One Coffee, Every Sound

I spend a lot of time listening to music. At home, in the office, walking around, running. Constantly, other people’s thoughts and voices or created sounds in my head. It’s cosseting; good and bad.

I cut myself from much of the outside world: partly because I’m a broken romantic and music is a form of role play; partly because conversations on buses are only ever going to be slightly depressing.

Things occurred to me as I blithely looked at a tired man wait for the lights to turn red:

  1. Sean O’Casey, JM Synge — or another of those Irish Realism playwrights I read and forgot about as soon as possible — claimed to never have written anything new, only assembling what he overheard into drama. Eavesdropping as creative practice.
  2. Matt’s Bureau of Small Observation is a great thing. It’s enjoyable to read, and it’s an enjoyable practice to do. Picking one thing to notice and taking the time to notice it, occasionally using $5 words to do so.
  3. John Waters’ anecdote about Edith Massey as a car passenger. “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn.”

I decided to note every benign sound that I encountered on the short journey to and from collecting this morning’s coffee. No music, no other voices – only the moment and sounds of the Real World.

Here is a live documented, fiction-free practice of noticing every sound:

Distant hum of the dual carriageway.
Wheels grinding gravel as van turns a circle.
A stalled engine.
Rippling doppler down the gennel.
Electricity running through the pedestrian crossing.
A heavy door clunks to.
To my right: a stifled cough, a spit.
Dragging feet, tired Tuesday feet dusting the pavement.
Rattling double decker.
The gravel under me, scratching as I go.
Extractor fan whirring against the constant bacon fat fry in the builders’ cafe.
Leaves gently scratching leaves.
A pigeon flaps away, ungracefully slapping its wings against fat body.
Thin, tinny drone of electricity at a substation.
The gears of a bike, pushed along, clicking quietly.
Carrier bags rubbing against denim.
Lock clipping the wooden door frame. A brittle scrape.
Hissing steamer; gurgling milk.
Anonymous Motown-type music underneath a wall of chatter.
Beeps and coins, chinking against each other.
Grinding, grits flying against metal.
Slam of metal against metal; dull thuds with a ringing end.
A posh voice, high pitched and resonant, cutting through the noise.
Potwasher’s spray hissing out from the back.
Dropped pipes reverb from the construction site.
A yell, somewhere over there.
Whirring of a pulley.
The click-click-click of a dying gas lighter.
Small rope whipping a metal frame.
Shuffle of letters.
A football, bouncing on the floor, echoing the street.
Indistinguishable bass from a Subaru’s boot.
Beepbeepbeepbeep from the pelican crossing.
Door insulation softly brushing the frame.
The stilted thud of the automatic lock surrendering.
Slow padding up the stairs; occasional clink of shoe on metal edging.
Dragging hiss of wedding ring on bannister.
The dry, circular drone of the lift.
A sniff from the room next door, organs.
Keys chiming.

I’m not sure if it conjures a sense of space or environment, or even the journey. It’s not poetic, or supposed to be. It’s the thing.

Birdman’s Thing

I still haven’t quite decided how I felt about Birdman overall — it has excellent sections kissing dreadful dialogue from paper-thin characters — but it did give me a knot of anxiety and prodded at things I used to obsess over.

Playing with time, performance / non-performance, sandbagging expectations, delusional characters, etcetery etcetery

What has stuck with me most is the self-help card inserted in Riggan’s changing room mirror that states: 

“A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” 

A request to experience experiences and understand objects as objects, outside of and in spite of their contexts, criticisms or personal preconceptions. It’s a tough challenge to accept, to lay thoughts aside and a thing as a thing. That is liberating, though, as anyone who found themselves enjoying Taylor Swift until discovering it was Taylor Swift can assent to.

Try to do that more.

Let go of some thoughts. Be present.

Enjoy the thing.

Laptops & Looms 2014, notes.

Here are the things I wrote down at Laptops & Looms 2 — direct quotes and indirect notes. Sadly, I missed the third day with no-doubt excellent thoughts and demos of things from Lou, Adrian, Tom A, other good brains:

Lars & Theo (Skrekkøgle):
– communicating finish
– international quality control
– changing scale from prototype to product: α to ß
– falling between hobby level and big industrial quantities

Mosse Sjaastad:
“learning through the skin”
– change perception of 5 minutes; old and new understandings

“a cuckoo clock for short-term memory.”

Nick Hand:
“when setting type, you think about it more”
– process of thinking – engaging with negative space
“A mobile career” – identifying skills through appearances

John Willshire:
“Design for one problem”
– Pictures are a common language
“Make with what is at hand” » design for necessity
– the making is the narrative is the product
– you can’t patent a story

Louise Downe:
“the internet is regional”

Alice Bartlett:
“it doesn’t mean anything if a computer can smell things.”

Henry Cooke:
– an interest in things that are replacing analog things
– ephemerality of timelines – breaking the loops of things; disappears into the ether
– JUDGES NOTABILITY and creates a memento
– Tying you to a time in a way that just scrolling doesn’t
– Vague enough to allow people to fill in the gaps

Brett MacFarlane:
– Fix the basics
– Lateralism / Diversity / Monoculture

George Oates:
– Cultural heritage design and service
– making archives more accessible » think about the archives first
“How many things do you have?”
– metadata for the physical objects
– mindful of how you describe digital materials
– ADDITIONAL CONTEXTS and multiple voices

George also spoke about an exciting project that at the moment is her “tiny, tiny fantasy” and can’t be mentioned. 

The two days felt like we have started to pass through the retrospective fetishism of object/print for object/print sake. People are now creating/making webthings as a point of purpose because those things fulfil a need, rather than a want or empty shelf where the George Foreman grill once was. It may be that we are leaving the gimmicky web behind and maturing.  

There were other things said — that I didn’t write those down is no indication of how much I valued them — around flow, focus, purpose, service, respect, problems/solving, the network and conducting. Smarter people will elaborate on those, I hope.

Of course, the main part of the thing took place amongst the trams, cable cars, Swedish knives, the fish, the chips, the ice creams. Many ice creams. Thanks to all that came, and particularly Matt and Russell for wanting to make people leave London for some traditional shambles in the East Midlands. 

Our Exquisite Replica of Seventeen Year Old Ears

This morning I tooted a flippancy:

Make a mixtape from when you were seventeen.

Happily, it was picked up by some good people as a neat challenge. Seventeen is a tricksy time of life to pinpoint: an age of leaving immaturity, delusions of adulthood, tastes developing but still relatively primitive. Mismemory will con you into thinking your seventeen year old self had the tastes of your fourteen or twenty year olds. Both. I initially fell into that trap.

Tom has done a good YouTube two-sider.

Kars has gone to Rdio.

Aden has some slices of ’93 hip hop.

[edit] Kim has recreated a particular moment in time, here. The original inlay.

Here is mine, over on the Spotify channel.

At seventeen, we had recently achieved internet in our home. I spent all possible hours on pre-lawsuit Napster and audiogalaxy grabbing anything I had spent years reading about but not being able to afford. This helped accelerate my journey away from skapunk and bad metal.

Sadly, it is missing Shellac’s Watch Song from 1000 Hurts. 1000 Hurts and the Melvins Trilogy are the albums that I listened to on repeat during that year, identifiable marks in the sand for my tastes.

Gravel and steel.

Standing at the starting line with my right foot in a toe-clipped pedal. Bunting hangs over head. I am looking at the people around me, some lean athletic types, a novelty Dixon of Dock Green, a woman in high heels. Lots of merino wool and moustaches. I look back at my wife, she is looking at me with a strange mix of pride and fear; I realise I am feeling the same.

Quite unsure what I am about to do and how I got here. A tiny vertigo; this is not me, these are not my people, I hate crowds, I feel so unfit. Concerned that romance has got the better of me.

L'Eroica start

I bought my bike ten months ago – a fifty-pound racer from a disappointed man in Chesterfield – to see if I would enjoy riding again. A low cost trial. I had never ridden a racer before and not consistently been on a bike for a decade.

Since then I have cycled over twelve hundred miles, across the North Peak District, West Yorkshire and the city. I put my finger to a map and decide to ride there; there is water there, it is probably a good place for a rest. I imagine it is calm, as only a vast expanse of churning water can present to be.


Each weekend I find new favourite roads, blissful descents, exposed hills where bracken tussles with the knotted coats of fat sheep, hidden lakes, back paths that make me feel like an underperforming ibex. The occasional lay-by, purpose made for midnight frolics between masked people.

Always on my own. No music, no screens, no words. There is only me, my bicycle and the limitations of the two. Yet here I am, in this cabal of steel bikes, staring at a man in a top hat waving us off with a large flag. Fifty-five utterly bastard miles over hard hills and punishing gravel paths of Derbyshire lie ahead. Fifty-five isn’t a lot of miles, but these are hard ones.

Once we started moving out of Bakewell, cheered along with bells and tiny klaxons, I forget about all my anxieties. I always do when on my bike. It doesn’t take long to become part of the fluid group, ebbing and flowing, saving energy and pushing on. A new rhythm to work with, supported and encouraged by everyone around me. Strangers working together.

Descent to HartingtonTwenty miles fly by, through the tunnels of the Monsal Trail, a heavy climb, intimidatingly rugged gravel, downhills through Hobbit land. Arriving in Hartington with my rattling headset seems unreal: a mass of coloured shirts and hats, classic Bianchi frames nestling alongside JW Wilson and Holdsworths; beer guts and lean athletes. Importantly, half of bitter and a jammy scone. I hadn’t expected this side of things, even though the silent nod camaraderie with cyclists is a favourite thing when out on the hills.

HartingtonRefuelled, another twenty miles – off road down gruff land with chunky sleepers, across brooks, winding roads around The High Peak Trail, Cromford, through Lea next to John Smedley’s factory. A Derbyshire greatest hits set.

Ever onwards, mostly upwards.

It dawns that Chatsworth is only ten miles away. Five miles away. Two. Clapped along, I turn a bend and get ushered onto the estate’s drive. A long, smooth path to stretch out – an opportunity for a head-down sprint, to enjoy being on a flat road for a few minutes. A short refreshment break as I am handed a glass of English wine and another of Pimm’s. Neither last long against a blazing summer day’s thirst; exhausted and too eager to get to the finish line.

Those last three miles feel like forever. An unexpected and cruelly-positioned climb out of Chatsworth is unending. Pedalling against gravity with huge rocks for thighs until a sudden downhill that I know well as the entry to Bakewell revealed itself; I can see the festival site and finishing line beyond the trees.

I welled up a bit, suddenly overwhelmed by everything. Riding fifty-eight difficult miles became a symbol of fundamentally changing my life over the past year; of losing four stones, of challenging myself, putting myself in difficult situations. Getting to the end.

Mawkish, I know, but there are times when life completely fucking hits you and you should absolutely indulge in it – this was one of them.

A document is not enough.

I have just been to see 12 Years A Slave and – because I am of the internet – I have an opinion or two about it. They are brief thoughts, but you are welcome to read them.

I won’t look at some of the questions I have about it, partially because they are for a much wider discussion, partially because I don’t feel well placed enough to make judgments – and I can only talk about it from position as a comfortable white man. I won’t discuss whether it’s correct to tell the story of slavery from the position of a privileged man (albeit within a marginalised context) and I won’t discuss McQueen falling into the classic trope of rape and abuse of women to demonstrate the depths and immorality of (a) man.


Here is what I will talk about: it is a document.

12 Years A Slave is an important, impeccable document of an horrific time/culture of Western civilisation. It is masterfully shot, directed, acted (Chiwetel Ejiofor is great, Fassbender is phenomenal). There are moments of absolute beauty, impressionistic images that blur and fade, to go along with the brutality. The constant, unflinching brutality. Only a few events are not shown graphically, which provides them with more power. It shows things the audience thinks they are aware of in a more grim and damning way than before.

It documents brilliantly the reduction of a man to a slave, from member of society to property, and the will that keeps the man from succumbing completely to devastated subordinance.

But, it is a document.

Only a document, and a document that chose exactly what to show.

The Realism of 12 Years A Slave serves only to move the (white) audience to sympathise; to express guilt and regret for historical complicity. If it makes them angry: great, but it doesn’t offer anything to do with that anger.

A document doesn’t give you anything to do. It doesn’t give you anything to advance or change. It shows what has happened. It barely touches on why it happened, how a culture of inhumanity is created or justified, or what can be done to avoid it being repeated. It shows what has happened, and puts a full stop at the end.

The footnotes that end the film – telling of Solomon’s failure to achieve justice against his slave master and kidnappers because of a racist, weighted system – point to what the film could have looked at instead. McQueen could have interrogated a system prejudiced against black people, a system that continues to stand within updated laws. McQueen could have investigated why it was still necessary for luck and white men to save his protagonist. McQueen could have drawn greater relationships between the plantations and contemporary slavery, of sweatshops and unfair trade.

12 Years A Slave is superb, but it doesn’t add anything.