London’s Lost Sounds – And Britain’s Lost Senses

Admittedly an uncharacteristically provocative title for one of my blog posts, but frankly I’m mad as hell. I usually try and avoid politics on these pages and originally I had no intention of prattling on about the EU Referendum in any depth here. But it’s been such a terminally obscene farce with all sensible debate suspended in favour of scare-mongering and bigotry, compounded by the printing of massive, whopping lies on the side of campaign buses that are then retracted as soon as victory is declared, that it’s hard to feel anything for this country anymore other than an ever-deepening sense of shame. Particularly when you hear of the apparent nationwide surge in hate crime and intolerance that has followed in the wake of last week’s result. The idiots really are winning.

Not that you’ll be needing to hear any of this from me. An awful lot of heat has already been generated over the past few weeks and many very worthy commentators have been far more insightful and articulate in their coverage of the gigantic, irrecoverable mess that we’re now saddled with thanks to this glorified popularity contest between a bunch of greedy and contemptible right-wingers (not that the left have been much use either). But having been subjected, as we all have, to so much windy rhetoric over the past few weeks, particularly the frequent use of expressions such as ‘Make Britain Great Again’ and ‘I want my country back’, I couldn’t help but be strangely reminded of a curious incident I spotted on youtube a couple of years ago that I thought was worth sharing with you now. Hopefully it might even raise a smile – it’s certainly far less depressing than dwelling on the actual facts.

So, allow me to present to you the real subject of today’s post, an amusingly kitsch cycling safety film from 1971 that national treasure The BFI posted on their youtube account – and some of the rather peculiar viewer comments that followed. Do yourself a favour and take a few minutes to watch it now, even if you’ve seen it already. If your week has been anything like mine, it might even briefly cheer you up:

Having watched the video, I must now rather regretfully draw your attention to the comments section and several messages left by other users that have watched this video before you. Of course, one of the golden fundamentals of life is to NEVER read youtube comments as they generally consist of a mixture of unwarranted character assassination and barely-literate hate-poison. But the amount of regret, anger and nostalgic sorrow that appears to have been generated by one breezily kitsch film on bicycle safety is just too strange to ignore. Here’s a handful of my own favourites, all genuine:

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Where to start? I’ve got to be honest, nothing burns my toast more than the kind of sad old bore who would use a light-hearted exercise in fluffy nostalgic whimsy as an opportunity to harp on how much better everything was when they were less sad, old and boring than they are now. Do you, dear reader, share these commentators’ memories of some glorious Brit-opia, where bantam-weight popstars willingly cancelled engagements in order to invigilate a safe-cycling competition between rival gangs of mop-topped urchins? That golden age of minor celebrities selflessly putting their careers on hold in order to commandeer minimokes driven by benignly smiling silent men in blouses, all the better to follow Keith Chegwin around suburbia armed with a clipboard, a walkie-talkie and a surprisingly effective pair of binoculars? Are you also wistful for that era where you could hang as many girly tassels on your ‘chopper’ as you liked and still refer to yourself as ‘Butch’? Do you pine for the days when there was a good old British Bobby directing traffic at every T-junction instead of all the drug dealers that are probably hanging out there right now – pedalling their wares to passing cars and funded by YOUR taxes, I shouldn’t wonder?! The pre-decimalisation days when money was impossibly confusing, but it didn’t matter because nobody actually had or needed any? The days when Cheggers was forever young and kept his clothes on? The days when you could leave all your doors and windows unlocked or perhaps even take them with you on a lovely holiday to Butlins, safe in the knowledge that the only crime that could possibly be committed in your absence was those naughty young scamps filling their jumpers with apples pilfered from the vicarage orchard? The halcyon days when cyling was a noble, gentlemanly pursuit, before ‘multiculturalism’ came along and completely ruined it for everyone? The sound of willow and cream, of leather on strawberries?

Betcher - Wow

Of course you bloody well don’t! Nobody does! It’s all a load of old tripe! But in the last couple of years such phantom memories of an unnaturally green and pleasant imaginary Albion appear to have gained such traction that they’ve become a form of mass hysteria that seems to haunt the collective dreams of both these youtube critics and now many eminent figures of society at large. And even worse, it would appear that the invocation of these phantom memories can actually WIN you a referendum! Suddenly a great many people appear to be fully anticipating a ‘return’ to this rose-tinted, suet-pudding, croquet-and-spitfires version of a Britain that only ever really existed on tea-towels, novelty coasters and inside the twisted imagination of wealthy Etonians who try to convince you that we’re all in this together.

Betcher - Swiss

Now, I cannot deny that in the past I have been as guilty as anyone of daydreaming aloud about wanting to live inside a British Transport film – particularly that Michael Aspell one about the pretty girl balancing the spoon. But even while making such proclamations I was acutely aware that it was all nothing more than borrowed nostalgia from an age only ever found on newsreels and promotional films made by companies that ultimately had a product they wanted you to invest in. That pretty girl never really did exist. That spoon probably never existed either – or if it did it was some kind of super-advanced stunt-spoon borrowed from NASA. Michael Aspell of course did and does exist, but he is highly unlikely to be in any position to effect a rescue any time soon, despite the very pleasing mental image the thought of him doing so conjures up. And as for going back to any kind of golden age, given that our glorious ‘leaders’ appear to have no plans at all for this brave new world they’ve forced upon us, I’m willing to predict an imminent slide into a sort of neo-mediaeval era that will probably look ironically similar to that other great Keith Chegwin star-turn, the 1976 Children’s Film Foundation classic Robin Hood Junior. Never mind the youth of today, should these dark ages actually return, I guarantee you we’ll ALL be knifing each other!

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I wish Peter Noone was here. He’d know what to do…

So now, in some small attempt to calm the madness and put all this borrowed nostalgia into the correct perspective, I’d like to belatedly share with you this report I produced for BBC World Service a few weeks ago on the subject of Ian Rawes and his remarkable London Sound Survey archive. Ian has featured on these pages before, of course, but the announcement of another of his ‘London’s Lost Sounds’ listening events, where the bygone sounds of London are served up for a modern audience was just too good an opportunity to miss reporting on. Originally due for transmission three weeks ago, but held back in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death, sharing it with you here and now feels entirely appropriate.

I could listen to Ian talking about such things for hours and he’s the perfect tour guide, putting these precious recordings in context for his growing audiences, leading them into this long-forgotten world with just the right combination of awe, wonder and pragmatism – none of the sugar-coating or bluster of the louder, brasher voices we’ve been hearing so much of lately.

In a week when it’s beginning to look distinctly likely that we’re on the cusp of losing something a whole lot greater than lavender sellers and inept fortune-tellers, we must cherish these sounds more than ever – but we must also bear in mind that, enticing as they are, recordings such as ‘Hopping Holiday’ are often partial fabrications themselves, a scenario set up in the presence and for the benefit of a microphone. Does this make them any less special? Hardly. But it might just make us question the legitimacy of mourning for some supposed golden age where young boys everywhere were at liberty to cycle down a beautifully clean, monocultural high street without being menaced by drug dealers, while the lead singer of a contemporary beat combo follows at a safe distance, nodding his approval from the safety of a toy car.

Those weren’t the days.  These are the days – and we’re in severe danger of irretrievably screwing them up.

Save us, Mr. Aspell!

Finally, a quick word about this week’s Near Mint, in which Hannah and I decided that the only way to cheer ourselves up post-result was to pop down to Rat Records in Camberwell for a browse through the racks, while our old chums Jonny Trunk and DJ Food spun library and soundtracks behind the counter. As luck would have it we bumped into a number of old friends and fellow vinyl nerds, including former guests Strictly KevTom Central and Resonance’s Lucky Cat Zoe. It was decided the most sensible course of action would be to pack them all off down the pub for a spot of post-digging show-and-tell and this week’s show is the hastily-edited and slightly tipsy result…

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