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?


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 timeĀ before and a timeĀ 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.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Friday. Up and out by 7.30. Urged on by Thursday’s gorgeous bright and crisp start (above), which I had whizzed through at speed on a London-bound train, I find Friday’s attempt somewhat less stunning, but fine enough to run.

As usual with winter running, arms initially cold but I warmed up in a few minutes, running gently uphill towards Silverhill, up to the junction with Sedlescombe Road North. Then along, and down, down, down, under lightening skies, down to the sea front at St Leonards.

I pass a brown tourist sign pointing to ‘Seafront’ and noticed that it had been stencil graffitied underneath in a similar font and colour with ‘doesn’t exist’. My mind paused briefly to consider whether this was a bespoke job for this particular seafront or this particular sign, but I reckon it’s something that could be used elsewhere.

As I near St Leonards I see the U-shaped valley formed by the shops and buildings on either side of the road, and the view through to the sea beyond. I like these views, where the land rolls down to the sea, and you often find a gateway or arch through to the sea in towns like this.

I had timed this run as much to get me out at dawn before work as to see the coast at low tide. Hastings and St Leonards has quite a wide tidal range, and it’s still novel to me to observe it at its highest and lowest. I check the charts for these extremes and if the timing works out I will always try and get down to see them. A year of reading The Almanac from my London home and reading but not fully understanding the concepts of spring and neap tides, and now I live by the sea and can start to grasp it.

This morning it’s an hour or so from low tide and rock reefs are exposed, along with wide, flat banks of sand which normally lie under five or six metres of water, owing to the steepness of the beach.

The submerged reefs are fun to explore, forming rockpools, and the exposed flat sand is also fun as the beaches hereabouts are made up of large pebbles and shingle. But at low tide there are wide swathes of flat, dense sand which can be walked on run on.

The rocks are fascinating too as it gives the impression of a reservoir or lake in which the plug has been pulled and the water level has dropped sufficiently to reveal ruins and remains of something much older. I’m told there are shipwrecks along this stretch of the coast, and I look forward to making a special journey out to see the exposed ribs of an old, doomed vessel in the shallow waters.

I’m not the only one out here at 8am – dog walkers and the occasional solo walker are out too, some rather further out than I dare to venture in my running gear. They appear as dots further out on the sandbanks, reflected in the isthmus of water left behind on the surface. There are also one or two photographers, including a man with a smartphone clamped into a sturdy-looking tripod pointing down the coast to the pier and the sunrise beyond.

At this time of the year the sun makes a shallow arc up and over the horizon, and it rises out of the sea. Those of a certain constitution embrace this event, bravely going for a dip in waters below 10 degrees Celsius, emerging red and frantic and elated. But there is no actual sun to see on the horizon this morning – and I see no swimmers – as a bank of cloud sits grumpily obscuring the show, teasing us with occasional pink and gold frills at the edges.

I snap a few photos on my phone, grateful to have this remarkable landscape not so far from home now, before running along the promenade until I have to turn left at the sculpture of a submerged / re-emerging Norman longboat, and head for home under the shadow of the cliff-top castle ruins.

I manage 10km on this morning’s run – I’d planned an 8.5km route, but hadn’t figured in the beach explorations. It’s a good way to start the day, and I return home for a steaming cup of coffee and a fried egg sandwich while I edit some of the morning’s photos, my legs tired, but with a rewarding ache.

I Live a Lot of Places

This morning I have Woodpigeon’s song ‘I Live a Lot of Places’ in my head, and as I put the album on – an album released in either late 2008 or early 2009, whichever source you consult – Google Photos showed me some images from late November and early December 2008. My first winter in Manchester.

It’s not hard to look at those frosty, misty photos and feel a good dose of nostalgia. It was pretty cold, mind you. But Manchester opened up and offered up a hundred little places to call my own, or to share with like-minded folks.

I moved to Manchester in September of that year, and proceeded to start a new life there, with my best friend living elsewhere in the same halls of residence, and with the vague notion of studying at university providing a core to the reason for moving there in the first place.

Did I move to Manchester to go to university, or did I go to university to move to Manchester?

As the cold winter wore on – my first in that northern climate – my small room revealed itself to be rather cold. The single electric heater had a timer switch – did that put it on for an hour at a time, or for half an hour? – and I became adept at pressing it from under my duvet using the extended leg of a camera tripod before I finally had to get up.

The walk from Daisybank up to my university buildings took me along or through Whitworth Park and I’ll always associate the reddening, browning leaves with the red bricks of the buildings thereabouts. Across the road was the imposing Manchester Royal Infirmary, reminding me that my grandmama (who trained as a nurse in Nottingham) grew up not so far from there.

I remember sitting in the university library overlooking All Saints Park on cold, frosty mornings like these, unable to shake the connection it made me feel with the grids and squares of Christchurch. That city played on my mind a lot during those years I lived in Manchester, from my visit earlier in 2008, to the devastating quakes in 2011. But it wasn’t long before I’d spent enough time in Manchester’s libraries, bars, high streets and backstreets that it all began to embed itself into my mental map, and to make sense to me.

Now I find myself these many years later, stumbling into places in other towns and cities which make me think of Manchester’s red bricks and basement bars and lingering signs of industry; its mix of gentrification and dilapidation.

I received my advance copy of Woodpigeon’s Treasury Library Canada during that first winter in Manchester, not long after the photos above were taken, thanks to our involvement with PULP, the university’s student magazine.

It was an instant hit, right from those opening snare hits in the intro to the opening track. And this chance encounter with their album would lead to two occasions where John and I had Woodpigeon come and play a live session for us, first at PULP magazine, and again for our show on Levenshulme community radio station All FM. Good times.

With a head that’s today full of Manchester – and, constantly, New Zealand – it seems pertinent to add that M and I are moving away from London this week (though not our jobs), down to the south coast.

I’ve lived in London for six years, and M nearer fifteen. This move has been in the works for about eighteen months, initially held up by the current situation. As usual with these things it feels both long drawn out, and suddenly happening all at once.

It will take a while to mentally readjust to our new home town. But I am very excited about it all.

I live a lot of places, indeed.