I remember # 7

On November 1, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

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


Film Archives UK

On October 27, 2013, in Archives, Film, by Luke McKernan

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.


The Big Parade

On October 25, 2013, in Film, War, by Luke McKernan


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 its 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 watching 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 with 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 until 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.

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The book I’m reading, the drink I’m drinking

On October 20, 2013, in Games, Reading, by Luke McKernan


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…


Leaving Colindale

On October 9, 2013, in Libraries, News, Work, by Luke McKernan


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.




I remember # 6

On September 26, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

157. I remember hearing a siren wailing at some point in the early ’80s and wondering if nuclear war had been declared

158. I remember Hiawatha

159. I remember Porky Prime Cut (the message cut into the grooves of many single and albums in the 70s and 80s)

160. I remember Pogle’s Wood and little Pippin

161. I remember being frightened by a poster for the film Pulp – not an horrific or violent film at all, but simply on account of its title

162. I remember gobstoppers

163. I remember David Bowie’s appearance on Top of the Pops, singing ‘Starman’. It wasn’t that big a deal – it was the bass player that I thought looked weird

164. I remember trolley buses

165. I remember Esma Cannon

166. I remember faynights, the magic word which somehow gave you immunity from capture in playground games of chase

166. I remember Noddy Holder’s hat with its silver discs

167. I remember parkas

168. I remember Tracy Island, home of the Thunderbirds

169. I remember when seemingly every TV programme carried a credit for Ken Morse, rostrum camera

170. I remember the bitter look our previously friendly local grocer gave us when we admitted that we now had to do our family shopping at a supermarket

171. I remember James Burke saying ‘look’ in a really emphatic way

172. I remember a great storm and the day after finding that Herne Bay pier had disappeared, apart from the bit at the end

173. I remember 1066 and all That, which I read as straight history

174. I remember sparklers

175. I remember Peter Wyngarde as Jason King, who seemed as immaculately cool then as he appears deeply ridiculous now

176. I remember the shock when Liverpool went one up in the 1971 FA Cup Final and worrying that I might never be able to face my family again if Arsenal lost (they won 2-1)

177. I remember Charlie George’s goal celebration, lying flat on his back, arms raised

178. I remember Blue Mink

179. I remember Olga Korbut, and Nellie Kim

180. I remember the girl who served at the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk who was the subject of the Freshies’ song ‘I’m in love with the girl at the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk’. She never smiled much.

181. I remember reading Tristram Shandy for the first time and being giddy with excitement at what a writer could do

182. I remember sherbert dabs

183. I remember being baffled by two children who lived in our road who had never seen television

184. I remember “They asked me how I knew / It was Esso Blue / I of course replied / With lower grade one buys / Smoke gets in your eyes”

185. I remember Action Transfers, the pictures you could rub over, leaving an impression of the image on a piece of paper

186. I remember jukeboxes

187. I remember thinking that the pop charts were arranged in order of merit and so was baffled why Donny Osmond was able to get to number one

188. I remember T-shirts that had collars


Self portrait

On September 13, 2013, in Music, by Luke McKernan


Bob Dylan

All the tired horses in the sun
How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?

I was brought up on Bob Dylan. My parents had nine records in their music collection (aside from children’s LPs). There were two Classics for Pleasure albums, Joan Baez in Content Volume II, a Joan Baez EP featuring her version of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’, and the first six Dylan albums. My parents were not social rebels, still less followers of what was happening to pop music in the early 1960s, but the sincerity of Dylan’s music clearly spoke deeply to him. Equally clearly, they abandoned him once her picked up an electric guitar and started to produce what must have sounded like noisy pop music, precisely the sort of sounds from which his earlier records have stood out as offering something different, something genuine, that spoke not just to the young of America but to a young couple raising a family in Tunbridge Wells.

I don’t recall them playing the records much while I was around, but I knew the sleeves and every word of the liner notes. Then, when I was seven or eight, a teacher at my school asked if anyone’s parents had records by Dylan or Baez, because she was keen to find the lyrics to Dylan’s song ‘Masters of War’. That night my mother transcribed the lyrics for me and I took them triumphantly to school the next day. Did that teacher then go off and earnestly sing Dylan’s anti-war masterpiece at some party or concert? I do hope so. One can hope to change the world, even if you a young primary school teacher, armed with an acoustic guitar, and living in Herne Bay. The truth will sing out, wherever you are.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy

Dylan slowly started seeping into my consciousness, even as I was listening to the music that you were supposed to like at that age – T. Rex, Slade and so on. The dam burst when my father bought a book of Dylan’s lyrics for my mother. I’m not sure that she read it much, because I didn’t give her the chance. The book became my bible. I knew every word of every Dylan song (such as I thought the book represented) long before I had heard the vast majority of them. Each album that I now played from my parents’ collection or started to buy for myself was a process of amazed discovery and I finally heard the tunes and arrangements to words that I could recite by heart.

By the age of sixteen I was the world’s leading authority on Bob Dylan – or at least north Kent’s leading authority. The effort I had previously put into knowing all that there was to know about football (the history and statistics always appealed to me more than the game itself) I now transposed to Dylanology. I knew every song, the history and import of every song, I knew as much of Dylan’s personal history as the muddled historiography of that time would allow, and I loved the poetry – not the poetry of words alone, but poetry enriched and made fully apparent through tunes, musical forms, and that rasping voice that sung the truth even while it continually wondered just what truth it was looking for.

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

The rest of the history can be told quickly. I saw Dylan when I was seventeen at Earl’s Court (ten rows from the front – I’ll swear he saw me waving), then at the Blackbushe festival in 1978. I’ve seen him play three or four times since then. I weathered his ‘born again’ phase, lost interest around the mid-1980s and sold all my albums not long after when I was in need of the money. Then at some point in the late 1990s I saw on TV a ballet of some sort based on early Dylan recordings I’d never heard before, and was entranced. They came from The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991, a collection of material Dylan had never got round to releasing.

The quality of songs and the performances was astonishing – the stuff he had rejected was so much superior to that which the rest of the music world was earnestly publishing. I had ended up like my parents, rejecting the pap of pop and discovering the sincerity of Dylan the singer of songs that were timeless. And then he released Time out of Mind, and it was like all that had gone before was apprentice work. Glorious album after glorious album then followed, plus an Oscar-winning song (‘Things have changed’), an exceptional, innovative autobiography (Chronicles), exhibitions of his paintings, a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, even a turn at being the best DJ ever (Theme Time Radio Hour). And so on.


The Dylan paintings from the two versions of Self Portrait, plus Dylan himself centre

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

In the middle of Bob Dylan’s grand career is an album – a double album – that angered the critics, bewildered the majority, and has been a guilty pleasure for the few. Self Portrait was released in 1970 while Dylan was in recovery from the absurd intensity for him of most of the previous decade, plus a motorcycle accident. It came after the surprise of Nashville Skyline, his country music album, but if that effort left audiences baffled, Self Portrait made them angry. It was a ramshackle collection of mostly other people’s songs, indifferently presented, erratically produced, and ranging from soupy standards such as ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’ to disastrous versions of songs that wanted no cover version such as ‘The Boxer’, to tunes like ‘Wigwam’ where the people’s poet simply sang la-la-la. Throughout Dylan affected the crooning singing voice that made Nashville Skyline such a surprise. For those seeking the ongoing message about how to think, Self Portrait was more than a disappointment – it was an insult.

That said, many liked it. It was Dylan’s first number one album (in the UK), and when I came across it five or six years later I was initially puzzled but found myself liking the songs in spite of everything. Though there were some lapses in taste, mostly it it was a collection of songs that it was good to sing, and which lingered in the mind – precisely why Dylan chose them. I loved the two versions of Clarence Ashley’s ‘Little Sadie’, one a conventional up-tempo take close to the original, the other (‘In Search of Little Sadie’) a bizarre, stop-start deconstruction. I loved the melancholic female chorus singing ‘All the tired horses’ over and over again. I loved the wistfulness of ‘Copper Kettle’, the rich storytelling of ‘Days of 49’, the cheesy ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and the romance of ‘Belle Isle’. It didn’t matter which were Dylan’s songs and which the songs of others.

Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it roll?
Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

Time has passed on, and Self Portrait has regained some respect, even if Dylan himself has been dismissive of it. It seems to fit naturally alongside Dylan’s first album (most of which featured other people’s songs), his two revelatory folk standards recordings, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, even the bizarre Christmas in the Heart, and certainly the profound understanding of traditional songs- old and new – that Dylan showed throughout Theme Time Radio Hour. Dylan works within a grand tradition. Sometimes it is his songs that he contributes to that tradition; sometimes he sings the songs of others, and often it is hard to tell the one from the other, as he borrows tunes and phrases from others while producing songs that countless others have borrowed, adapted and made their own.

Now comes Another Self Portrait, tenth in the series of official ‘bootlegs’ that have made available Dylan’s unreleased recordings in exemplary packages which rewrite music history. The albums Dylan released in his original prime were only one part of his legacy; the bootleg series has widened and enriched that legacy so that past Dylan is in a constant process of reinvention even as Dylan today pushes forward with new albums as fresh and arresting as his first.

Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Another Self Portrait is a collection of outtakes and alternative versions from Self Portrait and the album that followed it, New Morning. It is the album that Self Portrait was meant to be, released at a time when we are better able to understand it. Certainly part of the problem with the original record seems to have been producer Bob Johnston’s uncertainty over how to treat this material. The plainer renditions here, losing strings and overdubs, certainly help (though some big production surprises remain – ‘New Morning’ with horns, a swooping surge of sound at the start of ‘Time Passes Slowly’). The original album’s severe lapses, such as ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Blue Moon’, are gone, while beautiful renditions of Eric Andersen’s ‘Thirty Boots’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Gonna Sing Her Song’ fit in harmoniously with ‘Days of 49’, ‘Belle Isle’, ‘Railroad Bill’ and an impassioned ‘This Evening So Soon’, all traditional songs.

There is a sensational, menacing take on ‘House Carpenter’ (taken from Clarence Ashley but based on an old English ballad), a louche ‘If Dogs Run Free’ minus its scat singing, two versions of the cryptic ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, and particularly pleasingly some excellent live recordings from the 1969 Isle of Wight festival which previously recordings have made sound like the concert was a mess. Here were get a jaunty ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that more than matches the original, and the deluxe version of the CD features a third disc with all seventeen of Dylan’s performances from the concert, which sound so terrific you wonder why on earth it wasn’t released as a separate album in the bootleg series.

The best is always yet to come
That’s what they explain to me
Just do your thing, you’ll be king
If dogs run free

Another Self Portrait rewrites history in that it presents a wiser take on recording sessions from forty years ago that were a reflection of uncertainty from the artist and the producer. It presents an argument that says this is what was really meant. It is an historical judgment, reviewing the past from the vantage point of the present. It takes us away from the linear understanding of an artist’s progression, album by album, and suggests that only now, as we recognise that Dylan the troubadour sees his art as part of a grand tradition of American song, can what he tried to do in 1970 be understood and appreciated. Many of us rather liked Self Portrait at the time, for all its blemishes, but Another Self Portrait loses the blemishes and rediscovers purpose. At last the album’s title make sense. It is a portrait of Dylan through American song, and a portrait of ourselves.




On September 1, 2013, in Audiences, Cinemas, Resources, Web, by Luke McKernan


‘They were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble of the world’: illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanied Mary Heaton Vorse’s article‘Some Picture Show Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

I’m happy to announce a new website that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months, Picturegoing.

I say a couple of months, but this builds on research which I’ve done for some years now. Back in 2005 I was co-researcher on The London Project, a Birkbeck University of London project looking at the origins of the cinema industry in London. My subject was the cinemas (and other films venues) of London from before the First World War, and their audiences. The main output of the project was a database of cinemas and other London film businesses, plus assorted articles. But as part of the research into audiences I started gathering eyewitness testimony of the experience of going to cinema in those early days. The general critical consensus was that the audience from that period was ‘unrecoverable’, because no one had interviewed them at the time, and no one from that time was left alive to be interviewed now.

I disagreed. Certainly there was no one left around from those times, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to track down what they thought. The first interviews with London cinema audience members weren’t held until 1916, and then only under very partial circumstances, but the children of those times grew up and wrote memoirs. A few were published; many more were donated as unpublished manuscripts to archives and libraries. I went round every borough archive in London and found many of these memoirs of pre-WWI life, a good many of which included references to cinemagoing, with a freshness and keen observational eye that showed how important the cinema was for the children of that time. I found more evidence in oral history interviews, especially those undertaken by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (1975), for which the original recordings are held by the British Library and the transcripts by the UK Data Archive.

So I started transcribing all I could find, and picking up other testimonies that weren’t from London pre-WWI but still seemed worth gathering. The evidence I then used in assorted writings, and in a mini-show, ‘Only the Screen was Silent’, which dramatised the child’s experience of early cinema. I also reproduced some of the testimony on my silent film blog The Bioscope (now defunct), where they never quite fitted.

Then a couple of months ago, when I was telling myself I really wasn’t going to be writing anything more online about film history, I thought once more of a project idea I’ve been mulling for years now. The Open University has a marvelous research project with database called the Reading Experience Database. This documents the historical experience of reading worldwide through transcribed and categorised evidence from printed sources. And my thought was, what about the Viewing Experience Database? What about the way we look at things? What about cinema, art works, exhibitions, television, illustrations, magic lanterns, the Web, mobile video? For some of these subjects there is a good body of work on their audiences; for others there is shamefully little (how much had been written about the historical experience of going to see paintings as opposed to reacting to them outside their social contexts?).

Well, that could be a grand project indeed, but best to start small. Why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to gather all of this testimony in one place I don’t know, but I idly looked up a web addresses, and was amazed to discover that picturegoing.com hadn’t been used by anybody. Well, some things are meant to be, and here I am launching Picturegoing today.


Poster from 1896 advertising the Cinématographe Lumière, with the heterogeneous audience watching L’Arroseur Arrosé

The aim of Picturegoing is to document the experience of going to see pictures. It reproduces eyewitness testimony of watching films, from the 1890s to the present day. The intention is to be global in reach and to cover all time periods, but to begin with it mostly focusses on the UK to the 1940s. The documents cited include (or will include) diaries, memoirs, essays, film trade papers, newspapers, works of fiction, poems, interviews, official reports, web texts, photographs, cartoons and artworks. Texts therefore have been chosen whether they are contemporary or retrospective. The selection does not include conventional film reviews.

For each document the original source is given, the text is reproduced verbatim, and a comment provides contextualising information. The decade covered, the country and the type of document are noted under categories; other subject terms are listed under tags. No distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective. They are there for users to interpret them as they think best. (In researching the site I came across someone’s thesis on filmgoing who used memoir evidence but spent 40 pages or more contextualising and qualifying the choice of this material – good grief, if you are that worried about evidence, don’t write history at all).

The documents are a combination of complete texts and extracts from documents. The extracts focus on that part of the document that is most relevant to the subject of picturegoing. Extracts are also used for in-copyright works and are quoted for the purposes of criticism and review. Many of the older texts have been taken from public domain sites, such as the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust and Project Gutenberg.

It’s very much a work in progress, please note. There are 117 testimonies recorded on the site so far, and I don’t think it will have achieved critical mass (as we say in the trade) until it reaches 500. I have a long list of documents that I will be adding in due course, but I’m really keen to hear from people who can point me to examples I can use – if already transcribed, so much the better! There’s a contact form on the site to encourage such contributions. Remember, I’m not interested in film reviews – it’s the audience experience and the experience of being in the audience that matters. This sort of testimony tends to predominate for the early years, when the phenomenon of picturegoing so exercised commentators, after which point we all try to be film critics rather than observers of the social scene. I’m also keen to expand more beyond Britain – evidence of picturegoing in India, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the African nations, and in venues that aren’t just cinemas. It would be quite something to have such a global resource. Then we can start thinking about the paintings, TV, magic lanterns and other enticing forms of the visual.


Advertisement for the Brixton Scala, Brixton Free Press, 1914

If you are dipping into Picturegoing I recommend using the categories and tags to browse across theme – for example, Serials, Interviews, Talking (i.e. while the film is going on), or Fear. Alternatively, here are some of the key testimonies posted so far:

And much more besides. Picturegoing is not just about cinema history; it’s about people, and how they see things. It’s about all different kinds of people: young and old, intellectual and plain-speaking, rich and poor, from north, south, east and west. It’s also about people as individuals. I have a strong dislike for that part of film studies branded as ‘spectatorship’ where it views the audience as a homogeneous mass, all thinking alike, stripped of all personality. We each of us see things differently, even as we continue to choose to view things together, collectively. There’s the mystery, and the beauty of it all.


News of the world

On August 30, 2013, in News, by Luke McKernan


Part of ‘I Wanted to See All of the News From Today’ for 30 August 2013, 18:30

News is not an absolute. Though we talk about world news, what is news to one person is to necessarily news to another. News is a report of an event of specific interest to a particular audience. So it is that online news services such as Google News or Yahoo News offer means to tailor the world’s news streams to your particular interests. Sign up to the BBC news app, and it will shape the news to your location. Publishers deliver, but it is readers and viewers to ultimately construct the news around what interest them, around their world.

Nevertheless the idea remains of an absolute world of news. It’s more a concept for an artist than a journalist, and I have been fascinated by Martin John Callanan‘s online installation, I Wanted to See All of the News From Today. Created for an exhibition held earlier this year by the Slade Centre for Electronic Media in Fine Art, it persists online. What he has done is generated feeds for all (?) of the world’s newspaper websites where they make their front pages available on a daily basis. This he then ingeniously publishes on a single webpage, allowing you to scroll through hundreds of newspaper pages from every land and language imaginable – and with every concern under the sun. And as a new page is published, so the website changes. The screengrab above is for a small part of the news pages for 30 August 2013, a heady day for news indeed.


I Wanted to See All of the News From Today exhibition at University College London

Callanan’s artwork makes one ponder the nature of news and community. It shows how we all thirst after news, but how different our concerns are. It shows how news separates us, how different we all are, even if the same kinds of story persist wherever we are (celebrities, murder, scandal, sport, animals). it is the world’s news, but also no one’s news in this form.


Newsmap, for 30 August 2013, 18:30

There have been other attempts to pull together the world’s news in one place, for journalistic rather than artistic reasons. Mostly based around maps and Google News feeds, these efforts have come and gone. The standout effort, which is superb as a news source quite as much as an ingenious piece of programming, is design engineer Marcos Weskamp‘s site Newsmap.

Newsmap visualises data from the Google News aggregator on a continual basis, displaying the world’s news with headlines taken from news websites (which link to those sites) displayed according to priority, territory, theme and time. So one can see all the world’s news, algorithmnically ordered according to its significance in relation to other news stories. The newsmap can be tailored to different countries or groups of countries, and is classifiable by themes such as Business, Technology and Sport, which are colour-coded for easy reference. The colour then comes in different shades according to how recent the news is. It is a brilliant realisation of a solution to the information problem Weskamp identifies on his personal site:

Currently, the internet presents a highly disorganized collage of information. Many of us are working in an information-soaked world. There is too much of everything. We are subject everywhere to a sensory overload of images, bombarded with information; in magazines and advertisements, on TV, radio, in the cityscape. The internet is a wonderful communication tool, but day after day we find ourselves constantly dealing with information overload. Today, the internet presents a new challenge, the wide and unregulated distribution of information requires new visual paradigms to organize, simplify and analyze large amounts of data. New user interface challenges are arising to deal with all that overwhelming quantity of information.

I find that Newsmap is not just an inspired attempt at making the information overload manageable; it makes knowing more about the world desirable. While I Wanted to See All of the News From Today shows how divided we are all, and how mutual understanding is a fantasy, Newsmap demonstrates that our news is anyone’s news. The one cannot contain the world’s news on a screen and can only let us scroll endlessly through page after page. The other distills, condenses, classifies and makes clear. It is news for the world.

Newsmap has been running since 2004, and Weskamp’s last blog entry about the site was in 2010. I do hope it will continue to be supported. It’s one of those key sites that tells you what the Internet is for, and how it has changed us – for the better.


A day on Cybertron

On August 13, 2013, in Exhibitions, Online video, by Luke McKernan


Optimus Prime

Last Saturday I was on another planet, or so I expected to be. Specifically I was at a Transformers convention in Birmingham. Just to make things clear, I am not a fan of plastic robots that convert into cars, nor of the bombastic films that have been made about them. I do, however, have a nephew who discovered this race of robots when he was three, and now aged eleven shows little sign of losing interest in them. So it is that I have spent eight years in deep conversation about Transformers, bought numerous Transformers toys, have assisted in making Transformers animated films, and finally went to a Transformers convention along with 800 people engrossed in the timeless battles between the Autobots and the Decepticons, each the sometime residents of Cybertron.

It is possible that you may not be wholly acquainted with the mythology surrounding the Transformers. Let me enlighten you. Cyberton is a planet inhabited by a race of robotic beings who can transofrm themselves into mechanical objects. The Transformers divide up into the good, noble, peace-loving Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (pictured at the head of this post) and the malevolent Decepticons, led by Megatron. These two are at war, chiefly over a mystical object called the AllSpark, which created the planet in the first place. For reasons complex and not terribly important, the Autobots and the Decepticons take their battles to Earth, where they hide their presence for a time by disguising themselves as various vehicles, before transforming back into robots to do noisy, metallic battle. They come with names such as Bumblebee, Starscream, Ironhide and Ratchet, each of which has its own character trait and choice of vehicle into which it transforms. And so the war goes on, for all time.

There’s a whole lot more to it than that – vast amounts more, as any cursory visit to the voluminous Wikipedia pages on each and every aspect of Transformers will tell you. Greek mythology itself (an obvious influence on the whole story) cannot boast so complex, so extensive, and so contradictory a mythos, as the various stories overlap, conflict and are endlessly embellished through comics, films, TV animations, websites, fan sites, and the toy manufacturers who generated this world in the first place.

The Transformers were developed out of earlier toys created by Japanese manufacturer Takara in the early 1980s. The American distribution rights were acquired by Hasbro, who gave them the name Transformers and eventually acquired primary rights in the entire line. The toys were supported by an animated cartoon series, which greatly popularised the toys and gave the world its cheesily pompous theme song (“Transformers, robots in disguise…”).

Transformers toys were ingenious in two respects. Firstly, the engineering that made a robot convert into a car and then back again was outstanding. The sturdiness of their construction, the skill involved in transforming the more complex examples, and the attention to detail (mechanical as well as narrative) made them as popular with parents as they were with children. They were good toys to buy – and they kept on coming. Because the other ingenious stroke was to have multiple releases of the same characters, as well as introducing new characters, so that fans kept on buying the toys over and over again, revelling in each new incarnation.

After a strong start in the 1980s, the Transformers concept drifted, the sales of toys fell away, and the series seemed to be petering out alongside Thundercats, Masters of the Universe and other such 1980s kitsch innovations. But in the early 2000s Hasbro and Takara joined forces once more to create a new line in the transforming toys, better engineered and with a more consistent underlying story. The result (nicely timed for my nephew) was a huge resurgence in the franchise, a bewildering set of seemingly annual issues on new versions of the characters, and of course the advances in CGI techniques which enabled filmmaker Michael Bay to make the fantasy come real and show the robots converting into vehicles, and back again, in seeming real life. It has been a good time to be a small boy.

Jazz with a General Problem

The cult has also spread so successfully because of the internet, and the fan cultures it engenders. Narratives are sustained and embellished, characters enlarged, images generated and videos created that make the fan central to the maintenance of the mythology. This fan-led phenomenon is of course apparent in many other field, notably the Twilight series, but Transformers has a particular edge because the toys lend themselves so readily to animation, benefiting from the great upsurge in DIY stop-frame videos, of which the dazzling Jazz with a General Problem featured above is probably the most celebrated example (Jazz is one of the Transformers; General is a car that featured in the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard and does not exist as a transforming toy, despite what the video’s ingenious sleight of hand might suggest (see how it was done here). Another major video trend is the toy review, where enthusiasts demonstrate their latest purchase, showing other how to transform it and giving their opinion on its particular qualities. These review videos are massively popular, and the leading exponents (who come in all ages) have amassed considerable followings.

And so we came to Birmingham, to visit the annual Auto Assembly Transformers convention, held at the Hilton hotel next door to the National Exhibition Centre. By some happy accident of scheduling, the Transformers convention was being held next door to a quilting convention, a delightful vision of the different ways in which the compulsion for hobbies will lead humankind.


Just one stall among many

The convention was held in a vast room, with a quarter given over to seating and a stage, and the remainder devoted to rows upon rows of stalls piled high with plastic toys. On entering the place the first thing that struck you was the heat, as 800 bodies patrolled the stalls or sat at the front to listen to the jolly compere introduce sixteen special guests, on by one. Our special guests turned out to be comic book artists and voice actors for cartoon series. So it was that artistic hacks paid a pittance and taking in whatever work comes while chained to their desks found themselves cheered to the rafters by a set of fans in a mood to laud anyone associated with the cult. The artists played along with the spirit of the event, saying enthusiastic things into the microphone and ending their few words with a whoop, before settling down in a long line at a row of desks to draw pictures all day and chat to the fans. The voice actors were in a slightly higher league, fan-appreciation-wise, though one did wonder at the difference between the genial, small, bearded Neil Kaplan, and the all-powerful metal-muscular Optimus Prime whose voice he supplies for one of the animated series. But he played along with the game too, and the fans loved him for it.


The comic artists meet the fans

I had expected to be in a room with a few hundred middle-aged men of sad demeanour and unfortunate dress sense purchasing toys beyond the purchasing power of any child (I saw £150 for the largest new toy, £300 for some second-hand rarity), geekishly exchanging minutiae of information with other social misfits. The reality wasn’t quite like that. There were young and old, a surprising number of women (most of those who took the trouble to dress up as one of the characters were women), and more couples than might have been expected. In short, it was a gathering of normal people, who just happened to like Transformers. They took it all seriously, yet could laugh at themselves at the same time. They were imbued with that gentle sense of irony which is a such pleasant hallmark of many aspects of modern life.

Auto Assembly wasn’t a terribly good convention, as conventions go – too little in the way of sideshows, not enough relief from the plain business of selling. But what was special about it was the chance to visit this alien world of fandom and to find it was much like any other world. Human beings need other worlds; they need stories. They need to fight battles on other planets in order that they can better deal with the battles to be faced on this one. The Transformers themselves seem to operate as a mechanical metaphor for this. They convert from being of another world into something belonging to our world. Then we can convert them back again. This repetitive making and unmaking holds a particular fascination for a child, who is able to discover the hidden, master its mysteries, and to achieve this mastery over and over again. I watched with my own fascination how a boy of eleven could play with one small robot for three hours on our journey home –

making, unmaking
making, unmaking
making, unmaking

– the master of the universe, in his own small way.