It’s a square world

On January 19, 2015, in Art, by Luke McKernan


Some of the results of a Google image search for ‘Malevich black square 1915′

This weekend I went to the Whitechapel Gallery in London for its new exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square. This marks the 100th anniversary of Kazimir Malevich’s epoch-making painting ‘Black Square’, which was exhibited in Petrograd at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. The Whitechapel show celebrates a century of abstract art and its relation to society from that inaugural confrontational moment.

Malevich’s painting was the cornerstone of his Suprematist ideas, which advocated an art based on geometrical forms that did not relate in anyway to the objects of life. Aside from the art theory and history, the great thing about ‘Black Square’ is that it annoys people. It is ultimate statement for those who believe that modern art is a con, a joke played upon the gullible and the pretentious. It doesn’t say ‘admire me’; instead it’s a poke in the eye. It’s one of those great confrontational moments in twentieth-century art, alongside John Cage’s 4’33″, Andy Warhol’s Empire, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. They represent the end of the road for their art forms – except that the road in each case still carries on.

I had expected the exhibition to be a set of variations on the theme of the black square, but it is far more various and interesting than that. It’s aim is to show how the artworks “symbolise Modernism’s utopian aspirations and breakdowns”, and what you get is a journey through a hundred years of art taking on the world with a new language and both winning and losing the battle as its strategies become absorbed by the world that it seeks to reflect and confront.

So you get rooms chaotically disporting every kind of abstract and abstract-inspired image, each trying to deconstruct what it is that we see. There is lots of political art; stridently designed manifestos for movements long since past. There are photographs, sculptures, paintings animations and textiles. There is an extraordinary geographical diversity, providing an important lesson that the revolution in art was not confined to a few European names from the more well-worn art books. We do see Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy and Joseph Albers, but there were so many that were new to me – Hélio Oiticica, Lyubov Popova, Nazgol Ansarinia, Clay Ketter, Anni Albers – and I was mightily impressed at the knowledge of the curators who pulled all this material together, knowing what to find and where to find it. Weaving its way through the geography and the history is the square (black, white, red, whatever) as an occasional but insistent motif – like a placard without words, telling us to see what it alone has to say.

It’s an exhibition in which film and video play a prominent part. I enjoyed watching Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) for what must be the umpteenth time, but the chief thrill for me was seeing Lis Rhodes’ Notes from Light Music (1976), a 25-minute version of a larger work (Light Music), and a classic of avant garde film that (shame on me) I’d not heard of, let alone seen, before now. Brilliantly constructed, it presents the patterns of film strips in ever-changing hypnotic cascades of black and white lines, accompanied by the buzzing sounds you set when you run a film with an audio track through the sound heads of a Steenbeck. It was the sights and sounds of film of itself.


An attempt at recreating Malevich’s ‘Red Square’, from Melanie Smith, ‘Aztec Stadium’,

I was also delighted by a video piece Aztec Stadium (2010), by Melanie Smith, of a Mexican stadium, in which hundreds of children bore cards above their heads which if everything were synchronised properly form would some large picture. But in Smith’s film nothing ever synchronised properly. The cards were askew, the composite pictures malformed, the people distracted. It showed the chaos beneath the will to create order. It is funny and thoughtful and knowing. And among the images, several of which relate to Mexican national history (to which an electric guitar plays a Mexican marching song), is a recreation of Malevich’s ‘Red Square’ painting.

This is a show that knows what it is doing.

There are times when only abstract art will do. They are certainly times when one no longer wants a painting to portray an object, for a song to have a tune, for a film to tell a story. One simply wants the thing of itself. I have lost patience with many narrative films, or least I do not value them too highly. Instead I turn to patterns of light, finding them to be more truthful. Likewise black squares, and red squares and white squares. They represent the ultimate (the Whitechapel exhibition makes much of artists’ striving towards Utopia). There is no need for further statement once they have been said.

But then the road carries on.

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Visual education

On January 11, 2015, in Video, by Luke McKernan


16mm film projector in the classroom, from

I was rather thrilled to read a piece in the Times Educational Supplement, in which Sanjay Sarma, director of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called for teachers to stop relying on traditional teaching methods and instead use ten-minute videos. He is quoted as saying:

The way we teach today is based on lectures, which is still a factory-style system. But cognitive science and cognitive psychology tell us that students learn in a way that, frankly, isn’t compatible with lectures … You can’t do a 10-minute lecture in real life but you can certainly do [one] online. There’s an enormous amount of literature that shows how you can tweak the learning process to make it friendlier to the student without compromising the content or the rigour … The human mind wanders and what we do is make the student feel unhappy about it. In fact, you’re better off doing 10-minute lectures and then asking the students questions about what they just learned, because that transfers stuff from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. [Young people] spend hours each week consuming 10- or 20-minute titbits about physics and history or whatever on YouTube or Khan Academy. It’s not ‘maybe this will be the future’ – it is the future. We just need to recognise it.

The reason for the thrill is that such arguments are not so far away from those which were made by the first people who put forward film as an educational tool, something which has long been a favourite subject of mine. Earnest advocates of the medium as a means through to learn often wrote about how the moving image could be more effective than the printed word in imparting messages to the mind. Here’s non-fiction film producer Charles Urban writing in 1907:

The cinematograph helps the teacher to realise the difference between education and instruction. Education is a work of drawing out, rather than one of building in. It is the making of the best in a pupil by taking advantage of what is already there; to develop it, build upon it, improve upon it, and, as far as possible, make the pupil teach himself. Instruction is simply asking the audience to sit still while facts and laws are poured into the members; it is to look upon the pupil as a big receptacle into which fact after fact can be shovelled. Instruction is only a part – and a very small part – of education. The mind of the pupil is a living, thinking machine, and life and thought can best be brought into play by Cinematograph pictures which give every detail in motion of the subject under consideration. They enable the teacher to accommodate himself to the pupil. He must lead, not beckon, and aim at a mode of treatment which the pupil is able to follow. A series of living pictures imparts more knowledge, in far more interesting and effective manner, in five minutes, than does an oral lesson of an hour’s duration.

I have long thought these words, taken from Urban’s pioneering booklet The Cinematograph in Science, Education and Matters of State, were commendably idealistic but maybe a little too ingenuous, but it may be that he was absolutely spot on in his beliefs. Urban’s short films were trained on the young mind, and would work (at least in theory) because the visual made them inherently interesting. Certainly I think Sarma would concur with that “living, thinking machine” concept.

There were others at this time who espoused similar arguments. American distributor George Kleine wrote in a 1910 film catalogue:

Education thus imparted is never likely to be forgotten, and pupils who are slow in memorizing text-book instruction absorb the same knowledge very readily and rapidly when conveyed by moving pictures, which teach as no words do.

This is a formulaic sentiment, but one grounded in an understanding of how people think. Most notably (and notoriously) Thomas Edison in 1913 was quoted as saying:

Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in ten years.

A number of teachers supposedly took him at his word and cast aside the blackboard for the projector screen, but though he was wrong in his prediction of a complete change in how the school system worked in ten years, by 1923 the educational film had moved out of the cinemas and into the classroom, and film was indeed making a modest but noticeable effect on how some subjects were taught.

1923 is the key date, because that is when 16mm safety film was introduced by Kodak, making the exhibition of cheaper films free of fire hazard possible in non-theatrical venues such as school classrooms. A number of businesses arose, particularly in America, which aimed to cater for this emerging market: Charles Urban’s own Urban Motion Picture Industries, the American Motion Picture Corporation, Burton Holmes Laboratories, Bray Productions, Castle Films, DeVry Corporation, Ford Motion Picture Laboratories, the National Cash Register Company, the Society for Visual Education, the United States Steel Corporation, and Yale University Press Film Service, among others. There were numerous journals serving this market, including Visual Education, Educational Screen and Educational Film Magazine. There’s a great survey of the extent of what was generally called ‘visual education’ in the 1920s written by Andrew P. Hollis that’s available online, Motion Pictures for Instruction (1926) – informative and palpably enthusiastic.

At the same time there were serious studies into the efficacy of film as an educational medium. The leading study was undertaken by Frank N. Freeman of the University of Chicago, Visual Education: A Comparative Study of Motion Pictures and Other Methods of Instruction (1924). Freeman was concerned that the drive behind the educational film was coming from supply (all those film companies sensing a new market) rather than demand, or need. Freeman concluded that film could “furnish a peculiar type of content of experience” and was of real value on some occasions, when used carefully as something to augment traditional learning, rather than something that replaced it.

Freeman may have been too cautious. What film offered was not simply a different way of receiving information, but one that challenged the structure of education. What is so striking about Sanjay Sarma’s comment is that reference to ‘factory-style system’ -learning by rote to a fixed timetable which suits the system but does not reflect how the young mind actually takes in information. We don’t learn uniformly; we learn through burst of enthusiasm and realisation.

What if the Earth Stopped Spinning, from vSauce

Of course, what has not always helped the cause of the educational film has been the educational films themselves. Often dull in tone and quaint in style, the classroom film of the twentieth-century too often seemed calculated to fill the time rather than feed the mind. But with the online video explosion of the twenty-first century, the power of the medium to change how we learn is there for all (literally) to see. Have you watched vSauce? Have you spoken to a child who has watched this terrific educational science series? Millions do, of their own volition, and what is extraordinary is how much has sunk in and is then enthusiastically reported back by its viewers. It is the ten minutes that transfers to long term memory par excellence.

There are many more YouTube channels doing similar thing, among them Veritasium, Numberphile, Khan Academy and CrashCourse. They all work in much the same way: presenting knowledge and its contexts in an energetic, stylish and concise manner, emphatically visual, with personable presenters, catchy music and snazzy graphics. They look cool; you feel cool for watching them. You learn stuff.

Here is the friendly learning process that Sanjay Sarma identifies with a form of learning best suited to students themselves. The ways we have been taught traditionally have been determined not by how minds work but by the need to fill the day and instill routine. Once children were no longer working in the fields and the law of the land said that they all had to be educated, they had to be contained. They had to be kept off the streets. Now there is a kinder, more productive, more long-lasting form of education that is emerging, one that combines the the online with the classroom (‘blended learning’ is the term generally used) and which may in time tear down the regimented tyranny of the classroom. And I think that there were film pioneers who recognised this, because they understood popular sentiment, and it has taken too long for us to listen to them.

There is a growing literature on the history of the educational film. For a long time all we had was Anthony Slide’s pioneering Before Video: A History of the Non-Theatrical Film (1992), but recently we’ve had Geoff Alexander’s Academic Films for the Classroom: A History (2010), Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson’s Useful Cinema (2011) and Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Strieble’s Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (2012), and soon we will have Oliver Gaycken’s Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (2015). Historical educational films themselves are getting screened more, too, particularly via the annual Orphan Film Symposium, organised by the visionary Dan Strieble.

Also worth looking out for is Arthur Edwin Krows’s Motion Pictures – Not for Theaters, a rambling accounting of the early years of educational film, published over seven years (1938-1944) in Educational Film Magazine (you can read it online but you’ll have to leaf through the issues individually).

Here is an alternative film history, one with all the passions, follies, inventions and dreams of the more familiar film history, but one grounded in the fervent belief that the fundamental purpose of the moving image is not too entertain, but to inform (and entertain while it is doing so). We know that it can do so very well. In places it is doing so better than ever before.

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Verse for children

On December 28, 2014, in Literature, Publications, by Luke McKernan

The Times Literary Supplement used to have a weekly competition which invited its readers to identify three literary quotations on a connected theme. It was difficult, and it was a small triumph if I knew one of the quotations, and an annual occurrence for me to recognise two. One day, some years ago, I recognised one of the quotations instantly, even though it had been doubtless picked as a tantalising obscurity:

‘Voy wawm’ said the dustman
one bright August morning -
But that was in Longbenton,
Under the trees.

It’s the opening verse of ‘Hymn to the Sun’, by Michael Roberts, and the reason for remembering this is that when I next looked at the magazine to see who had identified all three quotations, the winner was Janet Adam Smith. As well she might be, given that she was married to Michael Roberts, but the special connection for me is that she edited The Faber Book of Children’s Verse, a life-long favourite book of mine and from which I remembered Roberts’ haunting poem.

The book is one that has been with me for a lifetime. Were I obliged to choose a single desert island volume and have no other book to read, The Faber Book of Children’s Verse could well be it. It was my primary school text book, and I was so entranced by it that I was given my own copy (it dates from 1969, when I was eight). It was stayed with me ever since, not simply as a childhood memento, but because it had a real influence on my adult life. When I studied English Literature at university I made particular studies of eighteenth century poetry, Christopher Smart and ballad literature, all of which (though I did not consciously make the connection at the time) had seeped into my mind through reading Smith’s compilation. Lifelong favourites, such as Andrew Marvell, Ben Jonson and Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry, all began here for me.

More than that, it was the application of poetry to life, something to carry with you, serving as an anchor, or a way of understanding experience, that made the book so important. At the simplest level this meant lines that summed up situations, so that the wisdom that had been imparted to me at an early age only unfolded later, when I understood better what the poets were saying. Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The False Heart’, for instance:

I said to Heart, ‘How goes it?’ Heart replied:
‘Right as a Ribstone Pippin!’ But it lied.

Or Ralph Hodgson’s elliptical stanza:

Reason has moons, but moons not hers,
Lie mirror’d on her sea,
Confounding her astronomers,
But, O! delighting me.

Or the irrefutable last line of the anonymous ‘The Silver Swan’:

More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

Or John Keats’s ditty ‘There was a naughty boy’ about a boy who runs away from home to Scotland only to find

… That lead
Was as weighty
That fourscore
Was as eighty
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England -
So he stood in
His shoes
And he wonder’d
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder’d.

Often have I stood still and wondered and have had those lines come back to me, which seem not only to sum up some of life’s disappointments but to point to the function of the poet, which must be to wonder.

Janet Adam Smith (1905-1999) was a writer, biographer (notably of John Buchan), editor and mountaineer. She edited The Faber Book of Children’s Verse in 1953, following on from her husband’s editing of The Faber Book of Modern Verse (another classic) in 1936. Her book compiles the poems into twenty-one sections, and the intriguing, imaginative structure that these give to the book are part of the secret of its success: Poetry, Music and Dancing; Night and Day, Seasons and Weathers; Beasts and Birds; Children; Victuals and Drink; Some People; Four Countries; Kings, Queens and Heroes; Nine Tales; Magic; Fairies, Nymphs and Gods; Witches, Charms and Spells; March and Battle; Dirges, Coronachs and Elegies; Marvels and Riddles; Voyaging and Travel; The Sea; Love; God and Heaven; Epigrams and Reflections; History and Time. There is a grand story that unfolds.

Janet Adam Smith selected not poems written for children (rather a modern phenomenon, outside nursery rhymes) but rather poems expected to appeal to children (she claimed to have tested every selection on a child, though I have my doubts about some of the tougher, quainter selections in the book). The result is a work that never talks down to children, but rather introduces them to an understanding of the world, written in terms calculated to catch the eye and please the ear. As a child, I was drawn in particular to the sections on children and animals, to the Marvels and Riddles, and to the epigrams and the reflections on history and time, perhaps because I was philosophical in my way – more likely because they were short.

When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.

When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.

That pithy gem is ‘Meditatio’ by Ezra Pound, and one of the startling aspects of Smith’s book is how it combines the sturdy verses of tradition (‘Drake’s Drum’, ‘Pibroch of Donuil Dhu’, ‘Horatius’) with modern verse from Pound, Joyce, Eliot and indeed Michael Roberts. Here’s Pound again, with his poem ‘The Faun’, which baffled the young me, yet its precise selection of words and sounds conferred a deeper understanding:

Ha! sir, I have seen you sniffing and snoozling
about among my flowers.
And what, pray, do you know about
horticulture, you capriped?
‘Come, Auster, come, Apeliota,
And see the faun in our garden.
But if you move or speak
This thing will run at you
And scare itself into spasms.’

There are the expected classics, of course – ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘The Tyger’, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, ‘Kubla Khan’ – but also imaginative surprises at every turn. So, not just W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ but such happy jeux d’esprit as ‘The Fiddler of Dooney’ and ‘Brown Penny’. From T.S. Eliot, not just the cat poems but ‘Journey of the Magi’ and quiet, observant lyrical pieces such as ‘Usk’ and ‘New Hampshire’ which tend to escape other anthologies. From John Milton the delicately rhapsodic ‘Sabrina Fair’ (taken from his masque Comus) and the the unMiltonic playfulness of ‘The Star that Bids the Shepherd Fold’ (“What hath night to do with sleep?”). Edwin Muir sits alongside Isaac Watts, Ogden Nash alongside Martial, Edgar Allan Poe alongside Taliessin.

The poetry of today melds with ancient rhymes to prove that we have always yearned to hear the same songs wrapped around the same truths. The ballad poetry that Smith selected spoke to me in particular, perhaps through the easy mixture of metre, rhyme and narrative, but also undoubtedly through the sense of half-understood mystery. ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie’, ‘The Twa Corbies’, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ – what a thrill it was when I found when studying the latter at university how ballad form could teach you about film montage, as in this brilliant stanza (just imagine it as a film sequence):

Our King has written a braid letter,
And seal’d it with his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the strand.

So poetry leads to film, demonstrating how words can not only conjure up pictures but show how pictures connect together, creating their own kind of poetry – other means by which to stand and wonder.

20141228_123657Part of the interest I have in The Faber Book of Children’s Verse, and this edition of it, is how it breaches a time span that I recognise. It has roots in an older idea of the function of poetry for children, as something populated by cast-iron classics with more than a whiff of patriotism about them, to be learned by wrote and to be respected without question – a world from which my generation was in the process of escaping. It leavens this with good selections from the moderns (up to 1953, that is), and idiosyncratic choices from across all forms of poetry, chosen for their quick delight to the imagination. Yet they are poems chosen for children rather than poems that children would necessarily choose for themselves. Children have been fortunate in recent years in anthologies put together by understanding souls like Michael Rosen, while more recent Faber anthologies such as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes’s The School Bag, or indeed the new edition of Children’s Verse edited by Matthew Sweeney, embrace more of the today while brushing away the fustiness of some of the traditional. Children do not need to know of Sir Henry Newbolt or Lord Macaulay when they can have Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Jo Shapcott or George Mackay Brown. If you are choosing an anthology for your child, give them Sweeney’s, not Smith’s – though better still, get them to choose it for themselves.

Because I chose Smith in my time, and it has been all the more special because of it. In part it is because it is an anthology of its time that was looking beyond the confines of its time. In part it is those entrancing sections (which Sweeney’s edition lacks, more’s the pity) that so aid discovery. It is a masterly example of the anthology, whose parts interrelate to tell a greater story. In part it is that I grew up with it and have never stopped learning from it. Smith in her introduction writes of choosing poems with “reserves of meaning”, which a child might not ‘understand’ in terms of being able to explain such a meaning, but the poem would stay with them and experience in time would supply new understanding. “There is, too,” she writes, “an active pleasure in the unknown or half-known, whether it is a word or a feeling.”

In part – and maybe chiefly – it is that the book has something to say to anyone, at any time. It is an anthology whose abiding themes are time and memory. I have sometimes wondered what she thought a child was meant to think of W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water’:

I heard the old, old men say,
‘Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.’
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
‘All that’s beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.’

They are words to have read once, to then linger in the mind, and to be returned to as time passes. It is an anthology, therefore, about the purpose of poetry and the enduring quality of childhood memories. She edited an anthology not just for a child but for a child’s lifetime, and made this the book’s theme as much as its function. It is a wise publication. It is one for the desert island.

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On December 14, 2014, in Publications, Web, by Luke McKernan


I was browsing in a bookshop today, and ended up looking at Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play by Simon Inglis. It’s a handsome and enticing publication about London’s sporting venues, clearly the product of superb research, which is top of my must-buy list, just as soon as I have worked my way through a few of those books which were once must-buys only to become have-boughts and are now must-reads.

What particularly caught my eye about the book was when I turned to the back of the book and found a section called ‘Links’. This wasn’t a list of web links but instead a list of print publications, as they related to individual chapters in the book. So it was what would usually be called Bibliography, or Sources, or Further Reading. Nowadays bibliographies will often cite web links, either as a standalone section for main web sources used, or links to articles for online which are interwoven with print sources. But Inglis’s book overturns the bibliography’s concession to the modern by calling all its sources Links.

I think this is a beautiful innovation (what other books have done the same thing? I’ve no idea). It says that this is not a book based on other books, or a summation of of knowledge scattered across other locations, but that it is one among equals. There is a world of works on London’s sport history of which the reader has but one part in their hands. Each helped contribute to this work, yet by following up each you will be enriched further. It encourages, even demands, that you look further, and all will be the better for it.

The hyperlink is one of the building blocks of the World World Web, of course, and one of its chief joys. Beyond its usefulness (usually) as an indication of either where more information may be found or what the source was of the information that you have just read, it marries together text and index. It makes intelligence apparent. Those who concern themselves with the building of the Web sometimes fret over how hyperlinks are not as meaningful as they might be, because they do not directly tell you what a link means. If I turn this set of words into a hyperlink, there is nothing about those words per se that tells you what the link signifies. So it is that they dream of the Semantic Web and open linked data, where everything is meaningful and conjoined.

This is a beautiful idea in itself, and I’m a great advocate of automated metadata, particularly when it comes to digital audio and video sources. There is so much intelligence that can be machine-extracted from texts – print, web and audiovisual – when we have them in digital form and when we then link them through common ontologies and thesauri to create the all-purpose, all-inclusive index.

But I’m a cataloguer at heart (and previously by profession) and there is much to be said for a human selecting sources and directing the user to the most relevant and useful of these. This is what bibliographies do. They lay out a meaningful history of how knowledge has been compiled, based on human endeavour. But to call them Links takes us beyond a sometimes rather fusty academic tradition (“just look at all the books I read to produce this one”) to something that does what the Web does so well. Everything is a link in a chain – this book, this web site, this next thing that you will read, and the next. No text is an island, entire of itself; every text is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

I shall look out for other books with a Links section at the end, and adopt the practice myself from henceforth.

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A movie magician

On December 10, 2014, in Film, People, Silent film, by Luke McKernan

The Automatic Motorist (UK 1911 d. Walter Booth p.c. Kineto)

I paid a rare visit to the BFI Southbank the other day to see a programme of films entitled ‘The Birth of British Sci-Fi’, part of its Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season. The six films on show ranged from 1897, with G.A. Smith’s The X-Rays to A Message from Mars (1913), the first British science fiction feature film. Long believed lost, this was my main reason for going. The film was an adaptation of a popular play by Richard Ganthony, a sort of Christmas Carol-type story in which a messenger from Mars converts a miserable man, Horace Parker, into a good-hearted person. It starred the renowned comic stage actor Charles Hawtrey as Parker, and was essentially a wordless play, plodding in style and performance, with only Chrissie Bell (as Parker’s fiancée) looking like someone who belonged in front of a camera.

But what made the show more than worthwhile was a film shown earlier, The Automatic Motorist (1911), directed by Walter Booth and produced by Charles Urban’s Kineto company. This was an absolute delight. An automaton (robots wouldn’t become true robots until the word was coined in the 1920s) gets in a car and drives a newly-wed couple into space, despite the efforts of a policeman hanging on to the back of the vehicle (and a dog hanging on to the back of him). They drive over the dome of St Paul’s cathedral, then into space, passing the Moon before landing on the rings of Saturn. They they crash into Saturn, where the policeman is captured by a group of Saturnian children wielding spears. The robots drives on, taking his charges back to earth and under the sea, before they finally fall to the ground when a man with a gun takes pot shots at them.

The film is a remake of sorts of Booth’s The ? Motorist, made for Robert Paul in 1906, which features an automotive trip to Saturn and a crash back down to Earth. The later film is far more sophisticated in technique, detail and wit. It has those little details – the dog determinedly attached to the policeman’s behind, the hole made in Saturn, the look of wonder on the couple’s faces at the scenes underwater – which turn trick into fantasy. It is a dream of film; played for laughs, but with a governing logic rather than simply a sequence of unconnected absurdities. A live-action cartoon, maybe.

Walter Booth is one of the undersung masters of early film. Someone should really champion him and undertake the research into him that his work merits. France has Georges Méliès, Spain has Segundo de Chomón, France has Emile Cohl, each much acclaimed masters of the early fantasy film. Fewer of Booth’s films survive than their’s, but he is no less worthy of investigation.


Advertisement for David Devant’s Zauberwunder, from Bristol newspaper The Western Daily Press, 24 December 1898, in which Booth is credited as being an ‘electric cartoonist’

Not enough is known about him, but he was born Walter Robert Booth in Worcester on 12 July 1896. His father, Robert Booth, was a china painter, and Walter was apprenticed as painter to the Royal Worcester Porcelain factory, where he is believed to have worked until 1890. He then pursued a career in entertainment, as a lightning cartoonist, ventriloquist and magician, joining the company of renowned magician David Devant, with which he toured the UK over 1898-1900. Devant’s shows featured films produced by Robert Paul, and Booth began directing short trick films for Paul, often on the theme of magic (with himself as the magician), titles such as Upside Down; or, the Human Flies (1899) (in which the actors dance around on the ceiling), Chinese Magic (1900), The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), The Waif and the Wizard (1901), The Magic Sword (1901) (a particularly inventive visual treat) and The Devil in the Studio (1901), which showed off his cartooning skills.

Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost (1901), an early trick film based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, made by Booth for Robert Paul

There were many magicians who incorporated films into their act at this time, several of whom found themselves putting down the top hat and wand and taking up the camera full time: Georges Méliès, Billy Bitzer (who went to to be D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer), Emile and Vincent Isola, John Maskelyne, William Selig, Albert Smith (founder of Vitagraph, America’s leading pre-WWI film company), Félicien Trewey, Alexander Victor and others. Erik Barnouw has written a book about the phenomenon, The Magician and the Cinema. Film was seen as the ultimate magic trick, the perfect illusion, certainly a logical stepping stone for performers who wanted to tantalise audiences with the incredible.


Walter R. Booth (probably), centre, playing the magician in Upside Down; or, the Human Flies (1899)

Booth seems to have left the stage by 1901 and to have become a full-time filmmaker with Robert Paul, before joining Charles Urban in 1906. It is with Urban, and the greater opportunities that slightly longer films and more generous budgets offered, that Booth the filmmaker came into his own. He established his own studio at his home at Neville Lodge, Woodlands, Isleworth, and with camera operator Harold Bastick made a succession of ingenious films which employed trickery and made trickery their theme. He borrowed ideas from others: The Hand of the Artist (1906), the first British animated cartoon film, was a clear imitation of J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces of the same year. When the Devil Drives (1907) was an adventure with the Devil as a lead character very much in the style of Georges Méliès. But equally he innovated in style and form: The Sorcerer’s Scissors (1907) is a dazzling trick film in which a pair of scissors cuts out various paper figures which they come to life. A Diabolo Nightmare (1907) sees an office clerk become obsessed with the game to such a degree that it takes over his dreams, which take him and his diabolo to the bottom of the sea. Other, lost films, tantalise us with mislaid delights: The Vacuum Cleaner Nightmare (1906), The Prehistoric Man (1908), The Star Globe-trotter (1908), The Invisible Dog (1909).

Extract from The Airship Destroyer (1909)

Booth’s best-known work is in then topical field of the invasion fantasy. Paranoia over immigration and terrorism (some news stories never change) combined with worries caused by the invention of the aeroplane – in particular, Louis Blériot’s feat in crossing the Channel in 1909 made England seem very vulnerable to invasion. What good was it having a navy if someone could simply fly over the top of it? William Le Queux’s anti-German novel The Invasion of 1910 and Guy du Maurier’s play An Englishman’s Home (1909) are the two best-known serious examples of the genre, while P.G. Wodehouse spoofed the ideas with his comic novel The Swoop!, or How Clarence Saved England.

Booth’s invasion films are closer to Wodehouse than du Maurier. They are not spoofs of the genre, and can be viewed as exciting adventures (which is how undoubtedly they were viewed by many at the time), but they have a homely, English quality, which accentuates the absurdity and suggests that Booth had his tongue in his cheek when making the films. The two that survive today are The Airship Destroyer (1909) and The Aerial Submarine (1910), though Booth also made The Aerial Anarchists (1911), a film sadly lost. In all three films the homeland is threatened by foreigners flying in futuristic contraptions. Aerial anarchy hangs over homely English places, and unassuming heroes who might on some other afternoon be happiest playing a game of tennis in the garden take to the skies in their flying machines to tackle this dastardly intrusion of misapplied modern technology. There is a quaint realism to the films, with their country lane backgrounds, that contrasts interestingly with the science-fantasies of Méliès which take place in a never-never world of the stage. Charles Urban was primarily a non-fiction film producer, and the films Booth made for him often had a topical edge, connecting the fantastical to the concerns of the day.

Booth continued with Urban to 1915, making many films now lost, including some in Kinemacolor. He also made films for the experimental 3D colour process Kinoplastikon (whose story I must tell some day). He went on to produce advertising films, and then we lose sight of him. He was married, to Sarah Grace, and had at least two children, Sydney Robert and Elizabeth Grace. He died in 1938. There are descendants somewhere, because I remember meeting one of them, introduced to me by the late Denis Gifford some twenty years ago. Denis’s acquaintance helped inform his biographical entry on Booth for Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which is still the best account of Booth that we have, brief as it is.

Someone should take him on as a topic. There are the references to his magic act in newspaper archives; there is some family history information available from genealogy sources; there is a marvellously inventive set of films that are prime examples of what fun early cinema can be. There is a distinctive artistry to those films. They find the fantastical amid the ordinary and make us delight in the plausibility of absurdity. It is magic translated to the screen.


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TV watching

On November 23, 2014, in Audiences, Television, Web, by Luke McKernan


An American family watching television c.1958, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written before about my website Picturegoing, which is progressively gathering evidence of people viewing pictures. It started off by covering cinemagoing, as recorded in diaries, oral histories, memoirs, news reports, novels, poems. pictures and so on – any form of evidence that records directly, or indirectly, the personal experience of viewing pictures.

But what do I mean by viewing pictures? I’m not entirely sure, and the Picturegoing site is a way of finding out. My roots are in cinema history, but I’ve become increasingly uncertain as to what history that actually represents, once you set aside the idea of cinema as art and think more of the experience of the audience (or the individual viewer). Cinema histories often look back into the pre-history of the medium to optical toys, magic lanterns, panoramas and other such devices of the nineteenth century and before. Sometimes such studies extend their range into television, and latterly into online video, and the growth of different platforms on which to experience the moving image has confused the history. What is cinema in an age of widescreen TVs? What is television when I can catch-up on programmes on my phone? What has changed in the switch from watching a film amid a crowd in a cinema and watching that same film amid a crowd on a train via a tablet?

This is the theme of a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I’ve been reading recently, In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema, by Gabriele Pedullà. His subject is how the understanding of moving images is determined by the conditions in which they are experienced, asking how films are changing in the new environment of plasma screens and smartphones. In particular he investigates the degree to which classical cinephilia has been a creation of special circumstances i.e. viewing the subject on a large screen, as part of a crowd, within a darkened space – what he labels the Dark Cube.

It’s a fascinating and scholarly journey that he takes us on, with excursions into film theory, architectural history (particularly that of Roman architect Vitruvius and then the Italian Renaissance and the construction of enclosed spaces for dramatic performances), and theories of spectatorship. Yet what I found most interesting about it was the author’s uncertainty about this new world of multi-platform viewing. He writes as someone who has never viewed a film on a tablet in his life. He alludes vaguely to ‘video players’, and lumps them with television, the device which started the process of undermining the special qualities of the cinema experience. His real theme is loss – the loss of a particular way of experiencing motion pictures, and the cinephilia that it engendered. It is nostalgia. It regrets the retreat of what is past; it does not much like the present, even while it purports to explain it.

The history of viewing pictures is one where the image is constant but the circumstances change. Images projected onto a surface have had a public appeal going back centuries, even millennia. They became commodified, distributed and shared on a massive scale through cinema, where for a time people sat in a theatre to experience what was on the screen because there had been a tradition of building theatres for entertainments. Then they moved to the home, because that is where the heart is. Now they have moved to the individual, because we think all the more for ourselves and find ourselves on the move. As Pedullà notes, “movies change first of all because spectators change”. Only the viewing, and the viewer, are constant.

So what Picturegoing is trying to document is the experience of viewing pictures. But are they always moving pictures? Here I’m not sure. I included magic lanterns and other ‘pre-cinema’ projections in Picturegoing a while ago, which are usually (though not always) still. What is so important about motion, especially is what goes on in the head of the viewer is filled with motion, as one gets in this typical response to a magical lantern projection, from Harriet Martineau, recalling an exhibition of the Phantasmagoria in the early 1800s:

When I was four or five years old, we were taken to a lecture of Mr. Drummond’s, for the sake, no doubt, of the pretty shows we were to see, — the chief of which was the Phantasmagoria of which we had heard, as a fine sort of magic-lantern. I did not like the darkness, to begin with; and when Minerva appeared, in a red dress, at first extremely small, and then approaching, till her owl seemed coming directly upon me, it was so like my nightmare dreams that I shrieked aloud. I remember my own shriek. A pretty lady who sat next us, took me on her lap, and let me hide my face in her bosom, and held me fast. How intensely I loved her, without at all knowing who she was!

The motion that matters is that which forms in the mind, not that which has been produced mechanically or electronically on the screen. If that’s the case, then why don’t I include looking at photographs, book illustrations, or paintings? Just what is the viewing experience?

I don’t know as yet, and I’m using Picturegoing to try and find out. I’ve begun with cinema, and I’ve added magic lanterns and video streaming into theatres. I’ve now introduced television. Initially this was with some qualms, because the move from public to private space seemed so dramatic a shift, but not so if you consider the mind rather than the place. At any rate, I kicked things off with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s sublime creation Nigel Molesworth, and his priceless observations on family viewing of television in the early 1950s:

Gosh super! we hav something to contend with which no other generation have ever had before i.e. the television cheers cheers cheers. Everybody know wot a t.v. is it is a square box with a screen. You switch on and o hapen, then just when you have given up hope and are going off to buzz conkers a great booming voice sa, ‘That’s an interesting point, postelthwaite. Wot does higginbottom feel? Higginbottom? ect. ect.’ It may be an interesting point but i could not care less and just go away agane when a ghastley face suddenly appere. It is worse than a squished tomato but it hold me in hypnotic trance and it is the same with molesworth 2, tho he always look dopey like that. We sit and watch more and more ghastley faces with out mouths open and even forget to chew the buble gum we are the slaves of the machine.

This captures the peculiarly hypnotic effect of television, its ability to capture the attention through simply being, better than almost any piece of writing I know. I’ve followed it up with experiences of watching Neighbours in the 1980s, the Basil Brush Show in the 1970s, and the Baird televisor in 1926. I have a good list of memoir and documentary reports to quote from, but I’m keen to hear from anyone who might know of telling texts on the experience of watching television, particularly if they come from outside the UK or the USA. I prefer texts that relate to the physical experience i.e. those that show some awareness of time, place and condition, though this is not always so easy, since television encourages a focus on the screen to the exclusion of all else (not that TV is exclusive in this, of course) and because we’re TV reviewers these days. But knowing what Downton Abbey was like last night, or what Upstairs Downstairs was like forty years ago, is not of any use to me. What is was like to watch Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, or TV news, adverts, children’s TV, natural history programmes, sport, or whatever – that is what is important. What the mind experiences has to be anchored within the context of the day-to-day. That is picturegoing.

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Henry Four 2

On November 19, 2014, in Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan


The Marlowe Theatre

I went to the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury at the weekend; my first visit inside the city’s new theatre. There has long been a Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – I first went there in the early 1970s to see an Agatha Christie play, when the theatre was on St Margaret’s Street. Then it was rebuilt over the shell of a former cinema just off the High Street, an ugly grain silo of a building that spoiled the general view. On the same site a new Marlowe was then built with is something of an architectural and landscaping triumph, a theatre big enough and stylish enough to attract the most profitable touring shows, yet tucked away in almost intimate fashion within the medieval curves of the city’s roads. Aside from an awkward tower that looks like a misjudged after-thought, it is beautiful to behold, and boasts marvellous views across the roofs of Canterbury.

Inside the theatre is well-appointed, comfortable (leg room even for one such as I), and has notably fine acoustics. And it was there that I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring productions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two. They were two good productions, all in all. Antony Sher’s Falstaff was the main calling card, and he delighted the audience from the very outset and never let them go. There was a memorable Shallow from Oliver Ford Davies, as earthy as he was wistful. There was some curiously static direction in places, with assorted lords and dukes standing stock still and declaiming at one another, which reminded me of Shakespeare productions of another age. But, all in all, good.

The two plays were put on over the same day, which led to the odd situation of the better-known (and better) play, Henry IV part 1, being put on in the afternoon to a three-quarters-full theatre (many clearly not wanting to see two plays in one day and not wanting to go to the theatre in the afternoon), while the lesser-known (and lesser) Henry IV part 2 played a full theatre, many of whom were watching the sequel with maybe not much sense of what it was a sequel to.


Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly, Antony Byrne as Pistol and Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2, via

Because Henry IV part 2 is very much sequel, produced to order much like so many Hollywood titles that mechanically revisit a familiar formula. It has the intercutting between highlife scenes at the court and lowlife scenes at the tavern; it has the rebellion against the crown which is thwarted; it has Hal and Poins is disguise to play tricks on Falstaff; it has Falstaff going to the wars and making a mockery of the process – all familiar from Part One and recycled for an audience that would pay to see more of the same. What they most wanted to see was Falstaff being himself, and that they were given amply. The play exists to let Falstaff exist, and narrative, theme and history are all sacrificed for the grand comic turn.

Of course Henry IV part two does have its great sequences (the conversation at Shallow’s house, Henry berating his son for trying on the crown while the king was on his deathbed) and some magnificent lines. It tries to have a great theme, with the meditations on death expressed by both Falstaff and Henry that ought to interlink.

But none of it hangs together. Part 1 works ingeniously as a counterpointing narrative about power, duty, conscience and character. Every scene, every act, every character is tellingly played off against the others to rich and profound effect. Part 2 has none of this; its individual elements never cohere. It doesn’t function as drama. The wonder is that Shakespeare put such effort into it (you can’t just throw together a five act history play overnight), yet came up with so little that worked. The dukes and lords argue amongst one another, yet they are interchangeable, and without interest. The tavern folk demonstrate their rumbustiousness, but merely create directionless noise (the RSC production had a particularly annoying Pistol). My Oxford Companion to Shakespeare tells me that the play’s sub-plot is “exquisitely funny”. Which just goes to show that you should never try to share a joke with a Shakespearian. Well, some Shakespearians.

So I’m intrigued by the picture of William Shakespeare toiling away at something the market demanded, but which his heart did not. There were many felicities that he incorporated (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”, “That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have”) but they are not enough to make a play of it. You write because you can write. You create where you have discovered something new. Some sequels extend an idea through fresh narrative, but most merely bow to the demand for more of what made the original a hit. They are the antithesis of discovery. They merely echo that which has gone before. They are the particular vice of our dramatic age, where films become franchises tied to rigid formulae, because we want the security of seeing more of the same. It was much the same back in 1598.

Poor Shakespeare. He wrote because he had to write, for good or ill.

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Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

On November 9, 2014, in Music, by Luke McKernan


The Big Pink (from Wikipedia)

Well, the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus
The poor little chauffeur, though, she was back in bed
On the very next day with a nose full of pus
Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread!

I’ve been listening to The Basement Tapes Complete, the latest release in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. It’s taken a while to get through – there are six CDs in the full set aimed at the obsessives, with a 2-CD selection aimed at the rational.

It’s an overwhelming experience, if at times a challenging one. The songs were recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band over several months in 1967 at a period when Dylan had decided to live more of a quiet and steady life after the mania of his first years of fame. In a number of venues, mostly notably the basement of a house in West Saugerties near Woodstock, nicknamed the ‘Big Pink’, the musicians gathered in a room and worked their way through over 100 songs, some of Dylan originals, some of them other people’s, chiefly American folk songs. Rough recordings were made by Band member Garth Hudson, but none of the music was released at the time.

Some of the songs would emerge soon afterwards played by other artists (Manfred Mann’s ‘Mighty Quinn’, Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity’s ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, Fairport Convention’s ‘Million Dollar Bash’ etc), and a few turned up on the granddaddy of all bootleg albums, The Great White Wonder, in 1969. But Dylan moved on, releasing John Wesley Harding in 1968, none of whose songs had featured during the ‘basement tape’ session. He had left the period and most of those songs behind. In 1975 he gave permission for CBS to issue a selection of the songs, with overdubs to professionalise the sound, and a selection of numbers by The Band alone. The Basement Tapes was enthusiastically acclaimed but was also the cause of much disappointment, for the inclusion of the weak Band songs and for the omission of so many recordings from the 1967 sessions. A few appeared on subsequent compilations, including ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’, but the vast majority could be found only on bootlegs, notably the 4-CD set A Tree with Roots. But others remained unheard, and indeed it seems unknown.

The story of how the tapes were recorded, copied, stored and bootlegged is immensely complicated, but the simple story is that Garth Hudson kept hold of the originals, and eventually – after much negotiations – the full set of 139 recordings, around 20 of them never bootlegged, and only five of them formerly released officially (‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’, ‘I Shall be Released’, ‘I’m not There’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’) has been released. It has only taken forty-seven years.

The collection is a mixture of the good, the great, the off-hand and the unfinished. Discs one and two feature many songs by others, including Eric von Schmidt’s ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Tupelo’ and Clarence Williams’ ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it’. There are traditional songs such as ‘Po’ Lazarus’ and ‘Johnny Todd’, and several Dylan originals from the beautiful ‘Edge of the Ocean’ to the jovial musical knockabouts ‘I’m Your Teenage Prayer’ (a teen pop pastiche) and ‘See You Later Allen Ginsberg’. It is fascinating stuff, which demands that you listen closely, though the rudimentary sound recording makes the experience frustrating at times. Some of the cover versions are perfunctorily done, a fact exacerbated by The Band’s unfamiliarity with much of the material. It appears Dylan started on some half-remembered favourite and then expected the others to work out what do as they went along. Some songs just stop halfway, ideas that just didn’t work out.


The Band playing in the basement of the Big Pink

Discs three and four are astonishing, as Dylan’s major compositions from the period pour out (frequently with two or three takes): ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Lo and Behold!’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire, ‘Open the Door, Homer’, ‘Sign on the Cross’, ‘I’m not There’, ‘Clothes Line Saga’. The lyrical imagination and musical invention are quite extraordinary. One can see the roots of them in the folk songs that Dylan had been recalling, but equally they are songs the like of which had never been heard before – absurdist fantasies economically expressed and deftly executed, conjuring up an alternate world that laughs at the world in which we find ourselves. To hear one after the other leaves the Dylan enthusiast wondering how, and then – contemplating the fact that Dylan chose not to release any them – why?

Disc five is a mixture of what were new songs (‘Mary Lou, I Love You’, ‘Silent Weekend’), re-runs of old ones (Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’), a beautiful version of the traditional ’900 Miles from My Home’, and weird takes on the familiar (‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’, ‘It’s the Flight of the Bumblebee’). Disc six is listed as a bonus – recordings of poor quality which have been included for their historical importance, and of course for completeness’s sake. I think it’s my favourite of the whole set. The songs are unfinished sketches of musical ideas, lyrics set down to quick tunes that generally don’t have the hooks that characterise Dylan’s best work. But the sheer unexpectedness of finding that songs hitherto unknown (to me, at least) such as ‘That’s the Breaks’, ‘Jelly Bean’, ’2 Dollars and 99 Cents’, Northern Claim’ and ‘King of France’ makes this final collection such a thrill – plus, there’s such a strong sense of a profound musical mind working through ideas, both his own and those of others. As The Band’s Robbie Robertson said of the sessions, “I couldn’t tell which were the songs that he wrote, and which wee the songs somebody else wrote”. It didn’t matter, which was which. They were all contributions to the collective repertoire, songs that just had to be sung.

Promo video on the history and making of The Basement Tapes

Why were the songs recorded, and then only released in such a piecemeal fashion or else not all, until now? There’s the romantic idea of Dylan and his friends simply working their ways through songs, Dylan recovering his sense of musical purpose and mental well-being, then moving on. There’s a sense too that he didn’t make the recordings available, or return to them in the studio, simply to be perverse, to help build up the legend. It was the sort of thing that only Bob Dylan would do, so he did it.

There is a prosaic reason why the songs were recorded – there were intended as demos produced for copyright reasons, which would then be made available to other artists. Dylan had recorded such demos from early on in his career, and sure enough several of the songs were recorded by others, as noted, and became hits. But there has to be more to it than that. Aside from the folk songs and the knockabout stuff that is the musicians simply having fun, there were many songs that Dylan wrote at this time that were not picked up by other artists that seem too calculatedly odd. Who on earth was going to make a pop hit out of the lyrically baffling ‘Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’ or the menacing oddness of ‘Tiny Montgomery’? The motives of artists are seldom simple, and while Dylan was thinking of song sales (he was under instructions from his publisher to come up with more material) he was also caught up in the moment, composing what his mind told him to compose. They weren’t songs intended for release, so it was easy for him to leave them behind. They had served their purpose.

Artists are perverse creatures. We who follow them are simpler in our understanding and in our needs. We just want to hear everything. And the songs belong to us too. There is something profoundly wrong in hiding music away when it could be contributing to that collective repertoire. Just as Dylan loved to recover songs from America’s past and can be heard playing through some of them on The Basement Tapes, so he was under some sort of moral obligation to hand on his own contributions to others. And so he has. It’s just taken a while.


  • The site has a track-by-track listing of the main five CDs with short descriptions by Ben Rollins
  • Dylan’s site also brings together a selection of links to websites which have issued exclusive premieres of some of the songs on the set
  • And there’s more – Lost on the River is a CD of Dylan lyrics from the Basement Tapes period for which he composed no music. Musicians including Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford have added tunes to such lyrics as ‘Married to my Hack’, ‘Golden Tom Silver Judas’ and ‘The Whistle is Blowing’
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The people next door

On October 31, 2014, in Politics, by Luke McKernan


No more healing rainbows

There is a quaint timber-framed building a couple of doors down from where I live in Rochester High Street. It was, until recently, the incongruous home of an alternative therapies centre entitled Rainbow Healing. It offered tarot card readings, Reiki workshops, holistic health solutions, and lots of candles. It was one of a number of eccentric shops in this eccentric town whose economic viability the passer-by might feel urged to question. Then, one day just a few weeks ago, Rainbow Healing was gone. Now its windows were plastered with yellow and purple posters urging the town to vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip. And all hell has broken loose.

It was a month ago that our local MP, Mark Reckless, resigned from the Conservative party and announced that he was going to join Ukip, an act which triggered a by-election in this constituency of Rochester and Strood. Since then Rochester has found itself at the centre of the nation’s news. We have had any number of TV crews prowling up and down, interviewing people in the street or seated at their pavement tables in the town’s many coffee shops. I had the rudest shock one Saturday morning when I opened my window and found Ukip’s Nigel Farage addressing a smallish crowd composed of 50% media and 50% late middle-aged men in shapeless clothes and with thinning hair who seem to form the core support of Mr Farage’s party. Every day on the news I see the shops and homes around where I live, and neighbours giving soundbites. The place looks so picturesque – the camera operators must love us (you can’t go wrong interviewing people with a castle in the background).

We have had MPs of every party visit the town – David Cameron apparently instructed his cabinet each to visit the town at least one during the electioneering period: Cameron himself, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith have been spotted, plus Labour’s Harriet Harman, Ed Milliband, and many more. One MP was quoted in the paper as saying that the trip was a rather more pleasant one than such tasks usually are, because Rochester has such nice restaurants and bookshops to browse. I haven’t yet run into a Tory minister skulking among the shelves of Baggins Book Bazaar, but I have become nervous of entering the place, for fear of running into George Osborne in the Modern History section.


Nigel Farage is in there somewhere, if you need to look

The town has become a political circus. The Conservative party has likewise taken over a shop (a former toy models enterprise) at the other end of the High Street, and has commandeered a second, close to Ukip’s, with its windows all covered in blue posters. The Labour party has no such shop, and appears to have rather given up the fight. Others are exploiting the interest in the town for all its worth, and it is a challenge dodging all those trying to thrust leaflets into your hands as you head out for the weekly shop. There have been people trying to get us to sign up to an anti-Ukip petition, and assorted non-political groups have set up stall in public places at the weekends. I saw an anti-Islamophobia gentleman standing not so far away from an earnest duo from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither of whom seemed to be attracting much attention. But Rochester is the place to be.

It’s the place to be because the by-election is seen as an indicator of trends for the general election next year. Rochester has become a political weather vane of late. For years the place returned a Conservative MP, election after election with leaden reliability. Then in 1997 came the Labour landslide and Rochester went red – and stayed red for the next two parliaments, despite our MP being the maverick Bob Marshall-Andrews, a man much favoured by the media for always having something contrary to say about the government (he became a regular on Have I got News for You). At the 2010 general election it was clear the area had become one of those places which politicians identify as being key battlegrounds, because we could swing one way or another. The prime minister Gordon Brown turned up, startling the locals by ambushing them in Morrison’s. David Milliband was seen chatting to people seated outside the café a day or two after the election, when we got the Conservatives back again with Mark Reckless. He turned out to be as rebellious as his predecessor, generally to be relied upon to vote against the government on most issues. And then of course he left the party, and now Rochester may be turning to Ukip, if the polls are true. We really don’t know what we like here.

I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of all this because Mark Reckless’s office is a couple of doors away from my back door (hence the commandeering of the shop at the front of his office). I never saw the man til lately, nor sought him out, but since the by-election was announced there has been a steady stream of Ukip functionaries passing by my back step, carrying boxes of leaflets, speaking urgently into mobile phones, their eyes aglow, sensing blood.

It’s fun being in the middle of the silly circus, I must admit. It’s also deeply depressing. Just look what’s happened to the neighbourhood. Rochester is a place of change, not on account of immigration (which has had minimal impact on the town) but through expansion of housing. We have been part of the grand Thames Gateway plan to expand the housing stock for those unable to find homes in London, with new build popping up all along the riverside, and the impact on the High Street at weekends and on the commuter trains plain to see. Rochester is a vibrant mix of the reassuringly old and the dynamically new. The town reflects a nation in transition. But that transition is economic, not racial. Change leads people to feel a sense of pressure. They look for simple solutions, and just at the moment rather too many see an answer in the pernicious bigotry of Ukip.

I hope this is a passing thing, as by-election upsets so often turn out to be. I hope Ukip shrinks back to its tiny core support of those ill-tempered old men in their nasty jackets who can’t quite believe their luck in finding a party that seems to be legitimising racism. I hope the other people next door are made of nobler stuff. I hope Rainbow Healing returns.

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The Genome project

On October 26, 2014, in Radio, Resources, Television, by Luke McKernan


I like a good list. I like a well-constructed and clear database that is, when all is said and done, the optimal expression of an extensive list. I’ve produced a lot of lists in my time, personally and professionally, and I’ve had a hand in producing a number of databases that have aimed to help people find things in a form that is useful to them, and I’ve worked a lot with databases good, bad and middling. And so it is that I’m delighted to see the publication of the BBC Genome Project, a database built out of listings data for the Radio Times 1923-2009. It’s a great list and a great database.

Back in 2006 I put together a funding bid to digitise the Radio Times 1923-1991. It was a serious proposal, put together in consultation with the Radio Times, and the product of a lot of thought and calculation. It didn’t receive the funding we sought, and reading the document now I can see that if it had been put into practice it would have been a disaster. It asked to do too much in too short a space a time for too little money, and its proposed solution for getting over the third party rights issues – an optimistic licensing scheme – was a guaranteed failure. However the bid was turned down not for any of these reasons but because the would-be funder was uncertain of the educational value of a digitised Radio Times with database (yes, that’s what they actually thought) and because they couldn’t see why the BBC or the Radio Times couldn’t pay for it themselves. Which was a reasonable thought, of course.

So we wind forward through time to 2014, and a Radio Times database has become a reality, courtesy of the BBC. It’s not a digitised Radio Times, however. A wise decision was made not to attempt to go down that route, on account of all the complexities of ownership and clearances that would be required, not the least of which is that the BBC no longer owns the Radio Times – it was acquired by Immediate Media in 2011.

Instead what they have produced is a plain database derived from the listings information for BBC radio and television programmes that have been broadcast since 1923. So no articles, advertisements, illustrations, letters or Roger Woddis poems, but what you do get is the core information about each programme as it was planned to be when the weekly magazine went to press. Of course programmes sometimes change from what was advertised, through overrunning, last-minute cancellations and the like, and the BBC is asking for people to contribute corrections to the Genome database – corrections of fact, and corrections of text, since the database has been created through a process of Optical Character Recognition (i.e. scanned from the pages themselves and then converted into text). The crowd will take over where the machines leave off.


Each record supplies date, time of broadcast, title of programme, synopsis, credits and channel. The Radio Times has covered non-BBC programmes since 1991, but Genome is restricted to BBC programmes. There are plenty enough of those – currently the database boasts records of 4,423,653 programmes, taken from 13,212 issues or 350,622 scanned pages.

The searching is admirably clear, with advanced searching options by date, time and medium, and browsing by medium, year or issue. Search results allow you to refine by channel and to sort results by relevance or oldest/newest first. Fascinatingly, when the database was announced and millions started making use of it, the thing many chose to look up was what was being broadcast on the day of their birth. I don’t think the good folk at the BBC were expecting such an eventuality, and it does seem odd for people to seek out first programmes that they most definitely did not see. Just for the record, I can report that nothing was being broadcast at the time of my birth, because there weren’t early morning programmes on BBC television in those dim and distant days, but just as soon as broadcasting did start that day the first two programmes were two educational programmes on the history of cinema. So maybe there’s something in this birthday-searching lark after all.

Genome has been warmly welcomed and much used already. It follows on from an earlier BBC effort in the mid-2000s to make its in-house Infax database available online, free to all. It got taken down after a year or so because people complained about some personal information being released. The BBC is on safer grounds with Genome, because it is based on published information, though there has been some removing of sensitive information, not least people’s addresses or other contact details.

But among all the praise few have noted what is perhaps Genome’s most significant feature. The database provides a single web page, or URL, for every single programme listed. It’s not quite a record for each individual programme as produced, because repeats are given as separate records, but this is a huge step forward for the BBC in creating a definitive listing of its broadcast output with a unique address for each. It has such a system in place for current programmes, which can be found under /programmes on the BBC website. The aim of /programmes is “to ensure that every TV & Radio programme the BBC broadcasts has a permanent, findable web presence”, and the next stage in Genome development must surely be to make its records comply with /programmes to create, eventually, a single database encompassing all of the BBC’s output – the perfect list.

From such a list great things will come, since it can become the backbone for a web infrastructure that delivers (where possible and with rights and licenses permitting) the BBC’s broadcast archive, past and present. Genome isn’t just a great database – it’s laying the foundations for the BBC as an archive for the nation.


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