“WHAT IS IT THAT YOU DO ANYWAY, KEN?”
This was the question posed (or more accurately shouted) to my dad, by my legendary Auntie Nancy, sometime in the 1990s. His aunt had known him ever since he was born, in 1947, always living around the corner, always around. But until then she’d apparently never wondered what his job was.
“I project manage hospital construction, Nancy,” was his reply. “I work with doctors and nurses to work out what’s needed to look after patients, and then organise to get that built.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO THAT FOR?” she replied (still shouting).
“SOUNDS A BIT HARD.”
My brother Neil and I rolled around laughing on the floor. Nancy had a way of cutting through all attempts at being serious.
I always carry this exchange with me when I approach work. Because it’s very easy to take work too seriously. To think our place is somehow important, in the grand scheme of things. And while the sense of importance that work plays has increased for many, it’s become harder and harder to get. If Nancy and the rest of my grandparents’ generation had known how complicated it would be to get work in the futuristic society of 2016, to follow their dreams, or just pay their bills, I think they’d be shocked. And if they knew how much pressure future workers would be under, to make everything cheaper, faster, and do it with less security, less stability, I think they’d be really surprised.
Describing 2016, from 1985
In, say, the mid 1980s (I turned 14 in January 1985), I’d have told them that in 2016 I’d work in “computers”. And that by 2016, almost everyone now has a tiny little computer they hold in their hand, that only cost a few hundred pounds. “You heard of that computer company called Apple? Well lots of them are made by them. And you know your microwave oven? The new Samsung one yes? Well they make lots of the rest of these little computers.” I’d say these computers are just touch panels and everything passes through the air to them. If I told them that everyone would use these computers to take pictures and then all their friends could see those pictures right away, if I said that they could book a flight standing in the street, or read or listen to something published right at that moment by a friend of theirs in India (or America). Or read any newspaper in the world, right now. And check the weather forecast. And the bus and train times. And listen to any LP ever published, immediately. Or watch a movie. Or phone people for free and chat for hours (but nobody does that). That if they sat on a train or a bus, they’d see everyone around them tapping into these little computers, all the way to work and back.
And remember, this would all be said in 1985, five years after John Lennon died.
But what if I then said that everyone was pretty miserable. That there’s a total lunatic – a truly offensive little man – campaigning to become US President. That everyone shares jokes about him on these little computers, or rallies behind him. That Britain is about to (maybe) vote to leave the European Union, because people have lost faith in the post-war ethos to come together, and are tired of foreigners migrating here to take their jobs. That brilliant writers and musicians find it almost impossible to make money doing what they’re capable of doing. What if I said that our youngest adult generation – those born between 1980 and 1995 – are now poorer than pensioners, and face dismal prospects in finding work and a nice home they can afford to live in. And the Middle East has a strange mix of slick-rich mega cities and serious poverty, threatened by a really nasty group of people who refuse to live alongside anyone else who is not a religious fanatic – people who could feel pride in watching a friend or family member strap explosives to themselves and then walk into a busy market and blow them, and everyone around them, to pieces.
Maybe in return they’d talk about how they’d learned to adapt during the second world war, their memories of the 1930s depression, their experience of 1950s and 1960s social and technological change. And how all those things along their journey fitted together, made sense, now they look back at it. That it seemed scary at the time, but now it’s just what happened in their lifetime, the 20th century. That in the end they all just played their tiny part, in a picture that was created by everyone in the world.
Back on that day in the 1990s we asked “What did you used to do, Nancy?”.
“IN THE WAR I USED TO CLIMB UP A LADDER. AND PUT NUMBERS ONTO THE TOPS OF THE TAILS OF BOMBERS, IN THE DUNLOP FACTORY IN SPEKE. AND THE FELLAS USED TO WHISTLE UP AT ME, FROM BELOW.”
And then she’d show me a picture from 1970, of her and her husband Alf, holding a stuffed donkey. Waving from the steps of a BAC One Eleven jet at Alicante airport, heading home after two weeks in Benidorm.
Photo: My Auntie Nancy, Nancy Stephens. Front left. Photographer and the rest of the group unknown. This was presumably taken in the late 1920s or 1930s, in Liverpool, England, where she lived throughout her life.
Television is completely in the doldrums. While internet-based TV moves towards an app-oriented world where different services have different exclusive content, plus some of the same stuff on demand, while mainstream television just festers in a sea of tired formulas, Judge Judy rip offs and endless Top Gear. It’s all about control – putting you in the driving seat. Which isn’t what TV was ever about, for its first 40 years. It was about watching a schedule that had been put together by people who had really thought about it, that everyone got to share.
I’m interested in a way forward that for now I’m calling Corporate TV. How do films and television programmes, or even clips from films and television programmes serve the entire business world? Why do people walk into a company lobby and see the tedious generic chatter of CNN or Bloomberg, or BBC News 24? When they could be seeing a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie, that articulates some aspect of the problem-solving culture of the firm. Or an episode of a 1960s cop show, that happens to be the favourite of a quiet lady who works in accounts. Or a few episodes of Knots Landing, much loved by someone’s mum. This is the water cooler for the 21st century.
The challenge right now is how to curate these shows, how it would work inside a firm, and how rights and licensing is organised, how certain people are paid and the various ways that the “TV” station can be viewed – which should include in physical spaces and also streaming from the company website itself. The service can also be a hit in venues – cafes, etc. But the first way I’m envisaging it is through large projection, in lobby spaces.
The concept offers so much potential to draw on the rich depth of cultural content that is currently lost in the “Blockbuster” style navigation assumptions of all the contemporary digital video services. There is so much more to explore – an NGO focused on water, could show great documentary material from India, about its rivers. Not earnest NGO-sponsored TV, but great content produced by reputable broadcasters. It could actually fuel a fresh wave of investment in good quality documentary content, that leaps beyond the existing kinds of really lame corporate videos that get produced to show once, at a company conference, and then forever to fester on websites or in boxes of DVDs. “Have you see last year’s corporate video?”
A big driver? The availability of good, big, low cost video screens now and unprecendented ability now to stream video off the internet. With no real idea what to play on them. And, most of all, an amazing array of content, all out there, hardly used, hardly watched.
First drafted: Torrevieja, Spain. 12.12.2015
I sat talking last night with my neighbour Marya, in the garden we share in Amsterdam. It’s approaching two years since I went to Burning Man, and I wanted to ask her how she felt it had changed me, as she’d known me for a few months before I went, and then much more time since. Here’s the interview, which lasts about an hour.
I’ve been starting to do a series of radio interviews with people I find interesting. I’m learning as I go – about room acoustics, the Zoom H2n microphone I use, and how to steer discussions.
The first discussion was with Thomas Bjelkeman and Vinay Gupta in London. The second was with Ken Charmer, my dad, in Spain. My parents now live in Spain and Kenny has spent about ten years immersing himself in researching music production, particularly 1960s music production. In the interview I talk to him about this, and what it was like to grow up as a teenager in 1960s Liverpool.
I’m really proud of this interview. There’s never been a recording before of me and my dad talking. For me, it’s amazing to now have that.
My previous version of this recording (the same, but less compressed) is here on Vimeo.
I found an amazing shop in Berlin a few weeks ago full of typewriters. Since then I’ve been thinking I’d quite like one. They’re strange things in 2013 – these things that were once ubiquituous and completely associated with thinking, ideas, creativity and articulation, have been completely replaced. I mean completely replaced, by computers. But they still work, and billions of people used them very effectively for years. Anyway, I might get one. And see what happens next.
(I want the orange one, yes that orange Olympia one)
Last week I was walking through Bloomsbury in London and discovered, for the first time, Gray’s Inn Gardens. Known as “the Walks” this piece of green space was apparently laid out by Sir Francis Bacon in 1606. It’s a really nice peaceful spot and I sat there for a while as the light changed while clouds passed overhead.
There is a tall narrow stone plaque at one end sitting in the grass. It reads as follows:
BUT IF HE
It then goes on:
I thought that was great.
I went to Burning Man a few weeks ago. It was the singular most incredible experience of my life. While I’d love to go again, I don’t actually need to go – it was quite sufficient as the Great Big Pivotal Moment in Mark’s Life.
I’m grateful to my colleagues last week for letting me land back into work gently. It’s strange to return to any “normal” life after Burning Man, even if “normal” is living in a summer house, overlooking a canal, 3 minutes walk from your office in Amsterdam, one of the most creative and interesting cities in the world. To be honest, I think it’s helped. Burning Man is of a scale and density very similar to Amsterdam. The layout’s similar too (U-shaped ring of streets). Except there aren’t any canals in the Black Rock desert. It’s hardly stopped raining since I got back to Holland, which I think is somebody trying to make a point. And everyone gets around on bikes.
And Amsterdam has Albert Heijn, which you don’t get at Burning Man.
I’m not sure how to explain the experience, really, so I’m going to start by listing out my Burning Man Spotify playlist, which I compiled a week before in London. I played it in the car as we drove north from Reno into the desert proper, with my friends Beth Whiteside and James Byous. It was a brilliant moment that I’ll never forget and set in train so much discussion about other music between us through the week.
The Journey to Burning Man playlist (it’s online here too)
1. “The Rolling People.” The Verve, off Urban Hymns
2. “Circle of Life.” Elton John
3. “The Winner Takes It All.” Abba, off Super Trouper
4. “Tosca: Vissi d’arte.” Maria Callas / Georges Pretre, Orchestre De La Société des Concerts
5. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Nina Simone
6. “Flash.” Queen
7. “Discreet Music.” Brian Eno
8. “Sweet Bitter Love – Demo.” Aretha Franklin, off “Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul”
9. “Twisted Tenderness.” Electronic
10. “There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart.” Eurythmics
11. “(There is) No Greater Love.” Amy Winehouse
12. “Eagle.” Abba, off The Album
13. “Burn My Shadow – Radio Slave Remix.” UNKLE, featuring Ian Astbury
14. “Leave Right Now.” Will Young, off Friday’s Child.
15. “Holiday Inn.” Elton John, off Madman Across the Water
16. “Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro.” Maria Callas
17. “Music.” John Miles
Bonus Tracks (added later)
18. “Head over Heels.” Tears for Fears
19. “Your Song (From the Rehearsal Montage Scene).” Craig Armstrong, off Moulin Rouge 2
Posted on 16 September 2013. (Photo. Fuelling up in the Castro, San Francisco, as we head out of town. James posing with pump. Me returning from arguing with cashier – “there’s no trust in this country”.)