Wednesday morning

There’s a point on the walk from my house to the station where the view down to the sea suddenly opens up. Ever since the shortest day, with dawn advancing (or is it retreating?) ever earlier, this view has increasingly been presaged by a pastel-coloured sky serving as a backdrop to the silhouette of the castle on the hill. Combined with the delicate birdsong which fills the gaps between cars, it is a rather lovely way to be greeted by the oncoming day.

This morning the moon hangs half-full, and where first thing it had seemed a bright, distant speck out of the rear windows of my house (as below), it now appears high above me, somehow larger, as though rendered in HD with crisp white features discernible even to these sleepy eyes.

As my coffee steamed on the worktop earlier, I spied robin cautiously making his way through the branches of the lime tree down to the feeder. There, a brief pause as he selects the most appealing morsel, and then he is gone, choosing the low flight path down to the bottom of the garden.

Not satisfied with simply showing off how fast he can escape if need be, robin actually takes an unnecessarily deft route between the branches of a bare, low shrub we have yet to identify. Perhaps it affords him a moment’s cover – a safe harbour in the event of any potential peril. But for me it is a spectacle and I raise my cup of coffee to this robin, already far more active and productive than I have been so far this morning.

Through the park I am joined by the dog walkers – oh, blessed are the dog walkers and their benevolent, reassuring presence at all hours in quiet streets – and the joggers; one man bounces softly past me clad head to toe in black Lycra with fluorescent trims, and he joins the robin in my mini catalogue of beings who have tackled this bright morning with more ambition than I have.

I am also inevitably joined on this parkland walk by a great number of water fowl; coots (or moorhens?) pad around the edges of the ponds, and the herring gull stalks about, eyeing everyone up with a steely gaze. Overhead, the unmistakable sound of two Canada geese flying together towards a destination unknown to me.

A fine mist moves across the surface of the ponds, and I find myself thankful for the millionth time for the existence of this wonderful park so close to our new home. That it serves not just as a sanctuary but actually a useful cut-through to so many destinations makes it such an asset.

As I write, my train glides quietly along the valleys north towards the High Weald, and in all directions now the low, bright sun illuminates the frosty landscape, leaving pockets still in frigid shade, waiting for their own moment in the spotlight.

Remember CDs? They’re back! In Pog form!

I’ve been following with some interest and amusement the recent wave of essays on the burgeoning revival of the Compact Disc as a music format which have been popping up online.

From Paul Riismandel’s proclamations, to other recent pieces from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NME, there’s definitely a movement happening. Actually Riismandel’s strength of feeling for the format goes back a number of years and never really went away – his piece from 2019 is evergreen – and he’s been diligently covering the CD resurgence for Radio Survivor lately.

And I promise you these pieces aren’t all coming from writers and publications that you thought were wound up a decade ago! Some of these pieces reference TikTok and talk to university-age kids embracing the CD as a foil to the inexorable march of using screens for yet another area of our lives.

In some ways it seems inevitable: streaming has matured to the point of becoming not just passé but even cancelled by certain audiences, from the way it has for so long failed to properly remunerate artists, to more recent transgressions like employing figures of, if not hate, then certainly division.

So if streaming is off the table, where next to turn for our music fix?

Vinyl has had its own resurgence over the past decade or more, with sales growing year on year, and it looks like that trend will continue, despite huge production and distribution issues as the world’s vinyl pressing plants struggle to keep up with demand. But it’s hard to deny there’s something about the format which makes for a pleasant physical item to possess: that 12″ sleeve artwork, and often liner notes to add to the experience. Playing the music itself has its own romanticism – and drawbacks.

One question commentators often have with regard to the vinyl comeback goes beyond how much vinyl is being bought, and instead asks how much is actually being listened to. It might be interesting to see stats on vinyl ownership as compared to turntable ownership.

And perhaps even when LPs are bought to be listened to, the practice is so involved that for most folks it must surely be a special occasion – a mindful Sunday evening kind of pastime, rather than the primary method of listening to music. The candle-lit bubble bath to streaming’s three-minute shower, if you will.

So if vinyl serves to scratch one certain itch, but perhaps doesn’t fulfil the full-time needs of the music fan, and streaming is vetoed until a more ethical digital platform can emerge*, what does that leave us with? CDs, naturally. The format never went away, of course, and reports state that in the last few years the market has been propped up by a handful of releases by huge artists which have made up the bulk of sales. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the recent uptick in CD sales is tiny, but an uptick it is, and it does point to a change in music-buying habits.)


* I’ve left out the digital unicorn that is Bandcamp for now. It’s true that it has provided a platform for artists to sell their own music directly to fans with, I believe, a much better return. And it even holds regular days – Bandcamp Fridays – where the artist takes all the proceedings. But I have a feeling that it is its own little bubble – a far-from-mainstream marketplace for a reasonably niche set of artists to connect with reasonably small fanbases. And that’s totally fine – in fact, it’s artists of that sort of level that need the direct income the most. It probably wouldn’t make sense for the Adeles or the Taylor Swifts of the world to stick their music on Bandcamp.


Beyond that modest spike in sales, the secondhand CD market has proved popular – a neat give-and-take has been found between the two parties of ‘folks who want to get rid of their vast, unused CD collections even to the point of giving them away’ and ‘folks who will gladly pick up copies of classic albums on a format that’s likely to still be playable – and for a tiny price’.

That secondhand market has matured to the point where your average British charity shop will have its shelves lined with not just tat that no-one wants, but copies of classic releases along with rather more niche CDs that were lovingly collected by genuine music fans at the time, but have been more recently gotten rid of in favour of a new way of listening to music.

And I – and apparently many others – are here for it: this is the prime time to rebuild your music library if you want to step away from streaming. Grab those bargain bin CDs, enjoy the quality and convenience that made the format a success for so long, and rip copies of the albums to your electronic devices to build your own library which is owned rather than rented.

Music discovery will always be a headache, and it’s a two-part process: there the discovery of new music of course, which is now performed primarily by algorithms rather than by DJs, journalists and tastemakers, but there’s also the re-discovery of one’s own music collection – that wonderful “I haven’t heard this in ages!” feeling.

Algorithms go some way in accomplishing this – certain auto-generated playlists have revealed to me that my own achingly individual history of music enjoyment is in fact far from unique – but it can lead to a somewhat uncanny experience of hearing a series of songs that gel perfectly intersected by that one band you could never stand the first time round, let alone now.

One related point on digital music platforms – and this goes for local collections of files just as much as streaming platforms – is the digital fatigue felt by so many over the past year or two. When we spend so much of our day on Zoom calls, remoting in to other PCs, checking emails and staring at a variety of screens, then how much patience have we got for idly scrolling through Spotify or Apple Music for something to listen to?

And so it goes back to the physical formats: give me a rack of CDs (or vinyl, naturally) in the corner of a room to flick through – either to find that one album I know I want to hear right in that moment, or to stumble on that weird compilation I forgot I owned, which sends me off down a whole new and unexpected path – probably leading to me scooping up some cheap secondhand CDs online by this or that other band I never got round to checking out before.

I’m not saying streaming can or should be totally replaced by listening to music on physical formats. As Paul Riismandel points out, there’s room for all these formats, each with their pros and cons. But it’s hardly surprising that the CD is seeing a revival in the face of vinyl shortages and cancelled streaming subscriptions. These things have a habit of coming around again.

As Mark Beaumont concludes in his funny, astute piece for the NME: “There’s a global vinyl shortage underway and very few pressing plants supplying the ballooning demand, while there’s also an overwhelming surplus of second-hand CDs which is threatening the structural foundations of CeX shop basements across the globe. Hence CDs are now the budget – dare we say punk? – music ownership option.”

Two minutes to midnight

Two minutes to midnight. That seems the perfect time to start writing something about too much and not enough. Too much coffee and not enough time. Too much inspiration and not enough work. Too much in and not enough out.

It’s an obvious metaphor but the scales have truly tipped over one way and I could see them going all day. It’s not like I can limit the amount of things that inspire me; say, “thank you – that’ll do”. It just keeps on coming, relentlessly. Audio work. Photography. Writing. Radio. Projects. Writing. YouTube videos. Books and magazines. And these are just the things I want to engage in! Let alone the stuff I *have* to do.

I did manage some of the things I had to do. I worked, of course. I picked up some groceries. I rang my mother. I cooked a nutritious dinner. I ran.

I was hesitant to put that last one – running more often feels like a choice or even a vice, than a chore. It’s not necessarily easy, or particularly enjoyable in and of itself. But it’s something I have control over, and it enables me to explore a place, and in that moment it gives me a single focus. That’s what I appreciate most about it right now: the focus.

There’s a line in Fleabag where she’s having a pretty horrible time. I can’t remember it exactly but it’s basically “I just want someone to tell me what to do.” It’s a heartbreaking line, but I get it. It’s just this need for someone to take control, pick you up and put you back on the track, and send you on your way. And so running is a bit like that. It’s a time where I’m just doing the thing. The running. I can enjoy the view, sure. Sometimes I can listen to music or podcasts or radio. But more often I run without anything in my ears, and I just run.

It’s not aimless – I do usually have a route in mind, or a distance. I need to know what I’m taking on. I can’t really just go out and run – too short and I’ll need to double up or do loops; too long and it’s a slog, and one with logistical issues like “well, here I am, now how do I get home?”. I’ve started to learn some routes of specific rough lengths, like I had done in London. It’s useful to equip oneself with a stock of routes that can be deployed when a specific distance or type of run is needed.

This evening I turned temporarily north, then aimed south for Rock-a-Nore, to run along the beach at dusk, shortly after the high tide began receding. I wanted to see what the waves had churned up. Today was, I think, the first post-5pm sunset we’ve had.

The reality was murkier: by the time I got down to the sea, the light had faded sufficiently to make running on the pebble beach a hazard, and as my eyes adjusted to the gloaming I could make out that the white shapes contrasted against the darker pebbles were in fact small, dead catsharks, dashed onto the rocks by the recent high tide. And there were scores of them. I didn’t fancy running blind through that, the terror in my mind of the sensation of accidentally stepping on a small, dead shark. I cantered back up to the car park and took the shared cycle path past the fishermen’s huts back towards town.


Radiophrenia is back on the air. The ‘phrenia’ jars because I think there’s an insensitivity around using that term to mean something light or faintly amusing or whimsical or just a mix. But I get it – and that issue aside, it’s hard to think of a catchier title for two weeks of solid radio and sound art which jumps from interview to field recording to composition to music to installations.

There is a schedule available online, and I’m glad there is. I can’t simply listen all day, every day for a fortnight. I scan the schedules for names I am familiar with – the Hali Palomobos or the Radio Cegestes of the world. Or I scan for references in the synopsis that sound good to me – anything mentioning field recordings or radio is pretty likely to be in my wheelhouse.

Every time Radiophrenia comes around I kick myself for not having got my act together and worked on something for it. It might be rather bold to assume I could produce something worthy of submission. But it feels like a very inclusive project, and with enough space over two weeks to include a great range or experience or talent. Even some of my existing recordings or compositions would be suitable – I think – for their shorts compilations. But oh, to have produced a whole piece for them and for it to be broadcast? One day.

Some of the stuff I listened to today included field recordings – of a trip from home to a bar, or heading out on a wild swim. Some featured recordings taken from distant radio signals overheard – conversations and pleasantries uttered by people with no knowledge of their being recorded.

And I even listened to one piece which was made up of compositions using SSTV broadcast signals – think somewhere between a dial-up modem and a Spectrum game or similar loading from tape. I think the composer had programmed the pieces to sound good, with rhythm – like very simplistic techno beats. I suspect the transmissions were also encoded so that the SSTV signals would produce an image, but I didn’t investigate this.

I listened to one piece this afternoon which simply featured someone tuning around the AM and FM bands. The synopsis didn’t give me the impression it was live to air, but pictures on the Radiophrenia Instagram make me think it was. It was rather comforting – just half an hour of tuning around. Songs occasionally fading in and out. Snippets of news or debate. Lots of static. Not hanging on to a particular station for too long. And in its way an entirely ordinary, mundane thing. Just tuning around the radio. A sound less familiar nowadays in this age of digital tuning, sure. But a comfortingly familiar sound.

Tuning around the AM dial is something James A. Reeves does a lot. Well, maybe he doesn’t do it a lot, but he’s written about it enough times – and he’s produced music mixes that deliberately incorporate some static fades and snippets that he’s captured live off the radio. It’s nice to hear those recordings and compositions. It’s also fun to read his take on the experience of tuning around the AM dial, and how that practice lends a weird gravitas – a fittingly uncanny companion – to that specific scenario.

Night-time AM radio in the American desert must be… Something else. I spent a small chunk of my childhood, inexplicably, listening to the original talkRadio rather late in the evening. I have vivid memories of James Whale giving someone a telling off, or – and I was aware of it even them – being deliberately provocative on air, which drove the listeners to pick up their phones. But it couldn’t have been all negative or objectionable – Whale and his producer Ash held court and held my attention throughout, with a small white digital clock radio tuned to 1053 or 1089 on the AM band, the volume turned low.

I reflect on this only to say that talkRadio was one of my few touchstones for the concept of late-night AM phone-ins. In this small island nation, we do not have endless AM stations up and down the country, blasting their signal through the night air across deserted lands, each one providing a window into a conversation you wished you hadn’t stumbled on, but somehow you can’t tear yourself away.

I think the nearest example we have might be the local BBC stations which stay on all night, inviting listeners to phone in. Do they even still do this? So many have been consolidated. But they are by their very nature local, and on FM. They don’t travel far. And anyway, as I said above, the UK is a small country. We just don’t have the kinds of AM stations spanning thousands of miles that much larger countries like the US or Australia do.

Merely flicking through even a variety of local FM stations (or doing the same with online streams) simply does not cut it: for the true impact to be felt, these stations must come to the listener veiled in an interference-filled gauze, fading in and out.

And so I will always enjoy reading about what it is like to wade through that endless static and find the voices that are so compelling, no matter how objectionable. That breadth of stations is partly why I feel drawn to shortwave radio.

The diversity of voices is still there, but it’s a shadow of its former self. Back when I was first listening I could find plenty of interest to actually listen to – regular shows I would make time to tune in and listen to (like a write-in show on Radio Canada International – was it called the Mailbag?). Now, it’s more a tool to just use the China Radio International stations as propagation beacons, and see if there are any surprises to be found in between.

Objectionable voices do still appear, even on these broadcast stations: Hali Palombo produced a nice background to the unique Brother Stair, now deceased (Hali was concerned she was somehow responsible), and his voice can still be heard on the short waves – though in time he, too, will vanish from the airwaves completely.

More recently I’ve turned to AM (or medium wave) to scan the stations I can pick up here in our new home on the south coast.

Coming from a semi-submerged duplex flat in north London, I am still finding such mundane things as decent MW reception a novelty. The number of stations I can find on the dial has jumped from 5-10 to about 80.

Better yet, I’m closer to the coast and so now I’m regularly picking up stations from the continent, as far afield as Spain, Italy or Tunisia. I recently learned of goodnatured contests among medium wave listeners doing bandscans on particular frequencies to track down as many distant stations as they can. It appeals to me. It’s early days in my MW-listening, but I’m enjoying the renewed interest, and it’s scratching a similar itch to when I started out short wave listening.

It’s not quite the same as the desert-bound, car-based AM radio scans Mr Reeves gets up to – the various stations are in many different languages for one. But it still captivates my imagination tuning around just to see what’s out there, and to try and establish how far that signal has come to reach me and my little portable radio.


These are some of the inputs that have been swirling around in my brain, and it feels somehow validating to have downloaded them into this machine, at least for me. And for you?

Wednesday

At West St Leonards I finally catch sight of the sky – the mixture of railway tunnels and the natural darkness till this point meant the only way I could tell if I was in the open was a cursory glance at my mobile phone signal.

A much milder start than anticipated – the weather people had warned of thick fog and a harsh frost, but perhaps that will come tomorrow morning?

I remembered to sit on the left hand side today, and the view out this way is a little more interesting as the land falls away to the left, rolling down to the sea briefly until our course is corrected to the north.

Here, the landscape is that familiar mix of agricultural land which looks somehow wild: I still remember a time before and a time after the moment I was enlightened by a friend of the fact that incredibly small amounts of the British countryside are actually ‘natural’ or wild.

Having grown up surrounded by neatly edged fields and plantations of woodland and roads splintering across the landscape, I had at one time felt that this patchwork of greens and browns was very obviously ‘nature’ in the sense of being untouched by man. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to be disabused of that impression.


Yesterday there had been a thick frost at dawn.

My weather apparatus logged a temperature of between -2 and -3 Celsius. But by the time I’d had my first coffee it had thawed as the night’s chill lost its grip, and the temperatures inverted into positive numbers.

The birds noticed this change, too. As I boiled the kettle for the first time, the garden had been empty of movement, and even the sky lacked the usual marauding seagulls and corvids. There came a tipping point, though, and by the time the tree limbs were dripping, the birds had decided en masse to wake up, and appeared to descend as one upon our garden.

I saw: wren, robin, black bird, blue tit, great tit, sparrow, coal tit, and mistle thrush – that last being an uncommon sight in this garden. I had seen previously the sparrows and tits happily sharing the same tree – the robin being more characteristically territorial, chasing off its foes – but I had not before seen this gregarious association across the species, as if a brief ceasefire had been declared on the occasion of the morning’s bitter start. For a few moments, the pecking order had been disrupted and all could pursue their first meals.

All, that is, apart from the tiny, frantic wren, whose movements had already been erratic, but as soon as the robin had become aware of its presence, it was summarily dismissed from the gathering and chased into the lower reaches of a nearby hedge. Some rivalries persist even during the harshest hours.

“Blue” Monday

For ‘blue Monday’, nature is definitely trying its best to shift those blues to one side.

This morning I was greeted with a clear, blue sky with just wisps of cloud catching and burning orange as the sun rose, and the odd vapour trail from aircraft high above.

On the horizon a large, full and yellow moon sets, nestling from time to time in the monochrome branches of bare trees, and I catch it and lose it as my train weaves its way up the southern English countryside. Beneath it, the ground is hard and silvery. In town the temperature had crept above freezing by the time I woke, but out here away from everything the air and ground is still frigid from the winter night.

I am enjoying these staggered commutes so far – the scenery is good, and doing the same journey at the same time twice a week means I am noticing the dawn creeping ever earlier, and – something I’ve missed for a while – I am more and more aware of the conditions outside and how they change over time. For too long I was sealed away from these subtle changes.

The rhythms of this route feel familiar to me from a childhood spent growing up at the end of the Metropolitan Line: London will ever be a train journey away and I grow to appreciate the cadence of familiar sights and sounds on the way there and back. A (mostly) predictable bubble of time I can disappear into for a while.

And when I am sated on the outside world, I can turn to the inside one: reading articles and blog posts, listening to music and field recordings and podcasts and mixes, and reflecting. And from most of those I can draw inspiration which might, I hope, coagulate one day into something worth doing or thinking or saying.

Making this early morning journey in winter means that the spreading daylight coincides with the oncoming day. I board the train with only a gloaming in the sky, and by the time I emerge at the other end, the day has very much begun. It will feel different again as the year progresses and I begin my journey in full sunlight. But that is just another seasonal, temporal progression, one of many, that I am looking forward to feeling unfold at its own pace.