Thursday, 1 May 2014

Notting Hill: Flow Tempest Nightingales

Scotch 640T, cross-processed

I wrote this article whilst listening to Sleepbot Environmental Broadcast, a 24-hour ambient music internet radio station which pleases me. I will miss it when it has gone. It's part of a website called Ambience for the Masses, which dates back to 1997 and is one of the few examples of pre-2000 internet culture that still means something. Think of all the internet radio stations that flourished in the 2000s, when internet radio was new; think of all the internet projects that were born and died in the final years of the 20th Century, when it all meant something, and the future would be better.

Very little has been written about those years. There comes a time when a man realises that, one day, someone will say his name for the last time. It will be written in a sheaf of hospital notes, shoved into a furnace, finally eroded from a gravestone. Except that in the future we will not have gravestones, because there will be no room.

The internet is a mirror of humanity in this respect. The network was built to last. It would take an earth-shattering kaboom to destroy it, just as it would take a vast conflagration to eliminate the human race. But individual people, individual websites, ideas, they delight the eyes and they are gone. The internet has a curious mixture of fads that grow and fade within a few weeks, mixed with scans of ancient pornography that will exist long after we are dead. It seems to me that the key to internet immortality is a kind of genericism. The dancing baby, Mahir, "all your base" etc did not last because they were too distinctive. They traded long-term fame for a burst of exposure followed by an eternity of blackness. The animated gifs and still images that last are those will can be repeated and repurposed without becoming tied to a place and time.

A while back I popped off to Rome with an Olympus XA, but before putting my faith in Blast Hardcheese a 35-year-old camera I wanted to make sure that it worked properly. It would have been disappointing if I came back from Italy and found that the film was blank. Or that England had been overrun by killer rats, or that my detailed knowledge of the lives of Peter Andre and Katie Price was no longer useful.

Notting Hill (1999) is one of those films that I have not seen, along with Santa Sangre (1989), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the original version of DOA, and also Roman Holiday, The Sound of Music, The Birth of a Nation, Kramer Vs Kramer, The Matrix Revolutions, Gattaca etc. The list of films I have not seen is huge. It divides into three basic groups.

Firstly, those films which I have no desire to see and have not been forced to sit through. Notting Hill falls into this category. It was released in the UK a few weeks before The Matrix, which I saw instead. I remember seeing the trailers for Notting Hill and thinking that I was probably not part of the target audience.

Secondly there are films which I am too lazy to watch, but I have read about because I need to be familiar with them in order to function in society. This group includes Nights of Cabiria, Bicycle Thieves, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Children of Men, large chunks of The Criterion Collection, Pan's Labyrinth, Oldboy etc. Chungking Express, which looks lovely in stills but I just can't work up the enthusiasm to watch it. Perhaps if I broke my legs, or suffered a stroke, I would have time. One day I will not have enough time, and at that point why bother? Do people miss Amy Winehouse? My recollection is that she released two albums but was unable to complete a third, and after five years of tabloid antics she died, and now she is gone and forgotten. Unlike Janis Joplin she never cracked the US market, and so she never appears on Imgur or Reddit or the internet in general, because she was never popular in the US. And that is why she has faded and vanished. The radio doesn't play her songs any more, she isn't on TV, the newspapers... it's as if they feel faintly embarassed about her demise, and would rather not remember her.

Thirdly there are films I have not heard about yet. I can't think of any examples because I haven't heard about them yet.

Notting Hill was originally a load of trees. Then it became a poor person slum, but now like the rest of London it is exclusively for wealthy Russians and the like because poor people can no longer afford to live there. It is a familiar story from New York, San Francisco, every major world city. My recollection of Notting Hill in the late 1990s / early 2000s is that it still had a certain amount of touristy charm back then. I remember spending ages browsing through the Musical Instrument Exchange, looking at old synthesisers and stacks of Akai S-series samplers that no-one wanted any more, because musicians were starting to use software samplers and VST instruments. The likes of the Ensoniq Mirage and the Watkins CopiCat tape echo machine were novelties in the late 1990s, no longer practical musical instruments. The Musical Instrument Exchange apparently closed in 2002, I remember it having very little stock towards the end.

It's a myth that synth gear was cheaper in the past; second-hand shops have always been overpriced. The same was true of cameras. I remember visiting the Camera and Photo Exchange as it was closing down (the Exchange empire was hit badly by eBay), and a Pentax Spotmatic with a 55mm f/2 was £80, versus £60 or so on eBay at the time. When I was a lad the Exchange shops were the high spot of Notting Hill. A couple of them are still open. The Comics and Books Exchange is exactly as I remember it, a slightly depressing treasure trove of second hand comics and books that brings home just how worthless and transient comics and books are. Twenty years ago an author spent nine months bashing out his masterpiece; now it is stacked up for 10p in the basement of a shop in Notting Hill and no-one wants it.

And there are the Star Trek tie-in novels, forgotten and unloved relics of a dead franchise. There's something distressing about them. They had meaning, once, but now they are meaningless, like a religion with no more followers or a type of toner cartridge for a type of printer that is no longer made. The circus has left town, and it's never coming back. I know how my parents' generation must have felt when Eagle comic ceased publication, and people forgot Dan Dare, and no-one remembered Old Mother Riley any more.

Not a great photo - it's out of focus, I was pressed in crowd - but towards the top-left there's a Mamiya C330, the updated replacement for the C33 and C3 I wrote about here.

I have always assumed that there was something fishy about the Exchange shops. The economics must be marginal and I wonder if they pay the staff anything at all. But they are a connection to the past, a past when there was a stratum of society that was poor, but not so poor that it couldn't buy records. Individual dreamers, most of them hopeless dead ends, but a few had something. A time when people had to leave the house in order to buy things. Nowadays Notting Hill has almost nothing to distinguish it from any other part of London, and that's not just me being an elderly curmudgeon, it's objective fact because I say so. The exception is Portabello Road market, a long street market where tourists go to look at white person things.

My experience of London in the early 2000s was of a place where everything was closing down. I've mentioned Joe's Basement before, the pro photo processing place. It had a website, a studio, bright ideas, but it shut in 2003 as the professional market for film photography died out. In the words of The Guardian, in an article about a chap called Richard Nicholson who goes around photographing darkrooms, "when he began his project in 2006, there were more than 200 thriving darkrooms dotted around the city; when he completed it in 2009, there were 12". There are probably only a handful by now. Countless magazines and record labels used their services until the early 2000s, and then they were gone.

But as one door closes another opens. The Exchanges and the photo developers did not die alone; banks and post offices died as well, and before them saddle makers and butchers and blacksmiths. The high street itself has been slowly dying, replaced with the few shops that cannot easily transition to the internet, for which there is still a demand. And ultimately as one body is put underground a baby boy is born, in the ghetto, and London evolves. Albeit that London seems to be evolving into an investment vehicle in which empty houses, empty streets are owned by corporate entities. Dull emptiness with no people, no life. Why not abstract the process, why bother with the actual houses? They're just stores of wealth, why not declare that something else has an equivalent worth and use that instead, and let people live in the houses cheaply, so that they have money to spend on trinkets?

There's something to be said about using animals as currency. You have an incentive to look after your money and feed it well, and in bad times a chicken can keep you warm and you can eat it.