Amongst ghosts

Yesterday I found myself amongst ghosts – I had, by two different avenues, found myself browsing Ancestry’s records looking up the details of two separate people, with two different motives.

One such avenue was to help me understand the life and movements of an architect of a house we happened to see at the end of at the weekend.

The other was to uncover who lived in a particular house in the 1930s.

The first allowed me to trace a man and his career – and his two marriages – from the 1890s to his rather early death in the 1950s. He moved around a fair bit in that time, being born in South London, designing houses for, and living in, the home counties, then heading back to the northern regions of London towards the end. At one point he lived in a house he had designed.

The second showed me two sisters living in a house in the late 1930s, the house having been built in the early 1930s. They were local girls with respectable jobs – one was an auctioneers cashier. Earlier documents showed me she had been a cashier since her teens – she must have earned a good deal of trust to continue in that line of work. It was a small surprise to learn that this particular house was home to two sisters in their 30s and 40s at this time. It seemed like it would more likely be the home of a ‘traditional’ family.

I don’t know when Ancestry (and others) added the 1939 register but it is an absolute goldmine of more ‘recent’ information – a giant leap forwards from the 1911 Census.

The 1939 Register provides a snapshot of the civilian population of England and Wales just after the outbreak of the Second World War.

As the 1931 census for England and Wales was destroyed by fire during the Second World War and no census was taken in 1941, the Register provides the most complete survey of the population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951, making it an invaluable resource for family, social and local historians.

To that end, the register is littered with redacted records: those less than a hundred years old are not shown as they may still be alive. There are exceptions, but this is largely a book of the deceased. But still, the recentness of the records on show is refreshing and helps follow people well into the middle of the twentieth century.

I recently came across the work of Don Joyce, an artist working across all forms of audio, music and radio, thanks to a Radio Survivor podcast. Joyce’s work isn’t easy to summarise, but various searches have led me to follow one particular strand of his work for the Over The Edge radio show he produced: a long-running show in which he combined samples of broadcast radio with music and, I guess, musique concrète, creating long, meandering explorations of the medium.

There was one description in the above podcast of Don’s work that had one accidental listener saying they found him once when their radio sounded as though it was tuned to two different stations, with the signal hopping between two different sources. From that description alone, I knew I would enjoy his work.

I’ve started my Don Joyce education with How Radio Was Done, a series he put together within the Over The Edge show – consisting of more than a hundred three-hour episodes! – in which he weaves together clips from mostly very old radio broadcasts which tell the story of the emergence of radio.

If I had to think of a rough analogue to this format – a mad mix of clips from various sources – I’d be tempted to point to the work of Adam Curtis, but Joyce’s work is almost completely without his own voice or any narration, with the story (at least in what little I’ve listened to so far) told wholly via archival clips and bits of music.

At times Joyce’s production of How Radio Was Done is somewhat vanilla: chronological clips from various sources put together in a way that tells the story of how radio became a part of people’s lives. At other times, he jumps wildly between clips and time periods, distorting the recordings and juxtaposing the announcement of the new medium in the 1920s with pop music and statements made much later – occasionally poking fun, and at times raising salient points.

I am very, very early into my exploration of Don Joyce’s work. The Radio Survivor podcast episode featured the words of the director of a film about his work, entitled How Radio Isn’t Done, and which I am desperate to watch, though I know it will be much more satisfying once I have had time to sufficiently bathe myself in the man’s work.

My understanding so far is that Don Joyce produced his late-night three-hour radio shows live, manipulating the playback methods and mixing his various sources on the fly. As I mentioned above, the ‘How Radio Was Done’ strand has a hundred episodes, but Joyce did his show for more than thirty years. Thanks to his band Negativland, there is a vast collection of more than a thousand episodes of the show Over The Edge available on

I’ve been listening to Over The Edge’s How Radio Was Done series in snippets over the last week or two. The mixture of sources is mindblowing, and as clever as it is entertaining. It’s also, genuinely, a good insight into the history of radio.

And on top of that, the production itself is mesmerising: the way Joyce weaves the vintage radio sources around ambient background music and various other clips means one feels surrounded by sound. Many of my listening sessions have been while walking to or from work, and the leak of real-world ambient sounds into my ears on top of the show itself – sounds of traffic, birdsong, sirens, and recently fireworks – has made for an even more ‘immersive’ experience. Utterly compelling.

With (by my reckoning) more than three thousand hours of audio to get through, it is humbling on a scale I can barely fathom. If I begin to work out how long it would take me to reasonably find time to work through this entire archive, it is approaching a real-time playback of the man’s career: 20-30 years wouldn’t be out of the question if I am completely honest about how long I can actually set aside in a given week.

On the one hand I wonder if it is ‘right’ to have an easily accessible digital archive of the man’s work which was itself so ephemeral and precarious. To have listened-in live while those shows were being put together would’ve been magical and it was exciting to hear the Radio Survivor folks describing what that was like.

But on the other hand I am so grateful to know his work – and what work it would have been to compile and produce – is safely preserved and accessible now to the likes of me, whenever one comes to discover it.

To think of all the kinds of work like this that were produced live and ‘lost’ to the ether is at once heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. But I am glad Don’s work is there for me now.