Gaston, Maurice and Mary

On May 16, 2015, in Festivals, Film, People, Silent film, by Luke McKernan


Gaston Velle, Maurice Velle and Mary Murillo

Back in 2009 I was set an interesting challenge. I was invited on behalf of a group investigating the lives of British women who had worked in silent film to take on the research into one of those about whom nothing much was known. I picked the name Mary Murillo. I knew nothing of her, and her name was absent from all modern film histories and reference books. But the credits on IMDb showed someone who had had a career as a scriptwriter in America and Britain in the 1910s and 20s, so I set out to find what I could find.

It has been quite a journey. My initial findings were published towards the end of 2009 on my Bioscope blog on silent film. I used her story as an example of just what could be done for an obscure figure with the online resources available, particularly family history sites, as encouragement for others to go out and do the same. It was an example of digging around among the minutiae of film history, but so what? As I wrote at the end of the blog post:

Why research someone so obscure? You have to ask? Is there any nobler activity out there than to recover a life? Certainly it is always excellent when anyone recovers a corner of history that has been lost or ignored, however small it may seem. It’s a contribution to knowledge, and telling us something that we didn’t know before is a whole lot better way to spend your time as a researcher than re-telling that which we already know. So go out and do likewise – and then tell the world about it.

The post proved to be a popular one, and I know that it has encouraged a number of people to pursue similar topics. What I discovered was that Mary Murillo was a major scriptwriter in 1910s Hollywood who had been abandoned by film history. She was not a great talent, but she was a highly competent professional, who at her peak was the leading scenarist at the Fox Film Corporation and the muse of choice for such stars as Theda Bara and Norma Talmadge. She was born in Bradford in 1888 of Anglo-Irish stock. She travelled out to America in 1908 with the hope of making it as a stage actress, adopting the name Mary Murillo (having been raised as Mary O’Connor). She toured the country for a number of years without making much of an impression at all, then around 1913 tried a different tack and starting writing film scenarios. She was an almost instant success. Within four years she was earning a reported $25,000 a year (that’s around $387,000, or £245,000 in today’s money). She started with the husband-and-wife team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber, moved to Fox, went independent in 1917, then became lead scenarist for the major US film star of the immediate post-war period, Norma Talmadge.

She also proved to be quite a character. Proudly independent, she was never a one for paying bills, and left a trail of chaos behind her. A New York Times report in 1923 tells of their sheriff of her New York home by a deputy sheriff in pursuit of defaulted payments. The law seized “tapestries alleged to be valuable, a mahogany grand piano, phonograph and a quantity of records, a lot of silver and a leopard skin”. But Mary had moved on.

She had moved back to Britain and started writing scripts for Stoll Film Studios, before getting involved in setting up new film companies with figures such as Edgar Wallace, then moved to France and played a prominent role in scripting some of the first French talkies. Thereafter her actions became hard to trace – one credit on a British feature film in 1934, then nothing until she popped up in London supporting Belgian refugees in 1941. And, after that, she disappeared.


The Other Man’s Wife (USA 1919), with its feminist theme, looks to be among the most interesting films scripted by Mary Murillo, but sadly it is a lost film. The advertisement is from Moving Picture World; the angry review is from Variety

I was pleased with the blog post, but frankly the research wasn’t that great when I did not know when she died, whether or not she had married, whether there were any children, and what happened to her for the best part of a decade. I knew the names of her sisters but not of her parents, and there were many puzzling holes in the biography. I had found just the one photograph of her. In part the problem was caused by someone who worked under a pseudonym, while Mary O’Connor is not an uncommon name, so there were many false leads. But there I left it, having achieved the main point of showing how a life could be reconstructed, at least in part, and why it was good to do so.

But these things do not leave you alone. A year later, while proof-reading a book on colour film history, I stumbled upon the information that she had been heavily involved in promoting a French colour film process, Francita, in Britain (where it was called Opticolor), during the mid-1930s. The business had ended disastrously, but it was clear that she was still in the film business and in earnest pursuit of her next fortune. New resources also appeared, notably the Media History Digital Library of digitised film journals (mostly American) and the British Newspaper Archive, which added extra information on her career, albeit most of it advertisements for films that she had written. But I left the story to one side once again.

Then, around a year ago, I was asked by a publisher if I could convert my blog post into an essay for a book on women’s film history. I did so rather sloppily at first, then realised I had to get back properly into the research once again, and answer those unanswered questions if I could.


Gaston Velle’s La fée aux pigeons (France 1906), National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra, via Silent London

The results were startling, at least to me. The gates were opened by the discovery of her family, via entries made on the family history site Ancestry which hadn’t been there in 2009. I discovered that she had been married (or was partnered, as there was no record of a marriage) to a French cameramen, Maurice Velle, who was the son of Gaston Velle, a revered figure in early film history for the glorious magic films he made for Pathé in the 1900s. She and Maurice had had two daughters, who were both still alive. Mary had used three surnames at different times – Murillo, O’Connor and Velle – so it was no wonder it had been so hard to find certain family history information about her.

Indeed the family did not known much about her early history or parentage, but now I had the bit between my teeth. I found her death date (she died in 1944, registered under the name Velle), while her parents were Irishman Edward O’Connor and Yorkshirewoman Sarah Sunter – or so it appeared, because there were oddities in the records that just didn’t add up, including an American step-sister Isabel Daintry (who was a minor film actress in the 1910s) for whom I just could not account.


Mary Murillo’s grave in Hillingdon cemetery

Finally I found enough of the story through a mixture of deductive logic and luck for it to start to make sense. Mary was born illegitimate, father unknown. Some years before her mother Sarah had emigrated to America as a newly-wed, returning a year later with a young daughter (Isabel) after her husband died. Mary was born a few years later. Six years after that Sarah married Irishman Edward O’Connor, a Roman Catholic and a successful businessman. They had three daughters, and Edward brought up all five as O’Connors. Though they maintained roots in Yorkshire, the family led a cosmopolitan life, spending time in France and Ireland.

Engrossing stuff. But why had I got so engrossed in someone else’s family history? It’s hard to say. I wasn’t pursuing the story through a particular passion for her films. It was just a task that I had set for myself. I knew the territory, and there was the triumph of discovery.

And there was that recovery of a life. Because what emerged was the story of a survivor, who adapted ingeniously in face of the demands of a hard world. I don’t know what she knew of her real family history; she brought up her children to believe that they had Irish ancestry, when in fact they had none, and strongly asserted her Irishness in a 1917 interview. She appears to have revered her father (though he wasn’t her father) but she and her sisters did not always see much of their parents, as they were dispatched to convent boarding schools at a young age – a pattern she then repeated in adult life by leaving her own daughters in boarding schools. The father was still more absent after disputes with Mary over the business of the Opticolor colour film process, which it turns out had been his invention. She masked her past through an assumed name, found a fortune and a little fame (as much as a female scriptwriter was ever going to get), crafting expert vehicles for women film stars who needed to display emotional triumphs won after facing romantic dilemmas with a moral twist. She owed nothing to anyone (even while she often did), kept on moving, and adapted to the changing world of film far better than most of her contemporaries. Her story illustrates the great changes in film production over its first forty years, from a curious addition to variety theatre programmes to the era of the big film studios. Her husband’s father had begun his film career in the 1890s with the Lumière brothers; she ended hers working for J. Arthur Rank (in his Religious Films division, where a colleague was the young Peter Rogers, of later Carry On fame). Like her heroines, she dreamed grand dreams, and was a survivor.

Above all, her story shows the importance of women’s film history for understanding film history. The silent era of film has attracted a lot of interest from historians of women’s film, because of the relatively large number of women involved in the industry on the creative side in these formative years. It wasn’t exactly a utopia, but in the era before the major Hollywood studios had fully established themselves, there were opportunities for independent spirits such as Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Nell Shipman, Elvira Notari and Esfir Shub to direct films with a distinctive vision (only one woman, Dorothy Arzner, directed a Hollywood feature film in the 1930s). There were also numerous women editors, scriptwriters, producers, camera operators, costume designers and studio owners. They were still very much in the minority, and often had to fight too hard for the few opportunities that came their way, but they were nevertheless beneficiaries of the changes in society that were causing the role of women to be re-evaluated for the better. However, histories such Mary Murillo’s do not just show how women struggled against the odds to gain some foothold in a new industry. Their presence and their creative input must make us challenge received understanding about where the significant points in film history lie. It is not a history of the works of great men (Griffith, Chaplin etc) whose fortunes a few women echoed on the fringes of the industry. It is a history that is enriched by a fuller understanding of all that women brought to film in its developing years – as producers, performers, commentators and audiences. We see film history differently. Mary Murillo was important because she was Mary Murillo.


Advertisement for The Heart of Wetona, scripted by Mary Murillo, Moving Picture World, 4 January 1919, via Media History Digital Project

At which point we must look to her films after all. This June/July, the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna will have a short strand on the films of Gaston Velle, Maurice Velle and Mary Murillo. Entitled The Velle Connection 1900-1930: Gaston, Maurice and Mary Murillo, it has been co-curated by Marian Lewinsky and myself, and brings together some of the best of the trio’s surviving films. Gaston Velle’s féerie films will attract the most attention. He was one of those several magicians of the 1890s (his father Joseph was also a magician) who took up film as an extension of their magic skills. He made some truly magical films in France and Italy, among them Japonaiseries (1904), La Poule aux oeufs d’or (1905) and La peine du talion (1906). There is a particular grace and style to his films which mark them out as different to the ostensibly similar films of his better-known contemporaries Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón. Unlike his daughter-in-law, he did not adapt to changing times, and had left the industry by 1914, his kind of film having lost favour with audiences. Now his surviving works can be found all over YouTube, enchanting all those who find them, more than a hundred years on.


Huguette Duflos and Charles de Rochefort in La Princesse aux clowns, via Media History Digital Library

His son Maurice we know less about. He was a cinematographer on a number of French feature films in the 1920s before he turned his attention to developing the Francita colour cinematography system. He was a skilful cameraman whose work is more than worthy of rediscovery, as the sumptuous films on show at Bologna will demonstrate: L’Île enchantée (France 1927) and especially the little-known La Princesse aux clowns (France 1924) for which Mary Murillo provided the English titles. La Princesse aux clowns, a frothy but lavish tale of a reluctant prince and his determined bride, feels very much like a Velle/O’Connor family film, with its theme of stage performance echoing Gaston’s pre-film career, and a sly reference to a Murillo painting in the intertitles. The director was André Hugon, and the story was by Jean-José Frappa, but this is the O’Connor/Velle family as auteur, the meeting point of stage and film, Britain and France, Hollywood and Europe, prince and princess.

Mary Murillo will be represented at Bologna by La Princesse aux clowns; by The Heart of Wetona (USA 1919), an intriguingly-themed and beautifully-shot Western with Norma Talmadge as a half-breed Indian torn between love and tribal loyalty; by the early talkie Mon gosse de père (France 1930), with Adolphe Menjou; and the charming My Old Dutch (UK 1934), directed by Sinclair Hill. Around dozen of Murillo’s films survive, and at least fourteen scripts. But her real creativity was in the life that she led.

The essay based on my original blog post will be published in Doing Women’s Film History, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, courtesy of University of Illinois Press, in November 2015.


  • My original Bioscope blog post, Searching for Mary Murillo, describes how I went about finding what I knew about her up to 2009
  • There is a more up-to-date biography on the Women and Silent British Cinema site, and her Wikipedia page has the basics
  • The Bologna festival runs 27 June to 4 July and has strands on Ingrid Bergman, Leo McCarey, Buster Keaton, jazz films, and Technicolor, the Velle/Murillo section and a great deal more over its eight days
  • The BFI DVD release Fairy Tales has examples of Gaston Velle’s Pathé trick films with beautiful stencil (artificial) colouring
  • The lives of many early women filmmakers can be found on the Women Film Pioneers Project website

Two birds with one stone

On May 10, 2015, in Politics, by Luke McKernan


The UK 2015 general election map

I’ve been watching the general election with a mixture of fascination, horror, bewilderment and exhilaration. I disagree with all those who thought it was a dull campaign – it may have been very stage managed, but that is because elections are won on television, not on soapboxes, as a survey of which media most influenced voters has made clear: 62% of those surveyed said TV made been most influential in forming them about the election, followed by newspapers at 25%, websites at 17%, radio at 14%, and talking to people at 14%. It has been hugely entertaining and engrossing. The campaign then culminated in a dramatic victory for the Conservatives that seemingly no one predicted (though plenty now tell us that they saw it coming). Personally, as a life-long Labour supporter I felt crushed. Locally I was nevertheless elated, as UKIP (my near neighbours, as previously reported) were thrown out of Rochester. Intellectually, I was fascinated by how strategy trumps everything, if it is aligned to public feeling – which seems to be the root cause of Labour’s relative failure.

The figures from the election are particularly engrossing, and inevitably there is anguished debate about the peculiarities of the first-pass-the-post system, which led to the Scottish Nationalist Party gaining 1.4m votes and 56 seats, while the Liberal Democrats got 2.4m votes and 8 seats, while UKIP enjoyed 3.8m votes and got just 1 seat. Something is not right. Of course, the first-past-the-post system spares us (most of the time) from coalitions and hung parliaments, and it works as a corrective against some passing fashions (if there had been proportional representation for the 2015 general election then UKIP would have ended up with 83 seats). The UK voted firmly against moving from the first-past-the-post system in a referendum held in 2011, so change isn’t going to happen any time soon, if ever.

But I have a plan. It occurred to me over coffee at a sunny pavement cafe, and looking at my notes jotted down on the newspaper, it still looks interesting. So here’s my proposal for UK electoral reform.

We should keep the first-past-the-post system. However, while the 650 first places (or 600 as they will become with the planned electoral boundary changes) should continue to be the means by which Members of Parliament are selected, we should take into consideration all those who came second. Second-placed parties in each constituency, if they reached a sufficiently high enough figure – say two-thirds of the the number of votes cast for the winner – should be eligible for election to the second chamber, currently the House of Lords. Obviously this should not be a mechanism for creating a lot of unwanted peers, so the second chamber would need renaming. There should probably have to be a fixed number of them, let’s say 200, so that having come second and with over two-thirds the number of votes of the winner wouldn’t automatically qualify you for the second chamber – the actual number of votes you received would then come into play, as you would need to be among the top two hundred of second votes cast (obviously this would only work with the more balanced number of voters per constituency that the boundary changes aim to deliver). The remainder of what was formerly called the House of Lords (which does not have a fixed membership and currently has 779 members) would be made up of peers nominated by the various parties, as happens now. Hereditary peers and bishops should, of course, be got rid off as some as would be humanely possible.


Second-place votes in the UK general election 2015, from City A.M.

So how did the second votes pan out this time around? The first places went Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Liberal Democrats 8, DUP 8, Others 15. The second place votes were Labour 253, Conservatives 181, UKIP 120, Liberal Democrats 63, Plaid Cymru 6, Greens 4, SNP 3, Others 20. These are figures for all constituencies, of course, and my model would select only the top 200 out of the 630 second votes cast. I don’t have the figures to be able to calculate this, but roughly we can say that it would be 39% seats for Labour, 28% Conservatives, 18% UKIP and 10% Liberal Democrats. The actual second chamber proportions would be determined by the nominated seats, which would be roughly in proportion to the first choice votes in the election.

What would this give us? It would give us the House of Parliament populated by 650 MPs (600 come 2020), representing constituencies through the first-past-the-post system, which the country has only recently confirmed is the system that it trusts. We would get a semi-elected second chamber, based on votes cast in the general election, which would be different in its political balance to the first chamber while still reflecting popular choice, thereby serving as a corrective to the first chamber while not being grossly different in composition and making the business of government more difficult. The voting preferences of the British public would be more accurately represented, so there would be fewer people feeling that their vote had been wasted. There would be a check against people being voted in just because they were second, through the need to reach a two-thirds figure, and then to come in the top 200 of those that qualified under a such a qualification. There would still be the opportunity for nominated members to the second chamber, ensuring that people with a long record of public service (and party loyalty) could continue to serve a function in government. The absurdities of the House of Lords would be got rid of. There would be an extra frisson to election night as candidates coming second would know they had a chance of getting elected to the second chamber, but would have to await results elsewhere before they knew for certain. It should also be an improvement on any alternative vote system, where one person effectively ends up voting for more than one party – this system is only about first preference votes, so better reflects what the electorate actually wants.

Well, I think it looks good. Of course there are problems with it. A major argument against it is that a third of constituencies would end up with more than one representative, while the others would have just the one. I’m still thinking about this, but maybe it could be resolved by the 200 being selected ultimately not by number of votes cast but by proportionate geographical representation. Another solution would be not to limit the second-placers to 200 but to grant a place to all 600 of them, greatly reducing the number of nominated ‘peers’ (and of course getting rid of all the bishops and hereditary peers that remain), though the corrective against minor-placed second militates against this (e.g. if a constituency chose its MP with 30,000 votes and the second person got an insufficiently representative 5,000). Of course it would mean a second chamber filled with UKIP lunatics, but if that’s what the nation wants, then perhaps that what the nation should get, if only to see the folly of their ways, and then vote them out the next time.

Electoral reform, and an elected second chamber. Well I’d vote for it.

Tagged with:

Well, here we are in front of the elephants

On April 22, 2015, in Everyday, Video, Web, by Luke McKernan

YouTube is ten years old. On 23 April 2005, Jawed Karim stood before a video camera wielded by Yakov Lapitsky in front of the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. Karim gave the anxious look at the camera we all give when we sense that filming has started and we ought to have to say something, and then uttered the immortal words, “Well, here we are in front of the elephants”. There wasn’t much else he could say – there were the elephants, it was a self-evidently true statement. Nevertheless he added that “these guys have really, really, really long trunks”, a statement that could be challenged both for its irrelevance and for the fact that very few animals other than elephants have trunks, so theirs are not so much long as just about the right size. “And that’s pretty much all there is to say” were his concluding words, and the video was over – all nineteen seconds of it.

And that was the first video to be uploaded onto YouTube, entitled Me at the Zoo. It is not, on first sight, the most notable of starts for a revolution in how we communicate, but Jawed Karim and his colleagues were not then aware of what they were going to unleash upon the world. But Me at the Zoo is a revolutionary film in its way. It is a film without purpose, a passing statement, a shrug of the shoulders expressed in video. It does not entertain, instruct, make a point, debate or have any kind of structure to it. Because of the platform, the cheapness of the camera equipment, the ease of uploading, and the bandwidth, here is something which we had not seen in moving images beforehand – video as non-event. This I think is part of what makes YouTube so special. It is a home to much creativity, as well as much illegality, but although that is marvellous in itself, it is not fundamentally new. But film made simply for the purpose of filling space, film that shows us off-guard, not performing – that is something that commercial film and television has seldom allowed space for, if ever. The home movie has to a degree performed this function historically, but home movies are – as a rule – purposeful. Economics has also decided their content, since film and processing cost money and what you shot on your cinefilm has to represent best value. The avant garde has tried to do away with film’s habitual structures, and plays with time and space in a way that seems close to what YouTube encourages, but ultimately the avant garde is every bit as studied in form and technique as conventional film.

Me at the Zoo, and the countless of videos that have followed it, have been created because there was a space to be filled. People have filled that space with all manner of videos, many of which have a clear purpose (to entertain, to instruct, to insult, to argue, to show off, and so on), but just as many have no more purpose than to say, here I am, or I’ve nothing much to say today, or I’ve just seen this so I videoed it. And then even those videos which do have some sort of purpose – often those of people saying hello to friends, sharing information, or responding to someone else’s personal video – often these are most fascinating for the moments beyond the main action. We see people preparing to film, or thinking what to say next, just being themselves. Film traditionally has never found space for such moments. It has always been so studied, so concerned to be an art form, worried about cutting out waste. YouTube reveals us at points when we are arguably at our most interesting, when we’re still thinking, when we’re not yet sure what we want to say. It has put the private into a public space, and changed our ideas of both utterly.

I originally wrote this blog post in 2010 to mark the fifth anniversary of YouTube, on the British Library’s Moving Image blog. As that blog is now no more, I have reposted what I wrote on this site, merely updating the first sentence. The arguments still stand, even if YouTube is moving all the more away from its anarchic roots to a service more akin to a broadcaster, with channels, an increasing percentage of professional product, and omnipresent advertising. I should point out that posts from Moving Image were absorbed into the BL’s active Sound & Vision blog (though finding them is not easy), while the archived original blog can be found on the UK Web Archive.

Tagged with:

Popular science

On April 19, 2015, in Film, People, Publications, Silent film, by Luke McKernan

The birth of the popular science film – Francis Martin Duncan appears as the scientist in Cheese Mites, the notorious film he made for Charles Urban in 1903. The full film was only recently discovered by Oliver Gaycken (lurking on YouTube under a made-up title)

Two books are to be published shortly which cover the great work undertaken by some of those who worked for non-fiction film producer Charles Urban, about whom I’ve been known to say a thing of two before now. Both come warmly recommended.

devicesThe first is Oliver Gaycken’s Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, published by Oxford University Press in June (in hardback, paperback and Kindle editions). This is a study of the popular science film from its origins in 1903 through to the mid-teens. This was an extraordinarily productive period, in which a tradition of magic lantern lectures was superseded by the new medium of cinema, which in its formative years embraced every kind of screen entertainment as it tried to work out what best captured the audience’s imagination. Films showing scientific and mechanical processes, natural history and discovery were widely popular, and talented filmmakers such as Urban’s employees Francis Martin Duncan (particularly championed by Gaycken) and Percy Smith ingeniously combined good science with good entertainment, exemplifying Urban’s motto ‘To amuse and entertain is good, to do both and instruct is better’. American academic Oliver Gaycken has become the leading authority in this branch of cinema: very good on the details of the films, on their cultural contexts, and on the personalities that created them.

The Four Seasons (1921), made by Raymond T. Ditmars for Charles Urban (the surviving copy was found in the Netherlands, hence the Dutch intertitles)

bushmasterThe second is Dan Etherley’s Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper, also published in June, by Arcade Publishing. Its subject is Raymond T. Ditmars, less well known in silent film studies, but a celebrated figure in his time and an important one in understanding how we have been turning nature into screen entertainment over the past hundred years or so. Ditmars (1876-1942) was curator of reptiles at New York’s Bronx Zoo who successfully popularised natural history for American audiences through film. With Urban he made the pioneering documentary features The Four Seasons (1921, recently made available online) and the mildly controversial Evolution (1925). It is appropriate that this forerunner of the work of David Attenborough should be written about by a naturalist and producer who worked on Life of Mammals and Planet Earth. Bushmaster combines biography with natural history by documenting the life of Ditmars and following in his footsteps in the South American jungle in search of the world’s largest viper.

It’s great to see how Urban’s talented acolytes are getting discovered and written about. Percy Smith has been the subject of a BBC4 documentary, Walter Booth’s films featured prominently in the recent BFI Science Fiction film season, Edward Turner’s experiments with colour cinematography went viral a couple of years ago, and Cecil Hepworth (one of Urban’s first employees but best-known as a producer of fiction films) will be the subject of a biographical study by Simon Brown. And there are other possible projects in the offing…

Do look out for both titles, and tell your friends.


The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane

On April 9, 2015, in Literature, by Luke McKernan
William Hale White (portrait by Arthur Hughes)

William Hale White
(portrait by Arthur Hughes)

Some thirty years ago, when I had little money but a great urge to discover all the writers not then known to me, I would scour the second-hand bookshops and would hope to pay 20p for some battered paperback, 40p if it looked to be of special interest. One day, while browsing through the few books on the shelf of a bric-a-brac store in Herne Bay I cam across an attractive-looking hardback volume with a dusty orange jacket, issued by Oxford University Press in the 1930s. The publisher had clearly considered the work to be something worthy of the best treatment, yet I had heard of neither writer nor novel, though I thought myself (young as I was) to be quite the expert in English literature. It was The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, by Mark Rutherford, first published in 1887. It had some astronomical price – it may have been as much as 80p – but intrigue outweighed impecuniosity, and I bought it. I have it with me still, and were some disaster to strike and I was forced to part with all of my books, bar a dozen, it would be one of those I would have to keep.

The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is a novel quite unlike anything else in English literature, bar the other works of ‘Mark Rutherford’, who is himself different to anyone else in the literary canon. The name was a pseudonym, as was that of the supposed editor of the novel, ‘Reuben Shapcott’, both being names used by the British novelist, journalist and civil servant William Hale White (1831-1913). White wrote a great deal under his own name (non-fiction books and journalism) but his six novels were composed by an invented author and edited by another invention, whose editorial comments shape our understanding of both the texts and their supposed creator. It is an ingenious, mysterious device, and leaves one not knowing whether to call White the author of the books, or Rutherford, and if the latter then it is hard to say exactly who Mark Rutherford is, since he is not exactly White but an oblique reflection of him. I will settle for White, and think of Rutherford as a character, which he is in White’s first two novels, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881) and Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (1885).

White’s chief subject was the decline in religious faith, not an uncommon theme for a Victorian, but his precise concentration on religious Dissent or Non-conformity (Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and other Christian sects at odds with the established Church of England) and his focus on humble lives lived in undistinguished small towns give his works their particular flavour. He writes of how great changes are wrought almost imperceptibly by degrees in small places – and this is precisely the theme of The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane.

It was his third novel after the two pseudo-autobiographies of Mark Rutherford (whom Reuben Shapcott reports as having died at the end of the second, so that the subsequent novels are effectively posthumous publications, needing Shapcott’s intervention to bring them into print). The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is more obviously a novel in form than its predecssors, though its central character (it would be misleading to call him its hero), Zachariah Coleman, a printer, political radical and “moderate Calvinist”, shares much of Mark Rutherford’s Dissenting background and growing scepticism towards received ideas.

The first half of the novel is set in the mid-1810s, at a time when a repressive British political establishment under Lord Liverpool sought to crush any attempts at reform. It opens with the visit paid to England by the newly-crowned King Louis XVIII of France, representing the destruction of the hopes many had in the French revolution. Coleman is rescued from a brawl by the dashing Major Maitland, and joins Maitland and others in a secret group dedicated to political revolution of some kind. However this is no exciting narrative of daring deeds performed in the dark shadows of the reactionary and oppressive regime of the early 1800s. Coleman and his fellow conspirators seemed doomed to failure, never achieving anything, pushed to the margins of history. They become involved in the march of the Blanketeers, the ill-advised plan in March 1817 for Lancashire weavers to march to London to petition the Prince Regent on their desperate state, which was broken up violently by troops before most had left Manchester, but not in the more famous Peterloo Massacre of two years later.

The crux of the matter is expressed in a speech given by Pauline Caillaud, daughter of one of Coleman’s fellow reformers, when Zachariah complains of the futility of their efforts.

Stop, stop, Mr. Coleman. Here is the mistake you make. Grant it all – grant your achievement is ridiculously small – is it not worth the sacrifice of two or three like you and me to accomplish it? That is our error. We think ourselves of such mighty importance. The question is, whether we are of such importance, and whether the progress of the world one inch will not be cheaply purchased by the annihilation of a score of us. You believe in what you call salvation! You would struggle and die to save a soul; but in reality you can never save a man; you must be content to struggle and die to save a little bit of him – to prevent one habit from descending to his children. You won’t save him wholly, but you may arrest the propagation of an evil trick, and so improve a trifle – just a trifle – whole generations to come.

The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is about the changes that are gradually wrought in society, but which are beyond that which the individual has the capacity to see. White makes pointed use of the stars as a metaphor – he was a keen astronomer – of the hugeness of time and space and the littleness of the human being in the face of such immensity. And yet the stars move, and eventually, imperceptibly, there is a clearer view of the heavens. This marvellous passage expresses the point, and is typical of White’s finest style:

He was in no mood to rest, and walked on all that night. Amidst all his troubles he could not help being struck with the solemn, silent procession overhead. It was perfectly clear — so clear that the heavens were not a surface, but a depth, and the stars of a lesser magnitude were so numerous and brilliant that they obscured the forms of the greater constellations. Presently the first hint of day appeared in the east. We must remember that this was the year 1817, before, so it is commonly supposed, men knew what it was properly to admire a cloud or a rock. Zachariah was not, therefore, on a level with the most ordinary subscriber to a modern circulating library. Nevertheless he could not help noticing — we will say he did no more — the wonderful, the sacredly beautiful drama which noiselessly displayed itself before him. Over in the east the intense deep blue of the sky softened a little. Then the trees in that quarter began to contrast themselves against the background and reveal their distinguishing shapes. Swiftly, and yet with, such even velocity that in no one minute did there seem to be any progress compared with the minute preceding, the darkness was thinned, and resolved itself overhead into pure sapphire, shaded into yellow below and in front of him, while in the west it was still almost black. The grassy floor of the meadows now showed its colour, grey green, with the dew lying on it, and in the glimmer under the hedge might be discerned a hare or two stirring. Star by star disappeared, until none were left, save Venus, shining like a lamp till the very moment almost when the sun’s disc touched the horizon. Half a dozen larks mounted and poured forth that ecstasy which no bird but the lark can translate. More amazing than the loveliness of scene, sound, and scent around him was the sense of irresistible movement. He stopped to watch it, for it grew so rapid that he could almost detect definite pulsations. Throb followed throb every second with increasing force, and in a moment more a burning speck of gold was visible, and behold it was day! He slowly turned his eyes away and walked onwards.

This belief leads to the controversial second half of the book, when most of the main characters have been killed off and the action moves twenty years on to a small Midlands town with a new set of characters seemingly unconnected to anything that has gone before, beyond the Dissenting religion and its ministers. The setting is Cowfold, based on Bedford, where White grew up, and the focal point is an ill-fated marriage between a forward-thinking workman (whose father turns out to be an old friend of Zachariah Coleman) and the thoughtless daughter of the minister of Tanner’s Lane Chapel. At last we have the reason for the book’s title, with the revolution being a small rebellion against the certainties of the hypocritical minister and his worthless son. The lesson is that change – against a religion which had come to revere dogma for its own sake over any true sense of God – has come about because of the struggles over those from twenty years before.

In truth the point is not made as well as it could be, particularly as the political radicalism is largely absent from the Cowfold section of the book. Walter Allen, in The English Novel, complains that The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is “broken-backed”, but White is trying to show how some actions and their consequences can take place very far apart, so that it is necessary that the Cowfold incidents are remote from the previous action in London and Manchester. That this is not obvious is perhaps the novel’s weakness, but the very perversity of it makes us think about just what it is that we have been reading. White (or Mark Rutherford) is not much interested in narrative construction or character. Anyone trying to adapt Tanner’s Lane for the screen would give up in despair at a work which wilfully rushes over moments of high drama then focusses obsessively on minutiae. The novel’s extraordinary last words, when we want to know what happens to the two characters we most care about, make this clear – “What became of Zachariah and Pauline? At present I do not know.” We have not been reading a story; it is more of an anti-story. There are no happy endings, indeed there is no ending at all. We have been shown a passage of time, and of how changes come about over time.

Nevertheless there is plenty of historical detail to attract us. White is exceptionally good at illustrating the place of religion in the lives of those in the first half of the nineteenth century. He observes and understands the petty, crucial details of ordinary, overlooked lives – he has an eye for how common homes are decorated, the things that people take pride in, that they take for granted yet which powerfully signify their lives. He paints a sympathetic and well-informed picture of the political radicals of that time, and stirs us with his passion against injustice:

Talk about the atrocities of the Revolution! All the atrocities of the democracy heaped together ever since the world began would not equal, if we had any gauge by which to measure them, the atrocities perpetrated in a week upon the poor, simply because they are poor; and the marvel rather is, not that there is every now and then a September massacre at which all the world shrieks, but that such horrors are so infrequent. Again, I say, let no man judge communist or anarchist till he has asked for leave to work, and a “Damn your eyes!” has rung in his ears.

Above all White writes beautifully. It is the language of someone brought up in the old tradition of the Bible and sermons, from a time when ministers were revered figures in a community and people would travel long distances to hear the finest exponents speak from the pulpit. White, like Mark Rutherford, trained as minister before succumbing to religious doubts, and his language stems from the church, just as its tone is that of one who must hold onto belief even as belief fades. There is not a word wasted, nor a line that is not worth reading twice to get the full measure of it.

White is not much read these days, except among a small coterie of academics, and his books are all out of print (Oxford last published The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane in paperback in 1990). White wrote three further novels – Miriam’s Schooling (1893), Catherine Furze (1893) and Clara Hopgood (1896). Of these I’ve only read Miriam’s Schooling (which is set in Cowfold), and that some years ago, but having just re-read Tanner’s Lane and found myself as entranced as I was thirty years ago, I must visit them all. I hope others may be intrigued enough to do so too.


Tagged with:

Lost books

On March 15, 2015, in Literature, by Luke McKernan


I am not a bibliophile. I do not collect or revere books for their own sake. I am not a book collector. The fact that I own quite a number of books stretched out across a fair number of shelves is because at each an every time of acquiring those books I needed to read them, refer to them, make practical use of them. And, having bought them (or been given them), I had to keep them.

That’s the oddity, because there is no real practical value is keeping hold of a book one has already read, particularly if available space starts to become an issue, unless it is to serve as reference for the future – or indeed will be worth reading again some time. But I keep them because by having been read by me they have become a part of me, and to see them lined on the shelves is to see one’s past thoughts and aspirations documented. And, of course, books do furnish a room.

So what of lost books? A few years ago, when I was selling a previously property, I decided to get rid of some books (probably a couple of hundred, chiefly novels) to make the place look less cluttered, and so took them round to Oxfam. Not a day goes by when I do not bitterly regret the decision. I reasoned at the time that it would be best to keep books that I had not as yet read, and to dispose of some of those that I had. This was completely the wrong thing to have done. I could have got any copy of those unread books at any time, but the books that I had read were unique. They were my books, a part of me, because they were the physical copies that I had bought, read, shelved, and seen grow along those shelves as they were joined by other books. I had got rid of a part of myself.

Why, for instance, did I dispose of all those Alexandre Dumas novels, whose thrilling romantic adventures so engrossed me when I was a teenager? What on earth was I thinking on when I parted with a dozen or more Balzac novels, which I read obsessively in my mid-twenties, exhilarated by how a a minor character in one volume of his Comedie Humaine could because the leading character in a next, as a vast alternative world emerged from those thousands of pages? Some of those novels I dispensed with because I did not like them and felt better for having seen the back of them – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time brings back thoughts of particular loathing (yet I read the whole sequence just to find out how much I did loathe it). Some I had read halfway through only to grow weary – Olaf Stapledon, Rex Warner, Emile Zola, assorted Thackerays. But all had been part of my reading history, and now the gaps in the shelves were gaps in the memory.

Of course I could go out and find replacement copies, but that would be all wrong. The point is the physicality of the book as object, as something with a personal history. I can tell you where I bought every copy of the books on my shelves. I can remember the circumstances in which I bought them, when and where I read them, and where my reading took me next because I had read them. Each book told not just a story, but its own story which by extension became a pat of my story.

A boom I’ve just finished reading in Henry Kissinger’s World Order. It is a marvellously wise and knowledgeable account of the progress of history and the role of political strategy. It is a great book, and also a handsomely produced one (courtesy of Penguin Books), in which the book’s design and construction are harmoniously at one with the book’s grand themes and acute style. Towards the end, in a thoughtful section on the impact of the Internet on society, Kissinger has this to say about books:

The acquisition of knowledge from books provides an experience different from the Internet. Reading is relatively time-consuming; to ease the process, style is important. Because it is not possible to read all books on a given subject, much less the totality of all books, or to organize easily everything one has read, learning from books places a premium on conceptual thinking – the ability to recognize comparable data and events and project patterns into the future. And style propels the reader into a relationship with the author, or with the subject matter, by fusing substance and aesthetics.

This is as good an argument for the value of books as I have come across. Kissinger’s point is that the Internet excels as a supplier of information, but it falls down – indeed probably impedes – the acquisition of knowledge, and wisdom. Books take time to read, and that expense of time encourages constructive thought and the learning of lessons. Style is essential too, because style conveys humanity (though style alone is not enough, or else I would not want to be so harsh on Anthony Powell). But time is the key. books take up time; their physical presence marks out time spent.

To manage time and learning is to earn understanding. To lose the books through which I have learned what little I know is to have thrown away time, to have shortened life a little. Of course I still have the experience of having read those books, and the memory of their loss shows the importance that they had. But they are not there, and I feel that that my bookshelves are telling lies about me, or at least not telling the whole truth.

Yet I could go out and get those Balzac novels again. They would not be the books that I read when twenty-two, but if I read them all again they would belong to the me of thirty years later. They would be taking their place again in a different part of the story. Would that be so bad? I think I should try. The Wild Ass’s Skin is where to begin, if memory serves me right…



On March 2, 2015, in Architecture, Cities, Sport, by Luke McKernan


The Olympic Stadium, Berlin

This is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, and I’m trying to work out why. It’s the stadium built for the Olympic Games of 1936, held in Berlin, a city that I visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The 1936 Games were of course Hitler’s Games, engineered as a means to promote the ideals of National Socialism. The design of the stadium and the site of which it was a part was integral to that propagandist and pernicious ambition, but just as with the Games, where sport triumphed over political show, so the stadium stands as symbol of all that is fine over blind prejudice.


The Olympiastadion in 1936 (from

The brochures and the excellent explanatory notes about the site conduct a careful balancing act between celebrating the sporting occasion while condemning some of the ideas behind it. The stadium has an interesting history. The site, at Grunewald on the outskirts of Berlin, first gained an association with sport in 1906, when the Berlin Horseracing Association commissioned Otto March to design a racecourse. This opened in 1909. Three years later work began on the construction of a stadium on the site, intended for the 1916 Olympic Games which were to be held in Berlin. The stadium opened in June 1913, and though the Games were cancelled because of the First World War, the stadium because a popular venue for sporting events, as well as political and military displays.


The cauldron

The site was further developed in the 1920s by Werner March (Otto’s son) as the Deutsches Sportsforum, though the financial crisis of the late 20s put paid to developing the site entirely. When Berlin was awarded the Olympic Games of 1936 the initial plan was to the existing stadium, but Hitler demanded a complete rebuild, which was overseen by Werner March. A much larger stadium seating 100,000 would now be built on the site of the existing one (digging down into the ground to achieve greater space than one would expect viewing it from the outside), and the overall area to become the complete sporting complex, named the Reichssportfeld. Completed in 1936, the Reichssportfeld and the Olympiastadion hosted the spectacular Berlin Games in that year, an event which in its ambition, aesthetics, symbolism (the first Games to have the Olympic torch relay) and sports professionalism established the success and the still present meaning of the Olympic Games. With the stadium as the centrepiece, there was also the Olympischer Platz road leading up to the two-towered Olympic gate and the stadium beyond, the large field at the end end of the stadium overlooked by the Bell Tower, the swimming pool and an open-air amphitheatre.


Shadow of the roof on the stadium seats

The stadium was largely unaffected by the bombing of the Second World War. The Bell Tower was demolished in 1947 (to be rebuilt in the 1960s) but the substantial structures remained and the stadium was regularly used for sporting events and festivals. It was used for the 1974 World Cup and was significantly refurbished – including the addition of a roof – in time for the 2006 World Cup. Today it hosts football matches and concerts. It is an active and much-used area. But if you visit it on a cold, sunny day in February when there are no events scheduled, as I did, then you get the entire stadium more or less to yourself (there is a visitor centre, and tours are available, but otherwise you can go around the entire site and most of the stadium for yourself, unaccompanied).


The Olympic pool

I found the experience thrilling. In a large part this is because I’ve long best an Olympic Games history enthusiast. The idealism behind the founding of the modern Games may been been naive, and the use of the Games through history may have been frequently contentious, but the beauty of the central idea – the unification of people and the celebration of excellence through sport – trumps the failings of reality every time. You sit in the stadium and think, that’s where Jesse Owens ran, that’s where he and German long jumper Luz Long befriended one another (to the delight of the crowd and disgust of the Nazis), that’s where Jack Lovelock won the 1,500 metres, that’s where Glenn Morris won the decathlon, that’s where Sohn Kee-Chung (a Korean forced to run as Japanese under the name Son Kitei) won the marathon, that’s where Leni Reifenstahl filmed probably the greatest of all sports documentaries.

Riefenstahl’s Olympia doesn’t get shown much these days – not because of the hold its late filmmaker had over its distribution, but because the International Olympic Committee now owns the film rights, and it seems to be a bit self-conscious about the fact. If you see the film, you see why Olympism triumphed over fascism. The opening reel of Olympia is portentous stuff, with statuesque athletes in half-lit, cod-Grecian poses, that chime in well known with the Nazi aesthetic. But then the Games take over. The politics are reduced to nothing, as all we see in human physical excellence, ingeniously filmed to exhilarating effect, the literal record artfully combined with the abstract (notably the diving pool sequence). The drama of actuality has never been so ably orchestrated as it is in Riefenstahl’s film.


Monumental statue opposite the Bell Tower

So you sit in the stadium, contemplating the the raw materials with which she made her film, and how art – if it is true art – always transcends the political. But it wasn’t just how the Nazi showcase was trumped by sport. It was something about stadia themselves. Buildings are designed for a human purpose. Their aesthetic function is subservient to their social purpose. If they are beautiful it is because they serve people beautifully. This the Olympic Stadium demonstrates to perfection. Functionally, it is a model stadium because every seat provides an excellent view. Visually it does so through the harmonious use of shape and fine. I was just so moved by how we can build spaces for human celebration, and how the stadium (from the Colosseum to the Nou Camp) channels drama through the effective marshalling of the crowd. Here we cheer amongst our peers, Here is where we win.


Colonnade around the stadium perimeter

Another part of the thrill of the visit to the Olympiastadion is that it was empty, or virtually so. There was a handful of visitors, and a film crew that milled around the cauldron at the Marathon Gate end of the stadium for a while. Essentially I had the stadium to myself, on a clear day with perfect sunshine. The sounds of the crowds were only virtual echoes. To be in such as place which has had such political portentousness placed upon it, as well as such sporting endeavour, and to see all that reduced to silence, has a powerful effect on the emotions. That which is evil will pass, and all that will survive of it will be the good. I found the Olympiastadion to be a hopeful place.

Tagged with:

Forget me not

On February 15, 2015, in Music, Resources, Web, by Luke McKernan


My favourite website of the moment is the marvellous It is based on an absolutely inspired idea that also reveals a profound truth of two. Its simple premise is that there are four million songs on the music service Spotify which have been played by no one – around 20%. So Forgotify makes these neglected songs available. Simple, but brilliant.

The site (which has been created by three independent developers and is not a creation of Spotify itself) offers one un-listened-to track at a time, selected at random. There is no search or browse option – you simply have to click through what you’re offered, one by one. You get the name of the recording, the album cover and the Spotify play button. Needless to say, you need to be signed up to Spotify to be able to play the music.

The offering is fascinating view of the nether world of music culture – the world’s largest bargain bin display. There are traditional folk song collections, Bollywood soundtracks, classical music re-issues, world music, experimental electronica, sound effects albums, thrash metal bands shocking no one, polka selections and Christian pop. Not all of the names are obscure, however – I came across recordings by Maria Callas, Lonnie Donegan, Sarah Vaughan and Coleman Hawkins in browsing through.

Much of it is, inevitably, forgettable – recordings for which you cannot imagine the reason why they were made in the first place, save for some unfortunate combination of vanity and record company gullibility. Yet there are many gems – I’m certainly pleased to have stumbled across Bally & Power Bross’s sweet guitar and some other stringed instrument on “Z Valiha na Madagaskar“, the quietly explorative jazz of Marc Copland and Dieter Ilg on “Tracks“, the drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria, the unearthly organ music of American composer Erling Wold on his CD “I Weep“, a live recording of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace from a sound effects album complete with comments from tourists, inventive Italian jazz drummer Zeno de Rossi’s “Plunge“, American old-time guitarist Smokey Joe Miller playing “An Angel from East Tennessee“, or the out-and-out weirdness of the Children of NYPS singing “Lovely Italy” from the album Gosh, What a Wonderful World. To each his own!


To be selected on Forgotify, a track has to have a ’0′ popularity rating on Spotify, and then never to have been played. Playing the songs will disqualify them for appearing on Forgotify thereafter, but as new recordings are being added to Spotify all the time, presumably its offspring site will continue at much the same level of 20% unplayed music.

As anyone who works in an archive or library knows, the vast majority of your institution’s holdings will be accessed by no one. Most users select the same objects over and over again, and having a substantial part of your collection never used by anyone is simply the price that must be paid for making what is sought out available. No institution wants to go public with such figures, because it looks like you are storing large amounts of books, papers or whatever which are being used by no one. But they will be used by someone one day we protest, and you cannot be governed by the whims of current taste. Posterity will never forgive us.

At a guess, the average amount of the unused portion of a large library or archive (or gallery or museum) is 90-95%. Smaller collections probably gain more use per item; larger ones inevitably have to hold on to more purely for the sake of holding on to them (most lending libraries of course have disposal policies to clear away old, unused stock). What is certain is that more gets unused than gets used. So Spotify’s rate of just 20% of the collection being unused is outstanding. Of course, online collections reach out to audiences without the constraints that a physical archive faces. But they show how much we want to discover, given the optimum conditions in which to do so.

For what Forgotify demonstrates so powerfully is the urge to discover, and in doing so to bring things back to life. Anyone who has done archival research can speak of the thrill of being the first person to have opened up some document since the day it was created, and to hear the voices of history speak out once more. We bring the past back to life through the simple act of reading, or listening. So Forgotify is not an argument against archives and libraries who store so much that no one ever sees, but instead a justification for having done so. There is nothing so precious as the unseen, or the unheard, because the time will come when it is seen or heard again. It is wrong to keep only that which is known. It is only through exploring the unknown that we will be able to discover anything. Forgetting is the essential counterbalance to remembering.


Something in the air

On January 31, 2015, in Archives, Sounds, Work, by Luke McKernan

A sound map of the British Library Sound Archive, recorded by John Kannenberg

In all of the long and notable histories of the UK’s national film archive and its national sound archive only one person – to the best of my knowledge – has worked for both institutions. Me. This is not through any great archival ability stretching across the two media. My contributions to film archiving have been more nebulous than practical, while I am now based in the British Library Sound Archive not for any expertise in sound (I have none) but because the Library wanted a moving image curator, and they had to sit me somewhere – so among the Sound Archive is where I sat, and still sit.

And although I still wear that moving image hat for the Library, and have recently taken on a news curatorial brief as well, I get involved in the world of sound, particularly radio. Just recently I’ve been helping to manage the early stages of a large-scale programme called Save our Sounds. This is an ambitious undertaking, which essentially is setting out to preserve the nation’s sound heritage, and which is driven by the generally recognised assumption that we have fifteen years in which to preserve the sound archives we have (through digitisation), before either the media themselves deteriorate of the means to play them become unavailable. The reason for acting is that these threats will only get worse and mean that the cost of saving sounds will get all the more expensive as the years go by. So we have to start preserving now.

One of the last Black Country chainmakers, Lucy Woodall, sings the worksong ‘Chainmaker lad is a masher’ and talks about singing

At the same time there need to be systems in place for the capture of future sounds, and the other half of Save our Sounds is looking at direct ingest of sounds from publishers (primarily music publishers) and greatly extending the archiving of radio. Around 92% of the current output of the UK 700 or so licensed radio stations is not properly archived (if it is kept at all), a shameful situation. We’ve worked out how much all of this will cost, and it comes to around £40m, money which as things stand we have not got.

So, nothing like a challenge.

Nightingale song, recorded in Kent, 2008

It’s a good time to be getting more interested in sounds, from the rise of services such as Spotify, SoundCloud and BBC Playlister, to BBC Four’s recent fine series The Sound of Song, presented by Neil Brand, which gives us the history of how technology has determined the production and distribution of recorded song, and encourages all of us to listen that much more attentively to the sounds about us. The British Library has recognised the special case for sounds, and made their preservation one of the leading themes of its 2015-2023 strategy Living Knowledge (awful name, but good thinking behind it). There is definitely something in the air.

One of the earliest recordings of chamber music, recorded in 1905

All of which is making me think what it is that is so special about sound archives. Why keep sounds? Whom do they serve? How do they function? What purpose do they serve when so many sounds are now freely or cheaply available wherever we are? How do they differ from other kinds of archives (such as film)? Why pay £40m on their preservation? Why do they matter?

Sounds matter because they resonate. Listening to them puts us in a particular place that is both the time and space in which they were recorded and that timeless space that exists within our heads. They do not distract, in the way that visual media inevitably do (that is, visual media show us the object to be looked at, but our eyes tend to wander to see things sometimes differently to the matter ostensibly in hand). To listen therefore is to concentrate.

Sounds move us, because we recognise that they are speaking to us, that a communication has been made. Sounds help us locate who we are and where we are. Sounds help to identify boundaries, yet at the same time to transcend them. A voice or a melody may belong to a particular culture and be part of the society that it helps define, yet equally such sounds may move anyone, may belong to anyone.

Sounds contain memories, associations, echoes and refractions. They transmit information which cannot be written down (musical scores notwithstanding). Sounds make us think, and in rationalising what we hear we gain extra understanding. Sounds help explain the world, while creating worlds of their own. Sounds encourage wonder, and enquiry.

Sounds are everywhere, and yet evanescent. We live in a world seemingly saturated with voice, songs, sounds natural and mechanical, yet they are lost if not recorded, and are perilously reliant for their survival on the media that contain them and the organisations in whose current interest it is that those media are kept. A recorded sound, and all that we can associate it through listening to it, can be so easily snuffed out. A wiped tape is a tragedy.

A sound archive is a beautiful idea. It is a civilised idea. Its absence would be mere oblivion.

Gull in a gale


  • The Save our Sounds page has information on the programme and the British Library Sound Archive
  • Over 50,000 sound recordings from the Sound Archive can be listened to at
  • As a first step in the programme we are conducting a survey of the UK’s sound collection, whether in public or private hands, with the same of creating a UK Sound Directory. The survey runs until the end of March 2015.

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. Its 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.

Tagged with: