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.

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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.


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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 http://www.olympic.org/Berlin-1936-summer-olympics)

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.

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Forget me not

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


My favourite website of the moment is the marvellous Forgotify.com. 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 http://sounds.bl.uk
  • 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’, http://melaniesmith.net/projects/aztec_stadium/index.html

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 mentalfloss.com

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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