Monday, 30 April 2018

I’VE BEEN HIGHER THAN THE HIGH SIERRA [107]


What is in a name? If that name is “Cortina,” enough to make a documentary: in 1982, the BBC broadcast “The Private Life of the Ford Cortina,” not as an episode of “Top Gear,” but as part of the arts series “Arena.” Named after an Italian ski resort, the car was portrayed as having woven itself into the fabric of British life over the previous twenty years, becoming the archetypal British family car and company car, its ascending trim levels equating itself with social status. In styling terms, it was the closest you could get to an American car without importing one.

However, the “Arena” documentary followed an announcement by Ford that Cortina production would end in 1982, to be replaced by a new model based on a futuristic, aerodynamic concept unveiled the previous year. The comedian and writer Alexei Sayle, appearing as a Cockney punter through the programme, lamented the demise of his favourite car like a death in the family, before turning on its successor:

“They’re gonna call it the Sierra, the bloody Sierra. And what does that mean, eh, Sierra? What’s that about, eh? It don’t speak volumes to me, an English person, Sierra. It’s not like Cortina, you know what I mean? They’re doing away our car for some poxy hatchback. Oh I think it’s - I think it’s disgraceful. I’m angry.”


That “poxy hatchback,” named after the Spanish word for a mountain range, was the future of car design, requiring only tweaks over the following eleven years while the rest of the industry redrew its cars from scratch. Although the Sierra remained rear-wheel drive just as front-wheel drive became more common, this helped it to be adapted into high-performance sports models, like the XR4i (also sold in the US as the Merkur XR4Ti), the XR4x4, and the fabled Sierra RS Cosworth – South Africa also had the XR8, with a five-litre V8 engine. My grandfather had a more regular Sierras, and it was as comfortable and dependable as a Ford is should be, with the familiar blue oval badge coming with its own set of expectations.

However, in 1982, the Sierra’s design was proving to be ahead of its time, making it more difficult to form a personal connection in the way others did with a Cortina, unless you owned one of the sportier models. The Sierra proved to be very popular in Germany, where it replaced the lower-selling Taunus, and for the last six years to 1982, the Cortina was a rebadged Taunus. But with the goodwill generated by the “Cortina” name carrying forward in the UK, it was likened to a jelly mould and a spaceship, and the lack of a Sierra saloon option until 1987 meant buyers scared off by the then unconventional design were forced to look at the smaller Ford Orion, or at competitors like the Vauxhall Cavalier – while the Cortina was the UK’s biggest-selling car in each year of the 1970s, the Sierra usually found itself second to the Cavalier or the Ford Escort.


Right now, the name “Mondeo” has been used by Ford longer than “Sierra” and “Cortina” ever were, and if their recent decision to phase out regular cars in the US and Canada, apart from the Mustang and a version of the Focus, in favour of more sports utility vehicles and similar crossover cars, the whole notion of a standard “family car” may already be over. However, the nostalgia over the name “Cortina” can still be found in the UK, and in real numbers – according to howmanyleft.co.uk, 3,520 Cortinas remain registered on British roads, against only 2,642 Sierras. Perhaps, the Sierra is still too close to the cars we have today for nostalgia to kick in and save those that are left.

Monday, 23 April 2018

DISTURB THE SOUND OF SILENCE [106]


All I need is to press “Scan,” and my digital radio will produce a list of available stations, but there is no game in that. My main radio used to be a large hi-fi system, to which you could connect your own FM aerial, and see if you could pick up stations that should be too far away. I managed quite well – a fifty-mile radius from my home is not too bad for FM radio, even if some stations could be drowned out by signals both nearer and stronger. I still have the hi-fi system, mostly for the record player and CD recorder I also attached to it, but radio is far more convenient to find now and, if you are listening online, you can pick up a far better sound than FM can ever produce.

I have decided to try the game again, this time with a supermarket own-brand radio. For reasons known only to them, Tesco are selling a twelve-band world radio – FM, medium wave, long wave, and nine short-wave bands of varying wavelengths and frequencies - for EIGHT POUNDS (or about ELEVEN US DOLLARS). Short wave was not something I used a lot, mainly because you could still listen to the BBC World Service on medium wave in the UK until 2011, and because short-wave radio is more used for foreign-language broadcasts to far-flung areas, for amateur / ham radio, and for time signals used by radio-controlled clocks.


What did I find on short-wave radio? Firstly, between 4.8 and 4.9 MHz, I found what appeared to be a 1980s Casio keyboard playing some random notes – there also noises like a fax machine and dial-up internet, as there appeared to be more than one broadcast in that range. At about 6.0 MHz, I found the first instance of speech, but I could not hear what language it may have been over all the other noise on the signal, until I held on to the aerial with my other hand – moving away from my computer also helped a bit. Various stations were found up to about 6.3 MHz. An American English radio bulletin came up at about 9.9 MHz, and a rather insistent piece of classical music was heard at 11.7 MHz, with various other pieces of speech and music heard between 10 and 12 MHz.

It turns out that, because short-wave radio can cross continents by reflecting signals off the ionosphere – medium wave, FM and higher TV signals usually can only travel in straight lines – there are restrictions caused by when during the day, and year, that reflection is most effective. If you pick up a short-wave radio, you will find most stations located between 5.8-6.2 and 9.4-9.9 MHz, because these frequencies have the least disruption. The many stations I did hear may also all be part of one or two services, as both the BBC World Service and Voice of America broadcast from some transmitters for only one or two hours at a time, in certain languages, on certain days, when the frequency works the best for where it needs to reach. All the Casio noise also turned out to be the signals for my alarm clock, as time signals are usually clustered around 5, 10 and 15 MHz.

However, I don’t know how much more useful my world radio will be, at least where I am. Short-wave broadcasts normally target countries where getting good information is either scarce or vital, like parts of Africa, or Iran or North Korea, which are targets for the BBC and VOA. If you can otherwise use FM, digital radio, or even podcasts, you will. Still, I will keep my battery-operated radio to remain informed if my electricity  supply, or wi-fi, goes out.

Monday, 16 April 2018

NO MATTER WHO’S THE LEADER WHEN THE SUN SETS DOWN [105]


The idea of owning a personal copy of a film or TV programme is only around forty years old. Unless you had spent thousands on your own cinema set-up, or on a new-fangled home video tape recorder, 1978 was the year home video began in earnest, and anyone buying into it had to decide which direction they would take.

Sony introduced the Betamax video recorder in 1975, with VHS, JVC’s competitor format, launching the following year. They were marketed with a specific use in mind – the ability to time-shift your television viewing. A two-hour video tape costed as much as £20, but were expected to be reused often - pre-recorded tapes cost at least three times as much, taking as long to make as they took to play back. With the recorders themselves costing up to a thousand pounds, selling films to the general public would have to be done another way.

The answer was, as will be with DVD and blu-ray, to copy the main method of getting music into homes: pressing video onto a disc. The first disc format, usually known as LaserDisc, went on sale in 1978. It was originally known under the hilarious name “MCA DiscoVision” – the name had been chosen back in 1969, before disco music appeared, but if you are forming a company to hold video-on-disc patents held by MCA, then owners of Universal Pictures, and the electronics group Philips, it was the right name to choose. LaserDiscs look like 12-inch CDs, recording their data in a similar track of spaced pits - the discs are big enough to see the track with the naked eye - but the pits are used to interpret the waves of a composite analogue signal, rather than binary code. A LaserDisc player was two-thirds of the cost of a VCR, requiring fewer moving parts, and pre-recorded films, the first of which was Universal’s “Jaws,” cost as much as a blank tape did.


The second format was CED, or “Capacitance Electronic Disc,” launched by RCA in 1981 under the "SelectaVision" brand they also used for their VCRs. However, the release date was originally meant to be 1977, with the project having started back in 1964. However, the long gestation period was because RCA was perfecting their own patents: instead of using a laser on a reflective plastic disc, the CED would be made of the same vinyl that made audio records (with carbon added for conductivity), could be made on the same presses, and would even be read with a diamond stylus that physically touched the record. The video signal is then generated from the resonance measured from the changes in electrical capacitance between the disc and the stylus. Because the merest piece of dust on the disc would disrupt this process, attracting moisture from the air, the records would be shielded from view within a cartridge, from which the player would retrieve the record without the owner touching it. The first CED on release was not “Jaws,” but the more laid back film “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown.”


This is where the problems started – stacked against LaserDisc, which could be mistreated like a CD and still play, CEDs would be too temperamental, only produced a VHS-level picture against the higher quality of LaserDisc and, of course, was released too late. RCA announced they would stop making CED players in 1984, which paradoxically caused demand for the discs to increase, until they finally ended in 1986, when RCA was broken up for sale, after losing $600 million on the whole endeavour – the UK would only see the whole system on sale for six whole months. LaserDisc would carry on much longer, having proved very popular in Japan, with discs on sale until 2001, and players still being made as late as 2009 – its analogue picture quality was still on a par with early DVDs, and its ability to provide chapter searches and audio commentaries made it the premium alternative to VHS, through film series like the prestige Criterion Collection. Pioneer Electronics, which had bought out MCA and Philips’s stake, changed the name, and pushed the format to the very end - when they bought into it, in 1980, it was Pioneer that started pushing the more futuristic "LaserVision" as the name for the format, and "LaserDisc" for, well, the discs. In 1987, Philips tried naming the format "CD Video" in Europe, using gold-coloured discs, but LaserDisc had already failed to catch on there, so it lasted only a few more years. 


VHS became the dominant home video format for twenty years, but this was only achieved through economies of scale. While the cost of a pre-recorded tape was initially too much for most, it created the market for rentals instead, increasing what demand there was, and reducing the cost of making each tape. More companies began making both recorders and tapes to meet demand, and the overall cost continued to fall. The only downside of the ubiquity of VHS was that, when it came to replace them with DVDs, the plastic used to make the tapes was not recyclable – presumably, my collection remains in a landfill to this day.

Right now, “home video” no longer involves ownership for many people – online video streaming has replaced both the rental market and the need to record TV shows to watch at a later date. I have bought films on Blu-Ray because they were no longer available on Netflix, and recording TV shows to keep now involves a dongle attached to a desktop computer. When a problem is solved, it shouldn’t slowly reappear like this.

Monday, 9 April 2018

FOR WHAT I’VE HAD IS WHAT I’LL NEVER GET [104]


It turns out that, when I was writing about dead shopping malls last week, and about vaporwave music before that, I actually wanted to talk about nostalgia, so I shall. Nostalgia formed the critical base for both subjects, and once I ended a thousand-word discussion on shopping malls by saying I wasn’t sure what lessons to take from them, it wouldn’t be long before someone said it would be nice to read a follow-up as my thoughts about them develop.

That person was my sister Layla, of Richee & Layla at His and Hers Reviews, and they made a podcast [link] reviewing Steven Spielberg’s latest film, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One.” The film’s story is built around OASIS, a virtual reality environment in which people learn, work and play. This world is constructed out of all the popular culture artefacts you can imagine, and the quest taken in the film is based on finding “Easter eggs” hidden by the world’s creator, inviting people to “like” what he likes.

In the podcast, Layla said that “Ready Player One” will live beyond its time in the cinema because the idea of nostalgia is so big. This is not just historic nostalgia for the 1980s – “Back to the Future,” “The Shining,” Atari computer games, “Doom” and so on – but also the vicarious nostalgia of longing for the past, by living through the past of someone else. In “Ready Player One,” characters are being told that something is nostalgic, and that you must like it because it is nostalgic, “and if you are not nostalgic for it, you are a fucking monster” - my sister also brought up the notion of “ruining your childhood,” if the object of nostalgia is not how you personally remembered it.


Nostalgia used to be a diagnosable condition, like depression: it was first outlined by Johannes Hofer in 1688, referring to the state of Swiss mercenaries located in less mountainous areas, in France and Italy, than where they came from, and was known as “the Swiss disease,” in the same way that syphilis used to be the disease other countries called their enemies. The word “nostalgia” came from Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain,” and was originally translated into English as “homesickness.” Medical studies of nostalgia had stopped in the 1870s, by which point soldiers in the American Civil War were diagnosed with it. Psychological studies, however, are obviously still ongoing.

The nostalgia I believe was awoken in me by listening to the ghostly echoes of vaporwave, and in walking through an empty shopping mall, are evoked by the same type of memories “Ready Player One” wants to create – memories for when music, film, TV, and architecture were done that way, because things were better then. I talked about the safe spaces that shopping malls create, and vaporwave makes new connections by cutting up the music of the 1980s. However, these subjects are using that nostalgia to criticise the end of the consumer society, which created the conditions in which vaporwave and dead malls now exist. If the good times evoked by nostalgia for 1980s music and shopping malls had been real, I would not have vaporwave, I would not have made a video about a dead mall near where I live, and I would not be writing about it here.

I had not known what lesson to take from looking at dead shopping malls, but I realise that the nostalgia evoked by them, and by vaporwave, is for something that may not have existed but more of a vision that did not happen to me – I was six years old when 1990 came around, so the 1980s remains an interest because it is on the edge of what I can remember. Like any good postmodernist, I am looking for what references I can bring forward and cobble together to give meaning to the present day, but when you are looking at what happened within your own lifetime, you will always pick the good times first.

Monday, 2 April 2018

THERE’S A MAGICAL PLACE, WE’RE ON OUR WAY THERE [103]

[Forest Fair Village, Cincinatti, Ohio]
It turns out that, when I was writing about vaporwave music a couple of weeks ago, I actually wanted to talk about shopping malls, so I shall.


It has been a torrid time for retail businesses in both the UK and the US, as familiar brands bind us together. I have walked past the Toys R Us store from where thirty years of our family’s toys have come, but I did not have the courage to enter, let alone face the staff that are losing their jobs. My ears were pierced in Claire’s Accessories, and while it has entered into chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US, the UK side may yet file for administration, joining the electronics shop Maplin. Carpetright, fashion chains New Look and Select, and restaurants Jamie’s Italian and Prezzo, have all entered into Company Voluntary Agreements, closing branches to make themselves solvent again, with Prezzo closing its Chimichanga tex-mex chain, one of my favourite restaurants, in its entirety. Then, there are businesses that are doing relatively fine, but still have to adapt – my mother has just helped close the high street department store she worked in for the last eleven-plus years, with its replacement, a food-only store, being based out of town.

Clearly, location is everything, and where we shop is more likely to have an address ending .com, or .co.uk, rather than PO1 1EA. The spaces left behind by this shift have, unexpectedly, become a place for contemplation, as I found out one day.

I have no idea what I viewed on YouTube for “Dead Mall Series,” by American filmmaker Dan Bell, to be recommended to me, but I was transfixed from the first video. Each set-up is similar – a first-person walk around a shopping mall, often built in the 1970s or 80s to redevelop former industrial areas. You see the postmodernist appropriation of natural surroundings – marble courtyards, skylights, palm trees and fountains, all garnish for the air-conditioned racecourse of shop fronts, still identifiable long after the business, and customers, left. The effect is alienating and bizarre - some malls once housed over a hundred stores, and are now down to its last few, variously down to larger “anchor” stores leaving, competition from other malls, the rise of online shopping, and crime and neglect, as mortgages and taxes on the mall are unable to be paid. You see where the malls have changed for the worse – plants removed, fountains turned off, whitewash on the walls, or even fake walls put up to repurpose shops as offices, gyms, or even just to make spaces that may never be filled again.
[Randall Park Mall, North Randall Ohio - now demolished]

The most extreme example of a “dead mall” known to most people was the Dixie Square Mall, based in Harvey, Illinois, which closed in 1978 after just twelve years, in time for it to be used in a chase scene for the film “The Blues Brothers” (1980). However, it took until 2012 to be demolished, during which time around ten proposals to reuse the space came and went, before crime and vandalism turned it into a derelict ruin. As of 2018, the land is a brownfield site, still waiting to be reused.


In “Dead Mall Series,” and other YouTube-based series like “Ace’s Adventures,” and “Retail Archaeology,” the use of vaporwave music heightened the nostalgia for a mode of living that was dying out, as if this whole capitalism thing wasn’t working out. Going to the mall was once something you could do all day, as restaurants and cinemas often formed part of the same complex. The mall security ensured you had a safe space to hang out, but once fortunes change, there is less reason to keep you there, and less reason for mall owners to keep trying. This is why you see many videos about the same malls appearing, such as for the Forest Fair Village in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania – these are cavernous spaces that are almost abandoned, but can be freely explored, because they remain open, even if the plants have died, the roof leaks, and the lights are  going out.


For me, these grand spaces are fascinating. The postmodern architecture and aesthetics of shopping malls and vaporwave feed off each other, that area of thought and practice is now coloured turquoise, salmon pink and grey for me, matching the floor tiles and fixtures of many American malls. The stillness of walking through a place that is meant to be buzzing recreates that lost energy in yourself – you wonder what had been made of this space, and what could still be done, but the sadness moves from feeling the lost prestige of times past, to the acknowledgement that buildings that lose all purpose will inevitably be demolished.

Malls in the UK are often smaller, and built around the back of existing high streets, so the experience of walking off a busy street into a scene of desolation is very jarring indeed. Last year, I made a video about The Bridge Shopping Centre, a small mall built in Portsmouth in 1989, which backs onto a supermarket. Last year, I made my own video, walking through what had now become a corridor to the supermarket. Since then, two more shops have closed, a pet shop and jewellery store, with barriers preventing you from walking past the pet shop - there is little incentive for anyone to consider opening a store there. A time capsule was buried when the mall opened in 1989, and it may not be too long before it gets dug up.

I am not sure what lessons I am supposed to take from dead shopping malls, except to treat their insides like a desolate art gallery while they still remain. Our lives no longer see malls as leisure in the way we once did - creating your own nostalgic entertainment through them may be their last possible use. Vaporwave quotes the alienating, desolate feeling of a dead shopping mall as much as the malls themselves tried to take cues the outside world, creating a safe, enclosed space. Maybe I am nostalgic for something that was never really there, but wanted to be there, thinking it would always be there. Maybe that is the power of retail, and why I couldn’t step into Toys R Us one last time.
[Bargate Shopping Centre,  Southampton, UK - currently being demolished]