the Argo Transacord series had obsessively detailed notes on the backs of their sleeves. Those for Trains in Trouble describe how several of its tracks are out-takes from film sound recordings. The trouble starts when the directors want locomotives to go up inclines too fast or do something else beyond their capabilities. The tone is disapproving, What do those film types know about trains, eh?
Before going to North Greenwich, I tried following the example of earlier generations of amateur field recordists by heading off to record steam engines at the Epping Ongar Railway open day at North Weald station in Essex.
This is a volunteer-run preservation railway with some steam and diesel locomotives at its disposal. The day got off to a good start with a ride from Epping station to North Weald on an old AEC Regent (I think), a predecessor to the better-known Routemasters:
The bodywork of the bus quivered as the engine revved, amplifying the noise like a giant green tea-chest for a skiffle band’s double bass. Older vehicles like that hint at the way they’re put together by the sounds they make.
At North Weald station the railway society were running their trains to a strict timetable. Maybe they ought to take over some of our bigger railways, too. The Pitchford Hall was pushing its set of three carriages from North Weald to Ongar and then pulling them back again.
This recording is the best minute-and-a-bit out of several recording attempts made that afternoon. The Pitchford Hall is surprisingly quiet for a steam engine: the deep rumble in the background is from an English Electric diesel locomotive.
One old fella saw what I was up to and we began talking. He explained he’d been an amateur recordist in the 1960s and had used a Philips open-reel recorder. Primitive compared to what you can get today, he said. I wouldn’t mind an open-reel machine.
Many of those at the Epping Ongar Railway open day were too young to remember steam trains in regular use on the railways, and you can’t be nostalgic for something you don’t have first-hand memories of. Steam engines are just more charismatic than modern trains.