Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

Hastings vs Frith Street: The birthplace of TV

One way or another I spent a lot of time around Soho last week, including at Bar Italia on Frith Street. Above it, not that obvious unless you happen to glance up, is the best Blue Plaque in London, epitomising British understatement. One of the most influential inventions of the 20th century and all it gets is one simple sentence of a dozen words. I took that sentence as gospel and have spent decades in the secure belief that telly came into being in that small room above what has been a classic London coffee bar since 1949, what was Logie Baird’s lab back in 1926. But that’s not really how invention and innovation works…

I went to Hastings a few days ago, to visit Hastings Contemporary art gallery (it turned out to be shut unusually due to staff shortage caused by the Covid pandemic). As you enter the town there is a mosaic road sign that says: “Hastings & St Leonards: the birthplace of television”. My world shook on its axis. I’ve spent my entire career in Television, I have a stake in it, I need to know the basics.

I also have a small stake in Logie Baird having delivered the John Logie Baird lecture at Birmingham University a good few years ago with Dr Christian Jessen of ‘Embarrassing Bodies’.

So what’s the connection between Logie Baird and Hastings? In short, before the Soho demo in 1926, Logie Baird (let’s call him JLB for convenience) experimented with the transmission of TV images in his house in Hastings. That was from 1923, three years before Frith Street.

21 Linton Crescent, Hastings, East Sussex

The house was at 21 Linton Crescent. It has a rival blue plaque from The Institute of Physics, made up of much the same words as the Soho one but in a different order. JLB came to live in the town early in 1923 while convalescing from illness and hoping to benefit from the sea air and more benign South Coast climate. Through to mid 1924 he carried out experiments that led to the transmission of the first television pictures. Similar to Edison’s famous thousand duff light bulbs, the 1926 Soho demo and the 1924 Hastings one both rested on extensive trials, tests and experiments. On failures Edison, responding to a reporter asking: “How did it feel to fail a thousand times?”, said: “I didn’t fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.” Edison has a part in the history of the invention of TV as he speculated early about the possibility of telephone-like devices that could transmit and receive images as well as sounds.

So it was in Hastings that JLB created the first televisual image, a shadowy outline of a Maltese cross. The contraption he constructed to generate this image was made from a Heath Robinson collection of household objects including lenses from bicycle lights, scissors, a hat box, darning needles, a tea chest and sealing wax .

The first transmission of moving TV images took place in February 1924 above a shop in Queen’s Arcade, Hastings which JLB had rented for his workshop. In July that year JLB received a 1,200-volt electric shock, but got off lightly with just a burnt hand. In the wake of the incident he was asked to leave Queen’s Arcade by his landlord, Mr Tree. That’s when he went to London.

From 25th March 1925 over a period of three weeks JLB gave the first public demonstrations of moving TV images at Selfridges. On 26th January 1926 he gave that Soho demonstration, the world’s first of true television, to fifty scientists in the attic room above Bar Italia.

In 1929 yet another plaque enters the story – it was unveiled at a ceremony which Baird attended at Queen’s Arcade.

Rewinding just a little, in 1927 JLB demonstrated his television system over 438 miles of phone line between London and Glasgow. In the wake of that he formed the Baird Television Development Company (BTDC). The following year BTDC achieved the first transatlantic television transmission, successfully sending pictures between London and New York. Also in 1928 he pulled off the first transmission to a ship in mid-Atlantic. During his astounding career he also did the first demonstrations of both colour TV and stereoscopic television.

JLB eventually returned to East Sussex to live out his twilight years in Bexhill-on-Sea. Then he went dark and disappeared in a little dot.

Creativity & Ego

Your ego can become an obstacle to your work. If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.

Marina Abramović, artist
Marina Abramović at “MARINA 70” – 2016 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

Ego is very hard to combat but it takes us in false directions much of the time, distorts our decisions and brings lies/fakery into our creative endeavours. 

Something new under the sun: Creativity & Connections (quotation)

“Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

What’s most of interest in this quote is the two unrelated ideas coming together to make a great new idea. Connection is the beating heart of creativity. It relates directly to the André Breton quotation at the bottom of this very early post from Simple Pleasures Part 4.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

Bowie revelation

 

Listening to lots of David Bowie music over his birthday weekend (Friday was his birthday, 8th January) I had a bit of a revelation. One of my favourite LPs of all time – The Talking Heads’ Remain in the Light – I suspect was very heavily influenced by Bowie’s Lodger. I remember the release of Lodger, his third Berlin album, well, him explaining on some BBC radio show the background to the world sounds drawn from Turkey, Africa and other diverse places. Lodger was released in May 1979 (one of the great years for music) and Remain in the Light in October of the following year. The connection should have been obvious because both were produced by Brian Eno and he has proven himself one of the creative greats of our times.

Eno’s impact on Bowie’s work on Lodger and the other two Berlin records is very well captured in David Bowie: Verbatim, the archive programme made by my friend Des Shaw at Zinc in January 2016, which was repeated last night to mark the 5th anniversary of Bowie’s passing in that month – you can listen to it here

When coffee & convenience were the mothers of invention: the roots of the Webcam

Having spent a large chunk of the last three weeks on Zoom (shares up 30%), Skype and the like, whilst drinking lashings of coffee, it is interesting to reflect on the device that has made this all possible and its humble origins in my alma mater, Cambridge.

The inspiration for the world’s first webcam came from a coffee pot next to the Trojan Room in the old Computer Laboratory of Cambridge University. In 1991 the computer scientists working there rigged up an early form of webcam (in greyscale) so those further from the room could monitor the level of coffee in the pot and stop missing out on the black stuff. At first it was an internal system running at a low frame rate but after a while (Nov 1993) someone thought to connect it to the World Wide Web and it became something of an early internet star (the web equivalent of a silent movie star). People from round the globe checked out the coffee levels in the lab. Because they were on different time zones a lamp was introduced to cover the evening and night.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xcoffee

XCoffee was the client software written by QSF

The coffee pot was retired after a decade in 2001 (it was actually the fourth or fifth) and bought by a German magazine (Der Spiegel) at auction for a bit over three grand.

The original programmers were Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky. Daniel Gordon and Martin Johnson connected it to the WWW. Here is QSF’s account, beautifully titled ‘When convenience was the mother of invention’.

The way this humble invention has transformed our lives in the last month is as astonishing as the rest of this surreality. I have used my (flakey) webcam in these weeks to join my mum on her 80th birthday; participate in a seminar on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; help deliver a documentary-making workshop over three days (that were supposed to be in Copenhagen); last night, hang out with some friends, associates and strangers/new friends whilst sprawled on my bed in the semi-darkness; have a meeting which opened with a live song; start writing a book with a close colleague; work with some filmmakers in Prague and L.A. and Thailand; have our regular book group meeting (online for the first time). So big up to Quentin, Paul, Daniel and Martin – and Cambridge. And coffee.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xvcoffee

The last shot: a hand switching off the server

P.S. For a great book on coffee and creativity, whilst you’ve got all this time on your hands, try Patti Smith’s M Train.

“In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

World of Zoom

Well, that was a weird week. I spent three whole days in online conference calls. I’d used Zoom once before. I’d never used Microsoft Teams.

However the week finished on a high note – our monthly Finnegans Wake research seminar at Senate House, University of London was shifted online this evening. Led by Prof. Finn Fordham of Royal Holloway, University of London, our motley crew wrestled with the clunkiness of MS Team to enjoy two hours together drilling down through the layers of the Wake and its various manuscripts and versions. Spending 20 minutes arguing the toss over the word “be” was a comforting contrast to the macro chaos beyond our virtual room.

Microsoft Team james joyce digital archive finnegans wake

“the massproduct of teamwork” suddenly took on a new dimension given that Teams was the software making this human contact and continuity possible.

The three days leading up to this evening was spent on Zoom (wish I had shares in them – and how did they nick ahead of Skype so effectively?). Zoom is a well designed software but the difference between what the workshop would have been like IRL and how it is in an online video conference is stark. Very intense and relentless in a way that is not the case face to face. I was working as a mentor on Documentary Campus Masterclass  – we were supposed to be in Copenhagen, parallel to CPH:Dox Film Festival (cancelled). I did the same workshop in the same city last year so I have a direct comparison.

The most creative use of the software was by two Czech filmmakers I’m working with – Vit & Tomas. They transported themselves and us, using the software facilities, high into the mountains…

zoom software documentary campus masterclass

[photo: Esther van Messel]

The gap between the experience of these sorts of softwares and the experience of being in a room with fellow humans is an interesting one which tells us much about how we actually communicate and how we create – which is not a flat experience but a rounded and fluid one. Something to keep observing over the next days and weeks…

Keep creating [quotation]

“If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change”

Miles Davis

mile davis jazz trumpeter

Miles at Newport ’69

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 4

Friday ended up as a frustrating feeling day. A lot of loose ends. Nothing finished. Including my relatively short To Do list. Saturday (yesterday) by contrast finished with me hitting send as a fired over three useful documents to my co-writer, Doug Miller. A mark-up of his outline. A set of notes collating the helpful, considered responses to my online call-out. And a response to Doug’s initial thoughts on how best to collaborate in practice. A satisfying, rounded-off feeling to conclude the day.

It’s important to live with mess, loose ends, even chaos in the writing process, indeed in all creative endeavour. It’s getting over that hump, bringing back some order in the face of the most out-of-control prospect, which usually marks where the creative achievement lies.

view from the summit of Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View from the summit down to the harbour

After lunch we headed up to the summit I had visited the day before. This time it was as a group, led by our hostess who is one of the two prime-movers on the island. I had a lovely chat with her on the way up, quite deep for a modest walk. At the triangulation point on the top there was a real sense of a cohort, a group bonded across very different experiences, backgrounds and personalities. Two of the Americans asked me to explain what we were looking at so I pointed out Howth Head as the North end of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains as the Southern limit; Rush and Malahide opposite; the small islands of Skerries looking North, and at the limits of our view the Mourne Mountains, faint in the distance, where my Other Half comes from. The panorama was epic, a beautiful subtle palette of blues and greys and delicate purples in the autumnal sunshine.

view of Howth from Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View of Howth Head from Lambay

On returning to the white house we did our second writing workshop with Jonathan (Gosling) on Style. Clarity; Pace; Engagement were the factors we considered. I focused on the opening of my as yet unfinished book When Sparks Fly, on the creative rewards of openness and generosity – a subject closely allied, it turns out, to the book on Collaboration Doug approached me about (the focus of my efforts this week). It was a helpful exercise and I could see at least a couple of things to improve – too long sentences in a quest for fluency/flow and questionable assumptions about how Digital Culture is perceived by many people.

The day before our first workshop was on our relationship to Writing. By using two observers as we spoke concisely about writing’s role in our lives, one recording facts, the other emotions, we quickly got some real insights into our work and ambitions. A really useful technique I hope to deploy in some other context soon. Probably starting with the MDes course on Story-telling I am teaching at the end of the year at Ravensbourne university/film school.

After the workshop I made a bee-line to the harbour to take advantage of the strong late afternoon sun. Donning my new Finisterre swimming trunks I strode into the September sea and dived in. It was …fresh. Envigorating.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 477

I am out for a walk in St Agnes, Cornwall during my summer break a few weeks ago. It’s a bit rainy so I head up from the cliff top inland towards where I’ve been told (by Joya & Lucy of Surf Girls Jamaica, both locals, hence my choice of St Agnes to sojourn in) there is a small business estate where there’s the HQ of a great surf clothing retailer called Finisterre. I eventually come across it, go in and buy some swimming trunks, shirts and a lime green recycled plastic water bottle. As the shop assistant is wrapping up my stuff he explains a bit about the business, how well it is doing, where the branches are, there’s even one up in London. Oh, where’s that? Earlham Street.

I work at Red Bull at 42 Earlham Street. I’ve never noticed Finisterre.

I have the harbour to myself, except for sharing it for a few moments with a black Labrador. The tide is out, the sand is smooth, the water cold (colder than Donegal a couple of weeks ago) but bearable, soon really refreshing. After the swim I feel amazing. I chat to a couple of Dubs from Howth over for a nature walk day trip. The wife shows me on her phone a photo of their view of Lambay from Howth village.

IMG_7492 lambay island harbour white house cottages county dublin ireland

I finish the day tying those loose ends on the lawn, my spot du choix. I also connect the lady-boss of the island to an old colleague & friend of mine who lives on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg has done an amazing job pioneering green energy & sustainable living, and my friend Lucy has been enthusiastically involved in driving those efforts. The Lambay Trust has similar ambitions. I’m glad I made the connection during our walk&talk.

Creativity, in my view, revolves around Connections. This includes the people connections offered by a writing retreat like this. And the factual/conceptual connections such as Lambay is a proto Eigg.

I bought myself a book from the island on Friday – it was my birthday present to myself. From my family, I asked for a new walk as a gift.  The book is In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara. Mara is Irish for sea. John of the Sea. It explores the science of walking and why it is good for us. I am convinced it is very good for Creativity, hence my early morning walks every day on Lambay. Here are a couple of quotations on Walking I recently gathered.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”

Steven Wright (US comedian)

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

oskar kokoschka kunstler und poeten book cover design

The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – Quote

I went yesterday evening to hear Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of ad agency Ogilvy in the UK, speak in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square about his new book Alchemy. I have had the good fortune to meet&chat with Rory on a number of occasions and it is never less than fascinating. He kindly contributed to the (finished) chapter on Paul Arden in my (unfinished, as yet) book When Sparks Fly.

Rory sutherland conway hall how to academy 17th April 2019 talk red bull

Rory grabbing the Bull by the horns

In view of the fact I’ve recently started working at Red Bull Media House (as a Commissioning Editor), I loved that he used Red Bull as a striking case study in this talk (as well as in the foreword of his book which I started reading today).

I liked this quotation on the value of Big Data from today’s reading:

It’s important to remember that big data all comes from the same place – the past.

Rory is a big advocate of evolutionary psychology and behavioural science (with all the irrationality those expose) as opposed to economics and other data-driven activities. He’s not against logic and hard facts, just in favour of suspending rationality from time to time in favour of creative magic or alchemy.

%d bloggers like this: