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About four years ago, I hacked together a web site so that my father could promote his art online. His operation is now beginning to get more serious, as galleries exhibit his work, he gets media attention, and other people start to manage various parts of what is becoming a business.

Hand-hacked HTML and Python scripts no longer work in such an environment, so I’ve had to migrate his site over to WordPress to permit third parties to manage its content. I’m astounded at how far WordPress, and the infrastructure it’s built on, has come in the last few years. Back in 2003, I wrote my own CMS for Supperware using acres of php that provided minimal functionality. Now I’m using textpattern here just because it’s easy, I don’t blog much anymore, and I can’t be bothered with anything else.

The point is this: please take a look. I’m not going to vouch for his website, but David Supper’s pretty good.

with space in mind

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I realised I didn’t have my academic papers up on the web site anymore. Here are the more significant ones. In case it isn’t obvious, the pilcrows link to the papers.

Supper, B, 2010. Processing and improving a head-related impulse response database for auralization. Paper 8267. AES 129th Convention.

Supper, B, 2009. Characterising studio monitor loudspeakers for auralization. Paper 7994. AES 128th Convention.

Supper, B, 2005. An onset-guided spatial analyser for binaural audio. PhD thesis, University of Surrey.

Supper, B, 2000. Virtual reality presentation of loudspeaker stereo recordings. Undergraduate technical project, University of Surrey.

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It’s time for a musical interlude. Not knowing what to expect, and at the behest of friends whose obsessions, like mine, intersect literature, nerdiness and everything musical, Michelle and I attended the UK filk convention last month.

Filk music eludes accurate description. It’s more of a mindset than a genre. Over a weekend steeped in its world, trying to identify what it is and why it exists, we were hurtled through a fairground of musical styles, and pondered the nature of people who keep filk alive.

Originally a misspelling of ‘folk’, filk assimilates as many interests and personalities as it’s able to touch. Practitioners are united by common loves that include music, beer and wordplay. An outsider art, performed by people who know they’re outsiders and don’t care, filk music was once rooted in English and American folk idioms, but today it ventures farther.

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the circle, a gathering where anything from four to thirty people elect just to listen, or to take it in turns to play music to one another. A democracy of nominating and volunteering evolves; listeners at once become backing singers or instrumentalists, trading songs and sharing harmonies. Fresh material is revealed, and shy newcomers are heard and honed. These circles sustain themselves through the night, pouring forth music and holding court until breakfast.

Starting in 1987, the annual convention now resembles a family reunion, but its atmosphere remains one of unconditional support and appreciation. Music is treated seriously enough for huge stores of material to be composed and practised over the year, but personal eccentricities are taken for granted. The quality of songwriting and professionalism varies hugely. A few hesitant bars of ukulele scraped from a chord chart by a novice may introduce a song performed by a professional chorister.

No matter what its influences, though, this remains folk art simply because it is not mainstream. Filk is weird, but the longer you stare at a subculture, the weirder it always seems. There are plenty of examples from the recent past: modern opera; psychedelic rock; disco; the New Romantics of the Eighties. As soon as they enter the mainstream, they seem less barmy. Rap music is a pertinent example. The self-aggrandising misogyny, violence and materialism that characterises much of rap is at once a billboard and a sticking plaster. Regardless of the salary earned, nothing is masculine about improvising rhyming couplets against a recorded drumbeat. For all the firearms and swagger, The Notorious B.I.G. was basically Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Where was I? Yes, filkers are absurd, but no more so than anybody else. Knowing this, they lovingly poke fun at most of the things they embrace. Songwriters may be science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, or irascible folkies belting out nasal renditions of protest songs in the Dorian mode. They may just as easily draw influence from the news, musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, or a trashy video box-set. Nothing is too cherished or too tacky for assimilation.

Much of the craft is in the performance, so filk music is best caught live. We beheld, for example, a marvellous arrangement of a Tweet about the theft of a Catholic relic, rendered as a doleful sea shanty. It was strongly reminiscent of Ivor Cutler. Another group shoehorned the theme of raising an adolescent boy into a Pete Seeger song (‘Where has all the Kleenex gone? Gone into the teenager’s room.’)

A novelty song about a German immigrant struggling to learn the delicate art of English understatement won a prize, as did a poignant ballad about what becomes of superheroes when they age. Given a room and time slot of her own, someone set the back-story of a computer game to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There’s a lot of effort in arranging, rehearsing and performing such a work, but considerable patience is demanded of an audience to bear the hour-long punchline. The jokes are not always apparent to a newcomer: with many hours of such programming, one can overdose on filk.

Would I recommend it? Only to some. Subcultures are subcultures because they don’t set out to please everybody. You have to be a geek, a good musician, or a collector of cultural curios to be a filker: preferably all three. Would I go back to the convention? Yes. I admire it for the same reason I enjoy my walks through Hackney: there’s so much of the Earth’s flavour crammed into such a small space, bumping together, that sparks of inspiration are cast in all directions. Most of these sparks do nothing useful, but occasionally there’s a glimpse of something transcendental.

I have been left with strong but abstract inspiration. Art always plunders art, and artists fall into spirals of self-regard in a frenzy for inspiration. Filk can do this too, but that doesn’t diminish it. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Hang around and listen. No matter how impoverished or dirty or incomplete your contribution, add it to the world. Catch enough sparks and you’ll make some of your own. Who knows: you too could be Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

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Last week, I looked at parks. I continue the ‘free Hackney’ theme this week, turning my attention (mostly) indoors.

Ridley Road Market: Opposite Dalston Kingsland station lies another Dalston. Ridley Road Market is some half a mile long. Barrows run down the middle, and the shops on either side are essentially open-fronted cubicles. The last terrifying, blotchy Cockneys shout from their stalls, while first- and second-generation immigrants browse and patter amid the salted cod, bootlegged music, and strange, strange vegetables. A cluster of North African butchers display an astonishing magnitude of slaughter, garnering their windows with plucked poultry still replete with heads and claws. Pallid lower legs of goats and cows teeter stickily on trestle tables outside, foretelling bowl after bowl of marrowy, greasy soup.

Easily the most enticing wares are the towers of plastic bowls filled with cheap fruit and vegetables, in one case stacked six feet tall. The familiar leitmotifs of a British market are, of course, in evidence too: tatty clothes; chunky jewellery; the guy who cracks phones. There’s a bored-looking lady who appears to be playing Patience with the underwear she sells, arranging it lovingly in three fanned columns, and preciously straightened over her trestle table.

Hackney Museum: The council’s museum is aimed principally, but not entirely, at children. It chronicles Hackney’s history as a Saxon village, then a town, then a part of the Greater London sprawl. In this century, wave after wave of immigration has changed whole quarters of Hackney before dispersing, assimilating, or being bombed into oblivion. All have left their bric-a-brac in the museum, and there’s too much to cover in one review. A Yiddish printing press that stopped turning a century ago asks questions that Jews and poor immigrants still ask today, about Communism and Zionism and charity and life back in Eastern Europe. The arrival of war is symbolised by a static display with a gas mask, enamelware, and a cutaway diagram of the V-2 rocket. Bombs hit Hackney particularly hard, and the scars they left are still evident in Dalston.

Arguably, the slum clearances after the war damaged Hackney as much as the Nazis. The utopian planners who filled Hackney with high-rise communities lived to see their shiny vision fall to pieces, and could only cringe as their buildings were dynamited. We are still playing the high-altitude game all over London of course, but the tower blocks of tomorrow have never seen a Socialist. Commissioned by investment fund managers and bought by private landlords, they are inhabited by the nouveau riche. These new visionaries really understand human psychology, and the recent story of Hackney is, in large part, written by them.

This might be why a cute replica of a 1990 squat is particularly memorable. The Thatcher-excoriating decor and grubby domesticity might intimidate a school child, but its nostalgic comforts are almost romantic to anybody who remembers the demise of the Cold War or the Poll Tax Riots. The world may have seemed cruel and elitist then, but squatters would find fewer sympathisers in Parliament today. They’d be back on the street before their Blu Tac hit the wall.

Dalston Library: Hackney Council’s haphazardly-curated birdcage of the muses illustrates why libraries across the country are quietly closing forever. A walk through the maze-like shelves prompts questions that start ‘Is it just me … ?’ After some time, the Dewey Decimal shelves yields A-level textbooks, spin-off publications from faded TV celebrities about how to paint your house and sell it at a profit, and less fathomable choices of subject matter that (with a few exceptions) add a pitifully sparse garnish to the gestalt of human endeavour.

The Kingsland Road Oxfam Shop is both more coherent and more interesting, while the Internet promises a cheap lifetime of second-hand reading. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend a visit to the library. If only because you’ll have to tell your grandchildren one day why we sold it to Costa Coffee.

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Winter is a bad time to visit a park. The benches wring with rainwater, the grass suffers and squelches, and the wind howls through bare branches and sears skin. But parks are free at any time of year, and they can sometimes beat sitting around the office in a pool of existential angst.

I could have reviewed cafes instead. There are more of these in a five-minute radius than I could visit in a forty-year career, and they’re warm and generally friendly. But they’re not free and what they’re selling is fundamentally the same.

So, over the last two weeks, I have attempted to visit every significant park lying within a two-mile walk of the office, and condense my sojourns into miniature reviews.

Here’s the map for those who aren’t local.

Stonebridge Gardens: Crammed between two roads and the Overground, from its all-weather pitch to Snake Park, it’s already a friend of ours. All Hackney parks are a variation upon the same theme. It is a silent bastion of photosynthesis amid tomorrow’s slums, crawling skywards around it and threatening a perpetual dusk. It may not be beautiful, but Stonebridge Gardens will always be ours.

London Fields: An unremarkable patchwork of flat, boggy grass. The best thing about London Fields is making the pilgrimage. Reach it via Regent’s canal and its council housing projects, then up Broadway Market to see what happens to a neighbourhood when the hipsters declare victory. Return to HQ via Middleton Road, just because it’s preternaturally straight and will make you feel like an aeroplane.

Haggerston Park: The entrance is a gap in a twenty-foot brick wall that would better grace a prison. Once formal in design, it’s now looked after about as well as any other park in Hackney: competently, but without imagination. The windbreak is a shelter on the park side, and makes it possible to linger in winter. Its public toilets have very suggestive and angry notices on them from Hackney Council and are, of course, always closed.

De Beauvoir Square: Handy for the office, and very genteel. In Summer, it would be a handsome alternative to the ROLI sofa.

Fassett Square: The archetype for EastEnders’ Albert Square. Its garden is now crowded with sculpture and exotic plants, and not necessarily open for trespass. The houses that surround it are freshly painted and pretty, its Cockney patter replaced with public school cadences, while its fictional twin has been allowed to decay in mock authenticity.

Rosemary Gardens: I passed this. It looks inviting on Street View, but foreboding in January. Rosemary Gardens borders one of the prettier parts of the canal, and Southgate Road, which isn’t the prettiest part of anywhere. About fifteen minutes from HQ, it deserves a more considered visit when the weather improves.

Victoria Park: Even with a full hour, it’s a struggle to reach Victoria Park’s perimeter and return to the office in time. I wanted to explore it more fully, and ended up getting lost and returning at about half past two. It’s the only London park within walking distance that wouldn’t shame London’s other great parks. There’s a duck pond, formal pavements, and a miniature pagoda. What more could you want? If I’d timed trains instead of walking, a return to Hackney Wick would have allowed a more leisurely exploration.

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