The weight of the past

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 5 December 2010 on

(This is a companion blog to an earlier entry which used 4’33”to think about what happens when the medium used to (re)produce music shifts. The current entry thinks about photography, with the help of a book and a television programme.)

A few weeks ago, in a cafe or a restaurant, I noticed a couple looking through a set of photographs that they had just gotten back from being developed – a commonplace sight as recently as perhaps six or seven years ago, but much less so now.

Nostalgia touches photographs in many ways. In her beautiful book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote:

A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

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Much Ado About Nothing

My review of Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is now available on  The editors trimmed it down a bit in line with their word count policies.  What follows is the slightly lengthier version I submitted, with more of the clauses that I have a(n over-?)fondness for.

Watching and trying to get to grips with Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, one is presented with an interesting dilemma.  Either this film is set in the present day – as its clothes, haircuts, cars, guns and occasional pieces of communication technology would suggest – yet peopled with characters who speak and think as though they were living about 400 years ago, or it is set about 400 years ago, yet with the visual trappings just mentioned.

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Public Service Broadcasting: Inform, Educate, Entertain

‘[N]obody would believe there are 56 million people in Britain we see and hear so few of them [on television].’ Raymond Williams in one of his television columns for The Listener (written some time between 1968 and 1972), quoted in Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘Problems with Quality.’ Screen 31.1 (1990).

My Public Service Broadcasting learning curve has been a steep one.  I half-heard one of their songs on Radio 6 Music a couple of weeks ago, and was sufficiently intrigued to go in search of more information online.

When I discovered that not only was this band called Public Service Broadcasting, but that their new album (due out the following week) was called Inform, Educate, Entertain, my already substantial enthusiasm only increased.  That trio of verbs, for those who do not already know this, were offered by John Reith (1889-1971), the first general manager and then the first director general of the BBC, as a pithy summary of the aims of public service broadcasting.

The band’s website,, did a good job of enticing me further.  Gliding through its clean design, I was particularly interested in the ‘About’ tab, which told me that:

Public Service Broadcasting is the corduroy-clad brainchild of London-based J. Willgoose, Esq. who, along with his drumming companion, Wrigglesworth, will be touring the length and breadth of the UK in 2013 on a quest to Inform – Educate and, most importantly – Entertain.

Through their uniquely spell-binding live AV Transmissions audiences will witness the band weave samples from old public information films, archive footage and propaganda material around live drums, guitar, banjo and electronics as they teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future – beaming our past back at us through vintage TV sets and state of the art modern video projection devices.

I was interested less in the stuff about their live set-up (I don’t get out much), more in what I might expect from their album.  I was prepared to overlook the hipster-posturing of ‘corduroy-clad’ because the second paragraph was so promising.  Feeling flush with my first wage of the new tax year on its way to my bank account, I ordered the album.

It arrived towards the end of the week just gone, and, as I sometimes do with new albums, I’ve had it on repeat play since then to try to acquaint myself with it rapidly.  I’m sorry to say that the text does not quite deliver on the promise of the paratexts.

In retrospect, I should have paid slightly more attention to the information about what kinds of archival material the band favour – ie. ‘old public information films’ and ‘propaganda material’.  It is hard, when using such material, to avoid camp.  Not that the band seem to want to avoid camp.  Example 1: in the song ‘The Now Generation’, a male voice, adopting an outmoded pitching style, confidently asserts: ‘Out of the past and into your future comes this news, and the news is pleats!’  Example 2: in ‘Signal 30’, against squealing tyres and an insistent, overdriven guitar, we hear a series of lurid and/or laughable exclamations. Voice 1: ‘No drinking and driving.’ Voice 2: ‘Not even beer?’ Voice 3: ‘Not even water!’ [Tyres squeal.]  Barbara Klinger, in her book Melodrama and Meaning, described camp as a ‘hit-and-run sensibility’, and that is what we are often offered on this album: a focus upon the titillating quaintness of the fragment at the expense of the context of the whole.  Listening to the album, I was also reminded of Charlotte Brunsdon’s description of how television uses its own past in what she terms ‘“list television” compilations’:

the skill of editing archive compilation programmes like To DIY For lies in the precise intuition of how much old footage is funny, and when to cut before it becomes boring. The editing structure of these programmes depends on extremely short bursts of ‘old television’, contained and embraced by contemporary commentary, so that the viewer is never far from the enlightened and modern present. ‘Taste and time on television.’ Screen 45.2 (2004).

My sense is that, in the case of Inform, Educate, Entertain, the electronic music performs a function similar in type (albeit lesser in degree) to the ‘contemporary commentary’ Brunsdon refers to.  The comment about ‘short bursts’ is certainly germane too.

It should be noted, however, that neither television nor broadcasting are primary sources for the album, despite the title of the album and the name of the band that produced it.  Instead, films are the main named sources of samples.  The sleeve notes name four films: The First of the Few (1942), What a Life! (1948), Night Mail (1936) and The Conquest of Everest (1953).  (Looking back to the EP which preceded this album, The War Room, it is a similar story.)  The other samples, we are told, come ‘from various public domain sources, with the majority coming from the fantastic Prelinger archives’.

The sampled voices that we hear are predominantly male, and predominantly these voices speak in the clipped, received pronunciation style associated with both the BBC of the past and many of the recorded voices of the World War 2 era in general.  The most notable exception to this is probably ‘Signal 30’, where we hear voices with more of the demotic language and cadences of American culture.  Regional and other minority voices are largely absent.  This is a particular shame in light of the quotation that graces the top of the second page of the album’s sleeve notes:

I’m not going to play you records by eminent people; you’ll remember those.  But I’ve chosen a few, from the many hundreds we are making.  They deal with peak moments of intense personal experience.  And I think, together, they say something about the spirit of our own time.  Something that will still be worth saying a hundred years hence.

These words, the sleeve notes tell us, belong to ‘Marie Slocombe, founder of the BBC archive, speaking in 1942’, and we actually get to hear them spoken on one of the album’s tracks.  What a shame, then, that the album fails to deliver on this implicit promise, and does not allow us to hear any such ‘peak moments’.  (Alexis Petridis makes some interesting and useful observations about the sources the albums uses and the way it uses them in his Guardian review.)

The songs’ musical construction for the most part matches the staccato use of samples.  Most songs comprise a cycle of riffs, which are assembled sufficiently artfully, with the help of some very good driving bass which knows exactly when to ease off the throttle, that momentum and interest are consistently maintained, but which seem to me – admittedly, after only a day’s intensive listening – to lack any real complexity.  (As an aside, I think it is worth noting that the Independent’s reference to Public Service Broadcasting’s use of ‘the music of the present’ – a quote used on the band’s website – has been implicitly challenged by another of its writers.  Simon Price gets it spot on, I think, when he highlights the band’s debt to ‘electro-rock grooves reminiscent of the 1990s school (Underworld and Chemical Brothers, in particular).’  Faithless also came to my mind whilst listening.)

So, what ‘lessons of the past’ do Public Service Broadcasting teach us?  I’m afraid I felt like I walked away from my lesson somewhat empty-handed, despite the ostensibly good, sincere and deeply-felt intentions of J Willgoose Esq. (who dedicates The War Room to a relative who was killed in his 20s during World War 2).  I learned that there’s some funny campy stuff in the archives, and setting those posh voices against electronic instruments sounds pretty cool.  The paratextual material promised more, but the type of archival material chosen and the way in which it is treated make for a superficial engagement with history.  Popular music can engage with history more meaningfully than this, and it frequently does.  (Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the output of the Drive-By Truckers, in particular their album Southern Rock Opera.)

I’d like to end on a slightly more positive note, though.  One thread that runs through the album is a sense of striving in the voices we hear, of people consciously looking towards the frontier of the future with the spirit of pioneers.  This put me in mind of ‘The Omega Glory’ a wonderful chapter from Michael Chabon’s wonderful collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, in which the author ponders the loss of ‘our ability or our will to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so’.  I’ve just skimmed the chapter again, and if I had to pick one paragraph to stand in for the whole to make the particular point I’d want to make here, it’s this one:

If you ask my older son about the Future, he essentially thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it.  Most likely global warming, he says – floods, storms, desertification – but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come.  Maybe not tomorrow or a year from now.  The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his next birthday.  It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank.  My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavour and creation, for granted.  He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.  If you had told me when I was his age that a kid of the future would feel that way – and what’s more, that he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings – it would have been even worse than hearing that his world would offer no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jet packs for everyone.  That truly would have broken my heart.

Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft

As a result of teaching my undergraduate module ‘Television, Radio and the Everyday’ for several years, I have developed an intellectual interest in things domestic.  One academic area that addresses domestic ‘stuff’ and in which I have dipped my toe is the fascinating field of material culture (its most famous writer is probably the highly readable Daniel Miller; working in a slightly different area but also worthy of mentioning is Ben Highmore).  Television studies, closer to my home turf, also has sophisticated tools for dealing with the domestic and the everyday.  I find cookery and property programmes especially fascinating, and I tried to express some of this fascination in an article that I wrote entitled ‘Can You See Yourself Living Here? Structures of desire in recent British lifestyle television’.  In that article and in my teaching, I find it illuminating to sometimes place television programmes alongside cookery or fashion books (often books published as programme ‘tie-ins’).  So when my wife, in her capacity as a talented and blogging seamstress, was sent a review copy of Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft products & styling advice for the modern vintage home, we were presented with an ideal opportunity to write a co-authored piece.

The rising popularity of sewing and other domestic crafts, as indicated by television programmes such as Kirstie’s Vintage Home and The Great British Sewing Bee (Rachel Moseley has written a nice review of the latter here), is contributing to a fascinating sub-genre of the lifestyle television which received a spurt of brilliant academic attention at the start of the century (mainly thanks to the work of the Midlands Television Research Group).  Perhaps this new cycle of programmes will prompt a second wave.  (Also brought to my awareness through my reading around matters domestic, I eagerly await the wonderful Nicki Humble’s research project Home Making: The Domestic Arts in Literature and Culture 1750-2010.)

When I write about popular culture, I try to avoid what John Hartley (I think) termed a ‘they’ stance, and try to adopt a ‘we’ stance.  That is, I try not to stand ‘outside’ the thing I am looking at and point a finger of condemnation, but try (also, at least) to approach it on its own terms.  I often think of Robert Warshow’s passing critique, towards the end of his magisterial article on the Western hero, of ‘the criticism of popular culture, where the educated observer is usually under the illusion that he has nothing at stake.’  I try to be constantly vigilant against becoming that kind of observer.  The point of view I try to adopt, in fact, is a large part of the meaning of the title of my blog (which is also part of the title of my PhD thesis): ‘Between sympathy and detachment’.

Sometimes such a stance is hard to maintain.  Treating popular culture seriously and sympathetically does not mean always exonerating it or celebrating it, and should not simply mean holding it to a lower standard, or excusing in the name of populism things that ought to be criticised.  The review below is quite a critical one (and in my contributions to it I found myself revisiting some of the same critical territory I explored in the article mentioned above).  I would want to point out, however, that the main things being criticised are the intentions (and pretensions) of the producer, not the imagined misguided pleasures of an imagined audience, who will often stand in as the intellectual’s bad other in the type of criticism that Warshow alludes to.

Enough caveats and disclaimers, I think!  Onto the piece itself, which is published simultaneously here and on the blog

Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home

Ex-singer-turned- designer Pearl Lowe’s new book Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home, due out 9th May 2013, is a book aimed at vintage-loving crafty people who want to create a ‘unique’ and ‘vintage’ look for their home.  The book contains an abundance of projects divided into five main categories: ‘Heavenly Kitchen & Picture Perfect Dining’, ‘Dream Living Space’, ‘Bedroom Delights’, ‘Bathrooms & Small and Special Places’ and ‘Opulent Office’.  The book comes at a time when vintage style is all the rage, Kirstie’s Vintage Home being a good example of its popularity.

As the book’s title suggests, the book is about finding old items (‘vintage’) and modifying or combining them (‘craft’).  The word ‘vintage’, always a slippery one, is especially so here – a catch-all approbatory term for old stuff.  As in Kirstie’s Vintage Home, the word is overused, sometimes to the point of nonsensical concepts such as ‘vintage designer’ (Lowe, born in 1970 – does this mean she herself is vintage?!) and ‘vintage event’ (Allsopp, referring to a vintage-style, or perhaps ‘vintage-inspired’ wedding).  The introduction immediately stretches things yet further: the book is explained to be about the practice of creating a ‘vintage style’ – ie. the appearance of stylish oldness rather than its reality.  The ‘Vintage Christmas’ projects perfectly demonstrate this: lace and satin stockings, vintage wallpaper paper chains, vintage bauble place settings, lace Christmas crackers, lace bunting and lace-covered wooden heart and star baubles.  This is extreme vintage fetishism.  There is nothing ‘vintage’ about a modern Christmas with these items, nor does it hark back to a Christmas in the past where all of these items would be present.  One project in the book, for an ‘Antique ghost mirror’, reassures the reader: ‘you don’t have to wait years or spend lots of money on an antique to get the look.’  The tools required include heavy-duty chemical resistant rubber gloves, a paint stripper, and hydrochloric acid, and the method amounts to damaging a piece of furniture to make it look old (‘distressing’, of course, is nothing new, but the fact that this process involves dangerous chemicals and is at the expense of the item’s practical purpose serves to highlight its silliness).  The tensions between finding and making and between authenticity and appearance are perfectly captured in the blurb on the back of the book, with its perplexing but accurate promise: ‘Vintage designer Pearl Lowe shows you how to create the authentic vintage look in your own home with her expert advice and simple projects’ (italics added).

Lowe is determinedly eclectic in her aesthetic, embracing a range of different identities (‘I think I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy at heart’;  ‘Growing up I was a classic Goth’), and taking a similarly pick-and-mix approach to historical styles (though she favours Art Deco above all others).

The appeal of old things is interesting (and in some ways, a positive counter-current to a much more widespread social fascination with and worship for all things new).  Objects, like people, acquire experience, and often scars, the longer they stay in the world. There is, to quote Susan Sontag’s wonderful words, something enchanting about ‘used things, warm with generations of human touch.’ Unlike people, though, objects can’t tell you much about their lifetimes, and change less across the course of them.  A chair really has only one practical purpose, whether it was made yesterday or fifty years ago.  So on one level, Pearl Lowe’s statement that ‘anything I buy has to have character and history’ is understandable, but on another level it is phony.  It is unlikely that Lowe knows of or cares about the precise details of the history of the artefacts she acquires.  Rather, they are simply redolent with ‘pastness’; they are mute icons upon which one can project personal fantasies (of ‘hippiness’, ‘gothness’, ‘vintageness’, or whatever).  Objects, histories and identities are reduced to style, pure and simple – the question of whether it looks good.  Note, for example, how ‘the hippy gypsy look’ starts out as a tasteful way of decorating a caravan, but quickly moves away from even this minimal relationship to an appropriate place and becomes something that can ‘easily be recreated anywhere in a house’.  Sontag (again), writing about camp, suggested that it offered one solution to ‘the problem of how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture’.  Mass culture gives us all the same stuff to use in our lives, but one way in which we can distinguish ourselves is by taking an interest in older versions of the same stuff.  What Pearl Lowe adds to this is the eye of the designer.   To ‘Look at this old stuff’ is added ‘Look at the way I’ve put it all together.’

So much for the promises and fantasies the book offers in its words.  What about its images?  With very few exceptions, what we are offered is, to borrow Martin Lefebvre’s evocative phrase, ‘space freed from eventhood’.  Nothing is happening, and – with the partial exception of the ‘Entertaining Vintage Style’ section, where the tables of cupcakes (not vintage cupcakes, one hopes) are presumably awaiting guests – it does not look as though anything is about to happen.  Children appear only on a single spread in the book, and there only in their own rooms or the garden.  This sacrificing of functionality, or just plain living, to display, comes through in the impracticality of some of the design suggestions.  In the ‘Opulent Office’ section of the book, Lowe states ‘just because the room is dominated by technology and other modern necessities for work, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a vintage look too.’  The attempt to reconcile ‘technology’ and ‘a vintage look’ in the ‘Office in a wardrobe’ project results in the only piece of communications technology on display in the images being a (‘vintage’) telephone.

One striking thing about the photography in the book is the dullness of it all.  Most pictures seem dark and gloomy, with bold wallpapers, deep coloured lace and floral decorations dominating the spaces pictured.   Lowe has a penchant for mood lighting: tealights, chandeliers, standard lamps, and seems to prefer natural daylight to be filtered through lace panel curtains, which overall gives the impression of dimness, mustiness and dustiness – it’s a world away from the Ikea catalogue aesthetic where everything is clean, bright, organised and easy to keep clean.

Still, the book is all about how things look; as Lowe puts it, ‘aspirational living’.  I would venture that very few of the projects are actually useful or necessary – the focus is overwhelmingly upon making things look pretty: ‘Tailor’s dummies covered in pretty floral fabrics also look gorgeous standing in a dressing room and, if you like, you can even use them for their practical purpose’ (italics added).  Art Deco, Lowe’s preferred style, is ‘an indulgent style that is all about elegance and drama and less about practicality’ – and this love of indulgence, drama, elegance, glamour, grace and femininity – underlies every project in the book.

In her feature on cushions and quilts, Lowe says ‘Some old quilts can be a little marked or smelly […].  If you buy a slightly damaged vintage quilt, display it with its best face out’.  The photography may seem appealing, but it is worth wondering what it would smell like with all these old, mouldering, moth-eaten quilts draped on every available surface: ‘Quilts have traditionally been used as bedspreads, but why stop there?  They look beautiful draped over the ends of beds or over chairs or linen chests […] on the wall, hung up as they are or in frames, or thrown over a banister rail’.  This is one of the main four ideas behind the 60+ craft projects contained within the book: STICK A QUILT ON IT.  The other three are:

  • PAINT IT – ‘painting glass Kilner jars is a quick and simple way to add a touch of vintage to your everyday kitchen items. You can also decorate jam jars, milk bottles or any glass containers you care to lay your paintbrush on’
  • WALLPAPER IT – ‘With its wonderful range of patterns, colours and styles – vintage or new – I never throw away offcuts of wallpaper; they always come in handy.  It’s easy to attach wallpaper to just about any surface with craft glue or wallpaper paste, and it’s a simple and stylish way to transform your furniture.  Whoever said wallpaper was just for walls?’
  • STICK LACE ON IT – ‘That’s the beauty of this fabric [lace]; you can use it anywhere you like; as tablecloths or runners, on furniture, on coffee tables, or draped over curtain poles or bedheads – wherever you think it looks good.  It doesn’t have to be obvious, either, just a fragment here and there adds femininity and grace to a room.’

So what of the projects themselves?  Practical use aside, are they easy to make?  How detailed are the instructions given?  The book contains all sorts of projects requiring a wide range of skills in needlework, re-upholstery, painting, decoupage, flower arranging, candle-making, screen printing… Each project includes written instructions, but no diagrams.  At the back of the book there are a mere five pages devoted to ‘Craft basics’ – two pages covering what a basic craft kit and an essential sewing kit ought to include,  two pages on basic hand sewing stitches (overstitching, running stitch, slip stitch, blanket stitch, back stitch and cross stitch), and half a page on preparing and painting wood.  Having read these five pages I certainly do not feel adequately prepared to tackle a reupholstery project, however, I get the feeling that one doesn’t actually need to be skilled or experienced in any of these areas to give it a go: Lowe appeals to a gung-ho, confident crafter who is willing to give anything a try.  As regards quilt-making – a difficult, time-consuming activity even for an experienced sewer – Lowe reassures the reader ‘If you aren’t the neatest sewer, don’t worry – wobbly stitching adds to the character of the quilt’.  In fact it seems any imperfection in a finished project just serves to tell a story, authenticate the project, make it ‘bespoke’, ‘personal’ and ‘unique’.

All the above could be summarised as ‘This is a book about design, written by a designer.’  It is unfair to criticise a book for being something it does not attempt or claim to be.  And of course, a desire to have a nice-looking house is not something to be scorned in itself, nor is indulgence always a bad thing.  ‘I believe we are all entitled to a bit of glamour in our lives’, Lowe opines in her introduction, and she is right.  But we can still ask whether the particular brand of style we are being offered is a positive one.  There is too much that is pretentious, impractical, false, excessive and, at bottom, illogical in Vintage Craft for it to be worth recommending.