The Forgotten Sport of Piano Smashing

I’m fascinated by how untrustworthy memory can be. For example, Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about verbal overshadowing, where written descriptions affect visual memories. And then there is the research into induced false memories, where researchers persuaded people they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

(John Higgs spoke about his recently at the Latitude Festival. His recent book Watling Street describes vivid memories of having a CJ Stone book on his shelves while living in Manchester, even though the book came out after he moved away)

Even more interesting are memories of things that happened that now seem false. Maybe everyone has memories of childhood that seem incredible to look back on.

In the 1980s, entertainment was very different. I can remember how exciting it seemed when a fourth TV channel arrived (an event described in the diaries of Adrian Mole). It seems barbaric that TV stations used to turn off overnight: as an insomniac teenager, I made do with whatever late night TV was on, usually a single channel. Always-on internet is eradicating boredom, and it’s hard to believe things like climbing the Old Man of Hoy were prime-time shows.

The village fete was the site of various strange entertainments. You used to pay to throw wooden blocks at stands of crockery. And then there was the spectator sport of piano smashing. The idea was to take hammers to a piano and break it into small enough pieces to pass through a letterbox. There was even a Guinness World Record, the best time being 1 minute 34 seconds. You can check out a video of this on Youtube (commentator “It’s like they’re cutting down a tree – a piano tree!):

I guess the piano smashing came about because of a surplus of instruments as TV became more popular. The ‘bomb party’ blog has a history of piano smashing. As well as sporting examples, it has musical and artistic ones. It quotes Bill Drummond from the KLF describing another reason why pianos fell out of favour:

“Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

I guess as I grow older, and technology infiltrates more parts of daily life, the 1980s will begin to seem more and more like another world.

Manhole

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The last time I went to Liverpool was in the 90s, with my Dad and sister. I’d just discovered the Beatles and wanted to visit the city they came from. We found very little trace of the band, other than a few small memorials.

On my most recent visit to Liverpool, last year, the Beatles’ heritage was being properly exploited. On Mathew Street there were three Cavern Clubs and a statue of John Lennon. I walked past all of these because, on this trip to Liverpool, I was looking for the manhole outside what the old ‘Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun’. This is said to be a very special manhole. To quote Bill Drummond:

[The interstellar ley line] comes careering in from outer space, hits the world in Iceland, bounces back up, writhing about like a conger eel, then down Mathew Street in Liverpool where the Cavern Club – and latterly Eric’s – is. Back up, twisting, turning, wriggling across the face of the earth until it reaches the uncharted mountains of New Guinea, where it shoots back into space… this interstellar ley line is a mega-powered one. Too much power coming down it for it not to writhe about. The only three fixed points on earth it travels through are Iceland, Mathew Street in Liverpool and New Guinea. Wherever something creatively or spiritually mega happens anywhere else on earth, it is because this interstellar ley line is momentarily powering through the territory.

This manhole is holy ground, of a sort. It is the location that appeared in a dream of Carl Jung (who never actually visited Liverpool). Bill Drummond stood for 17 hours on that manhole cover the day before his 60th birthday. In 2008, Julian Cope busked on this spot for a day. As Cat Vincent writes, the manhole had become “a site for connecting to the watery powers of the Pool of Life”.

It was good to stand there for a minute.

Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly
Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly

Twin Peaks: There’s something wrong with the moon

I first watched Twin Peaks on TV in the 90s and caught Fire Walk with Me on its original run in 1992, sneaking into Brighton Odeon underage. I left the cinema confused, but it’s grown to be one of my favourite movies. Over the years since the show’s cancellation I’ve puzzled away at what it all meant and even recently I’ve spotted new things. I’ve rewatched it a few times, with a Twin Peaks Club about five years back, and another club in preparation for Season 3. Here are some thoughts on my latest watch-through:

  1. When I first watched the show, characters like Shelley and Bobby seemed like adults. Now, a couple of decades on, I can see how young and vulnerable they are.
  2. Also more apparent on this watch-through is how much Lynch is playing with soap and noir cliches. When I was younger I didn’t always know the cliches – I’d not encountered all the archetypes. Only now can I see how much of it is being played ironically – although being Lynch, it’s irony without sneering.
  3. I’m not the first person to point out that Twin Peaks was the start of the ‘golden age of TV’ – along with Babylon 5 (which gets far less credit than it deserves). They demonstrated that people wanted complicated and ongoing narratives.
  4. Twin Peak’s reputation is particularly remarkable, given how bad some of season 2 is. The show lost its way badly. As one example, the Japanese character,Mr Tojamura, seems particularly offensive now. And, as much as I like the character of James, he is very poorly served by the plots that he is given.
  5. I loved how implausible the world of the show was. The Roadhouse seemed incredible, with all those bikers slow-dancing to Julee Cruise songs. And the jukebox at the diner is incredible – who was picking that music? I don’t know if it is the larger budget, but while the present-day roadhouse is a lot busier, it seems to have lost some atmosphere.
  6. Even now I am still spotting details in the show. Watching Fire Walk With Me, I noticed that the woodsmen from the convenience store scene do not appear together in the credits. One of them is in the film earlier, in the diner scene.
  7. The timings of some of events are messed up by the structure of each episode being a single day. The speed of James’s relationships is dizzying. He is heartbroken by Laura, falls in love with Donna a day or two later, and a few days after is falling in love with Maddy.
  8. There is something wrong with the moon. This is another problem made apparent by the episode-a-day format. As night falls in Twin Peaks, more often than not, the events are watched over by a full moon.

The ending of season 2 was mind-blowing. With the series being dropped, Lynch was brought in to do a final episode and round things off. Instead, he set up a series of massive cliff-hangers. It was hard to believe the show had finished with that final shot. Then came the news about season 3 which, after all the backstage drama, has finally reached the screen. In the original show, set in 1989, the spirits tell Dale Cooper that they will see him again in 25 years. It’s been a little  longer than that (the final episode was shown in June 1991) but finally getting to see the next episode is an amazing thing. I could hardly sleep with excitement the night before. The new series looks to be as strange and difficult as expected. As the Daily Mash joked, people who pretended to like Twin Peaks first time are facing a very difficult summer

First Impressions of Virtual Reality

I recently had my first chance to experience virtual reality. I’d played around with Google Cardboard, but the Oculus Touch headset was a whole world away from that. And, as impressive as the visual aspects were (and they were very impressive) the thing that amazed me most was how well the controllers worked, how easily I could interact with virtual objects.

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The first surprise about the two handheld controls was how they were present in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s strange being blindfolded from reality by the headset, but the controls are still visible, their position tracked by the cameras, even when you’re not holding them. Once you pick them up, sensors guess the location of your hands, then render them in the virtual world. I looked down to see my hands replaced with robotic ones. It was an incredible illusion.

The Toybox Demo was amazing. A virtual robot hands you objects which you can grip. The feedback from the sensors when you grasp things is crude, but it works. You feel as if you have a real presence and agency in the imaginary world.

I played the game Robo Recall and was blown away. I was immersed in combat with the robots, nervous about them getting behind me. The techniques for ‘walking’ around the game world were effective, meaning I had a sensation of exploring without having to move in reality (and therefore walk into the table).

There are two downsides to virtual reality. The first is the nausea – not as bad as I’d expected, but I suspect I’d suffer if I played for much longer than half an hour. The other is the cost – about £700 for the kit, and on top of that the cost of a powerful PC. Hopefully the price will fall quickly.

As a child of the 90s, I’ve spent decades being told that virtual reality was the future. I never had a chance to try out those early, cheesy demonstrations, but saw intense VRs represented in comics, books and TVs. The Oculus felt like all those promises were coming true. And, in a nice touch, the makers seem to have adopted  a lot of the signifiers of fictional VR in the Oculus (Japanese architecture, welcoming by female voices, use of infinite white landscapes etc) and that made it seem somehow familiar.

I can’t wait to get a longer chance to play on one of these. And I really want to try out some horror games.

The Odditorium Book Launch

I’m very excited as next month I have a book launch – or to be more accurate, a two-chapter’s launch. I’ve written a couple of entries for The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world, which comes out next month. It’s a book I imagine I’d buy if I wasn’t getting a contributor’s copy. It features biographies of various people from the well-known, like Wilhelm Reich, to the neglected, like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

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The book was compiled by David Bramwell and Jo Keeling. My chapters are on the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and mysterious walker, Harry Bensley.

The launch night is  October 14th at Brighton’s One Church, and features talks from Dr Bramwell, John Higgs and Emma Kilbey. There will also be a cocktail bar. And copies of the book for sale. You must come!

A weekend at Wilderness

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I spent last weekend at Wilderness Festival, where I was speaking at the Odditorium Tent. It was a fun time, with lots of friends and great weather. But I fear I’m not as good at festivals as I used to be.

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If you told 18-year old me, fresh from his first Glastonbury, that he’d still going to festivals at 40 he’d be pleased. He’d be less impressed that I was asleep through the first night. We were kept up all night on Thursday, including by a group singing Toto’s Africa near our tent. The next night, I fell asleep at 7pm and managed to sleep through till 5am.

(I’d like to think that the people singing Toto were in the middle of a reunion, having the best time of their summer, and will be talking about that night for years. In which case, it would make up for the lack of sleep)

(I did wake for a bit and head down to festival around 10pm on the Friday. I couldn’t find any of the others and there was no way I was going to catch up with the drunks around me. I passed a man who was pissing as he walked. I decided to head back to bed and sleep through).

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I was up at dawn the next day, and went to read by the river. A few people were still partying and very sweetly came over to check I was having a good time. Fish skipped out of the water.

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I was also drinking for the first time since the start of the 2016, which was fun. The cocktails from Artbar were perfect. I didn’t have any hangovers.

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It was a weekend of bumping into people and losing people. I visited the posh £3 toilets. They seemed expensive but, like the i360, worth trying to say that you have.

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The Saturday Spectacle included amazing high-wire skills. My favourite bit was when someone did a headstand on the wire and a man behind us was unimpressed: “I could do that”

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We kept bumping into the fawn in the picture above. Every time we saw him, he gave us a friendly ‘hello!’.

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I didn’t see any bands, but I did see a lot of talks. It was a good weekend.

Spirit of Place conference

Over a month back, at the start of April, Lela and I went to Liverpool for John Reppion‘s Spirit of Place conference, a site-specific event linked to the Calderstones, a group of standing stones in a Liverpool park.

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I don’t know Liverpool well – I last went with my Dad and sister back in the nineties. But the list of speakers was so interesting that I thought it would be worth the trip. John Reppion described the event as something “people who live in London, or Brighton say, might be quite used to seeing advertised but which there never seem to be very many of up here in the North.” Brighton could definitely do with events like this one.

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The day brought together a range of speakers, including archaeologists, psychogeographers, historians (an epic description of the wrecking of the RMS Tayleur), artists (a premier of short film The Menhir Motorway) and a magician. The sessions were incredibly inspiring while avoiding a game of psychogeography bingo, and I wanted to note down some of the things that I responded to. I came out of it fizzing with ideas, and things to follow up.

  • John Reppion introduced the day with Invoking the Spirits of Place. It looked at some of the ways folklore connected with the park. Many of the trees had been brought from overseas, and he discussed the idea of tree spirits from different cultures. I loved the quote from Pope, his advice on gardening: “Consult the genius of the place”
  • Kenneth Brophy (AKA The Urban Prehistorian) gave a fantastic talk on ancient monuments in cities and the response of local people. He talked in particular about the Cochno Stone, which was buried to protect it from locals, mentioning the shame many felt at not being trusted with the monument. We also saw examples of how prehistoric monuments in cities are often fenced off, producing the strange spectacle of caged standing stones. Personally, I’m still disappointed that Silbury Hill was inaccessible. With the Cochno stone, there are plans for a replica to be made and placed above it. May Miles Thomas has produced a short film, Cochno Stone Revealed.
  • The session that influenced me most was one by David Southwell and Gary Budden on ‘Landscape Punk and Re-enchantment’. David spoke about how myth grows and escapes; where folklore comes from and what it’s for. He also talked about how walking is the best way to learn a place. There were some amazing turns of phrase in this session – “ghost soil”, “layers of story”, the “dark sediment of decomposing memory”,”every walk scuffs up… spirits”. David’s current project is Hookland, a fictional English county providing a chance to put back some of the weirdness in a conscious act of enchantment. “Landscape gives us the myth we need”
  • Gary Budden spoke about landscapepunk, which he saw as emerging from anti-road movements and squatters, and a culture of visionary English music like Crass and Zounds – he saw punk as a type of folk music. The talk grappled with the risk of interests like nature writing and psychogeography creating a sort of “hippie nationalism”, a negative island culture. He also spoke about the trope of the “Lone White male author” with time and leisure who reported back to office workers. The books these men produced were not the world he knew, and he compared his childhood experience of birdwatching to the lyrical descriptions found in nature writing. These didn’t reflect the nature he knew, of damp sandwiches in car parks and the Really Wild Show
  • Richard MacDonald worked as Heritage Story Maker, which is the best job title I’ve ever heard. If I knew that was a possibility, I’d never have become a programmer.
  • It was good to see Cat Vincent talk again. When he announced that he was a practising magician, someone in the audience gasped ‘Oh wow!’. His talk, Where the Buddleia Grows made the point that when most of the world’s people live in urban areas, magic should not continue to  privilege the rural above the urban. He also discussed how people say that history repeats itself, then suggested geography does not repeat, but it rhymes. He spoke about his own connection with buddliea, the ‘bombsite flower’. which often grows in the city. It was a lovely talk and well worth reading via the link.
  • The final session was an interview with horror author Ramsey Campbell. It was fun to listen to someone I’d been reading for about 25 years, since I used to borrow Best New Horror collections from Harlow Library in the 90s (that shelf of horror was probably the only good thing about that town). Campbell talked about his connections with the local area, the shop where he first discovered Lovecraft, and about Bartleby the Scrivener as horror. His latest book is based on the folklore of Liverpool. He claimed that he’d made notes of ideas among his research and now was no longer sure which parts he had made up.

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It was good to visit Liverpool, even if we didn’t have a long time there (we did our best to visit the Tate in 30 minutes, and made a fairly good go of it). We also stayed in a Beatles-themed hotel, with a night-manager who’d never been to the top floor until he showed us to our room. Terrible breakfasts, but fun decor.

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All-in-all, it was well worth the journey and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for John Reppion’s future events. I also note that I’ve become the sort of person who is excited by megaliths

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A quick post about India

It’s just over two months since I landed in Delhi on my most recent trip to India. It was the first trip where I’d taken a smartphone, and my first where I wasn’t travelling with or meeting someone – both things I’ll try to avoid next time. I arrived at Gatwick frazzled from work and decided to revise the route I’d planned, which didn’t work out perfectly, but was fun.

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The weather in Delhi: smoke

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Delhi was smogbound and I was almost tricked by the touts in the railway station. A couple of shopkeepers recognised me, one noting that I’d cut my hair; I’ve not been in Delhi for two years. I went to Mathura to see the river, but the hotel claimed not to have my reservation, and everyone I met was negative and rude. So I headed to the bus station and spent the night in Bharatpur instead. There, the hotel owner thought she recognised me, but I’ve never been there before – then she figured it out, saying that I looked like someone from an old cereal advert.

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From Bharatpur I took a dusty bus journey to a hotel near Dausa. The guesthouse owners in Bharatpur told me not to bother with Dausa, that there was nothing there. I was the only guest in the hotel and could see no other buildings from my balcony. When the power went out the darkness was almost total. I liked it there a lot.

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From Dausa I made excursions to visit a local temple, the step-well at Chand Baori and Bhangarh fort, said to be the most haunted site in Asia.

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From there I went to Pushkar, with its beautiful holy lake and massive amount of hippies – my next door neighbour in the hotel was practising a didgeridoo. But it was a good place to relax and enjoy walking up the small mountains.

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From Pushkar I went into the mountains proper. I felt little love for Mussoorie so went straight back down again, settling in Rishikesh for the last few days of the holiday, walking, relaxing, visiting ruins. It was hard to find a good room due to the Yoga festival but my friend Emily eventually found me a stunning place with a view of the Ganges. I then spent a night in Haridwar, with its amazing night-time Ganges ceremony, before turning back to Delhi and heading home. It was a good trip.

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The Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd

I’m a little behind in posting about my adventures. In the middle of January, I went to the Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd in Wales. This annual event features morris dancing, a wassail, and what wikipedia describes as people “disguised as a horse”. This disguise involves a decorated horse’s skull and a sheet, along with a lower jaw that can snap at passers-by. I saw the event in the Rites and Rituals film and had to go. It was a good trip and the Mari Lwyds looked amazing.

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My Favourite Books of 2014

I only read 60 books in 2014, compared with 95 in 2013 and, apparently, 166 in 2012. My favourites, in alphabetical order were:

Broken Summers / Henry Rollins I’m not a fan of Rollins’ music, so I’m not sure why I picked this up. I love the energy of his prose though, and it leaves me feeling inspired.

Explore Everything by Bradley Garrett While this is a fairly self-aggrandizing account of urban exploration, it’s absolutely fascinating and contains some amazing photos. The achievements of Garrett and his colleagues would sound preposterous were it not for the images.

Fluent in 3 months by Benny Lewis The men who taught me languages at school were vile and trash; and, despite doing well in exams, I’ve always thought that I could never speak foreign languages. This book suggests learning techniques and encourages the reader to quickly learn useful useful words and phrases. Since reading it, my confidence about trying to learn Hindi has increased significantly.

Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters Derrida worked hard to hide many of the details of his life so I wasn’t sure whether to read this biography or not. It turned out to be interesting, with the details of Derrida’s terminal illness being incredibly sad. “Always prefer life and never stop affirming survival.”

Layla by Nina de la Mer Layla is a second-person point-of-view novel about a lap-dancer trying to get enough money together so that she can go back to her young son. It’s a desperate, enthralling novel, currently 99p on Amazon.

Power Trip by Damian McBride I’m not sure how reliable the accounts of events in this book are, and McBride’s alcohol intake is terrifying. But this is a compelling account of the Brown government and has made me reconsider my opinion of it. It also includes some scurrilous stories. The sort of political book that I love.

Swenglish / Louise Halvarddson Discussed here.

Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society An amazing coffee table book on the exploits and adventures of the Cacophony Society. I first encountered the Cacophony Society via Chuck Palahniuk’s writing. Their legacy includes SantaCon and Burning Man, but some of their less well-known events are equally interesting. I occasionally find myself thinking I should say ‘Fuck it’ and use this book as a template.

U2 at the end of the world by Bill Flanagan I find Bono as loathsome as any other decent person does, but Zooropa-era U2 fascinate me. One of the biggest bands in the world, experimenting with their music and ripping off Jenny Holzer. A 500 page book on their early-nineties tours should not have been so fascinating.

Working effectively with Legacy code by Michael Feathers This book is very different to the others! Very few people talk about the realities of software development, which is dealing with other people’s code and making quick fixes. Feathers’ book lays out techniques for changing legacy code and has proved invaluable over the last year.