189. I remember walking past the anti-apartheid protesters outside South Africa House, day after day after day
190. I remember hide-and-seek
191. I remember Mary Hopkin
192. I remember Ilie Nastase, tennis rebel
193. I remember struggling over seven times eight when learning my times tables
194. I remember Disney Time
195. I remember (can this possibly be true?) that my primary school class held a Miss World competition. A girl named Angela won.
196. I remember Chicory Tip
197. I remember the Harlem Globetrotters
198. I remember abacuses (or should that be abaci?)
199. I remember crouching with work colleagues in a corridor away from windows because it was thought a bomb might be nearby
200. I remember listening to the cheerful propaganda from Radio Tirana on my short-wave radio
201. I remember the astronaut who sang ‘I was walking on the Moon one day, in the merry merry month of May’
202. I remember inventing the standing triple jump as a sport (at least I was fairly sure no one else had come up with it)
203. I remember when you banged on the top of the television set to make it work
204. I remember my brothers and I push-starting our father’s car on cold mornings
205. I remember limbo dancing
206. I remember Mary Wilson’s poetry
207. I remember the Fairs Cup (so named because originally the competing football teams had to come from cities that hosted trade fairs)
208. I remember George Chisholm
209. I remember The Singing Ringing Tree
210. I remember Blue Peter annuals, guaranteed in every Christmas stocking
211. I remember Christmas stockings
212. I remember power cuts and eating meals by candlelight
213. I remember marvelling at French hypermarkets because nothing on such a scale existed back in the UK
214. I remember Charlie Chaplin films being shown regularly on British television, eagerly catching each title that was new to me, never once questioning the absence of dialogue
215. I remember exactly where I was when I suddenly felt terribly good about the world and my place in it, and then the moment passed
216. I remember Grandstand, and not knowing what a grandstand was
217. I remember the round reading room at the British Museum and the proud day when I first had a reader’s ticket. I picked a seat and decided that this would be the seat I always used, just liked Karl Marx. The next time I came someone was sitting there already.
218. I remember Bod
219. I remember feedback (on guitars)
220. I remember the sobering day when I realised I was older than anyone in the England cricket team
Yesterday I saw the five-and-a-half hour restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), which was shown at the Royal Festival Hall between 13:30 and 21:30 (there were three intervals), with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Carl Davis conducting his music. It’s the third time I’ve seen the film (not counting the DVD of the US version of the restoration with Carmine Coppola’s music), though of course it is now longer than any of us have seen up to now, as the restorer Kevin Brownlow has found more footage since the restoration’s original premiere in 1980. To judge from the titles at last night’s screening which described a missing section, we are missing a sequence where an impoverished Napoleon makes boots for himself out of cardboard. The recent additions to what we now see are mostly sequences in Corsica.
It is not a film that I care for that much. To express dislike for Napoléon can be close to heresy in silent film circles, given the heroic story of the film’s production and the still more heroic story of its restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, which is generally argued to have overturned decades of prejudice against silent films and to have ushered in a new appreciation of silent film art, as well as the (expensive) vogue for seeing such films as they were originally presented, with full orchestral accompaniment. But one can be grateful and still be critical at the same time. Napoléon is not a good film; it is a very long film with some good things in it.
Abel Gance, its director, originally planned for six films to cover the entirety of Napoleon’s life, and this first episode takes us only to Napoleon on the verge of conquering Italy. The remaining five parts never got made, though a German film made by Lupu Pick from Gance’s script for the sixth part, Napoléon auf St Helena was made in 1929. Film history is lettered with bombastic attempts to film the life of Napoleon – Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick never made theirs; Gance filmed only a sixth of his. The lesson from all three is that the directors maybe saw something of themselves in Napoleon, and what they wanted to film was not so much the man as the idea of absolute vision, absolute control.
Abel Gance’s Napoléon (what we have of it) makes little sense as narrative. It presents episodes (the snowball fight from his childhood, the siege of Toulon, the Terror), not a story that grows organically and logically. It offers little in the way of characterisation. The named figures are no more than portrait paintings – only the excellent Vladimir Roudenko playing the young Napoleon gives us any sense of a rounded character, though this time around I found more to admire in Albért Dieudonné’s hypnotic impression of the adult Napoleon. Those scenes which require some interaction of the characters are among the poorest, notably the romance between Napoleon and Josephine (Gina Manès), and the lovelorn Violine (played by Annabella) with her unrequited, quasi-religious worshiping of her hero. Epic events such as the siege of Toulon are rendered incoherent through a lack of narrative skill, while others, such as the orgy sequence, just go on and on to little purpose, or interest.
Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra take their bow
But it is wrong to expect Napoléon to work in terms of story, character, or as conventional cinema at all. It is better to think of it in musical terms, with its themes, impressions, transpositions recapitulations and codas. Its episodic nature points to symphonic structure; its contrapuntal technique with themes introduced, answered and repeated echo fugue. Music is fundamental to the film’s exhibition, of course – Arthur Honegger wrote the original score (now lost), while Carl Davis’ efficient score combines original music with pieces from contemporary French compositions and parts of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (‘Eroica’) which was originally dedicated to Napoleon. However, there is not an exact correlation – rather Gance is playing with images as a composer might play with musical ideas. This is why the film’s most powerful sequences are those where images of the past are recapitulated in visionary form – Napoleon’s recall of all his encounters with Josephine (an extraordinary rapid montage), a complementary vision of her in multi-superimposition form as Napoleon recalls different aspects of her, and on course in the famous final triptych, which deliver a rapid, ever-changing swirl images of Napoleon’s past, present and future.
This musical use of images does not always work. The intercutting between the revolutionary turmoil at the Convention and Napoleon in a boat on a stormy sea (which originally was to have concluded in tritych form) is an overblown irrelevance – the visual correlation is banal and fatuous, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s weaker 1920s efforts to repeat the cross-cutting bravura of Intolerance (the quintessential fugal film). Far better is the recurrent use of the eagle motif, not least because the film’s emotional high point comes early on the childhood sequence where Napoleon’s pet eagle returns to him. It is a fundamental weakness of the film that this thematically, emotionally and musically satisfying moment occurs so soon, and is never bettered.
If you forget story, and character, and dramatic logic, and think of Napoléon as a visual symphony, then for the most part it works. There is not a dull nor a false image in the entire work. It reaches apotheosis in those points where it abandons conventional cinematic narrative techniques and delivers the abstract – the nine-image pillow fight, the ghosts of the Revolution revisiting Napoleon at the Convention, the absolute avant garde of the concluding triptych. But that is not enough. You have to fill your five-and-a-half hours with more than that, or at least Gance tries to, so the failure of the romantic scenes, for example, is down to poor technique, not to any misunderstanding of what he was trying to do. He wants us to care for Napoleon in the way that he does; and we don’t.
In part it’s just that I don’t like grand film gestures. Big is not better, and the grandiosity of Napoléon makes for a great event, but not necessarily great cinema. The cult of the silent cinema restoration with live full orchestra that the 1980 restoration ushered in has led to many ecstatic reviews that suggest that here is the quintessence of cinema, but I beg to differ. Earlier this week at the British Library we showed a ten-minute film from 1910, A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, with a single pianist, to an audience of thirty. There was more truth in that film’s simple exposition of people, time and place, than in all of Napoléon‘s strutting bombast – and finer technique too, if we want technique to have purpose. I prefer my films human-sized, and about ordinary humans, not about the heartless visions of world conquerors. Small is beautiful.
- I produced an overview history of the film’s production and restoration at the time of its 2012 screenings in San Francisco for the Bioscope blog
- Two good reviews of the Royal Festival Hall screening that have appeared already are those by Rick Burin at Advice to the Lovelorn and Pamela Hutchinson at Silent London
Who saw this one coming? Bob Dylan as a welder of gates? The Halcyon Gallery in Bond Street is currently hosting Mood Swings, an exhibition of ornamental gates and associated metalwork crafted by a man, who when he isn’t composing, recording, touring, writing, broadcasting or indeed painting, clearly likes to go a junkyard, pick up a few bits of metal to take back to his copious workroom, and build gates.
The results are extraordinary. I’m not sure how one can got about reviewing a gate, though it has to be said that none of the Dylan’s constructions would function terribly well as an actual gate. Instead they are creative, playful sculptures that you could say offer a way in to the greater understanding of the artist. The introductory notes to the exhibition point out Dylan’s family roots in Hibbing, Minnesota, home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. Here is a man who can properly claim, as he does in ‘Never Say Goodbye’ (one of my favourite Dylan songs), “My dreams are made of iron and steel”.
However, there is nothing heavily industrial about the gates, which relate more to his poetry than his hometown. What impresses you is their lightness, invention, wit and proportion. They are indeed made up of material re-used from the scrapyard. One may spot wheels, cogs, chains, spanner, hooks, handles, horseshoes, in one place a dog, in another a guitar. The number of re-purposed tools that feature in the gates seems like some sort of joke made about the nature of construction. There is something floral about the way the metal parts have been arranged, like a briar rose – indeed, the full verse from ‘Never Say Goodbye’ goes:
My dreams are made of iron and steel
With a big bouquet
Of roses hanging down
From the heavens to the ground
The welding itself seems to be rudimentary, with obvious joins between the pieces, but those who know their ironmongery have, it seems, praised what they have seen. Each piece is marked with a buffalo trademark. Should you be interested in purchasing one – they’d look nice on any wall – prices range from £50K to £250K. Three in the upper price bracket already had red dots beside them, indicating that they had been purchased, when I visited. So hurry.
If it wasn’t apparent already, it is obvious now that Bob Dylan is not just a musician. He works across many media, working words and images as the heart dictates (his haunting paintings of railways tracks can also be seen at the Halcyon gallery). The late flowering of this vision, at a time when his contemporaries are either dead or reproducing identikit versions of the songs of their far far off youth, is extraordinary to witness, and makes you realise how it is going to be necessary to revalue the man all over again, just as he continually reworks his songs in performance (he is playing the UK this week, with his usual playing of familiar songs rendered utterly unfamiliar). This is what made the speech by France’s Culture Minister, Aurelie Filippetti, so awful when Dylan was awarded the Legion d’Honneur last week. Her narrow view of Dylan still as protest singer, making a call for liberty, was a complete misreading of the man, his music, and of how the artist operates. Artists work for themselves, not for us. They express what they see and feel. What we then get out of the process is recognising something of ourselves in what they have expressed.
There are multiple Bob Dylans out there, with one part of that identity being the creative team that fashions his work for an online audience through bobdylan.com. This other Dylan, working in his name, continually thinks up new ways in which to keep his name at the cultural forefront, placing innovation above the marketing of tradition. A genuinely ground-breaking example of this is the video of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ released this week. The song may be a little over-worked by now, but the ingenious solution they have come up with is to make the video like the experience of flipping through TV channels, on each of which there is someone lip-synching to the words of the song. Newsreaders, sportsmen, shopping channel presenters, TV cooks, soap actors, all spout out the snarling words, while the ability of the viewer to flip between these channels (as the song continues seamlessly) makes every viewing a unique one, as well as presumably rending the video impossible to reproduce on any other video platform. At any rate, it has re-imagined the music video, and hundreds of video producers around the globe must now be cursing themselves and asking why they didn’t think of something like this before.
Of course Bob Dylan didn’t think up how to treat ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ for the video-savvy generation. He was too busy with his blow-torch. But it is all part of the same flowering.
Carlsen and Anand (with his back to the camera) before the start of their first game on 9 November 2013
The World Chess Championship has started, and I am glued to my screen. Along with millions of others, I am able to follow the contest between India’s Vishy Anand (the current world champion) and Norway’s Magnus Carlsen through a bewildering variety of options, as the internet connects up all of us across the globe to the mental activity of two men in Chennai, India, seated facing each other across a board with sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces. What takes place in the brain of the two leading exponents of the world’s finest game radiates outwards across the globe, replayed on screens and boards, analysed by programmes, commented upon, tweeted. It is the perfect exemplification of our interconnected world.
The content is taking place over 12 games, between 9 and 28 November, with blitz tie-break games to be played on the 28th is all is square by the 26th. I have been watching via the official site, which provides three views – video of the game itself, video of two commentators with a chessboard on which they play out possible variations, and a board documenting the moves of the game itself. The experience of watching and listening is a little odd, because there is a time lag between electronic board and video (which the commentators are following), so one sees what has been played on the board, then a minute later sees the documented on the would-be live video stream, and then the commentary coming in third.
Game one from the display at http://chennai2013.fide.com, with video of the players, commentators and the main board
This is just one site among many which is following the game. Alternative include Chess.com’s live TV stream, 2700chess.com, the official YouTube channel and Chessdom. There’s also a handy Twitter guide to the world chess championship.
Given all the hype and the technology, it has been a tad disappointing that the first two games were both quick draws by repetitions, the players early on reaching situations where they would rather repeat sequences than risk a disadvantage – when both players play the same moves three times, a draw is automatically declared. Much more of this and the joined-up world is going to be mightily disappointed, but the age of romantic chess, with its sacrifices, surprises and innovations is long over. That sort of play now exists only in blitz chess, where all the moves must be made in something like five minutes and errors are inevitable. Here instead we have two minds almost cancelling one another out, practically before the games has begun. Chess followers are familiar with grandmaster draws where players follow familiar lines and end up at some point in the middle game where neither can see an advantage to be had and so agree a draw. But will we eventually get to a point where every opening strategy is so well known – and the pitfalls over steering clear of such strategies so obvious – that someone will play e4 for their opening move and a draw is immediately declared? Will chess have then come to an end?
Hopefully not just yet, and hopefully the full contest will prove worthy of its billing. I’m not much bothered about who will win. I want the game to win.
A brick wall in Rochester (Boley Hill, near the castle, in case you want to seek it out sometime)
Here’s a curious anecdote. I live in a town rich in brick walls of every age and description. I like photographing them (I wrote a post about this a while ago). I put several of these photographs on my Flickr site, should anyone want to look at photographs of brick walls for themselves.
Time moved on, and a web designer got in touch with me. He had been looking on Flickr for photographs of walls and just happened to like one of the ones that I had taken. Would it be possible to use it? Sure, I said, what for? For the website of a taxi firm, it turns out. His commission was to come up witha website for a taxi company that wanted to promote booking its vehicles through a phone app. I wondered to myself how a photograph of an ancient brick wall and pavement could be used to denote taxis, but I’m not a designer. I’m not a photographer either, but I said he was free to use the photograph and he promised to get back to me.
Time moved on again, and the website is ready. It’s for Streamline taxis of Headcorn in mid-Kent, and their booking site is called Scan, Click & Go (smart move to have secured that web address, certainly). And sure enough, there’s my photograph, greyed out, with coloured lines to demonstrate travel, a pink car, and a QR code for you to scan with your phone. I’m still not quite sure why you need to show a brick wall, when cars travel along roads, but what the heck. It certainly is different, and I think gets its point across.
A Streamline taxi
But there’s more, because I hadn’t realised the full extent of the design plans. The photo, design and QR code appear not only on the website but on the taxis themselves. All across mid-Kent, Streamline taxis are heading out to deliver passengers with my photograph splashed across the side of the vehicles. It’s the oddest thing. I’ve been racking my brain for a moral to the tale, but maybe it’s just a case where curiosity is the story in itself. I took a photograph of a brick wall. I put it on the Internet. Now it’s on a taxi. Rum world.
189. I remember delighting in the name of the cricketer Brian Brain
190. I remember Brand X
191. I remember my first football
192. I remember turning off the sound on the television when Vision On was broadcast to impress upon my younger brothers what it was like for the deaf
193. I remember Jackdaws, which were collections of copies of primary source documents about some historical event, gathered together in a folder
194. I remember the Partridge Family
195. I remember the Beaufort Scale
196. I remember collecting miniature busts of French presidents at petrol stations in France on a family holiday
197. I remember Professor Stanley Unwin
198. I remember that the name of the girl seen by a blackboard on the BBC testcard was Carole Hersee
199. I remember Rhoda and her plain sister, who went on to provide the voice for Marge in The Simpsons
200. I remember my friend’s mother who always stood to attention when the national anthem was played at the end of an evening’s television
201. I remember Picador paperbacks
202. I remember the Durutti Column (I still have his first album with its sandpaper cover)
203. I remember TV interludes (the potter’s wheel, the ploughing horse) which the BBC showed during gaps in the programming
204. I remember the round window, the square window and the arched window
205. I remember one man bands
206. I remember Elkan Allan
207. I remember the magician David Nixon
208. I remember Chip Club, whose magazine was circulated to schools with lists of books that children were encouraged to buy
209. I remember Viv Stanshall exclaiming ‘Mandolin!’ (on the album Tubular Bells)
210. I remember when young watching a television interview with a woman who said she expected her menfolk to be violent, and realising that there were different worlds outside of our small corner of Tunbridge Wells
211. I remember the scorpion square dance from The Living Desert
212. I remember a tracking shot of starving Africans in a queue shown on a 1970s TV documentary that just carried on and on and on, past the point of belief
213. I remember Jack Jones the trade unionist, and Jack Jones the singer
214. I remember Professor Branestawm and his many pairs of glasses
215. I remember the great sense of excitement and honour I felt whenever a Shakespeare play was shown on television
216. I remember sky ray lollies
217. I remember Clarence the cross-eyed lion
218. I remember the first Argos catalogue
219. I remember when Foyle’s bookshop made you collect a book from one till then take a slip to a second till where the cashier sat (a system they immediately halted on the death of Christina Foyle – who I also remember, as she sat in on all interviews for prospective staff. I failed the interview)
220. I remember the sense of national shock and shame when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup
221. I remember wah-wah pedals
222. I remember playground war games where we divided into English and Germans
223. I remember fording streams
224. I remember coal bunkers
Today, October 27th, is UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. The day is marked every year by audiovisual archives and archivists as a means to (in UNESCO’s words) “raise general awareness of the need for urgent measures to be taken and to acknowledge the importance of audiovisual documents as an integral part of national identity”.
There is a list of some of the many events taking place around the world, which range from AVPreserve releasing utilities designed to support various aspects of the digital preservation process, to the National Archives of Australia showcasing gems from its collection via social media sites, to the National Library of Latvia launching a new digital audio collection.
Among the several online launches, one that brings particular pleasure to me is the new website for Film Archives UK, together with a smart promo film, embedded above. Film Archives UK exists to promote the understanding of film archiving in the United Kingdom, to represent the interests of such archives, and to promote best practice. The new site has information on the organisation, its members and its purposes, with guidance on film archiving, news, a blog, and information on courses and jobs in the sector.
There is more to film archives than cinema as commonly understood. Yes we want feature films to be cared for (if we cannot trust the film industry to do this for themselves) but film also means documentaries, instructional films, advertising films, newsreels, experimental films, animation, promotional films, industrial films, home movies, home videos and more. The members of Film Archives UK represent the more inclusive, more practical understand of film – not as art but as the mirror of society. In particular the UK’s regional film archives are preserving, as far as they can, our home movie heritage. This is preservation predicated on the understanding that films of our family holidays are of no less importance to our cultural heritage than feature films. This is film culture grounded not in dreams but in place, in class, in family, in identity.
Doubt my word? Well, if the video at the top of this post does not stir the heart and make you want to belong to those places and peoples from the not so distant past, then try this recent compilation from North East Film Archive, Middlesborough on Film. Though the artfully chosen music helps, I don’t think I’ve seen a more powerful selection of archive film. It makes even the non-Middlesborough resident feel nostalgic for a town they do not know, with a yearning for a connection with the past that will help us understand ourselves. Its effect on Middlesborough residents themselves must be so powerful – indeed it you can judge this from the many comments on the film to be found on the Discover Middlesborough Facebook page for the film.
The members of Film Archives UK are the East Anglian Film Archive, the Imperial War Museum Film Archive, the Media Archive for Central England, the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, the North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University, the Scottish Screen Archive, Screen Archive South East, South West Film and Television Archive, Wessex Film and Sound Archive, and the recently twinned Yorkshire Film Archive and North East Film Archive. There also several associate members, including the BFI National Archive. The aim is now to broaden the membership to include other archives, a collective representation of what is the national film archive.
I had some involvement with the organisation when it was known as the Film Archive Forum, fighting many battles over over niggardly funding, trying to gain recognition for their work within an archives, museums and libraries sector that sometimes found it hard to think beyond paper. Film says more than words can express – that is what is special about it. If it only repeated what the written word can document, there would be no point to it. And it never loses the power it has to sway hearts and establish a connection with the past. Film lasts. It is the ordinary made extraordinary. How lucky we are that we have archives so dedicated to preserving such a heritage.
Tom O’Brien, John Gilbert and Karl Dane in The Big Parade
When did I last see The Big Parade? I can’t remember where or when? On a big screen, I think, and at least twenty years ago. My memory of it, apart from his huge emotional impact, chiefly centred on the soldiers marching slowly through woods in the face of gunfire. I saw the film again this evening, the new Blu-Ray release from Warners of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Thames Television restoration, and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. The march through the woods is as much of a cinematic coup as ever it was, but so much of the film was as if new to me – which, though it makes me worry about my memory, made it in all other respects a great pleasure because it was as though a film classic for the first time.
The film tells a story now so familiar that you have to make a special effort to remind yourself that nothing like it had ever been seen on the screen before, and that it was shown to an audience for whom the First World War was but a few years ago and its impact and consequences still being digested. Directed by King Vidor in 1925, it tells of Jim, a young American playboy (John Gilbert) who enlists when America joins the war and becomes close friends with two two men from humbler working backgrounds, Bull and Slim, played by Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane. They train for war, travel over to France, and while stationed at a French village waiting for the fighting to begin, Gilbert falls in love with French girl, Melisande, played by Renée Adorée, despite neither being able to speak a word of the other’s language. Gilbert has left a fiancée back in America, so the romance is touched with doubts if not guilt.
The chewing gum scene from The Big Parade, with John Gilbert and Renée Adorée
The soldiers go to the front, and having been strafed by a German airplane as they march down a road, they meet proper action at Belleau Woods. This sequence has been much praised for its realism, as the soldiers proceed slowly through the trees in the bright light of day, one by one falling as they are picked off by sniper fire and machine guns. It comes as a huge shock after the arcadian interlude in the French village, but what struck me was how stylised the whole sequence it, so that realism is a quite misleading concept. In its gentle rhythm, in its play of light and shadow, in its intercutting between propulsive and repulsive elements, it seems a very formalised, almost balletic sequence – a dream of war with the reality of death.
The fighting continues at night on open ground, where the trip find themselves in a fox hole. Slim goes out on a doomed solo mission and is killed. Jim goes out to try and rescue him, and in another of the film’s heart-stopping sequences, he shoots a German soldiers and then pursues him, both dragging themselves through the mud. Coming together, Jim is unable to bayonet the man but instead gives him a cigarette, before his young enemy dies. it is the kind of sequence advocates of the silent film hold up as being quintessence of the medium. Nothing is said, everything is only felt and read through the eyes til it becomes a scene that could only have been told silently. Its power is the very model of what was lost when cinema found sound.
Jim returns home after the war, where we and his family learn for the first time that he has lost a leg. again, one has to think back to how it must have come across in 1925 to see a star of Gilbert’s romantic appeal so disfigured. His family – and conveniently his fiancée – seem repulsed by him, even as his mother has a sweet vision of the different stages of her child growing up, but this is a part of Jim’s new maturity. He has to reject his inherited comforts and discover his true self back in France, where Melisane toils the fields dreaming that he might return one day. But who is that figure she seems hobbling on the brow of a hill, coming toward her? It is no less powerful for being the only ending that the audience would ever have allowed the filmmakers to make.
Renée Adorée and John Gilbert
The Big Parade has its occasional lapses and absurdities (Karl Dane’s eye-rolling comedy; Melisande clinging onto the truck that is taking Jim away from her raises more of a smile than a tear), but no more than must inevitably occur with the passing of time. It rings true in both narrative and performance. Watching, however, I kept thinking of how what was hugely popular once becomes the reserve of the specialist. The cinephiles laud The Big Parade as the peak of silent film craft, with performances, technique and theme that could hardly be bettered. I myself have just said how it rings true. Yet for the general audience these things are not true. It is quaint. It is false. It has been rendered implausible and unpersuasive by the passing of time and by the many films that have adapted its template for the tastes of their own times. Some in that general audience would fall for it, or at least appreciate its lasting values with a bit of context, but ultimately The Big Parade is much like any other film, in that its relevance is fundamentally tied to its popularity, and that is measured in a small number of years before tastes move on.
When is dramatic art ever eternal? Art on a wall achieves this, perhaps because it is static and not so dependent for its meaning upon an audience – it is constructed to stand out of time. Of course dramatic plays have lasted down the centuries, but their performances do not, as any vintage filmed or televised Shakespeare play will demonstrate. It all changes, from what was generally understood to what is selectively understood and requires apologetics. What is past is lost, or is in an ever-increasing process of being lost. As John Gilbert’s embittered face towards the end of The Big Parade suggests, film’s great hopes never last.
I’ve had enough of these long, infrequent posts. I spend ages deliberating over what to write, then still longer putting off writing itself because it takes up so much time – and once I’ve started I can’t stop. Shorter, pithier, more frequent – that’s what’s required.
In the interim, here’s a photo from today, taken at my favourite spot, the Precinct Pantry in Rochester, next door to the cathedral. In a town filled with coffee shops that are filled with people, the Precinct Pantry remains remarkably empty, despite its location, quaint charm, and prices at half anyone else charges on the high street. Goodness knows how they survive, but long may they continue to do so (while continuing to be overlooked by the herd).
The photo is one of a series that I tweet under the title “the book I’m reading, the drink I’m drinking”. For what reason, I don’t know. The drink is invariably a decaff white Americano. The book changes frequently, though never frequently enough to keep up with the pace with which I buy books. The title finished today was Marilyn Yalom’s The Birth of the Chess Queen, spotted in the Oxfam shop at Canterbury (I like to remember where it was that I found a book). It’s a history of chess through the figure of the Queen, showing how the piece that was originally a vizier became feminised, and then gained extra powers on the board, around the time that powerful queens ruled in Europe – in particular Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of Spain. So it’s a history of women’s power seen through the prism of the game of chess, with a sad coda on how an equality of the sexes over the chessboard has been lost since the Middle ages. Given the troglodytic misogyny of so many in the chess world, it’s hugely refreshing to read a chess history that’s so fresh, inventive, and – despite everything – optimistic. Warmly recommended for anyone, with no knowledge of chess required.
Now the cup is drained, the last page turned, and on to the next book – a life of W.T. Stead…
The national newspaper collection is on the move. Next month, the British Newspaper Library – part of the British Library – will be leaving Colindale, north London, its home since 1932. Countless researchers have made use of the Colindale reading rooms over the past eighty years, and it is held in great affection, but few I think would disagree that the place was coming to the end of its natural life. Little changed architecturally from the 1930s, the place has an antique charm, with large volume newspapers being wheeled on venerable trolleys to researchers seated at vintage tables, the very embodiment of libraries from another age. The fixtures and fittings, like the bound newspapers themselves, shedding bits of leather and fragments of fading newsprint, belong to a time when the word digital might only refer to the use of fingers to leaf carefully through the pages. Though there are microfilms readers, and an annexe to the original reading room which is of more modern design, the Colindale library looks and feels as though time has passed it by.
The time for change has now come. The British Library has been engaged in a huge newspaper programme over the past few years, designed to safeguard the nation’s newspaper heritage long term. This programme has included building a new Newspaper Storage Building at Boston Spa in Yorkshire, digitising some 40 million pages (7 million done so far) and making these available online via the British Newspaper Archive site, closing down the Colindale library, and opening a new reading room at the Library’s main site in St Pancras, central London. The intention is to keep the newspapers in optimum storage conditions with carefully controlled temperature and humidity at Boston Spa, such as Colindale does not provide. Researchers will be provided with microfilm and digital ‘surrogates’ at St Pancras. This should serve most needs, but where no surrogate copy exist it will still be possible request the print originals from Boston Spa; so long as they are in good enough condition to travel, they will be delivered delivered to St Pancras within 48 hours.
The Colindale library closes to the public on 8 November 2013, with the new reading room opening in 2014. Many researchers have been making special trips to Colindale to sample its particular research experience for one last time. What none will see, however, is how things look behind the scenes. On six long floors, with assorted adjoining areas, the national newspaper and periodical collection stretches on and on and on. The numbers are mind-boggling – 660,000 bound or boxed volumes, 630,000 microfilms, around 100 million individual issues, 750 million pages, 50 kilometres of shelving.
Being newly appointed as the news curator, I was privileged to walk along that shelving recently, and decided to make a photographic record. Already the shelves are not as full as they once were: the periodicals have largely gone already, and the newspapers are being readied for transportation. But still volume after volume after volume stands in neat order, a monument to the irrepressible human urge to write things down, to communicate with one another, and to identify themselves by occupation, interest and place.
The sheer size of some of the bound volumes astonishes. It’s a major engineering undertaking simply to take some of them off the shelves. The hugeness of such newspapers indicates a time when the majesty of the press was reflected in the way it occupied the entirety of the breakfast table. The tabloid press of today denotes a more hurried age, when the newspaper has to fight for the reader’s attention amid so many other compact, diverting attractions. And as the newspaper goes digital so does its special identity get swallowed up in a forest of apps, games, programmes, tools and assorted entertainments. The news is no longer weighty; it now flits from platform to platform, anxious to please, uncertain of its survival.
The Library’s newspaper collection goes back to the seventeenth century and the birth of the newspaper itself. Systematic collecting did not begin until 1822 (earlier newspapers come from private collections donated to the British Museum). Publishers were obliged to supply copies of every newspaper they published to the Stamp Office for the purposes of taxation. These copies were transferred to the British Museum, until 1869 when newspapers were included in legal deposit legislation and were thereafter sent directly to the Museum. That process of donation under legislation continues to this day, with each issue of just under 2,000 UK and Irish newspaper and weekly or fortnightly periodical titles received per year. In times past they were bound in volumes (just think of the years of industry involved in managing the binding alone of the British newspaper collection); now they are collected in boxes. The collection grows at just under 300 metres per year.
To wander up and down the shelves to is witness the nations and regions of the United Kingdom talking earnestly, passionately and insistently to one another, witness to democracy, debate, conviction and modernity. All of the great national titles are there – The Times, The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the News of the World – but also mile upon mile of the regional press, especially prominent in its nineteenth century heyday, when news of the nation and of the world beyond could be found just as readily in your local paper as in the national titles, and when such titles spoke with the voice of Victorian confidence and authority.
The Birmingham Journal & General Advertiser, The Leeds Intelligencer, The Poor Man’s Guardian, The Dundee Courier, The Elgin Courant and Morayshire Advertiser, The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, The Salopian Journal, The Northampton Mercury, The Lincolnshire Chronicle, The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegrams, The Hartlepool Mail,The Rochester and Chatham Miscellany, Domestic Friend, and General Advertiser …
The newspaper volumes have a weighty beauty about them, even those with more modern bindings that lead to uniform colour and well-regimented order. But the rows upon rows of reels of microfilm are no less fascinating, witness to the imperative in recent times to compress knowledge into ever smaller spaces as we say more and have less physical space remaining in which to store what we have said. For many researchers, historic newspapers do not much exist in print at all; they are familiar with the whirr of the microfilm reader as they scroll page after page in search of that elusive piece of evidence that will prove a thesis, identify a long-lost relative, or confirm a conspiracy. Print and microfilm are ultimately a means to an end, which is to locate the word.
Just how many words are there? If there are 750 million pages, and let’s say 2,000 words per page, then that’s 1,500,000,000,000 words. How will we ever read them all? Digitisation is of course coming to the rescue, albeit selectively – the Library’s project with family history company Brightsolid to digitise 40 million pages in 10 years will cover 5% of the current collection – but the words serve as much as a monument as food for some putative, future thesis. The sheer weightiness of what was said (and bought by those who wanted to read what was being said) tells the history of our times as much as perusing the papers themselves. The volumes, boxes and reels tell their own tale of the manifest importance of news to the nation. You may judge a nation by the diversity, variety and vigour of its press. The contents of the shelves of Colindale tell that tale magnificently.
But they are now being taken from those shelves, and in order that they may always tell the tale of what was said and how it was said they are being moved to storage facilities where no-one will be able to walk up and down the shelves and see history in the same way again. Instead we have catalogues, and databases of digitised papers, offering a range of content and range of options for searching that has changed research radically, and hugely for the better. If we are no longer in the golden age for newspaper publishing, we are undoubtedly in a golden age for newspaper reading.
The question that occurs on perambulating the shelves at Colindale is how long print will last. How long will 300 metres of newspapers be added to the collection year after year? How rapid will be the newspaper industry’s conversion to digital? No one knows, though the reports of the death of the newspaper in some quarters may be a little premature, given that the advertising money is still very much concentrated on print rather than online. But the paper will run out eventually, and only a series of 1s and 0s on ever-growing banks of servers will take its place as history comes to be weighed no longer in tonnes but in terabytes.
And what are 750 million pages in the present-day scheme of things? That entirety of British newspaper production is going to be eclipsed by one single impression of the UK webspace when the British Library makes its first ‘crawl’ of all .uk websites under the new non-print legal deposit legislation. One billion web pages could be captured, for this year alone. It will become impossible to comprehend just how much we have to say about ourselves and how much we leave behind for others maybe one day to discover. Especially when we can no longer walk along the shelves and measure it all somehow with our own eyes.
- There are more photographs of the Colindale library behind the scenes on my Flickr pages
- Information on the newspaper library moves is available from the British Library Newspaper web pages
- An overview of the holdings of the newspaper collection is also available on the British Library site
- Information on the Newspaper Storage Building at Boston Spa, with assorted facts and figures and some amazing photographs of the superstructure, can be found here
- The British Newspaper Archive provides access to 7 million pages so far. It’s avaliable on a subscription basis, but is free to use on BL premises