Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins

I just came across this paper I gave at the Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass conference, held in New Bedford, Mass. in June 2005. I suppose it has been waiting for me to turn it into something more substantial, but I doubt I ever will. So here it is, in its flawed, elliptical original state. 

What follows is the summary of an experiment: a report of the results observed when two characters from Melville and Douglass are placed alongside each other. One day, perhaps, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins will have their own conference. Until then, they can briefly make an appearance in the shadow of their creators.

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Playing with Chekhov

I recently came across an old notebook in which I scribbled a holiday diary of sorts. As usual it petered out quickly into merely practical memos (addresses, phone numbers, train times) but it began well – as these things often do, with the enforced captivity of a transatlantic flight as inspiration. In this case, it was en route from Amsterdam to Washington DC that I read Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with Lapdog’ (in David Magarshack’s translation), and felt compelled to record my responses.

The dog plays only a minor role in the story. G, a late thirties’ serial adulterer, is in Yalta, his curiosity excited by a new arrival, a lady with a lapdog. He sees her first walking along the promenade as he sits in a restaurant. And then again, and again. Always ‘followed by the white pomeranian’. ‘No one knew who she was, and she became known as the lady with the lapdog.’

The narrator tells us a little about his marriage and his attitude towards women, which is disrespectul, and yet he is drawn to female company, as women are to him. He is seized with the desire to seduce her, and his chance comes when she happens to sit at the next table in a restaurant in the park. The dog provides useful pretext to talk to her, for G first attracts its attention, and in fact she speaks to him first: ‘He doesn’t bite,’ she said and blushed. She says she’s bored in Yalta and G makes a droll remark that gently chides her statement as a somewhat ridiculous cliché.

That’s what one usually hears people saying here. A man may be living in Belev and Zhizdra or some other God-forsaken hold and he isn’t bored, but the moment he comes here all you hear from him is “Oh, it’s so boring! Oh, the dust!” You’d think he’d come from Granada!

She laughs. We learn her name, A, and she’s quite young, only two years married, although she doesn’t know what her husband’s job is. G is attracted to her youth – only recently ‘she had been a schoolgirl like his own daughter’; to her ‘diffidence and angularity’ evident in her laughter and her conversation with a stranger. G concludes that is is the first time she had found herself alone in the company of predatory men.

He gets off with her, but the time comes for her to return home to S__ and they both seem to agree that they will never see each other again. But G is unable to get her out of his head and in December he tells his wife he is going to St Petersburg, but instead goes to S__ where he takes a room in a hotel and, having learnt A’s address, observes the house from the street. He hears her playing the piano, and even sees an old woman appear at the front door with the lapdog. But he can’t risk announcing his presence, and returns to his hotel, deciding to go to the theatre that evening to the first performance of The Geisha Girl. And of course A is also there, with a man he supposes is her husband. During the interval he takes advantage of her husband’s absence to approach her seat in the stalls. She hurriedly leaves the auditorium and they steal a few tense, intimate moments on a narrow staircase. She implores him to leave immediately, but promises to visit G in Moscow.

And she does. Every few months, she leaves P__ to visit her Moscow gynaecologist (so she tells her husband, who believes her and doesn’t believe her), takes a room at the Slav Bazaar, dispatching a porter with a message for G when she arrives.

The story concludes with an account of one of these secret meetings. (On this occasion, he doesn’t receive her message till the following morning, and he goes to the hotel after dropping his daughter off at school). She bursts into tears, wanting so much the secrecy to end, while G glances at himself in the mirror – reflecting on his advancing years and realizing that he had fallen in love for the first time in his life. And Chekhov leaves us on the threshold of a complicated future.

Then they had a long talk. They tried to think how they could get rid of the necessity of hiding, telling lies, living in different towns, not seeing one another for so long. How were they to free themselves from their intolerable chains?
‘”How? How?” he asked himself, clutching at his head. “How?”

And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

If we rewrote this story and moved it closer to home, with a title like ‘Lady with Laptop’, how would this work? The opening scenes could take place in Rothesay. G would be from Glasgow. A from a small town outside Edinburgh: Musselburgh perhaps.

A would certainly attract some comment if she appeared in Rothesay, sitting down in parks, restaurants, opening up her laptop and typing away. Certainly it would provide a useful ‘way in’ for a predatory male such as G to initiate a conversation.

The laptop, like the dog, could fade into the background once it had served this purpose (maybe reappearing – like the dog – once more, as G stalks outside her Musselburgh home, and catches a glimpse of it through the window?). But it would be good to introduce a twist.

One possibility is that she herself is writing a story. So while Chekhov’s story privileges G’s point of view – and it is his transformation from adulterer to genuine lover that is its focus – this reworking would offer a glimpse of A’s version of the affair as it appears in the story or diary she is writing on her laptop. Or perhaps she’s posting updates to a blog or social network account of which G, but not the reader, is totally unaware.

Not Biking but Hiking

In a previous post I drew on a much-quoted passage from George Orwell – the miscellaneous catalogue of what he thought were ‘characteristic fragments of the English scene’ which included that line about ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings’. It wouldn’t be quite so well known, perhaps, if John Major hadn’t used it in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, changing ‘biking’ to ‘cycling’, presumably to make sure we didn’t confuse these old maids with Hell’s Angels.

And then last night I started reading Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England (2009). I’m not sure why. I guess books about Englishness are my version of car crash TV. There is something compellingly baffling about the way journalists, travel writers and cultural critics talk about Englishness as if it were a remotely meaningful concept. You won’t find its equivalent anywhere else. The French obsessing over francaisitude or an Italian crisis of italianità? Even the Scots only talk about Scottishness in order to disown it. In fact if there is one thing that the English do have in common, it is an uncontrollable urge to talk about Englishness, something they never define, just illustrate with lists which they trade with each other like marbles or cigarette cards.

Anyway, Maconie writes just two pages before he cites Orwell. And then he makes the following remark:

Orwell actually had his maids ‘hiking’, which sounds oddly transatlantic; Major’s misquotation is the one that has passed into legend.

This rather took me aback. Had I got it wrong? I surely wasn’t the only one. I hunted out my copy of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II: ‘My Country Right or Left’ (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968). There on page 57 it was unmistakable: ‘biking.’ It is the only edition I had and the library was shut so I couldn’t check further. But what is Maconie’s authority for ‘hiking’?

Comparative web searching produces surprising results. On Google, ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion’ yielded 1,120 hits, while ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion’ gave 258. Google Books scored 122 and 3 respectively. ‘Biking’ was a clear winner, but why so many for ‘hiking’?

It would seem that the culprit is an electronic version of the essay, available online from K1 Internet Publishing based in Vienna. Like many electronic books – especially unauthorized ones – it does not specify the source document. Even in the single paragraph in which this line appears I spotted at least three more variations from the Secker and Warburg edition. Is this a case of careless editing by the team that digitized it? Or is it – unlikely as it may appear – an ur-text that deserves wider recognition? Somehow, I don’t see the – notoriously litigious – Orwell estate giving out prizes any time soon.

House Music

David Toop’s latest book, Sinister Resonance, subtitled ‘The Mediumship of the Listener’, makes much of a remark by Marcel Duchamp: ‘One can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.’ What I heard – or think I heard – at Instal 2010(Tramway, Glasgow) the other night seems to suggest otherwise.

Earlier in the year, the House Project began with two sound artists, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa, being invited into four Glasgow homes, and the householder asked to play their favourite music, to identify their favourite room and to talk about their acoustic environment while a roving microphone, as it were, went exploring. They were also asked to comment on the recordings when they were played back to them on headphones. You can listen to the original recordings made at the time here. (See also this blog post by a guinea-pig for their next project).

But we heard almost none of this during the live performance. On stage were three musicians and two actors, listening to carefully edited and co-ordinated versions of these recordings played to them through headphones. The actors seemed to be responding to a spoken-word track, repeating the voices word-for-word as far as they could. The musicians seemed to be responding to a track consisting largely of ambient sounds, mimicking with their instruments (a prepared guitar, a saxophone and a basic drum kit) the sound of doors opening and closing, floorboards creaking, toilets flushing, the music playing on the stereo. Occasionally, excerpts from the raw field recordings were played through loudspeakers, as well as some spoken word samples taken from elsewhere.

It is quite hard to describe, and may well sound like a recipe for disaster. But it made sense. It was intriguing, unpredictable and often funny–though it’s true some of the humour came from the foreign accent (real or feigned) of one of the actors that meant his performance sounded at times like a routine by Peter Sellers or Sacha Baron Cohen.

It was also unsettling because of the way it turned conventional relationships on their head. For example, this was not free improvisation. The actors and musicians were not just following some previously discussed guidelines; they were effectively realising a score. But a score that took the form of recorded sounds rather than notated paper, and one revealed to the performers – for the first time perhaps? – in real time, so that what we witnessed was a cross between an aural test and sight reading.

The ‘score’ did seem to allow enough latitude, though, to make us think again about hearing and listening. About how they are, even at their most passive, still activities – improvisations, even (to cite Toop a second time) – which involve fluctuating levels of attention, changing focus and depth of field. Damn, I’ve resorted to visual metaphors again. Perhaps the only way you can avoid them is to, well, listen to people listening.

 

Run This Way – 1

A young child – as parents will know – makes no strict distinction between walking and running. They do not – as adults do – compartmentalize them and see walking as the normal, default form of self-locomotion with running reserved for special occasions (proverbially, when you’re late, pursuing someone – or being pursued, or doing it as a form of regular exercise or competitive sport).

Adapted from Wikipedia

Small children constantly change their velocity – compared to the regular speed of an adult, they are often frustratingly slow (executing detours, pausing to examine something, or simply to stop and sulk) or worryingly fast (looping off to suddenly chase something or sprinting ahead, usually in the vicinity of a busy road junction). In both cases they force the adult to adjust to their pace and thus, as it were, become children again, if somewhat against their will.

I was thinking of this while reading Barbara Bodichon‘s American Diary1, in which the British feminist artist and journalist recorded her tour of the United States in the late 1850s.

It seemed to me that walking and running carry a certain rhetorical emphasis in her text . Early on she remarks that ‘slavery makes all labor dishonourable and walking gets to be thought a labour, an exertion’2; in other words it is stigmatized by the privileged elite as something only black – or poor white – people would do.

For this reason then, at least in the South, her and her husband’s fondness for talking walks – and long walks at that – would seem to carry a political charge, as if they were a form of discreet abolitionism. References to their walks appear frequently, although they gather added momentum in New England, starting with a ‘lovely walk with Mr [Theodore Dwight] Weld‘ – compiler of the influential American Slavery As It Is (1839) – in New Jersey,3a walk that becomes a distinctly abolitionist one in that it leads them to the grave of James G Birney.4

So much for walking. Running, though, has rather different associations. A Southern woman she meets tells her, ‘If you teach them [slaves] to read they will run away’.5 And the image of the runaway slave recurs at several points in the diary, a figure to which Bodichon is drawn. Indeed at one point she writes, ‘I hope to paint a picture of a runaway slave in these woods’.6

Running, you might think, is a dynamic contrast to the rather muted activity of walking. A suitable figure for immediate rather than gradual emancipation, perhaps, or an emblem of the black radical rather than the white abolitionist. And yet Bodichon’s sentimental eclipsing of the slave’s feelings by her own – to paint a runaway would seem to presuppose capturing him or her stalled in flight, perhaps even hiding from pursuers not far behind – allows even less agency to the runner than her Southern companion, who does at least, if somewhat ruefully, allow that they might actually get away. This would also seem to be the view of Marcus Wood, whose survey of 19th-century visual representations of the male runaway concludes:

In its literalisation of the concept of ‘run-away’ it is a negation of the slave’s most radical anti-slavery gesture. The slave does not guilefully depart under shade of night, but stands out bold and supid on the bleak white background of the printed page. He does not steam on a boat …. or travel … by train, or ride… on a horse. Comic, trivial, pathetic, and always the same, with his bundle of goods and one foot eternally raised, he proclaims his inadequacy for the task he has set himself. The very engraved lines which make up the the slave are running round in circles, running everywhere and nowhere. One arm and the legs form triangles | thrusting forward; the stick, bundle and other arm form another set of triangles hanging back. The net result is that the head – poised, straining, perfectly still – is itself a motionless O.7

If the antebellum South coded walking as a form of undignified labour, then running was an expression of cowardice. In Honor and Slavery (1996), Kenneth Greenberg argued that the ‘man of honour’ was expected to betray no fear of death and to be willing to be killed rather than lose face. And so if challenged to a duel he would confront his adversary rather than make himself scarce.8 What is interesting is that despite, for instance, Austin Steward’s loud condemnation of the ‘inhuman practice’ of duelling and its ‘barbarous code of honor’ in Twenty-Two Years a Slave(1857), these values were espoused even by slaves themselves, however much they sought to distance themselves from them as adults once they had reinvented themselves as bourgeois Northerners.9

Steward himself relates the story of a fugitive slave, Doctor Davis, kidnapped on a boat bound for Buffalo. ‘Give me liberty or death! Or death!’ he repeated, with a shudder’ before cutting his own throat with a razor.10 This motto – of Virginia patriot Patrick Henry11 – is quoted by both Douglass and Jacobs in the course of narrating their first escape attempts.12 Related to this are the episodes which permit the writer to express their admiration for a courageous – if ultimately suicidal – defiance of a fellow-slave, such as Big Harry and Ben in the narratives of James Williams and John Thompson.13

Thompson proclaims his own allegiance to this code when he refuses to flee from the company of a ‘pretty young lady’ as a band of patrollers catches up with him on a forbidden visit to a neighbouring plantation. He explains that ‘no person is allowed to possess gentlemanly bravery and valor at the South who will run from the face of any man, or will not even courageously look death in the face, with all its terrors.’14 Similar considerations inform Josiah Henson’s and William Parker’s choice of the right time to escape. Parker finds that when an opportunity presents itself, he finds he ‘did not like to go without first having a difficulty’ with his master. ‘Much as I disliked my condition, I was ignorant enough to think that something besides the fact that I was a slave was necessary to exonerate me from blame in running away.’15 Henson, notoriously, delays his departure many years, a ‘sentiment of honor’ preventing him from succumbing to the temptation of absconding as he escorts eighteen slaves across the free state of Ohio from Maryland to his master’s brother’s plantation in Kentucky; only much later, when he finds that neither his new master, nor his family, seem to be ‘under any, the slightest, obligation’ to him for saving his life, does he feel ‘absolved’ of his obligation to them, and determines to make his escape to Canada.16

The episode that comes closest to a duel is probably Douglass’ celebrated fight with Edward Covey, after which the ‘tyrant’ never again laid on me the weight of his finger in anger.’17 Again, its significance is that it allows Douglass to condemn Covey as a ‘coward’, and to represent himself as one no longer; a slave now only in name, his ‘spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence.’18 When he does escape, it can no longer be understood as running away; rather it is simply the taking possession of a freedom he has already won in a fair contest.

[To be continued.]

Notes

  1. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, An American Diary 1857-8, edited from the manuscript by Joseph W Reed, Jr (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).
  2. Ibid., p56.
  3. Ibid., p142.
  4. Ibid., p143. For further references to walks and walking, see pp67, 96-7, 111, 115, 122, 124, 135, 145, 146, 147, 152, 154, 160.
  5. Ibid., p62.
  6. Ibid., p77.
  7. Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp93-4.
  8. Kenneth S Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19960, esp. Chapter Four, ‘Death.’
  9. Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857), pp67, 47.
  10. Ibid., p143.
  11. In a speech to the Virginia Convention 1775. See William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), p123.
  12. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] with a new introduction by Philip S Foner (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 284; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives(Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p99.
  13. James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), pp53-59; John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and his Providential Escape [1856] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p427.
  14. John Thompson, op. cit., p444.
  15. William Parker, The Freedman’s Story [1866] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p751. The ‘ignorant’ here is the Northern adult chastising the Southern child.
  16. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada [1849] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave – Volume 1: 1770-1847. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), pp734, 743-44.
  17. Douglass, op. cit., p246.
  18. Ibid., p247

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Twelve hours later I’m still being stalked by this film. The Mexicans Are All Right I think it was called. A withering portrait of self-absorbed adults from the point of view of two adolescents, if I have understood correctly. In one scene – surely a fable in which the audience is meant to recognize itself – one of the adults realizes her Third World employee had been enjoying some sneaky glimpses of her adulterous romps while he should have been working in the garden. She’s unsettled by his expression and challenges him. ‘That’s not a look,’ he says. ‘It’s my face.’

Whatever. I woke this morning from the richest dream-world I had been in for a long time. I was briefly flung together with a former partner. We were both so concerned not to give in to our old feelings, there were some tender caresses and a strip of flesh, but mostly we circulated independently during what seemed to be a holiday reunion weekend. We were out and about, catching performances at a festival of some sort, then returned to a house our friends had rented. Or perhaps it belonged to the parents of one of them. There was some uncertainty about the sleeping arrangements. Nervously, I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in months and smoked one. I went out and came back as it was getting light, a little drunk and dripping wet, frantically trying to locate my bag so I could put on some dry clothes, in the end finding only a shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to be decent.

The epilogue featured me sitting on some steps in warm sunlight. I was in the centre of a small town, among people I knew, taking photographs of their children, and some poorly-dressed kids I hadn’t seen before, who unexpectedly walked into shot. ‘Street arabs,’ I called them, hoping they would not miss my irony.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Hampshire Town?

In an appealing article on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Don Paterson speaks up in favour of a more direct, personal response to the poems, against some of the more forbidding works of literary critics. Yet he lets slip a rather extensive knowledge of their Elizabethan context which he then seems to assume his reader shares. As if we’re all clued up on the names and addresses of Shakespeare’s known associates. ‘The trouble,’ he says, ‘is that it’s impossible to read the sonnets without speculating on identities.’

Well not for me. But then again I know as little about Tudor England as I do about…

Quite why I resolve the momentary dilemma of having to choose just one thing from the vast gunny sack of my ignorance by lighting on modern Basingstoke is something of a mystery. Perhaps the home of the Automobile Association and the Macmillan publishing firm ranks quite high in the list of British placenames that proverbially suggest a certain comic mediocrity. And for those who would say that it’s not too difficult to imagine Basingstoke if you haven’t been there, that a quick visit to a small library or a well-aimed search query should reveal its essential features if not its deepest secrets, I would refer them to my birthplace. In twenty years I acquired a high level of psycho-geographical mastery of its back streets, playing fields, waste grounds and cul de sacs. But of most of the neighbouring towns and villages I saw little beyond the main roads that passed through them, oblivious of the unexpected turns and confusing junctions that would have no doubt greeted those strangers who dared to alight from the bus, overtaken by a sudden impulse to explore the unknown.

The nearest I’ve been to Basingstoke was during the few summer months I spent in Reading in 1979, lodging with a Ukrainian couple near Cemetery Junction. Twice, I think, some friends with a car drove me to a country pub off the A33 and a bracing walk on a day that may or may not have resembled the one the author of Sonnet 18 had in mind when he penned its first line.

Listening to Britain

I remember as a kid taking enormous pleasure out of prodding a sleeping body and discovering what kinds of noises I could provoke, like the odd groan or whistle, then getting up close for an earful of a rumbling tummy or restless fingers. Imagine if you could do that with a whole country, I thought, prowling round it like Gulliver in Lilliput, bending down to listen to its secrets.

Well now you can. I have just been idly plucking feathers from a Google Map and listening to the sound escape. I started off drinking coffee at Heathrow,Terminal Three. Then I caught the sound of dogs in suffolk and arctic terns in Shetland, overheard bikers outside a cafe on the A4074 and someone opening a garage door on the Black Isle. I went on a ghost train in Blackpool and a boat cruise in Cardiff Bay. I waited for Prince Charles in Todmorden before baling hay in Gloucestershire.

This is the UK Sound Map, a fascinating new project run by the British Library, which invites people to contribute short field recordings that together will form ‘a permanent public record of everyday sounds.’ Launched in July 2010 as a pilot study in the Sheffield area, it now welcomes submissions across the United Kingdom. Boosted by some favourable publicity (notably a plug on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in August), it has received nearly a thousand contributions so far, including some from me. I’ve particularly enjoyed those of olyerminefelixbadanimaledirolrockscottage and the ubiquitous, eavesdropping mythalatte.

Audioboo

Contributors must sign up to Audioboo. Of the several sites that host user-submitted sound recordings (such as freesoundMySpaceBandcampSoundCloud or the Internet Archive), Audioboo is one of the easiest to use and the only one, to my knowledge, that allows you to submit material direct from a mobile device. With the growing popularity of smartphones that offer not just the ability to record sounds but also a wi-fi or 3G internet connection that allows you to upload the recordings you have made, this seems an obvious choice.

Audioboo has been designed for the spoken word, and this means it has a number of limitations as a repository of field recordings. The first is sound-quality. While you can also upload sound recordings made on any number of sophisticated devices if you transfer them to a computer and use the standard web interface, most submissions to Audioboo seem to be made on smartphones. Although it does seem possible to connect a good-quality stereo microphone to, say, an iPhone (I’ve never tried but the Blue Mikey and the Alesis ProTrack both claim to solve the problem), in general most use the built-in mono microphone that was designed for phone calls and voice memos. Not only is it low quality it is also quite hard to protect from the sound recordist’s enemy number one, wind noise (but, as a post on the Sound Map’s blog helpfully points out, you can reduce this with the judicious use of a sock).

The second major limitation is the way Audioboo does not provide the means for users to describe their files. You can give them a title, provide tags, link them to images, and locate the place of recording on a map. But anyone used to submitting images or audio to, say, YouTube or Flickr or SoundCloud, will be frustrated that you can’t write a little something about, for example, when you made the recording (it only records the date and time you uploaded it), the circumstances, the equipment you used, the sounds themselves and what they might be if not immediately recognizable. There are two ways round this problem. You can comment on your ‘boo’ in your own voice in the recording itself (for a good example listen to auralexplorer‘s reflections on a field behind her old house). Or you can use the commenting facility on the website. But either way this information doesn’t form part of the data record itself, and therefore does not appear (not even in abridged form) when you come across the boo on the map or when it is embedded in a third-party website, when it might look like this:

You would need to click on the (invisible) link on the Audioboo logo to be transferred to the boo’s original page to get any contextual information about this recording

The tagging feature is useful. Anyone wanting their audioboo considered for inclusion on the UK soundmap should simply include the ‘uksm’ tag. This means anyone can browse the list of submissions. But many users also add other tags – as the soundmap blog has recommended – that help people find recordings with a specific theme or context (such as football or horses or seaside or night). To search by location, the best place to start is the map itself, although you have to drag and zoom in and out to get somewhere in particular. (The search facility has not worked the times I have tried, so I can’t tell how it handles queries by placename or postcode).

Whose everyday?

But what of the recordings themselves? The British Library seem to have taken the decision to be as unprescriptive as possible. Beyond an injunction to ‘record your everyday surroundings’, it says very little. It does tell us that the recordings will form the raw material for a research project (in association with the Noise Futures Network) that will engage with ‘artists, industry, educational bodies and policy makers’. But that is all.

This lack of prescription only increases the weight of expectation carried by the name of the project itself. Even though the project relies, exclusively it would seem, on unsolicited contributions, one might expect it to strive for a certain level of comprehensiveness and consistency. If I bought an OS map that left blank all the ground above 500m I would have good reason to ask for my money back. What would be an equivalent omission on a sound map? A map in which most of the contributions came from North London or one which featured only barking dogs or market traders would not, I assume, be considered a success. A sound map of the ‘United Kingdom’ – and one, moreover, co-ordinated by a publicly-funded body such as the British Library – cannot avoid being judged in terms of its ‘representativeness’, even though no such claim is being made, and even though there could be no way of objectively measuring it.

So how ‘representative’ of Britain are the sounds submitted so far? Are there too many recordings of some and not enough of others? Whose ‘everyday surroundings’ are being documented here? Some tentative – and necessarily subjective – observations follow.

Firstly, and perhaps unavoidably, some ‘found’ sounds are much harder to record than others. In some cases, to make a recording – even discreetly – would be considered rude or impractical. This no doubt explains why recordings made in relatively anonymous public places (stations, shops, streets, parks and so on) predominate over those made in more personal, private arenas (such as birthday parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, changing rooms, nurseries) or in circumstances in which the would-be sound recordist may be otherwise engaged (jogging, cycling, driving or operating heavy machinery). And there may be places where any kind of recording is pretty much ruled out – prisons, courtrooms, detention centres come to mind – though I’m sure it won’t stop some people trying.

Secondly, one has to consider the demographic of a smartphone user; perhaps more specifically a smartphone user who is sufficiently geeky (and sociologically-inclined) to make field recordings, upload them and tag them. It would probably be safe to say that such a group is not as diverse as the population as a whole. And no doubt this is one reason why the soundmap so far has many more recordings of trains, restaurants, festivals and supermarkets than it has of buses, betting shops, benefit offices and hospital wards.

Britishness

But there is a third factor that might be said to reduce the chances of the sound map capturing the rich variety of British soundscapes, and this is harder to pin down.

Even when the first two factors are taken into account, there is something extra that inclines contributors to select particular sounds over others as worthy or appropriate to record and submit to a ‘UK Sound Map’. One thing that makes it harder for the map to be representative of the UK is, paradoxically, the influence of powerful common sense notions what is ‘typically British’.

Now, we all know that these notions are vigorously contested. They are tossed around in every debate on citizenship and immigration. Certainly they are quite varied and subject to change. Take George Orwell’s attempt in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) to capture ‘the English scene’, which here, not unusually, stands in for a somewhat larger entity (his population count would suggest that the ‘we’ embraces the Scots and Welsh too):

Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Notice how easily this list could be translated into recordable sounds. Most of them, however, are not readily available to the roving smartphone user of today, which shows how dated these attempts to nail Britishness often are. You only have to place it alongside this one from Hanif Kureishi (responding to a similar list offered by T S Eliot) in a report on Bradford written for Granta magazine in 1986.

If one were compiling such a list today there would have to be numerous additions to the characteristic activities of the British people. They would include: yoga exercises, going to Indian restaurants, the music of Bob Marley, the novels of Salman Rushdie, Zen Buddhism, the Hare Krishna Temple, as well as the films of Sylvester Stallone, therapy, hamburgers, visits to gay bars, the dole office and the taking of drugs.

This vision is old enough to feel dated in its turn. But if nostalgia is an essential part of Britishness then it’s not surprising that Orwell’s list seems to have greater resonance. At least with certain conservative politicians, like John Major who quoted from it in a speech in 1993 – though he had the women ‘cycling’ rather than ‘biking’, presumably in case we imagined them in leather jackets and crash helmets.

Could we say that the same preference prevails among the contributors to the UK Sound Map? Apart from the preponderance of a wide variety of nature sounds (birdsong, the sea, wind, and rain), in terms of culture it does seem that the British soundscape is closer to 1941 than 1986. A little more up-market and hi-tech perhaps but just as monocultural. Of the many clips that feature people’s voices, there are almost none in a language other than English.

But perhaps more decisive is what the two lists have in common. Despite their glaring differences, they both imagine Britain from the point of view of a consumer or passer-by. Even Orwell’s clogs and lorries are heard by a bystander rather than the people wearing or driving them. Similarly, the sounds of the map are overwhelmingly those associated with leisure outside the home.

The sounds of the workplace – especially those off-limits to the public (factories, call centres, farms, offices, warehouses) – are almost entirely absent, as are those of the family home (another kind of workplace for some). It’s why the occasional samples of, say, typingcavity wall-fillingteeth-brushing and ironing stand out so much.

It would seem that a call for contributions to a national map inclines people to think of sounds associated with public spaces – with public transport easily the most popular category. This is not just a question of convenience. It’s as if only these sounds could qualify as being nationally significant. Perhaps most people only feel ‘British’ (if they do at all) when rubbing shoulders with strangers when out shopping, commuting or attending large-scale cultural events.

The map’s basic guidelines encourage contributors to think of ‘what your home, leisure and work environments sound like’. Can it be that this inclusive category of the ‘everyday’ (in which all three have their place) is trumped by the rather more discriminatory filter of ‘Britishness’ (dominated by just one of them)?

All these exclusions are perhaps unfortunate, but they are not inevitable. Consider them as a challenge. But the only way you’re going to really break the habits that are beginning to surface in the map is to hand out recording devices to a lot of people who would never dream of contributing to such a project. I wonder if their sounds might be the most interesting of all.

Improv

L’homme a deux oreilles, l’oreille animale et l’oreille idéale (Victor Hugo).

This afternoon I went to see the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. They were playing live to a series of short films by Hans Richter, one of the lesser-known artists associated with the Dada movement, though arguably one of its best chroniclers. I have owned a hardback copy of his Dada: Art and Anti-Art since I was seventeen. With Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music, which I must have acquired around the same time, it became a kind of bible on which I swore an oath of fidelity to the avant-garde. We have had our ups and downs over the years, but we’re still together, which must count for something.

They introduced me to a whole continent of strangeness whose existence I had until then only suspected, although the authorial voice in both books was perhaps a little too mild-mannered for their subject matter. And this came back to me when talking to someone after the screening. She said she expected something a bit more risky and unconstrained from the ensemble. At least that’s what the word ‘improvised’ suggested to her.

And I can see her point. At the end, the band took questions from the floor, and most of them were about how they rehearsed and planned and organized their improvisations. One film, they decided, would be accompanied by mainly long notes; the next by short. For another they chose to use ‘conduction’ in which one member of the group used various signals to convey rhythm and pitch to the others.

Maybe by lifting the veil on their working methods, they gave the audience too much information, making the performance sound more constrained in retrospect than it actually was. From where I was sitting, that collective discipline of listening and responding to others was almost infectious, but it didn’t stop the music feeling unpredictable.

In any case, while you might be able to legislate the shape of a performance, you don’t have control over the audience. The man sitting two seats away from me snored throughout, though with such a pleasing range of timbre and such comic timing, I began to wonder if he wasn’t a member of the ensemble after all.

And for the first half hour or so, the orchestra was joined, unofficially (of this I was sure), by a small infant, who did his or her best to imitate the staccato woodwind or tremolo strings. His mother – with a courage that I doubt I could have matched – remained in the auditorium long enough for the annoyance of some listeners to become audible, adding a ostinato of faint sighs, snorts and sucking of teeth. After disappearing through the exit doors close by, she bravely returned twice, though the child was not silent for long. The second time, I heard someone behind me whisper – just a little too loudly perhaps – ‘For fuck’s sake!’ But once they were gone for good, there were moments in some of the quieter passages, when you could hear an abbreviated cry echoing in a corridor far away.

That’s improvisation.

International Diplomacy

Outside Haiti, the world’s mainstream media rarely take notice of the country’s elections. Even after the January, 2010 earthquake, the attitude pretty much stayed the same. They continued to repeat the standard line that it is a failed, corrupt state, kept afloat by foreign donations and NGOs. Whatever the result in November’s poll, none of this would change.

But then their interest in the election was sparked once Wyclef Jean hinted that he would stand, a hint confirmed on 5 August. Along with 33 others, he waited for the decision of the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), Haiti’s electoral council, for confirmation that they would be eligible to stand.

The decision was expected on Tuesday 17 August, but at the last minute it was postponed until the Friday. And when it came, the press were all aflutter: Wyclef had been disqualified – although 14 others had too, leaving only 19 candidates to appear on the ballot papers in November.

The next day, in the Miami Herald appeared a piece entitled Banned from ballot, Wyclef remains an inspiration by Edwidge Danticat. In it she admits to initially feeling excitement at the thought of his candidacy. Wyclef had helped to put Haiti back on the front pages again, and no doubt for some he was a refreshing outsider compared to the stuffy intellectual elite.

A cultural outsider maybe, but a political one? His subsequent criticisms of the CEP (subsequently expressed in song) were related to the rejection of his own candidacy, not that of others. And he certainly had nothing to say about its decision to exclude Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from the Senate elections in April last year, a decision condemned in an open letter (pdf) to Jose Miguel Insulza of the Organisation of American States and Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. The ban remains in force for this year’s elections.

Of course, too stringent criticism of the CEP would undercut his own position in the unlikely event that they reverse their decision. If participating in the election in itself would not be an index of his support for the ruling elite, his notorious remarks in support of the armed rebels who helped overthrow the democratically-elected Aristide in 2004 (which he has not retracted) should leave us in no doubt. And indeed not one of the candidates is guiltless on that score, which is another reason why Haiti Liberté has called it a sham election.

Danticat remains silent on these matters. Perhaps she is too close to her friend to criticize him in public. I am reminded of another Caribbean woman writer seemingly losing courage when the opportunity to take a stand comes available. When Jamaica Kincaid visited Tel Aviv in January 2004, Haaretz reported her response when asked for her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘In my opinion, it would be rude to come as a guest into someone’s home and tell him how to live,’ she says. ‘I have opinions, but I express them in private. I am only a guest here.’

The analogy between visiting a country and visiting someone’s house is rather forced, to say the least. And in any case, if you discovered that your host was keeping someone prisoner in the basement, you might just think this warranted more than a raised eyebrow.

Reading between the lines, though, she perhaps betrays her opinions all the same. After all, if she wholeheartedly approved of the Occupation she wouldn’t have to worry about telling her hosts ‘how to live.’ But if that is all we can take from this report of her visit, these are slim pickings indeed. One could hardly talk of an bold intervention here.

Danticat on the other hand hints at much more. Her piece indirectly points up a number of other reasons why Wyclef might not be perfect presidential candidate: his poor French, questions about the probity of his Yéle foundation, and indeed his problematic residency status. And yet by not making a meal of them, as a friend, her words may indeed carry weight, and she reminds him – in public and therefore in a way that would make it harder for him to – of his duties. He should bow to the decision gracefully, not to incite violence, and to concentrate on doing what he does best – being a musician and a roving ambassador for the country.

Still, the question remains whether Haitian intellectuals have been unduly reluctant to embrace the cause of popular democracy. The thinly disguised attacks on Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Lyonel Trouillot’s novel Bicentenaire (2004) and Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical (2009) are perhaps the best-known examples (and taken to task by Le Monde du Sud/elsie-news and Kim Ives respectively).

Danticat’s writings are politically much more ambiguous. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) sympathetically records her uncle’s radicalism. He embraced Aristide in the late 1980s, seeing in him a version of Daniel Fignolé, ousted by François Duvalier in 1957. Fifteen years later, now an old man in poor health, he was eventually forced to leave Haiti when some of Aristide’s supporters (wrongly) accused him of collaborating with UN forces and police. In her account, Danticat distances herself from the loaded term chimères, used to demonize Aristide’s supporters, although her choice of nouns in her reference to anti-Aristide ‘groups’ and pro-Aristide ‘gangs’ arguably closes that distance.1

Similarly, perhaps, her narrative of events of 2004 in the essay ‘Bicentennial’ in Create Dangerously (2010) avoids celebrating Aristide’s departure from office (and subsequent exile in South Africa) without actually describing it as a coup d’état.2

Given the prevailing balance of power, such apparent even-handedness cannot help but bring comfort to the forces that brought an end to Haiti’s precarious decade-long experiment with democracy. It would be hard to think of such reticence among an older generation of Haitian writers, such as Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis.

Part of the reason must be the legacy of thirty years of dictatorship, during which any form of political dissent within the country was practically impossible, and clearly forced writers and artists to express their resistance indirectly. And another factor must be that – as a dyaspora living in North America – writers like Danticat (as she clearly indicates in her latest book) are caught between the expectations of fellow Haitian-Americans (who frequently take issue when her characters aren’t sufficiently ‘representative’) and the demands of those back home (who feel that as someone who has left the country she has no right to comment on its political scene).

In his book on Aristide and the Lavalas movement, Peter Hallward argued that ‘the great majority of intellectuals and academics in Haiti are conservative as a matter of course,’3. If that is true, then equivocation is hardly sufficient to tip the balance. As Chris Bongie observes (pdf), it seems, in the wake of a ‘natural’ catastrophe and a ‘humanitarian’ crisis, that ‘taking sides’ is entirely inappropriate. But it is precisely under such circumstances that dominant versions of ‘historical truth’ take hold, blocking the full range of possibilities – or electoral candidates – that lay claim to our consideration.

Notes

  1. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (New York: Vintage, 2008), pp177, 150-1.
  2. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp97-105.
  3. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2007), p194.