Archive: transport

I was looking on YouTube for music by Daphne Oram, the pioneering electronic musician who invented the Oramics machine.

What I found was this fabulous film called Snow. Daphne Oram contributed electronic effects to the music by Johnny Hawksworth.

The film is by Geoffrey Jones. Here’s what the BFI has to say about it:

Comprising train and track footage quickly shot just before a heavy winter’s snowfall was melting, the award-winning classic that emerged from the cutting-room compresses British Rail’s dedication to blizzard-battling into a thrilling eight-minute montage cut to music. Tough-as-boots workers struggling to keep the line clear are counterpointed with passengers’ buffet-car comforts.

A brilliant union of a few of my loves — electronic music, experimental filmmaking and public information films.

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 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.

Just My Type cover

My name is Duncan and I am interested in fonts. Against my better judgement, sometimes I blurt out this fact, and people run a mile.

But is it becoming acceptable? Simon Garfield’s book, Just My Type, would make it seem like a perfectly normal interest. Though there is a nod and a wink towards the quirkiness of the subject, the book is a serious and well-researched work, crafted with passion and wit.

This is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. It is breezily written and easily read. I don’t think I have ever made my way through a book so quickly.

It covers everything from the ubiquity of Helvetica to the illegibility of Grassy. You go on a journey using Johnson’s Underground and road signs in Transport. Political lessons are learned through the font choices of Nazi Germany (gothic) and Barack Obama (Gotham).

The amazing thing is that each of the fonts covered in this book could almost have a book to themselves — or at least an essay. At most, a font is given a chapter to itself. Yet you go away feeling that you have been given all the salient information in an astonishingly concise fashion. Nothing necessary is left out of this book. Nothing unnecessary has been put in.

Even for someone like me, who was already interested in fonts, Just My Type has taught me to at fonts in a newly enlightened way. For instance, my appreciation for the design of an ampersand has been greatly increased. The vivid description of Garamond’s ampersand (“resembling the darting tongue of a lizard catching flies”) is one of the book’s highlights.

Segoe UI ampersand

It has clearly affected me. Today I suddenly noticed that the ampersand in Segoe UI (the font Microsoft use for their user interfaces) resembles a cat licking its paw. Now I can’t shake that image out of my head.

Clearly, if you are interested in fonts, you really must buy this book. If you are not interested in fonts, you really must buy this book. You will be surprised at how fascinating it is. Simon Garfield is the perfect writer for it. His bright tone is far away from any nerdy connotations that the subject might evoke.

This is probably the perfect book about fonts. It might even be the perfect book.

Example of a motorway road sign

I was pleased to see an article on the BBC News website about the brilliance of the design of the UK’s road signs. Minimalist and clutter-free, British road signs are a design triumph.

I often look to transport-related design of all types for inspiration. The reason is because they have to work well. Lives might depend on it. As such, a lot of research goes into them.

In the case of road signs, they have to be clear enough to read when travelling at speed, from a distance. They need to be processed quickly. They must deliver an unambiguous message.

It is not easy. But the the design of road signs almost never changes, and hardly anyone ever complains about them. That is an indication that they have got the design right.

The BBC News article outlines some of the research that took place when the signs were originally designed in the 1960s. It reminded me of the research that took place in the USA more recently, in the development of the Clearview typeface for road signs there. If you are interested in design, those articles make for interesting reading.

It’s not just road signs I like to take inspiration from. If anything, railway design is better. Railway signs may not have to be read at speed, but they still have to convey complicated information with clarity. Often these signs will have to be read by visitors from other countries, making it essential that the signs can be understood by people who might not speak English as their first language.

Earlier this year I read this fantastic article about a book called British Rail Design. It looks brilliant. I would love to get my hands on it, though sadly it seems to be rare and expensive.

Both the road signs and the British Rail Alphabet were designed by Jock Kinneir. But surely the granddaddy of railway graphic design must be Harry Beck, whose work needs no introduction.

Harry Beck's London Underground map

Harry Beck designed his original map in his spare time and was paid just five guineas. The iconic British Rail logo was designed by a 21-year-old, Gerald Barney. These are the sorts of facts that make you look at yourself and wonder what you have achieved in life.