Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

02 December 2015

The soundscape of Oxford Street

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.

Andrew Denny's photograph of Stanley Green carrying his 'Less Protein' banner

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:

Gaetan Lee's photograph of Phil Howard preaching

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.