You will have noticed that I have been very quiet recently, and the blog posts have fallen by the wayside. This is because I have struggling with things to say, and I have found I have been lacking inspiration. This work has taken a long time to get to this point, and the reality is that in the six years since I left my MA I have been quietly absorbing ideas and references. The task of getting these down on paper has been a hugely daunting one, and I hit a wall. However this post hope to pick up were the last one left off.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy on other aspects of my practice. I have starting experimenting with different ways of recording the locations I am exploring, through moving image and sound recording. I bit the bullet and purchased a zoom h6 field recorder and a set of binaural microphones and a shotgun mic.
Tuesday night was the first time I took the field recorder out to experiment with. I was in Sheffield for a meeting with the design studio Dust to discuss what input they could have on the development of the project as a series of interlinked Artist’s Books. As usual I was staying at the cheapest premier Inn I could find, which happened to be in the Attercliffe area of Sheffield.
Attercliffe is a formal industrial suburb of Sheffield and is now home to small industrial units, waste recycling plants and steel works. The main shopping street was once bustling and houses some exceptional Victorian buildings, however it is now home to multiple take aways, sex shops, and as I was informed by a local ‘clubs of an interesting nature’.
At first wandering around with a hand held recorder and headphones was an isolating experience, however after a little while I found it liberating. I was able to close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the city. I could pick out the constant hum of air condition units, the gentle trickle of the River Don, in the distance the sound of an air wrench in a garage, and the rhythmic pounding of sheet metal. I found myself lingering, waiting to hear how the sounds changed and altered over time. I was reminded of a reference I have used with students on several occasions in the last few years, If no one speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor (2002). The prose of the first chapter describes the soundscape of a city at night.
If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.
And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.
The low soothing hum of air-conditioners, fanning out the heat and the smells of shops and cafes and offices across the city, winding up and winding down, long breaths layered upon each other, a lullaby hum for tired streets.
The rush of traffic still cutting across flyovers, even in the dark hours a constant rush of sound, tyres rolling across tarmac and engines rumbling, loose drains and manhole covers clack-clacking like cast-iron castanets.
Road-menders mending, choosing the hours of least interruption, rupturing the cold night air with drills and jack-hammers and pneumatic pumps, hard-sweating beneath the fizzing hiss of floodlights, shouting to each other like drummers in rock bands calling out rhythms, pasting new skin on the veins of the city.
Restless machines in workshops and factories with endless shifts, turning and pumping and steaming and sparking, pressing and rolling and weaving and printing, the hard crash and ring and clatter lifting out of echo-high buildings and sifting into the night, an unaudited product beside the paper and cloth and steel and bread, the packed and the bound and the made.
Lorries reversing, right round the arc of industrial parks, it seems every lorry in town is reversing, backing through gateways, easing up ramps, shrill-calling their presence while forklift trucks gas and prang around them, heaping and stacking and loading.
And all the alarms, calling for help, each district and quarter, each street and estate, each every way you turn has alarms going off, coming on, going off, coming on, a hammered ring like a lightning drum-roll, like a mesmeric bell-toll, the false and the real as loud as each other, crying their needs to the night like an understaffed orphanage, babies waawaa-ing in darkened wards.
Sung sirens, sliding through the streets, streaking blue light from distress to distress, the slow wail weaving urgency through the darkest of the dark hours, a lament lifted high, held above the rooftops and fading away, lifted high, flashing past, fading away.
And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices.
Listen, and there is more to hear.
The rattle of a dustbin lid knocked to the floor.
The scrawl and scratch of two hackle-raised felines.
The sudden thundercrash of bottles emptied into crates. The slam-slam of car doors, the changing of gears, the hobbled hip-hop of a slow walk home.
The rippled roll of shutters pulled down on late-night cafes, a crackled voice crying street names for taxis, a loud scream that lingers and cracks into laughter, a bang that might just be an old car backfiring, a callbox calling out for an answer, a treeful of birds tricked into morning, a whistle and a shout and a broken glass, a blare of soft music and a blam of hard beats, a barking and yelling and singing and crying and it all swells up the rumbles and crashes and bangings and slams, all the noise and the rush and the non-stop wonder of the song of the city you can hear if you listen the song.
And it stops in some rare and sacred dead time, sandwiched between the late sleepers and the early risers, there is a miracle of silence.
Everything has stopped.
And silence drops down from out of the night, into this city, the briefest of silences, like a falter between heartbeats, like a darkness between blinks. Secretly, there is always at this moment, an unexpected pause,a hesitation as one day is left behind and a new one begins.
A catch of breath as gasometer lungs between slow exhalations. A ring of tinnitus as thermostats interrupt air-conditioning fans.
These moments are there, always, but they are rarely noticed and they rarely last longer than a flicker of thought.
We are in that moment now, there is silence and the whole city is still.
The old tall-windowed mills, staggered across the skyline, they are silent, they are keeping their ghosts and their thoughts to themselves.
The smoked-glass offices, slung low to the ground, they are still, they are blankly reflecting the haze and shine of the night. Soon, they will resume their business, their coy whispers of ones and zeroes across networks of threaded glass, but now, for a moment, they are hushed. The buses in the depot, waiting for a new day, they are quiet, their metalwork easing and shrinking into place, settling and cooling after eighteen hours of heat and noise, eighteen hours of criss-crossing the city like wool on a loom.
And the clubs in the centre, they are empty, the dance-floors sticky and sore from a night’s pounding, the lights still turning and blinking, lost shoes and wallets and keys gathered in heaps.
And the night-fishers strung out along the canal, feeling the sing of their lines in the water, although they are within yards of each other they are saying nothing, watching luminous floats hang in the night like bottled fireflies, waiting for the dip and strike which will bring a centre to their time here, waiting for the quietness and calm they have come here to find.
Even the traffic scattered through these streets: the taxis and the cleaners, the shift-workers and the delivery drivers, even they are held still in this moment, trapped by traffic lights which synchronize red as the system cycles from old day to new, hundreds of feet resting on accelerators,
hundreds of pairs of eyes hanging on the lights, all waiting for the amber, all waiting for the green.
The whole city has stopped.
And this is a pause worth savouring, because the world will soon be complicated again.
It’s the briefest of pauses, with not time enough to even turn full circle and look at the lights this city throws out to the sky, and it’s a pause which is easily broken. A slamming door, a car alarm, a thin drift of music from half a mile away, and already the city is moving on, already tomorrow is here.
At the time the novel was included on the 2002 Booker prize long list, the Guardian ran a review, which pointed out some of the short comings of the work.
This is a novel where the contrived metaphor, the struggling simile, the romantic reference all come first…
I know I ought just to go with the flow. This is a clean, bare, sensitive and undoubtedly well-intentioned piece of fiction by someone still in his 20s. It’s admirably adventurous. Its determinedly unpunctuated dialogue more or less works. And I know what McGregor is aiming for – how he wants to create 360o pans with his juddery word-camera and show us what’s going on in a whole neighbourhood. How stuff that seems small and insignificant can have huge consequences…
But the trouble with largeness, with this wide lens, is that it can be oddly ungripping, colourless, unfocused.
Woolf at the door, Guardian 24 August 2002
The danger when we use the written word to describe location is we naturally fall into the trap of using purple prose, I certainly know that I am guilty of this. I understand the approach that McGregor is trying to take, we have similar ideas and sensibilities, however the novel is perhaps the wrong medium to do it in. The visual image or soundscape allows the audience to produce their own reading of the locale, bringing their own understanding and baggage to the fore.
I hope to shortly present the images I took and the sound recordings I made wile I explored the unappreciated corners of Attercliffe. I will also be updating the blog with posts about the other areas of my practice I have been developing other the last month. As well as a couple of more in depth pieces about Sex and Edgelands or adventurous play as the geographer Tim Edensor describes it, and a piece about the importance of trespass and transgression to our land access rights.