Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Dawn Choir

Once, back in the late 70s after a night of insomniac inspiration, I became aware of early bird sounds outside. I had recently acquired a small stereo cassette recording device and decided to record the event. What surprised me then is how startling, varied and loud this daily event can become as it builds to a crescendo. We're not in some safe world of pathetic fallacy here; this is a more purely contingent aural event.

Recently, I was handed a copy of a CD by Andrew Flintham, who is a regular visitor to my book stall. He explained that it is a recording of a dawn chorus made in 1993 at Thompson in Breckland, South Norfolk. It was duly filed in my theoretical 'later' in tray and was kicking around for a few weeks before I finally got round to playing it during a holiday break in Salthouse on the coast. Salthouse itself has become a centre for bird watchers or twitchers, as they're known: those green-clad men and women who dutifully trudge the marshes with their camouflaged and notably phallic telescopes and tripods on a mission to see rare breeds or more common varieties doing their thing. It's an industry on the North Norfolk coast, which is unusually densely populated by all kinds of visiting varieties and the like. Indeed, the RSPB have a bird reserve up at Titchwell, a Visitor Centre at Cley, and there are purpose-built hides dotted around everywhere. But Andrew's recording is not about seeing; it's about listening, listening to the sonic variety, the randomness and cacophony of this daily symphony which mostly goes on unnoticed. I am then not a little reminded of that time back in the 70s and I have to admit to myself that I've only heard the full dawn chorus a handful of times since.

Here's a rare thing then: a 70-minute recording of a dawn chorus, unpolluted by traffic or aircraft noise and practically impossible to recreate. It was recorded by Andrew and his recording engineer, Paddy Shaw, and, apparently, took nine takes to get one without background noise.

"We finally got the recording right by going there the Monday morning of a Bank Holiday, so everyone was sleeping-off the weekend. I sort of hit it lucky, otherwise it probably wouldn't have happened." Thus said Andrew on a BBC interview.

Whatever happened to my own tape recording I cannot say; it probably got lost or recorded over, though there are still boxes of cassettes in the loft that I have promised myself I'll revisit one day.

Incidentally, Norwich's Voice Project are now recruiting for a new community choir project based on bird flight. Following contributions by published poets of new poems on the subject of birds, the result of an appeal by the RSPB for a forthcoming book, several poets' work including that of Andrew Motion, George Szirtes, David Morley and Ruth Padel is to be put to music by commissioned composers. The final result, Ideas of Flight, will be performed at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Here's a link to hear and buy Andrew's CD, Brecklands Dawn Chorus:

or here:

If you would like to go along for an introductory session and/or you would like to join The Voice Project choir, here's another link:
Photo: David Tipling

Monday, 6 December 2010

No Problem

In the 80s an innocuous little book titled Creative Visualization was doing the rounds among my New Age friends. One of its central tenets, as I recall, was the idea of 'positive affirmation', which translated roughly into being positive about your life and any 'goals' you might want to achieve. The process involved regular repetition of phrases such as: 'I am beautiful and powerful and deserve love and happiness' or 'I am growing richer every day in every way'. The important thing about these mantras was the avoidance of the use of negative words and phrases. For example, it would be wrong to express the first phrase thus: 'I am not ugly and powerless and do not deserve to be hated and unhappy'. Well fair enough...

Somehow I resisted this kind of stuff, as I did so much else which was emanating from the increasingly burgeoning industry of self-help. I watched with awe as carpenters became acupuncturists and plumbers became cranio-sacral therapists. Their income levels apparently looked set to increase a few notches and all manner of things were about to become well and weller. Sitting on the sidelines, I observed new settlements of therapy folk arise in towns such as Totnes or Hebden Bridge. These towns boasted more alternative therapists per square mile than... well, where? San Francisco? California appeared to be the originating locus, and, indeed, 'Shakti Gawain', the author of said book, I believe, resided somewhere in that region. 'Shakti' appears to connote the exotic orient; 'Gawain' has something to do with some English ur-Christian/Celtic mythology? (I am thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

The standing joke among the few remaining skeptics in my circle was along the lines of wondering who constituted the patients within these therapy-oriented communities. Presumably, they were all working on each other; it was hard to imagine an indigenous population would be either motivated to visit or could afford the whacking fee if they did. I also observed relatively poor sympathisers spending their precious little on a weekly visit to the latest practitioner of 'metamorphic' foot massage or crystal healing.

At the time, I (not always) quietly poured scorn on the whole self-help business and its capitalist momentum. Meanwhile, 'Shakti Gawain' et al grew rich on the profits of their gifts to the world. Shakti herself has gone on to sell 10 million books, according to her website. That's a pretty healthy visualisation...

It is, then, with some humility that I approach a recent phenomenon which has been bugging me. On a recent trip to Tescos, at the checkout, I was confronted with a young woman who seemed entirely oblivious of my presence. I decided to counter this indifference with a pointed 'Thanks very much, goodbye', to which she replied, without any kind of eye contact: 'no problem'. I departed with irritation and found myself remembering this stuff about positive affirmation with not a little irony. A subsequent phone call from my dentist's receptionist which ended up on my part with a 'thanks' and on her part with a 'not a problem' compounded the issue in my mind. I found myself yearning for a more positive response, however phatic, like 'OK, good, see you on the 10th.'. Even 'have a nice day' would have been better. 'No problem' combines two negative words and I wonder when and where it arose as the universal response it has become.

I could end this blog with some kind of rallying call for the return of Shakti, but I wouldn't go that far. Clearly, I am still 'resisting'. Have a nice day!

P.S. My mate Scotter has just reminded me of another aspect of this 'no problem' response. The statement assumes that there was a problem in the first place. Presumably, an ideal customer service should be starting out from some other assumption.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Hard Sell

The phone rang yesterday morning, and the delay before anyone spoke alerted me to an automatic dialling software at the other end. I hung on. 'How are you today, sir?' came a clearly Indian-accented voice. I suppressed the 'who's asking?' response which formulated in my head. I have sympathy for workers in this kind of work; it's clearly a frontline job. I made the right kind of noises and the poor guy, obviously reading from a script, launched into a monologue about how I had been 'chosen' (one of those key words) as a 'priority' member (the key words are mounting up) of the 'British Midland Diamond Club' to be considered eligible for a British Midland credit card. I would automatically receive 20,000 'destination miles' and 6 months interest-free credit which would be applied to any amount outstanding I had on any other cards, so long as I transferred the balance etc. etc.

I had lived in Scotland for a couple of years and had taken the flight between Aberdeen and Norwich a few times. At some point, someone at the airport had offered me 'Diamond Club Membership', which I took up because it didn't appear to be costing anything. I would proceed to gather 'frequent flyer points' and so on. As far as I know, the points still exist in ghostly form somewhere. Otherwise, my exclusive membership translated into a 'hospitality lounge' at Aberdeen airport, where I could sit with the suits in a little room outside of the main crowd and drink free coffee out of polystyrene cups. Once however, in Moscow, I flashed my DCM card and was directed to a capacious lounge with only two other people there, and any amount of buffet food and wine available; this was something of a result.

The hook, for me to consider the credit card and carry on with the call, was the 20,000 'destination miles'; I imagined a few trips to the US and so on. OK, I had to spend £300 in the first 90 days of ownership, but I figured I could handle that. However, a semblance of rational brain remained despite the piggy bank, lottery-winning, free-lunch activity which the spiel, however mechanically delivered, had promoted. 'Hang on, hang on,' I said, breaking in to the monlogue. '20,000 destination miles: is that for real?' The answer was a bit fudged. I persisted: 'how does that translate in actuality? Like, a day trip to an amusement park or what?' The guy was compelled to move off script a bit and was clearly vexed. He read out a few European city names that would qualify for the amount in question. So, 'destination miles' have little or nothing to do with actual miles then, we established. I was reminded of the huge number of 'air miles' I had once collected only to discover that they could be used incrementally towards the cost of the most expensive flights etc.

The monologue moved on and lasted a full eight minutes, with only occasional input from me, as I handed over more and more personal information. I managed, I think, to interrupt the default scenario of my receiving 'offers and promotions from carefully selected third parties' and so on. By the end of the call, I was exhausted. I guess this guy stopped for a drink of water as well. I found myself hoping that, at least, my positive response might have earned him, as worker, a bit extra by way of bonus. And I had maintained, I imagined, the option to go forward with this thing or not. I had agreed an email contract, and it duly arrived a minute after I put the phone down.

This telephone worker was, on this occasion, working for MBNA, who run the majority of brand name credit cards the world over: the figure must run into the thousands. So, the lure for me had been the free flight. I don't have a credit card debt. I have cards that I use but pay off regularly. One of them is handy for foreign payments, because it makes no extra charge for currency exchange, though there's almost certainly hidden charges in there somewhere. I like to think of myself as someone who can handle owning a credit card. Occasionally, I have been late with a payment by a day or two and been penalised accordingly: £12 is the going rate. I imagine a huge number of people use their credit card in this kind of way. However, of course, there are a huge number of people who don't. I have one friend, for example, who uses the 'interest-free' period to shift his ever-increasing borrowing around from card to card. He's proud of his management of this situation. Meanwhile, his debt is increasing. It's a 'huge numbers' game.

An even larger number, maybe the majority, are paying massive, compound interest on their borrowing on credit cards. Someone has to pay the guy in the call centre's wages, the cost of my flight (if it ever materialises - I wonder what the percentage of actual take-up on this is?) and, of course, for the whole edifice which is the banking system. We are in a time of 'recession'; many banks have 'gone under'; some (those that are ideologically monumental within the system) have been 'bailed out by the taxpayer'; ordinary people have seen their pension schemes go down the drain; fingers have been pointed at the very high wages and huge bonuses received by high-end bank employees and directors, and so on. Banks and their erstwhile, ill-advised, laissez-faire lending have been blamed for this present parlous condition of capitalist economics. And yet, the system is still in place and working the same as it ever was. The only way the promotion of credit cards can work is for ordinary people to go into debt and to be servicing a loan that they can never quite surmount. Someone somewhere has done the cynical maths. X number will not go into debt; x number will pay a bit by way of late payments; x number will stumble along paying interest on their borrowing; x number will go into exponential free-fall; x number will take the bankruptcy option. The number of those who struggle to service the loan must be high enough to maintain the enterprise.

My final thought on this call is that it seems incredibly anachronistic. The credit card system and its high interest lending are entirely predicated on milking those who get sucked into debt. The anxious consumer is like Jonathan Harker in the company of the vampire sirens who keep him just alive enough to sustain their feeding habits. How can it be that this high-interest lending has not been outlawed by now? I guess it's a dumb 'elephant-in-the-room' kind of question, but it seems like one that we should be addressing.