2021 week twelve

Feels like we’ve crossed a watershed of sorts this week: the clocks went forward, 12 weeks into 2021, just shy of 90 days, and lockdown restrictions changed for much (all?) of the UK around this weekend. Spring also seems to be here, with blossom and birds all over the shop. But the weather continues to be changeable, with cold winds battling the warmth of the sun. I managed to eat my lunch outside in the park one day this week. It all feels very alive.

I found the lockdown anniversary hit me in an unexpected way. In a morbid sense, I suspect it was the way it was presented to me by the media, with solemn tones and a minute’s silence* and so on – in so many ways we are conditioned to find this treatment affecting.

Rightly so, of course – these things demand reverence and respect. I took a few minutes away from my work day to reflect, and found everything equally sad and frustrating. But I have a lot to be thankful for over that period as well. As much as it may make me feel guilty to admit as much, it is unhelpful to simply dwell on the – plentiful – negative sides of it, and I can’t help but also reflect on the positives.

* Hearing, or not, a minute’s silence play out on broadcast radio is still deeply affecting. It gets me when it’s shown on TV in a packed sports stadium too (remember those?), but hearing Radio 4 fall silent for a minute is quite uncanny.

On the subject of radio, I spent much of this week bouncing between BBC 6 Music and Boom Radio in the daytime. We listen to 6 Music in the mornings every day, waking up with Chris Hawkins’ mix of nostalgic and new music and his trademark silly wit. But I don’t actually listen to much else on 6 Music at the moment, so it was nice to see what goes out during the day.

When I wasn’t listening to 6, I was trying out Boom Radio, which launched fairly recently. It is, as the name implies, radio for ‘boomers’, and has a number of household name deejays from the glory days of radio and so on. But it is a much more refreshing listen than purely nostalgic re-launches of stations like Radio Caroline, with a surprisingly varied playlist (though nothing new, obviously), and pleasant chat.

Boom Radio also seems to be pioneering (or I am out of touch) a kind of radio advertising that is more akin to podcasts, with the host waxing advertorial for a few minutes. Ironically, and to the station’s credit, this is easier to tune out, and far less jarring than the way most commercial stations go to ad breaks playing the same few ads – and melodies – every fifteen minutes.

I’ve been listening to ‘the radio’ via a Google Home Mini, and jumping in and out of the two stations described above requires a little care. I can say “Hey Google, stream BBC 6 Music” and this works fine. I learned long ago that saying “play BBC 6 music” instead invokes a Spotify playlist with a similar title; it is the word ‘stream’ that is important here.

Boom Radio via Google Home Mini is a trickier affair. Asking it to “stream Boom Radio” seems to work, but you quickly get a recorded message along the lines of “this stream is not available in your region”, which actually refers to, I think, a Canadian station. But it’s hard to know what has gone wrong just from the audio itself. It turns out, Boom have come up with a workaround that means you need to say, “Hey Google, talk to Boom Radio”, which results in quite a weird mode being entered, with a different confirmation jingle, and a different, much more mechanical voice confirming the command where each syllable is synthetically mashed up against the last and no one word is fully played out. Kind of like an audio version of a newspaper cutting ransom note. All a bit odd.

I think the “talk to” command is more commonly used by online ordering services, where you “talk to” Starbucks or Pizza Hut, and the idea is that the device goes into a sort of two way conversation mode where it can ask for more information, rather than the pure A-B “hey Google, do this” setup.

So anyway, apart from occasionally making me question why a 35 year old is enjoying a station clearly meant for people nearly double that age, it’s been a nice diversion.

Another nice diversion (and, again, probably one more commonly enjoyed by people twice my age) has been the robin(s) on the bird feeder. Now that I have a reasonably reliable ‘trail cam’ setup using an old phone, I get much more holistic data about the robin’s movements and times. I was already vaguely aware of how often he feeds, and how sometimes there is a flurry of activity, with several visits over a few minutes, and other blocks of time with no visits at all. But what has been by far the most fascinating is how early he starts: consistently, the first recorded visit has been between 0300-0330 every morning. Very much still dark then (though London residential street dark, so not that dark).

I suspected this as I had woken to the sound once or twice at that time, but from checking the pictures and logs, it seems this is normal, daily behaviour. It’s fascinating. He also seems to stop at about 1900 every evening, though sometimes a little earlier. It’s comforting to know that, despite a frenzy of activity lasting from before dawn until after sunset, there is a block of about 7-8 hours where he is presumably tucked up and fast asleep.

It’s interesting, though not too surprising, to note that having changed the clocks for British Summer Time, his activity has also ‘shifted’ by an hour – e.g. his schedule has not changed at all, and is led by the length of the natural day.

On Saturday we took a walk which included a spell on a picnic blanket in a park, lots of photography, and discovery of an historic relic: on the Hampstead Heath Extension between Wildwood Road and Hampstead Way, I saw a piece of glass in the mud near a pond. At first it was so clean and on the surface that I assumed it could only be new, but the fact it had embossed letters meant I wanted to take a look. It was the base of a glass bottle, by Heinz, and I gave it a quick scrub before doing some preliminary Googling which gave me enough information that meant it was worth wrapping in tissue and bringing home for a closer look.

If I’m to believe this one particular source, then the ketchup bottle this belonged to would appear to date from about 1919-1928, having been manufactured in Illinois. Which is great! And, actually, surprisingly consistent with the history of development of the area: the houses in the immediate vicinity are also from that period. Before that time, the area was just farmland. The location of this object near a natural waterway on the Heath could imply it was a piece of discarded picnic rubbish, or possibly it has been carried along by water from a location originally nearer the residential streets around that part of the Heath.

On Sunday, I went for a run down towards Television Centre, doing a lap of the circular building itself. I felt uninspired looking for a running route, so I just picked a landmark a decent distance away to run to and from.

I may not make the most of living in London much of the time, but I get a kick out of being able to run or cycle to landmarks and locations that seem so significant in national or global history, particularly at a time when travel to these places is so unattainable for so many.

I don’t think I realised that part of the building is still used for television studios, but the perimeter road I ran along was ambiguous about whether or not it was open to the public and I think I ran past an open stage door at one point. But most of the building seems residential, though it naturally has that air of ‘private public space’ or perhaps ‘public private space’ that is so common around London now, with beautiful landscaped ‘public’ areas in which to walk, gather and enjoy, but flanked by people in high-viz jackets, and festooned with branded signs making it very clear you are on someone else’s land.

I enjoyed this run while listening to a compilation of Kenny Everett recordings, which was a nice bit of surreal serendipity. It left me feeling like I want to try making ‘live radio’ again (even just as a local ‘live’ recording) – something I’ve not done since All FM with John back in Manchester. And even then, it was almost always John who drove the desk for our shows, as the fear of something going technically wrong with a live broadcast made me pretty anxious. But I enjoy the idea of controlling multiple sound sources and levels from one place, and of course introducing good music to people who want to hear it.

What a wonderful opportunity that was.

The natural conclusion to all this is, of course, John and I washing up on some millennial nostalgic radio station in a few years’ time playing early 2000s math-rock to a dwindling audience, rehashing the catchphrases of our youth, asking our listeners if they remember MSN Messenger.