Stalking tour of Camden

I do not know Stephen Ryder personally but I know where he lives. I know that he is married and has a young family. I know what he does for a living, where he likes to go at weekends and what his tastes in television are.

He didn’t tell me any of this directly; I read it in the papers and online. Stephen writes for a national newspaper, as do many of his friends and family. He’s not what you’d call famous but he is well known to the middle-aged middle classes. And me. Because I know where he lives.

Stephen, I should add, is not his real name. I’ve given him a new one to protect his privacy. Sort of. See, all that stuff about his job and his tastes he wrote himself and let it be published. His frank, open style is part of what makes his submissions entertaining. He’s written about his family, friends, holidays and working habits. But the one thing he categorically did not give out what his address. Yet I know it.

Here’s how. Stephen’s style is not only open, but detailed. He’s not shy of describing a pub as his ‘local’ or mentioning an ammenities centre ‘at the end of [his] road’. Over the weeks and months I read his contributions, I built up a pretty good mental map of his local area. More than once I’ve visited these same roads and shops, always half-excited in case I bumped into the illustrious man. How cool would that be?

Not cool at all, is the correct answer. I’m not that kind of nutjob and I don’t wish to be. Here’s the crucial thing: it’s my local area too. (Or was before I moved to Latvia.) I recognise all those shop and pub names because I walk past them each day, down the same roads that he does. The only reason I know where he lives is because I live there too. So that’s OK right?

Well, maybe. First off there’s Google Search, Maps and Street View. I don’t really want to dwell on the great privacy panic of the 2010s but it is worth noting that in previous times one would have to know an area to – like me – recognise its shop names from a newspaper article. Nowadays one can plug the names into the all-knowing fact machine up pops an address, complete with handy instructions on how to get there. You can do that from Canada, sure, but you’re unlikely to cross the Altanic to visit Stephen’s favourite pub. He’s not that famous.

The cross-referencing isn’t always deliberate though. Here’s another thing I know about Stephen: he’s related by marriage to a famous comedian. It was an accidental discovery made by reading two articles by two different people. One mentioned a circumstance but no name, and another mentioned a related circumstance and a name. Together, I could make the match. I didn’t want or need to know this, and I feel a little bit awkward that I do, as to my knowledge it’s never been mentioned publically. I know I have my heroes but I hate to intrude. Not a stalker.

I have an odd relationship with fame and the famous these days. I used to think I was ‘above’ the gossip-mongering of Now! magazine and the like, but I’ve realised recently that I’m not. I have people I hold in esteem and I quietly enjoy their twitter feeds and the FYtumblr streams dedicated to them. I get excited about their lives and like to watch them through my collection of little glass screens. Just because Victoria Coren isn’t as ubiquituous as Victoria Beckam, doesn’t mean that my interest is any more appropriate.

But it is OK as long as there’s a distance. Other people are not my property. Only, when I like things, I like them lots (cf. Manic Street Preachers, Sherlock etc). So I try to be principled: only know what’s public, only ask what’s relevant. The distance can be through space (I will not go to Newport to hunt down Nicky Wire, because it’s inconvenient. And wude.), metaphysics (Sherlock Holmes was not real so I can happily visit his fake address and buy branded pens), or time (Michael Palin’s diary were written in the 1970s so walking down the same road now is fine). So while I like what Stephen writes, while he lives just around the corner from me, now, in real life, it would not be OK to persue that.

Knowing about Stephen’s half-hidden comedy connection isn’t really bad, it’s just a bit weird. While it does make me feel uncomfortable, it’s still just a piece of information. I imagine that all the people involved know about it – of course they do – and to anyone else it’s meaningless if good gossip.

What is seriously not OK what happened the other day. I was walking in the Camden area, having been for a stroll on the heath, and took the route back to my house, which happens to run along the street where Stephen lives. It’s a long road, but as I passed one of the houses, I immediately knew he lived there (or if not there then next door). Some tell-tale recent building work, also mentioned in his regular output gave me the final clue. Now I know not just where abouts he lives, but his actual address. And then, presumably, post code, phone number whatever – should I want to.

I really do not want to. I’m angry that I even know this much. Suddenly, without even trying, I’m one of those weird people that the police know about. All because I read newspaers. Screw Stephen and his compromised privacy. I feel violated.

The words we’ve heard

After much procrastination, I can present The illustrated Brett Anderson, a rather messy series of infographics (delusions of grandeur, right there) based on Brett’s most frequently used words.

Geeky method and stuff
It was pretty simple really. I took all of the lyrics to every officially published Suede, The Tears and Solo song and ran them through a frequency count. I also manually checked each one (kill me now) and adjusted for declensions, congugations, plurals etc. An information science degree does not prepare one for the sheer tedium of this and I nearly gave up at Suede, but felt guilty about abandonning The Tears and solo material. I think this means I have issues.

Almost all words which occur more than 20 times are included, and quite a few down to 4 occurances as I chose. I discounted all pronouns, bits of sentences that had no meaning (e.g. because, so) and variations of ‘to be’ (e.g. am, were). I didn’t include ‘la’ or ‘awwwwhowwww’ because that would have tipped me over the edge, and there’s a few more like ‘make’ that seemed too abstract to bother with. I wanted to include phrases like ‘you and me’ but I let my data integrity slide in favour of leaving the house occasionally. Basically it started off as a statistical exercise then I got bored and wanted to draw doomed spaceshuttles.

I drew all the pictures in Powerpoint. This is because I felt like giving myself an extra level of misery and is in no way an excuse to cover my poor design skills.

Anyway, here are the results.

Pretty pictures

You can download the whole lot as a PDF, should you be so inclined.

Why?
I don’t bloody know. There’s something distinctive about Brett’s lyrics, Suede in particular and I wanted to investigate. In essence I guess it’s that whole suburban apocalypse thing, which I hope is reflected in the images. I’m not sure if this exercise brought me any closer to understanding it, but awwwhowww well.

Cuttings from his glory days

I’ve walked Las Ramblas but not with real intent.

I’m a big fan of the local library. Not library as I might usually mean it, not the slightly over-heated, out-of-the-way, never-have-what-I-want-in cubby holes that I treasure dearly. But the other local library, the streets of London and beyond which I tread daily, living and breathing the present but so often the past, or the made up.

Here, in Tufnell Park I am in spitting distance of the following:
– The house George Orwell used to live in
– The Seven Sisters which Brett Anderson left ‘for a room in a seaside shack’.
– The Hotel Splendide which inspired a Bernard Butler bside
– The Good Mixer which cooked up Britpop until it boiled over
– The St John’s Road, Archway where Spike Milligan used to visit his friend Harry Edgington
– The house where Spaced was filmed. (I even shop in the same Londis as Tim did.)

The locations in songs, TV and books captivate me as much as the emotions, and send me on stupid Saturday morning missions to seek out a brick wall somewhere in Highgate. Cast the nets a little further, to the rest of London, Worthing, Sheffield and the list could go on.

You know, I walked around Merrian Square in Dublin, and sure people know Oscar Wilde lived there, but who else spots the estate agent Morrisseys on the corner and Yeats’ house opposite, and sees Cemetry Gates made flesh? And then I walked down Las Ramblas in Barcelona thinking of Orwell and thinking of Nicky Wire feeling inadequate in his steps, and I felt inadequate in both their steps, but was somehow thrilled, as if I was doing a secret thing which only I knew about.

Often it’s me on a treasure hunt but sometimes it’s accidental and it catches me unawares. Take this week. I have been reading High Fidelity by Nicky Hornby. It’s set around here, Crouch End, Seven Sister Road, Camden, Kentish Town. Familiar terrirtory but I don’t recognise many of the road or shop names. I know Crouch End well so there’s no need to seek it out.

But then, the book finds me. On Friday evening a friend of mine from work, Rachel, invites me to see her band play in Camden. Suddenly I’m in the Hope & Anchor and the Purple Turtle and seeing Rachel sing, meeting the band and their friends and having awkward but fun conversations and the memory of the book, of Marie’s gigs comes crashing in. Waves of sensation – something like deja vu – make me laugh and I find myself asking my new aquaintances what music they like just to keep the illusion going. It’s not even as if the personal situation is similar, it’s the same thrill as Baracelona – being in a joke that no one else is.

Saturday morning I walk to Oxfam Books & Music in Kentish Town to see what I can dig out for my scruffy book pile. The guy in the shop is berating his younger assistant: “I can’t believe you haven’t seen Zulu! How can you not have seen Zulu? Where have you been?!” I take my books to the counter and he critiques them, all the while continuing to tell his assistant how great Blondie are. As I’m paying the assistant is asked “OK, top 10 records from the 80s?”. On my way out I ask them both if they’ve read High Fidelity. No, says the man. Yes, says the assistant. “Well,” I said to the assistant, “he is definitely Barry.”

She giggles, I leave. But not before I catch the expression on her face, which I know well myself. It’s the joy of being in on a joke that you can’t explain and you couldn’t even if you wanted to.

New generation calling.

On the face of it, this post might seem like it’s about yet another obscure piece of fan trivia, the kind that Fact & Breakfast makes its bread and butter. But it isn’t. This post is about the internet, libraries, user generated content and how – despite what some might have you think – they are not diametrically opposed but work together for all kinds of end. (Including, admittedly, solving obscure bits of fan trivia.)

Side A: Problem finding

In October 1994 Suede released their second album Dog Man Star. In October 2002 I fell in love with it. In June 2011 Suede re-released it as a ‘deluxe’ edition featuring demo and pre-edit versions of some tracks. Last week, I played these new versions for the first time and awoke some old curiousities.

So I did what I always do.

There are no results except a link to the Suede forum. Well, I guess if anyone’s going to know it’s them.

Oh.

I have come to rely on the internet to tell me things. Before I was merely curious. Now, after being told I shall never know, I am determined that I will. So, I think, maybe there’s some clues within the clip. The newly-released deluxe version is two minutes longer and has more samples. There must be a hint of something in there.

I listen. You can listen to the standard album version. The extended version is similar. The main difference in the sample is a few seconds seemingly broadcast from the Cheltenham races. But can any of it help me? As it turns out, yes. And it all hangs on the closing seconds of the song. …here at Cheltenham.

Side B: Problem solving

How? Here’s how my thought process went:
Key assumption: That the Suede forum is right and the sample was recorded directly off TV. This thesis is supported by the white noise sounds that break up the sample.
Therefore: TV has a broadcast date. Broadcast schedules are published. Determine the date > Locate schedule > Name film.

Easy. What’s the date?

We need TV schedules across three months in 1994. Range too big.


We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 that there was racing at Cheltenham. Still a potentially large range.


The sample mentions that the horses will also be at Newton Abbot today. We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 when there was racing a Cheltenham and subsequent racing at Newton Abbot.

Let’s compare racing schedules for Cheltenham and Newton Abbot and see where they coincide.
Cheltenham race schedule
Newton Abbot race schedule

There’s only one match: 20th April 1994. (The 27th April is also a possibility as there’s racing at Newton Abbot two days later, and I can conceive that horses might travel a day or so before a race. We’ll keep that one as a back-up).

Cool, who has TV schedules?
Not Google, it’s too long ago. But in those pre-historic days of the early 90s, they were at least published. On paper. But who’s got a copy of them now?

Enter Westminster library, who kindly give me access to UK Press Online.

A bit of boolean querying. I knew that degree in Information Science was good for something. Not that one really needs a degree to understand boolean operators.


Dear UK Press Archives. Please can you show me all pages from the 20th April 1994 with the words ‘Television’ OR ‘TV’ please? Ta.

Yes, indeed it can.

Full image

There’s the Cheltenham races on BBC2, and then at the same time:
– On ITV a studio talk show which accounts for the If you’d like to take part in fu-… bit of the sample;
– On BBC1 Hawaii Five-0 which might explain the violent punching sounds. Or that might just be Brett and Bernard finally loosing it;
– and, wonderfully on Channel 4 a film, Woman’s World, from 1954 (plummy accents) and according to Wikipedia a character called Bill.

Bing-bloody-go.

I posted my findings back on the Suede forum with the caveat that (a) I’m a complete geek and (b) I could be wrong and it’s all been a collossal waste of time.

A day later, this was posted:

Here’s the video clip – a direct result of all this wrangling.

My level of excitement was beyond embarassing:

Hidden track: Why bother?

16 years of uncertainty over in a couple of hours. But like I said, this isn’t a post about obscure fangirl things. I’ve written this screed to prove a point.

As meaningless as this discovery is, I couldn’t have made it without databases (racing and TV schedules), search engines (Google), or user-created content (forums and wikipedia). And I certainly couldn’t have made it without Westminster library telling me the press archive even existed, and then paying for me to access it. I reached it from my own PC and all I needed was my library card number.

Those TV schedules are on the net, but not Google-able. So are dozens of other databases, reference books and collections. Not only do we collectively not know they’re there, we don’t know how to work them and are unwilling to pay for them when we do. Libraries, God bless libraries, solve the last one, though I really wish they’d shout more about the first two.

But this isn’t a post about how wonderful libraries are, though I’ve been known to write them in the past. The point I want to make is that databases and early computers did not kill libraries, or render them obsolete. The internet did not do away with structured information or negate the need for books. User-generated content, when used with sound mind, enhances rather than destroys ‘proper’ sources.

I needed all of these to make this meaningless discovery. We could make things of actual value if we learned to stop polarising old and new, formal and fun, tactile and virtual, and just enjoyed the wealth of information that – with a little effort – is available at our fingertips. This rant is a little without context, but think of the number of X or Y debates there are – Mac OR PC, print OR screen, facebook OR real friends – and think of this as the same. Not or, both. BOTH.

High horse off. Over and out. Time to listen to Still Life.

What’s my name?

Returning to some user profiles I created two years ago raised a wry smile back at myself. Never one to let the chance to sneak in a subtle nerd/fan reference slip by, my wireframes, user journeys and user profiles are full of sly nods to whatever I’m crushing on at the time.

User profiles, example below, tend to sketch a person with reference to a particular project e.g. a website. They’ve got a name, a location, backstory, tasks thoughts and feelings. For me their names have much wider significance than one might think at first.


Picture: Rough ‘n’ ready user profile

Two years ago, ‘Matthew Osbourne’, ‘Adrian Healey’, ‘Jenny Lewis’, ‘Michael Young’, and ‘Donald Trefusis’ (or variants of) were very busy people, while I was up till 1am most mornings watching QI repeats on Dave. Not a coincidence.

When I’m profiling, I sometimes have genuine user data, but sometimes I’ll need to design in the dark, and sometimes I’ll have practical tasks but I need a personality to pin them on. These insta-names give my developing persona somewhere to begin. Knowing that I don’t have forever to create 6-10 new people adds to the impetus to get some ego-aspects going quickly.

If I’m using real people as a basis I’ll jumble up names and surnames as a cover, because the aim isn’t for the client to recognise their origin; they need to be new people, portmanteaus of their genuine users as well as my fictional friends. Across projects I’ve also used mixtures of the Manics, Conan-Doyle characters, the Comedy Store Players, Suede, Chalet School novels and many more. The profiles that come out the other end are in no way these people. They’re a very useful starting point for personality and a happy repository for in-jokes that are too tiresome to list here.

It’s also a bit about my identity. When I go down a fandom rabbit-hole, I take my whole world with me. I always wonder if a client or a colleague would spot my references but they never have done yet. If they did I’d be happy and embarrassed at the same time. Pleased someone gets me, mortified that my nerdiness might have crossed a line too many.

On one occasion I used names taken from my own fiction writing. Now, no one would ever recognise these and bring me to book as it were, but they still came with all the benefits of a pre-fab identity. Only, as I handed them over to colleagues and clients, Tom, Pippa and Rachel were changed. Words were put in their mouth that they would never say, lives were given to them that they would never lead, and I found it strangely hard to handle. But “Pip would never have a haircut like that, she’s far more of a 70s child” does not go down well with a designer on a tight deadline. In the end I forced the project to change their names because I couldn’t cope.

Now I stick to fiction and bands, all jumbled up in my cultural reference pit. Jenny Healey gets a lot of fun because she’s an extension of a fictional character. She’s mine to use at will but since I based her on a Fry character it’s not so personal when others take control.

However, naming personas remains a secret pleasure and Jenny won’t last forever. No doubt I’ll keep finding new obsessions, they’ll keep leaking, and in a few years time it’ll be a good a map as any to find out where my mind’s meandered.

There’s a song that I recall

I went to see an adaptation of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall in Hampstead the other week. As adapatations go, it was excellent. It took the three biggest elements of ‘Adolf’ and the subsequent volumes – the humour, the loss and the music – and told of the first two through the latter.

Taking of the form of a classic revue show of jazz standards, it merged the hits of the time into the plot, and unlike most of the modern day pop-musicals (yes, still looking at you, Ben Elton) it succeded wonderfully. Like the best stand-up shows, the transitions between skits, songs and scenes were seemless, and the over all impression was of friendship in one of the most wasteful expending of human life in history. I was laughing, through joy and sorrow, often at the same time. In short, it did justice to the books, and was exactly what theatre should be.

In the subsequent couple of weeks, I’ve re-read ‘Adolf’ and the next one in the series, Rommel, Gunner Who?. A lunch break later and I’m wondering what happened to Harry ‘Ying Tong’ Edgington, Spike’s best friend in the pre-Goon era. Now so reliant on Google and Wikipedia to meet all my pop-culture needs, I was really rather confounded when a search on both of these turned up next to nothing.

If did they a QI on ‘ways Kathryn chooses to abuse the wealth of information resources at her fingertips’, I will definitely apply for the job of Chief Elf.

The reason I know so much about Harry is, ironically enough, because I can’t find anything much out about him at all. I was reading Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, and he’s featured loads (usually with a cup of tea). He co-wrote some of Spike’s early comedy sketches and started a Battery Band with him. His surname was even the inspiration behind the Goon’s Ying Tong Song.

Anyway, as I often happens whenever I get interested in a subject something slightly to the sidelines of the main subject (i.e. WWII) will spark my curiosity. In this case it was Spike mentioning that Harry lived in Archway, down the road from me! I wondered if he went back there after the war, and what he ended up doing. He didn’t end up in the Goons despite his early forays into that music and comedy with Spike, so where did he go? Normally I’d whack a couple of things into Google, and bish bash bosh, there’s your answer.

Only, there’s nothing, except a small article in a Kiwi newspaper saying he’d died. Ziltch. I tried a few more combinations and still nothing. Harry was to the Goons as Pete Best was to the Beatles, and yet the internet has never heard of him, apart from in reference to the Ying Tong Song. I think this actually broke me slightly because I’m so used to being able to find anything I want online. I then spent a mad afternoon looking in the Guardian, Mirror and Times online archives (which go right back to the first edition). STILL NOTHING, not even in Spike’s obituaries.

Of course, obstruction like this just makes me more determined to find out what I can about the guy. I’ve pieced a few things together, but it’s basically my pet project at the moment. It made me think about all the other information that probably isn’t online. A massive black hole that you don’t know is there until you try and find something from pre-1980. People these days assume that everything is online, that there’s a record of everything and there isn’t. Harry wasn’t just another soldier, he was instrumental (excuse the pun) in changing Britain’s comedy culture and there really isn’t anything. I’m trying to find out enough information so we can make a wikipedia page for him, then I expect other people will be able to add stuff. It’s just getting it started.

The joy of me and Alan Turing

On Saturday I visited Bletchley Park, the mansion house estate that became the Enigma-cracking, computer-building hive mind of the second World War. I’d been wanting to go for ages; partly because of the family connection (my great uncle worked there) and partly because I’m an almighty geek and the following things fascinate me: computers; code-breaking; Alan Turing; the 1940s; train journeys through the country.

I joined a guided tour and learned about the ‘wrens’ who did a lot of the leg work (women outnumbed men 3:1), the attacks thwarted because of their work, and got to look around working models of some of the very first computers.

There was also a reconstruction of Alan Turing’s office, including a mug an enamel mug chained to the raditor – one of his many quirks being that he was convinced someone would steal it.

The most fascinating thing for me was the way the Turing Bombe worked, the machine that was used to find out the day’s setting for each Engima code. Huge, complex and awe-inspiring. The same goes for Colossus – the first prgrammable computer, and built entirely out of GPO parts! I could have watch it wirring around for hours.

What realy suprised me was learning that Bletchley Park was kept a secret right up until the 1980s. I’d always known my great-uncle served there, and I just assumed it was common knowledge what the place was used for, or if not, I never imagined it’d be 40 years until it all came out. That’s a long time for 8000 people to keep a secret!

For more info, try their website ortwitter.

Here’s some pictures:


Two of the huts where the Wrens would work


Reconstruction of Alan Turing’s office


The mansion house


Looking across the lake to the mansion house


One side of a Turing Bombe


The other side of a Turing Bombe, being explained by a now-retired Wren


Statue of Alan Turing