In Circles

It was on my morning tram to work once again that I had a remarkable experience. The next stop was Piccadilly and, having become lost in the music I was listening to, I was startled when it occurred to me what was outside the window to my left. We had been going round the same corner, at some speed, for five minutes.

The speed, the noise, the unrest of the passengers, grew and grew. Fear and dizziness had gripped us all, often spilling into blind panic, and occasional foaming mouths. The resulting build-up of drool and froth all over the floor left the tram slightly dirtier than normal. After an hour, I decided that no help was coming. On my own initiative, I battered down the doors of the tram using a fellow passenger’s zimmer frame, leapt to safety, and was a mere 80 minutes late to work, earning just four small canings.

But in spite of the ordeal being over, I had questions that needed answering. Phoning Metrolink central office in Kuwait, I was informed by Linda, a bubbly and gravelly voiced 39 year-old, that my tram must have been diverted onto one of the new penal lines recently introduced to the Metrolink network. There are various points around Manchester at which a tram can be diverted, the process is automatic, and it always works the same way.

Using several years’ worth of CCTV footage, alongside police and housing records, the city council and Metrolink have worked to calculate which trams in a given place at a given time will likely contain the highest proportion of criminals and miscreants. When these services reach the allotted point, they are taken off their advertised route and required to circle a small pillar at high speed for hours at a time. As I had experienced, this process causes severe nausea and a near-total breakdown of the individual’s morale.

Worse still are moments when the tram stops for several minutes, with no information offered to passengers aside from occasional empty reassurances from the driver, which do nothing to quell the sense of confusion and anxiety. This is, admittedly, much like a normal journey, but with the added horror that only comes when the tram starts moving – the realisation that freedom is very far away indeed. After several hours (although the exact time period is never fixed), the tram is released to complete its journey. Upon disembarkation, all passengers are thoroughly disoriented, delinquents and responsible citizens alike.

That last point seemed to me a noticeable flaw in the system, which I raised to Linda. She immediately told me that this was in fact a conscious choice made by the council. Given the cuts in police numbers over the last few years, the council are looking to make up any shortfall, and are hopeful that the threat of being punished unfairly will radicalise passengers against even the mildest public irritants. It’s a concept inspired in part by David Cameron’s Big Society, and in part by the tactic of blaming workers for the inconvenience of a strike rather than their working conditions. They predict the consequent wave of vigilante justice will help reduce crimes figures at the most drastic rate since the reintroduction of public boiling in 1955.

On my way home that evening, an 11 year-old boy started playing music loudly to his friends. Within five seconds, a well-to-do mother had viciously clobbered him with her baby, who had himself been annoying the other passengers by crying loudly. The whole spectacle was met with murmurs of approval by commuters and vertigo sufferers alike. As I looked out of the window, I wondered whether I should start taking the bus instead, only to spot three circling a pillar, at a pace almost as dizzying as my experience that morning.

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Fine For Now

I went to see my favourite band, Grizzly Bear, on Friday. It was the best I’ve seen them so far, and a joy to hear them play songs from their new album, Painted Ruins. But one of the highlights of the evening was when they played “Fine For Now” from 2009’s Veckatimest. As the familiar strains rang out, I couldn’t help thinking back to when I was first listening to that album eight years ago, and the ways, by chance, it has shaped my life.

Music often embeds itself in our minds when it attached itself to specific memories. I frequently find listening to music enhances an experience in the moment, in turn solidifying that experience into a more vivid memory, now inextricably linked to the sound. Grizzly Bear are tied up with various memories from the last few years. Trudging through unexpectedly heavy snow over the winter of 2009-10 is enveloped in the opening minute of “Easier” from  Yellow House. “A Simple Answer” from Shields rarely fails to summon up my walk through Weston Park in Sheffield as I went to a seminar on Frankenstein. But my memories of Veckatimest are the most significant, setting me as they did on the path to Sheffield in the first place.

The album had already added colour to experiences I’d had in 2009. Getting to know it as I left college and went on holiday over the summer was soundtracked by “Two Weeks” and “Cheerleader” in particular. And it’s hard not to link the feel of the album to Green Man festival, where I saw the band play for the first time. It was a special evening. But these memories faded a little when the album became permanently fixed to my experience visiting the University of Sheffield on an open day that September.

I often find myself getting a perverse sense of adventure from an early start. Some people have Christmas, I have a 6am alarm and somewhere to be. The train set off, and “Southern Point” seemed to add to its momentum as the sun came up. I listened several times to Veckatimest that day, and over the course of that journey. “I Live With You” bound itself to Chesterfield station as we pulled in and I spotted a mouse tentatively exploring the track. (I can only hope it got out of the way eventually.)

But it was when I arrived in Sheffield, and as I wandered around, trying to get to know the city, that the album really took effect. The music blended with the autumnal sunlight, the burnt shades of some of the brickwork complementing the colours of the album artwork (for me, unquestionably the colours of the music too). As I walked, colours and music mingled and solidified into a feeling that refused to dissipate (and why would I have wanted it to?). I could feel lasting memories being forged in those moments. The album strengthened my sensation that everything about this place was just right.

Sheffield won out when I had to choose where to go (in spite of the boost Rufus Wainwright’s Want One gave to Royal Holloway). Now, well after leaving, hearing Veckatimest and its songs still takes me back to that September day. I liked the university straight away, of course, but I still wonder how heavily my mind was swayed by the chance of music, place and mood aligning in that moment. People I wouldn’t have met, decisions I wouldn’t have made, whole pockets of my life that would never have happened – had I been listening to something less perfect for the occasion. Some of those things have led me to worse places than others, but it’s ultimately hard for me to imagine a choice that would have left me in a better, happier, more fortunate position than I’m in today.

If you’re looking to make a decision that could affect the rest of your life (and so many could), I can think of worse background music to recommend.

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It’s All Subjective

It was three weeks ago watching television that I was struck by something remarkable. Halfway through a popular soap opera (shan’t name names, but it was one of the two that are actually any good, and there were adverts), a café scene was underscored by a song I knew and liked. Nothing remarkable about that – until you factor in my relatively niche taste and the fact that it was the third time this episode. Normally, it never happens at all, save the freak incident in 2008 when I heard Guillemots’ Trains to Brazil playing in the Queen Vic.

I changed channel to a glossy crime drama. Rather than the usual identikit gloom for incidental music, the programme was underscored by ethereal soundscapes designed for Doctor Who by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the sixties. I was delighted, but mystified. Thinking something amiss, the next morning I rang the office where background music for all television programmes is decided. (Paul, a small man in South London, has this responsibility before handing over to someone new at the next parliament.) He morosely informed me that my TV set (a recent purchase) had obviously been fitted with new Subjectify technology. This tailors your viewing to your own taste by tapping into your current habits and libraries, adapting any given programme into something its algorithm calculates that you’d prefer to see.

Paul went on to complain that the technology was going to put him out of a job, but I soon tired of his gruff babbling and quietly hung up. Switching my TV on, I explored the technology further. Sure enough, it has been enabled automatically, and I cannot turn it off. I can, however, adjust the intensity, and thought I’d try switching it from Lowest to Highest. At once, every programme I watched was totally different, with every element I didn’t like replaced by something new.

Watching an old Britain’s Got Talent, I found all the singing to be replaced with blissful silence, and the auditionees to be actively encouraged by the dribbling audience, even performers who were hopelessly deluded. The judges had been replaced by things the TV sensed I would enjoy more too, with Simon Cowell’s seat now filled by the persistent thought that one day I will die. Good Morning Britain was improved by my TV replacing Piers Morgan with Susanna Reid, who proceeded to spend two hours having a constructive and enlightening conversation with herself and her guests.

The technology certainly has possibilities. Rumour has it that Congress is attempting to install it in the White House in that hope that Donald Trump will believe he’s achieved all he needs to do and let everyone else get on with the job, as he slowly dissolves in his own juices. It is suspected he would see a televisual landscape exclusively populated by white men, 85% of them himself, 15% of them his father telling him that he’s doing a good job, and that he’s proud of him.

But I also have my issues with it. Ironically, Subjectify hasn’t accounted for my preference that programmes I enjoy watching remain unaltered, and by tapping into my own libraries and my own taste, it has ensured that I haven’t had a new experience watching television since it switched itself on. I’ve had to make do with switching it back to Lowest Intensity for now, and will shortly be buying an older TV, while they’re still available.

Elsewhere, many people I know have theirs set much higher, delighted to be so precisely catered for as consumers. The main issue I have noticed it create is in news programming, as Subjectify now reinforces viewers’ own biases more keenly than ever. At Highest Intensity, the programme is replaced altogether, so hardline Remain voters now see news broadcasts from other European countries in their original language, whether they can understand them or not. For hardcore Leave supporters the news is now replaced with endless repeats of Midsomer Murders and Love Thy Neighbour. This has all made discussion of current affairs even more bewildered and hateful. Meanwhile, conversations about football results between fans of rival teams quickly descend into ugly, confused violence, much as before.

I have concerns that the technology is robbing us of the fixed cultural talking points and sense of communality that television and mass culture once gave. But when I contacted Subjectify head office to make this point, they had the filter switched on on their phones and could only hear me congratulating them for revolutionising the consumer experience. Frustrated, I instead thought I could convince my friends to forego the technology and buy older devices like me from now on. Unfortunately, most of my closest friendships are long distance, and when I called them on Skype, I found that they had Subjectify enabled, and that there were a lot of people they’d rather speak to than me.

With these friendships effectively now cut off, and my dependency on screens for my social life over the last few years having made me anxious and fearful of the outside world, I have taken instead to befriending the germ-ridden stray cats that frequent my back garden. I’d much rather befriend dogs, but if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that there are worse things than making do with your second choice.

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The Vertical Office

I tend to look out of the window of the tram on my morning commute. I do anything I can to avoid conversation with the other passengers, even wearing headphones in spite of the fact I don’t own anything to plug them into.  There might not seem much interest to be taken from looking at the same sights every morning, over and over again, but you’d be surprised at what can grab the eye. Earlier this year, I saw a fascinating spectacle that has kept me enthralled ever since.

One morning, around the Deansgate area, I looked out to see, among the various tall buildings, two smart-suited men walking up the side of one. They were completely perpendicular to the wall, their bodies perfectly upright. There was a graceful caution to their movements that I saw even from that distance, a sense that they were finding peace in a task nonetheless only done out of necessity. Breaking my silence, I had a rare conversation with a passenger near me. She told me that, because office space in the city centre was charged at such an extortionate rate, one building had thought to let its outer walls, at heavily discounted prices, to companies willing to accept the ‘economy’ conditions of running their operations in a totally vertical state.

Researching the subject further, I learned there are various terms of use wrapped up with this package. The building itself doesn’t supply any of the adhesive material needed for office equipment or employees’ shoes, the company itself needing to buy that from Scotch. No users of the wall are permitted to install a ladder or use climbing gear, as this would flout the basic condition of perpendicularity that qualifies the company for slashed costs. To use any indoor facilities such as IT services or toilets, workers must walk back down the building and enter through reception. Climbing through a window will be treated as trespassing and punished by high-velocity expulsion at the perpetrator’s entry height.

By and large, all occupants comply with these rules impeccably, and their tranquil level of discipline has made the wall a popular attraction over the last few months. Every weekend, I now take the tram to Deansgate-Castlefield and look out from the platform, along with many other people, towards the building. Some gather outside the building at ground level, but personally I find it better to watch from the higher vantage point granted at the tram stop. It also eliminates the risk of being caught out by falling stationery and filing cabinets, as well as sparing some dignity for any employees who fall over the course of the day. This is particularly in regard to workers mandated to wear skirts by their company’s dress code. Their plight puts paid to the myth spread by children’s cartoons that a robust skirt can function as a parachute.

There is something serene in watching people make the slow trek up the building and settle down for their working day, in as calm and orderly a fashion as possible in blustering gales twenty storeys up. A sense of communality has slowly blossomed as well, as people have come together to laugh and jeer at those not cut out for the 90-degree working day. Every day, a man we have named Colin sits at his desk, opens his briefcase, and cries, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” as valuable documents billow out and down to the ground below. Word is that he has been with the company for 17 years, and it’s unlikely he will ever adjust to the new setting. As the day progresses, we watch board meetings disrupted by parkour, the horizontal desks and chairs making a welcome new challenge for local freerunners. Every lunchtime, we draw lots on who will remember to protect their laptop as soup falls once again from the canteen above.

Concerns about safety have been raised, but any attempt at a ban by the city council has been lambasted as a stranglehold on competition and promptly thwarted. Meanwhile, the level of jeopardy has increased productivity enormously amongst all tenants, and the day’s work is often done by 3pm. The building has claimed the scheme to be a monumental success, and new vertical platforms are now being constructed on the cheap, extending outwards from the companies already based on the wall, with more buildings likely to catch on soon (obviously no tenants are permitted to grip the scaffolding for support).

Manchester, November 2013 - Deansgate tram station

Value for Money?

I was on my weekly trike ride round my neighbourhood yesterday, hurling empty milk bottles at cats and full milk bottles at single fathers in front of their children, that I spotted a new dark web café had opened on the high street. Here, customers can complete all their clandestine activities in full view of the public, and can be served coffees intravenously throughout their session. This particular establishment exclusively serves its own brand, Netcafé.

Logging on for the first time, I immediately clicked to “Enable Immorality and Crime”, and my eyes were opened to an exciting new world. After wiping the culture shock-induced sick from my mouth, I soon relished the grotesque well of knowledge before me. The most intriguing artefact I chanced upon was a full breakdown of how the BBC has spent its £3.7bn budget over the past year. A top secret, it was recently retrieved by hackers in Shrewsbury, and it’s no wonder the right-wing press are so up in arms about the corporation’s largesse. I’m glad now to do my bit for the British public and share some of the lowlights from this truly damning document.

  • Real, functioning TARDIS, accidentally created by designer Peter Brachacki in 1963, maintained and updated throughout Doctor Who’s 54-year history. (Brachacki never designed for Doctor Who after his first episode, having been headhunted by the Pentagon) – annual cost, £1bn
  • TARDIS set, built in 1963 when the cast or crew of Doctor Who were deemed dangerously unqualified to be allowed near the original. Maintained and updated throughout Doctor Who’s 54-year history – £1m
  • Expenses to cover the rolling BBC News ticker, live-woven through the day by a crack team of housewives in Dundee – £32,000
  • 50 gallons of hot water a day to be pumped through Andrew Neil – £8,267.40 per annum
  • Round the clock childcare for BBC premises in Salford until their 18th birthday in 2029 – £5 an hour, plus a bonus if the buildings go a night without crying
  • Quarterly polishing sessions for Aidan Turner’s chest, neck and scythe – £400 an hour
  • Annual surgery on the language centres of Jools Holland’s brain, to ensure his inflexion and emphasis when announcing an act is never that recognised by conventional wisdom – £25,000, plus a £10,000 touch-up for the Hootenanny
  • Comprehensive archiving of the entirety of Ceefax (both as individual pages and the full daily loops from 1974-2012 with both original music and an optional new soundtrack by Brian Eno) – £12,475, plus £2,500 care for the menagerie of living and dead animals Eno insists accompany him during recording
  • Soundproofing for the Greenwich warehouse where all used continuity announcements are sent at the end of each working day (a century of redundant aural information that mysteriously refuses to biodegrade) – £5,600, plus £23,450 for ongoing extensions to the building
  • 40% of ITV’s output, made in secret by government order, to create the illusion of there being any creative competition – £24.50
  • Chris Evans and John Humphrys – £2,600,000

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​The Truth and Tragedy of John Tracy

It’s a common enough joke – not as old as Thunderbirds itself, but almost certainly as old as Anthea Turner’s Tracy Island model, 1992. Poor John Tracy, second oldest of the Tracey brothers, consigned to a lonely existence on Thunderbird 5. Spending his days in geo-stationary orbit, only contacting home when an emergency arises. Then, the microphone on Jeff’s Tracy Island desk will rise, and he will utter that beloved catchphrase, “Go away, John.” We’re told John and his youngest brother Alan have alternating six-month tours of duty. Presumably John pilots Thunderbird 3 in that time. But we seldom see John on planet Earth, and less frequently still taking part in the rescues viewers know and love. Does he really spend as much as six months with his family each year? We all know he doesn’t. But the truth of John Tracy’s miserable existence runs even deeper than this, and is immeasurably more harrowing.

Filming Thunderbirds through the mid-sixties, John was the frequent victim of bullying by his co-stars and relatives. Behind the scenes and in between takes, the other cast members would insult and belittle the man, knowing full well that he was in ear shot. Sometimes they would do it direct to his face. This was all sanctioned, and indeed facilitated, by the puppeteers at ATV productions, who devised and acted out these horrendous events during every gap in recording. Although making the programme was their job, they very much did it for the love, and would often forego lunch and tea breaks to make up episodes of their own, like children in a playground. 

After cottoning on, the crew took to leaving the cameras on in case anything of quality was improvised. It was a highly successful venture, and in fact how every episode credited to writer/director Alan Pattillo was made. To this day, any attempt to ask him about his work on the series will result in a shrieking denial that he had anything to do with Thunderbirds, as he runs at full speed in the opposite direction to where he was heading, frequently taking hours out of his day.

As a result of this ‘devised episode’ technique, around 20 full episodes of Thunderbirds remain unseen today. It was deemed that any children watching would be upset by the brutal physical mistreatment of, and foul language directed towards, the John Tracy puppet. The sight of him suspended by his own wires from trees, being blown apart and put back together in grotesque new shapes, and a 38-minute sequence featuring Lady Penelope and Parker running him over in FAB 1 over and over again are genuinely disturbing, even seen through adult eyes.

Physical torment was carried out in tandem with psychological, as puppeteers and voice artists even worked John’s denial and refusal to seek help into the programme itself. No other characters appear concerned for John’s well-being, and he never hints that there may be a problem. Viewers could be forgiven for not even noticing the abuse at all. The clearest sign we have comes at the close of Danger at Ocean Deep, where John claims to have been on around a dozen rescue missions. Anyone to have seen the programme will know this to be a brazen lie, yet that is the level of John’s delusion – the truth of his family and creators’ behaviour towards him proving too much to bear.

There was talk of a tell-all book after the series and tie-in films had been completed, but at that point, the puppeteers decided it would be best for the secret not to get out, and so John was never used or given voice again. Today, he remains inanimate, likely hidden away somewhere in a dusty attic in the South East of England, his face a rigid, bland veil that masks a world of troubled memories.

Why Can’t Aliens See?

There’s a constant in Doctor Who and elsewhere that had been bothering me for quite some time. Over the years, we’ve been treated to a vast number of POV shots, as monsters and aliens go about their business, more often than not on the prowl for fresh victims. Tense scenes that can set viewers on edge, but it can be very easy to become absorbed by the problem that none of these aliens see as well as we can.

Daleks are some of the most fearsome and threatening creatures in non-existence, yet they spent the best part of a decade wilfully restricting their own field of vision, to no discernible gain.

Even the War Machines didn’t do that, and they were rubbish.

It is, admittedly, hard to present to the human eye the idea of enhanced vision that it isn’t itself capable of perceiving. But the best way surely isn’t to show something quantifiably worse.

How is the Robot K-1 from Robot (1974-5) expected to get from A to B when it can’t even read a perfectly straightforward ‘NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT PASS’ sign?

And what advantage is the added stress to one of the title creatures from Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970), arising from the misconception that it has to face three times more police officers than is really the case?

After I had spent several months shouting at close personal friends, family, even passing dogs and children, about the issue (in one case even costing myself a three-and-a-half year relationship), my priest eventually sat me down with a collection of Doctor Who stories from the seventies and eighties. “Don’t you see, Tom, you stinking, sinful hussy?” she gently screamed into my left ear. “Don’t you see how useful a device it is to a sci-fi series that prides itself on scaring children?’ I was sceptical, but, by the end of this seven-hour viewing session-cum-mass, Pat had me convinced.

First, she went back and showed me Robot. As we neared the end of Part One, she told me to watch closely. Sure enough, as Sarah Jane Smith was exploring a suspicious, empty room, a towering robot emerged from the darkness – and we were given final confirmation as to the source of that earlier sign-flummoxed POV.

“So you see, twisted, unhappy wretch?” she asked. “You see how, by use of that distorted view, director Christopher Barry makes far clearer the nature of the danger Sarah is in, building up to this very moment over 25 minutes?”

“Of course, Pat, but I just don’t think it was necessary to distort the image like that. Look how scary that POV shot is at the end of Part Two of Warriors’ Gate (1981).”

“That’s every bit as frightening,” I said, “And with no distortion in-“ At this point, Pat ripped my copy of Warriors’ Gate out of her DVD player and hurled it across the room. She then proceeded to jump up and down on it over and over again, shouting, “I hate Warriors’ Gate! I can’t stand it! I don’t want atmosphere, I want a good story! Stop pissing around tossing coins wondering what it all means and have a cocking adventure, you bastards!”

Try as I might, I couldn’t get Pat to see the innumerable merits of such a remarkable 100 minutes of television. We moved on instead, as she put in another disc.

“The other wonderful thing it does!” she proclaimed. “You’d agree, wouldn’t you, you slovenly helldog, that the most effective monsters are by and large distortions of the human form? Like this?”

“And this?”

“Probably others not created by Robert Banks Stewart too, I shouldn’t wonder,” I quipped with a knowing twinkle. Pat was not particularly impressed, but she was incredibly angry.

“Here,” she cried, popping in The Robots of Death (1977). “Look at that.”

“I know, I- I was only joking-“

“It doesn’t look outright evil that something’s not quite human, does it? It looks scary, it looks unsettling.”

“So?”

“So, in that case, why not distort the victims too?”

“Isn’t that horrifying? People robbed not just of their lives, but their humanity too? Their final moments, preserved not as themselves, but as an agonised parody of how they look. There’s fear for you, you devil’s urchin.”

I was struck by that. Maybe Pat had a point. My quibbling pedantry aside, it is a compelling way to unnerve viewers at home just that little bit further. What darker end than to die in pain, afraid, and not even as yourself?

“Alright, I’m convinced. Thank you, Pat. I’ve learned a great deal today.” But reply came there none. I stepped forward. Pat simply stood, chuckling. Then, slowly but surely, she reached up towards her face, and gently tugged at the edge. Away came the mask, revealing a pulsing, quivering mass of tendrils beneath. Emerging slowly, a single green eye. Pat was no eccentric priest, but a disgusting, inhuman monster. No wonder she didn’t like Warriors’ Gate.

“You should never have come here, my little friend. But never fear. I shall see it ends quickly…” Slowly, she advanced. To think that I should have spent my last moments on this Earth wondering why aliens couldn’t see. It was this thought that gave me the idea to run off, and sure enough, Pat didn’t clock me leaving the room, and as far as I can guess, she’s still attempting to gut me there in the vestry. But I do dwell on what she said, and I must say that today I’m far more amenable to something I now accept is a very effective device.