Archive: Travel

There is something quite fascinating about the announcements made on trains. Is there any form of public speaking that varies in quality more.

Sometimes the announcements can be delivered in an unbelievably apathetic tone, like it’s the last thing the train guard ever wants to do. A lot of it just sounds plain rotten. Sometimes they are so slapdash that you wouldn’t guess that making these announcements was something these people did as a job, several times a day.

Other guards take the other extreme, taking a bit too much pride in the announcement. A lot of them try to talk posh, with sometimes disastrous consequences. Then you get the ones that think they are stand-up comedians.

I recently bought a CD that revels in this all. The MMs Bar Recordings, by Sandra Cross, is a collection of recordings of conductors making various announcements about the buffet bar situated on Coach F of Midlands Mainline trains running between London and Leicester.

The sound quality is variable, and the quality of the announcements even more so. But this is, of course, the whole point.

Listening to this record, which lasts almost 30 minutes, I found myself asking questions like, “who ever says ‘bottle of pop’ these days?” And, “why do they always say ‘for the price of £3.50’ rather than just ‘for £3.50’?”

There is a comedian who tells a joke, but delivers it in the most bored tone. Countless conductors say ‘expresso’, with a phantom ‘x’. There are mis-steps, slip-ups and technical glitches. There are real laugh-out-loud moments.

I just love the concept of this CD. It takes something ostensibly mundane, but asks you to analyse it carefully. It reveals so much. I am reminded of the John Cage quote about noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

These announcements are designed to be ephemeral. Most conductors treat it as such. Most people on the train will avoid listening to it. But put it on a CD and it becomes essential listening. 30 minutes’ worth of announcements made between 2006 and 2007 are now immortalised.

The MMs Bar Recordings is possibly the most bonkers album I have ever bought. And I love it.

This is part 4 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day four map:

London map day four

This was my final day in London, and my train was at 2pm. So I had only a few hours to spare in the morning, and decided to take in the Design Museum as my final activity in London.

There were two exhibitions on when I visited, both of which are still currently on.

On the first floor is a Terence Conran exhibition. Called The Way We Live Now, the exhibition outlines the massive contributions Terence Conran has made to the British design industry since the 1950s.

On the second floor is Designs of the Year 2012. I found this absolutely fascinating. It’s tempting to think that wandering round looking at these designs is like having a sneak preview of the future. It spans everything from funky lighting to magazine designs; from the Olympic torch to potentially life-saving furniture.

Some of the objects on display were really great contributions to the improvement of the world. Take, for instance, the earthquake-proof table, or the redesign of the ambulance which it is said could reduce hospital admissions by 60%. This is design at its best, with a social conscience.

Sadly, there is currently nothing from the Design Museum’s collection on display. It will be good when it moves to its new, larger premises in 2014.

Design Museum mug: "Good Design = Happy World"

Downstairs there is a great shop with loads of cool design-related stuff. I got my hands on Type Trumps 1 (I had already received Type Trumps 2 as a Christmas present). I also bought this cool mug, which I think sums up why I’m interested in design.

Then, sadly, it was time to make my way back up to Dundee.

This is part 3 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day three map:

London day three map

Science Museum

My original tentative schedule saw me planning to visit the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A in one day. But some last-minute chopping and changing of my schedule saw me eventually trying to squeeze the Science Museum into a 90 minute visit.

It didn’t take me long to realise that 90 minutes was nowhere near long enough to take in the Science Museum, which was much larger than I was anticipating. I remember wanting to visit the Science Museum as a kid, and in the end it is such a shame that I ended up spending so little time here! This is the main reason why I feel like I need to go back to London again.

I saw maybe about two thirds of the ground floor, where I spent a fascinating hour. But with an eye on my watch, I decided I had to make a beeline for the second floor to see Oramics to Electronica, an exhibition about electronic music.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the incredible Oramics machine. The Oramics machine was invented in 1959 by the pioneering Daphne Oram. The concept is almost implausible: “drawn sound”. The musician painted shapes on strips of 35mm film and glass slides. These shapes controlled the pitch, volume and waveform of the sounds.

Oramics Machine

The machine is incredibly complex and fragile-looking. A spaghetti morass of wires dangles across rustic metal frames. The strips of 35mm film stretch across the top of the contraption. Only the speakers provide the clue that this might be some form of musical instrument. Fantastic.

Delia Derbyshire's green lampshade

There were also displays about EMS, the British synthesiser manufacturers, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Here, Delia Derbyshire’s famous green lampshade was on display. (Apologies — my photograph was dreadfully out-of-focus due to my crappy camera focusing on the glass case.)

I was very sad to leave the Science Museum having seen so little of it. I reckon in 90 minutes I was lucky if I saw a quarter of it. I will definitely have to go again!

London Transport Museum

In the afternoon I made my way to the London Transport Museum. In a way, this was the worst value part of the trip. Admission costs £13.50, and while you can use the ticket for up to a year, the likelihood of someone like me being able to go again is slim. Mind you, I had to queue for a very long time to get in, so it’s impossible to imagine how busy it would be if entry was free.

It is a brilliant museum, and I probably spent about two hours there. As you might imagine, my favourite part of the museum was the section dedicated to design. This covers architecture, print materials, information about the development of the tube map and the Johnston typeface.

Dotted around the museum are posters from throughout the history of the London Underground. It has always had such a strong and striking visual identity, and it’s amazing just how modern some posters from as far back as the 1930s can look.

The price would put me off going again too soon, but this is a brilliant museum that I would happily visit again a few years down the line.

This is part 2 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day two map:

London day two map

Barbican architecture tour

Shakespeare Tower from Frobisher Crescent

St Giles' Cripplegate bell tower

Owing to my developing interest in brutalist architecture, I decided I would take a look at the Barbican Estate to see one prominent brutalist project in the flesh. I took a look at the Barbican Arts Centre website to see if there were any interesting events on. To my delight, I discovered that they do architecture tours.

The tour lasted just over 90 minutes, and was a fascinating insight into the project. The tour takes in parts of the Barbican Arts Centre and large parts of the estate.

From a distance we looked at the City of London School for Girls and the incredible St Giles-without-Cripplegate church.

Lauderdale Tower

It was absolutely freezing cold that day. This was the day that temperatures plunged to −7°C overnight. I am not sure what the temperature was during the day, but it certainly felt sub-zero.

The problem was that I was so fascinated by the tour — and we were standing in the outdoors for most of the time — that I didn’t think to put on my gloves only occasionally noticed just how cold my hands were. I think they are still recovering from the damage.

But that can only be a good reflection of the architecture tour. And as you can see, I got some great snaps. It was possibly the highlight of my trip. If you’re interested in architecture, I would get to one of these tours if you can.

Frobisher Crescent
Original Barbican pedestrian map
Barbican plaza

All of my photos from the Barbican estate:

Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

In the afternoon I made my way over to the Museum of Brands. It is hidden away a bit, but once you get there it is like hitting upon a treasure trove of nostalgia.

The museum tracks the evolution of brands, packaging and advertising since Victorian times. You make your way through a winding tunnel, surrounded by cabinets jam-packed from head to foot with countless vintage packaging. The majority of this tunnel is laid out in chronological order, allowing you to see the trends over time.

To some it might seem like an obscure topic to have a museum about. It might be easy to dismiss it as a shallow nostalgia fest. But these ostensibly disposable objects tell the story of everyday life in the 20th century. It’s telling a social history too. And there cannot be many better places than the Museum of Brands to document this history.

There are stories about emancipation, technology and even international relations. One of the most striking items I noticed was “Adolf Shitler” toilet roll, designed to keep spirits up during the second world war by allowing people to wipe their arses on Hitler’s face.

I have a couple of criticisms. The layout is very claustrophobic. The corridors are quite narrow, so it’s easy to clatter into somebody else if you have just been peering into one of the cabinets. Also, the lighting isn’t great, and the cabinets are stuffed so full that it’s quite difficult to see some of the items.

I would also say that there is too much on display. It is quite overwhelming. On the plus side, I am certain that I could visit again and notice things that totally passed me by first time round, and I would be happy to do so.

If you are interested in advertising, design, or 20th century history in general, I would recommend a trip to the Museum of Brands.

This is part 1 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Last weekend I took a trip to London for the weekend. I arrived on the afternoon of Friday 10 February, and left on the afternoon of Monday 13 February. London is the sort of place I could keep going to. I go about once every two years, and every time I go away feeling like I needed much more time.

Typically, whenever I go to London, it is normally a last-minute deal — something I’m squeezing in around something else. This time round, it was still similarly last-minute, but I took the time to schedule everything in advance. Unfortunately, I was too optimistic and would have needed at least twice as much time to do everything I wanted to.

Day 1 map:

London day one map

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

My first stop was in fact the last addition to my itinerary. But as I kept refining the schedule up until the moment I arrived in London, I ended up deciding to come here first. It was the most out-of-the-way place and I couldn’t check in to my hotel yet, so I thought I’d get this done first.

Being an observatory, it is reasonably high up. So you get some pretty cool views of the area, which I wasn’t expecting.

London panorama

THAT photo on the prime meridian

I stood on the prime meridian line, which is something I wanted to do as a child. I took that picture. I guess you have to.

The Meridian Courtyard itself is surprisingly small. But not to worry, because the main action is to be found in the time galleries. It’s a good place to visit if you’re a time geek or interested in astronomy.

It charts the development of timekeeping over the years. There are lots of early experimental clocks on display. At the other extreme, there are modern-day atomic clocks and GPSs. In between, there are displays about the BBC’s pips generator and the speaking clock.

The nearby astronomy centre, which is free to enter, was a bit of a let down in comparison. But I suppose you get what you pay for.

Cutty Sark

On my way back I decided to take a quick look at the Cutty Sark. But there is a lot of work going on there at the moment, so it’s almost impossible to get a good look at it. But the photo I took of it is reasonably good, considering.

All photos from Royal Observatory, Greenwich:

Tate Modern

The Friday night was the one evening of the weekend in which I didn’t have prior plans. Tate Modern is open until 10pm, and is within walking distance of my hotel. So it came together quite nicely.

I think it’s really great that a place like this is open so late and free. If I lived in London I would probably go quite a lot!

Modern art is controversial, but at least it is interesting. Of course some of it is toss, and there is no way you will like everything on display. But to expect to like everything surely misses the point. Good art should be challenging and thought-provoking, and inevitably that means hating some of the stuff along the way.

It’s the same with experimental music, which I love. If you liked it all, there wouldn’t be much point.

I much prefer to visit a gallery like Tate Modern than a gallery of traditional art containing portrait after portrait after portrait.

I was disappointed that the Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are no longer on display. I was looking forward to seeing them, and it turns out they were removed from display in October.

Among my personal highlights was the display Architecture and Power, which explores modernist and brutalist architecture. It offered a lot of the social and political commentary that I found was lacking in the Brutalism book. Very thought-provoking.

I also enjoyed the Dark Humour display.

But my favourite individual piece was Fall by Bridget Riley. I have not been particularly struck by op-art before, and nor was I particularly keen on the other Bridget Riley paintings on display. But physically standing in front of Fall was a real experience. It is very eye-catching, almost literally, as the waves appear to pop and fizz when they are in fact clearly stationary.

I ended up buying a print of Fall in the shop, although when I got home I wondered where it would put it, because looking at it all the time would surely drive me mad. It is now hanging up behind the sofa.

The shop was brilliant, with loads of books about art and design. My wallet was partially destroyed here.