Sound and vision blog

4 posts from March 2016

30 March 2016

Port Talbot and the British steel industry (1)

Image courtesy of Chris Shaw via Wikipedia Commons

Throughout the last century steelmaking has been one of the principal industries in Britain, due to the centrality of the product to manufacturing as a whole, its financial significance, and until its recent technical transformation, the size of its workforce.  

The news announced today that Tata Steel plans to sell its UK assets including Port Talbot steelworks is devastating to not only the 5,500-strong workforce but for the town of Port Talbot, the surrounding areas and the wider British steel industry. 

A major landmark of the South Wales coastline, the steelworks have been at the core of Port Talbot for the last sixty years.  In its prime in the 1960s, it was Europe’s largest steelworks and the largest single employer in Wales.   The steelworks in Port Talbot are part of the town’s furniture, dominating the area economically, physically and culturally.  The cutlery that we use, the cars that we drive and the ovens in which we cook our food are all likely to contain a little piece of Port Talbot.

Steelworkers have been crucially important to the industrial life of the nation yet they remain surprisingly unknown and anonymous.  Between 1991 and 1992 the British Library carried out the first national oral history of the British steel industry entitled Lives in Steel.  In the following clips, steelworkers describe their memories of Port Talbot steelworks.

Mike Lahive describes his commitment to Port Talbot steelworks

Granville Pugh describes the dress code in the steelworks

John Foley describes the sacrifices made to be able to travel to work

Granville Pugh talks about the risks of working in the steel industry

Granville Pugh describes Christmas and New Year at Port Talbot steelworks


British Library Sounds provides online access to 88 unedited oral history interviews as part of the Lives in Steel collection.

Emily Hewitt Assistant Archivist, Oral History & National Life Stories

21 March 2016

Sea Inside Us All: celebrating the sounds of our shores

Last year, the British Library, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland ran a three month sound mapping project that encouraged members of the public to go out and record their favourite sounds from around the British coastline. 'Sounds of our Shores' received over 600 recordings that covered everything from waves and wildlife to amusements and industry, and helped tell the sonic story of the British coastline during the summer of 2015. At the end of the project, musician and sound artist Martyn Ware was invited to create a composition based on recordings submitted by the public. Here, Martyn speaks about his own relationship with the coast as well as the various themes represented in his specially composed piece, 'Sea Inside Us All'.

Martyn Ware Brighton beach

When Mike Collins from The National Trust asked me to create a long-form piece based on over 600 recordings from the public of the British coast, my first reaction was one of joy…a chance to create a virtually ‘symphonic’ work in the style of a ‘slow radio’ impressionistic experiential sound/dreamscape.

I love the coast of the UK – having had the good fortune to travel all over the world, I can honestly say there are very few countries that can compete with the beauty and diversity of our coastline.

Last year I was commissioned (as part of an online art project entitled One And All) to create a 3D soundscape based on sounds that I collected via a specially built beach hut (which was transported to Seaham in Co. Durham, Orford Ness in Suffolk, and Porthgain in Pembrokeshire), designed to record peoples reminiscences of the sea whilst looking out through a small square porthole to the horizon. The responses we got were incredibly varied, but one common theme emerged – that the coast is a place of contemplation and largely carefree joy – and that people are much more aware of their sonic environment in proximity to the sea.

I also created a 3D soundscape which was installed at Somerset House last year with the hypnotic visual accompaniment of Ben Wigley’s film. We even brought the bruised and battered beach hut to the Thames riverside – it has now become a kind of ‘Tardis’ and it has assumed a character of it’s own (particularly as we encouraged people who visited to graffiti the inside with drawings or comments about the sea!).

For 'Sea Inside Us All', I’ve incorporated some contemplative and gorgeous longer stretches of soundscape with no human presence – from rainscapes to foghorns, from clifftops and birds to shingle being thrown around by giant waves, fisherman’s equipment clunking around in the wind, rockpools gurgling, and simple wavescapes at night.

But the solitude and peace of the coast is counterbalanced by the joy and chaos of busy seaside towns. This is a particular passion of mine, as our only annual holiday every year when I was a child was one day on a working men’s club charabanc trip, usually to Cleethorpes, Skegness or Scarborough. That one day symbolised total freedom and joy – no worries re money – just for one day. The donkeys, the sandcastles, the football, but most of all the penny arcades and the rides, the ghost train in particular… and our one and only trip to Blackpool was like Las Vegas compared to our normal days out – the Grand National ride, and the massive pleasure park…


Another theme that emerged from the recordings was all the recreational events that happen at the seaside – coastal steam railways, morris dancing, the thrill of classic aircraft at seaside airshows, boat trips for bird watching, fishermens songs on a fishing trip, market traders selling the fish, fiddle playing on a drinking session, or simply a cup of tea and a cake out of the rain!

But the real heart and soul of the coast is embodied within the many enthusiasts whose passions are multifarious – descriptions of different seaweeds, a lifeguard describing her work in great detail, the ‘twitchers’ describing the ever-changing natural environment (rather like sentinels on behalf of us all), the clear and present love that many, many people have for the coast is completely evident in these recordings.

My son Gabriel Ware had recorded some orchestral pieces about the sea previously for a project in Liverpool entitled 'The Crossing' (a 30 minute piece about a trip to New York and back on an imaginary Cunard liner – but over 175 years also!) – so I asked him to write some music for 'Sea Inside Us All'. His compositions perfectly embody the wistful calm and serenity of the coast.

In today’s ever-increasingly time-poor world, it is also evident that trips to the coast are an opportunity for families to reconnect in a less-sensorially cluttered environment.


All these elements combine to create a beautiful and emotionally engaging piece of work, which will transport you to another world by the sea – a world of fond reminiscence and happy times, of enthusiasts, of natural sonic majesty and beauty and of simple human pleasures, but most of all children and families at peace with the world, with all their senses fully engaged. That is why we all feel so much more alive at the coast…

So put your headphones on, relax and drift way… or try listening whilst in a busy city or commuting – it works!

Martyn Ware 14th March 2016 

To whet your appetite, here is a five minute excerpt from 'Sea Inside Us All'

Sea Inside Us All excerpt_Martyn Ware

The full length version is available on audioBoom here.

04 March 2016

What does 'place poetry' look and sound like in the 21st century?

Last Friday the British Library hosted 'Beyond Bounds: Britain Re-Presented in Poetry', a performance of poetry readings by Anthony Joseph, Kayo Chingonyi, Jay Bernard and Vahni Capildeo.

The reading was followed by a discussion about the idea of place poetry in the 21st century.

None of the poets settled for a particular meaning of place. Perhaps because they are all well-travelled and have lived in a myriad of locations.  At one point in the discussion Anthony Joseph said 'place is in the mind’ and ‘home is where you want to be’. Vahni Capildeo told us that her heart belongs to Glasgow. Kayo Chingonyi talked about how London is a place that sucks you into itself. And Jay Bernard made it clear in her reading that place can be a whole made up thing which doesn’t even have to exist.

Anthony Joseph and Vahni CapildeoAnthony Joseph reading from the anthology Out of Bounds / Vahni Capildeo reading from Measures of Expatriation

Kayo Chingonyi and Jay BernardKayo Chingonyi reading from The Color of James Brown's Scream / Jay Bernard reading from The Red and Yellow Nothing.

The event marked the beginning of a 10-month series of complementary poetry events/activities which will take place all over the British Isles. It launched the Out of Bounds Poetry Project, which is administered by the Universities of Stirling and Newcastle and funded by the AHRC. The project is a follow-up from the poetry anthology Out of Bounds. British Black and Asian Poets (2012), edited by Jackie Kay, James Procter and Gemma Robinson, who is also one of the project leaders.

The Out of Bounds Poetry Project will generate online digital resources which will allow both poets and public to have a say on place poetry. More about this in a future post. All the audio material generated by the project will be archived by the British Library.

Overall the event was injected with humour and provocation. You can listen to the audio recording of the event in the Library’s reading rooms (BL reference C1717/1).

Listen to Anthony Joseph_The Ark [excerpt]

The British Library's sound collection is growing by 4000 recordings every month.  Access to collection items is either by appointment through the Listening and Viewing Service, or through the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue (at the Library premises only). Selected recordings are available to listen to online.

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound.

Read about the British Library's Sound Archive preservation programme to digitise the nation's rare and unique sound recordings at Save Our Sounds programme and #SaveOurSounds.

Here comes the rain again....

A guest post about the many sounds of rain from author Melissa Harrison.

I spent a year going outside and getting wet so I could discover what the English countryside is really like in bad weather, and one of the things I discovered was how subtle and how extraordinary falling rain can sound. 

It was unexpected. I’m not a field recordist, or a musician; listening comes after looking, for me. Yet on expedition after expedition, walk after rainy walk, I began to understand that the sound of precipitation was a key part of how I experienced the landscape.

Gentle rain over Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire, recorded by Alan Burbidge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have lamented its ‘dull, two-fold sound’ (‘An Ode To The Rain’, 1802) but in an audio diary made a few months after going blind the writer and theologian John Hull described how the sound of falling rain brought the invisible world around him to life:

"If only there could be something equivalent to rain falling inside then the whole of a room would take on shape and dimension. I should also say that this is an experience of beauty. Instead of being isolated, cut off, preoccupied internally, you’re presented with a world, you’re related to a world, you are addressed by a world.

Why should this experience strike one as being beautiful? Cognition is beautiful. It is beautiful to know.”

(from Notes On Blindness, now a short film)

Hull talks of ‘shape and dimension’: the sound of rain for him is perhaps not unlike the echolocation clicks that Daniel Kish, blind since infancy, uses in order to ‘see’ what is near him and navigate his way around the world.

For me, of course, the effect was much more subtle. I walked in four seasons and in four different landscapes: in the Cambridgeshire Fens in January; in Shropshire’s farmland in August; by the Darent, a Kent chalkstream, in August; and on the uplands of Dartmoor in October. Each time, the rain was different – from drizzle to a thundery downpour and everything in between – and the sounds it made were different, too.

In late spring and summer, when the trees were fully in leaf, I found that rain sounded heavier even at low intensities, because of the susurration it made as it struck the foliage:

Raindrops on leaves, recorded at Bükk Hills, Hungary by Alan Burbidge


Rain sifting down onto treeless moorland, in contrast, was almost silent – though I found that the way I’d know when it stopped was not visual (it could be hard to tell) but auditory: subconsciously, my ears would pick up the moment when it stopped lightly pattering on the hood of my coat.

When I was caught in a storm beside the River Darent the rain seemed to fall with more force than gravity could provide, making the surface of the water look as though it was boiling as droplets splashed back up in a thick haze, almost like steam. The sound was unforgettable: not just the rending crash of the thunder but the hiss of the downpour: water meeting water all around. It felt both exciting and claustrophobic; when the rain stopped (which happened suddenly) the silence came almost as a shock.

It wasn’t quite silent, of course: the world never is. Immediately, birds began to call, and for a while fat drops of water fell from the bankside trees above, plinking percussively into the river. I realised that the experience of the rain had been a strongly auditory one – I’d heard it just as much as I’d watched it fall, and felt it soak my jeans.


My year of getting wet was an education in that way, a process of opening myself up to all aspects of rainy weather instead of hiding away from it as we usually do. Now, at a standstill during a cloudburst on the A303, my first response isn’t to turn up the car radio but to turn it off, so we can listen instead to the soothing sound of raindrops drumming on the car roof.

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison is out on March 3, published by Faber & Faber with The National Trust

To listen to more recordings of rain, please visit the Weather collection on British Library Sounds