Supper’s Digests: The Parable of the Caretaker

One of the most engaging classes at university was Recording Techniques. I credit the lecturer, Dave Fisher, for inculcating me with the science of audio engineering and, just as importantly, the culture of the industry. He provided an idea on which the following thought experiment is based.

As a music producer, you have been commissioned to record a few obscure pieces of orchestral music for a documentary series. You have hired the orchestra and engineer, and secured a local hall with excellent acoustics. When the day arrives, the morning goes as usual. The engineer sets up and tests her equipment. You both agree a schedule with the conductor. Later, the orchestra arrives to rehearse. This gets them used to the acoustics and seating arrangements while the engineer makes a few adjustments. Eventually, it sounds great in the control room, and all’s set for the recording to start in the afternoon. Everybody takes a break for lunch.

Suddenly, a white van pulls up. After a brief conversation with the caretaker, the driver lifts a pneumatic drill from the back, and starts cutting up the road outside. The building’s gas supply is being repaired. An air compressor emits a steady rumble while he rattles the building for minutes at a time, ripping up the tarmac to diagnose and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the caretaker has disappeared.

You talk to the contractor. He is not in charge of his work schedule, but tells you that local rules dictate that the noisy work has to finish by 5pm. He gives you a phone number, and you try to reason on the phone with the building’s owner. Apparently, they have been coping with a reduced gas supply, and have been waiting for a month to get it fixed. Without today’s repair, another month of dining functions will have to be cancelled. They assure you that they’ll have a word with the caretaker for not telling you about the situation when you booked, and they’re sorry. You cannot re-arrange the session, but the owner compromises by agreeing to rehouse a local society’s meeting tonight so that you can, at least, continue to record into the evening. Just one thing is in your favour: the orchestra and engineer have been paid an initial fee, but most of the money they’ll get depends on the completion of today’s recording.

Now there’s a choice. You could try persuade the orchestra to prolong their lunch break for the entire afternoon, cancel their social arrangements for the evening, and stay late to finish the session. Or you could arrange to record in infuriating piecemeal, brokering short truces throughout the day and stopping whenever the drilling has to recommence. This will drive everybody mad: you, engineer, orchestra, contractor. Or you could threaten to phone a solicitor unless the contractor is sent away, leaving the venue with an administrative headache, cancellations and fees, no gas supply, and a caretaker who’ll possibly lose his job. If they relent, none of this would be your problem, and the momentum of the session could continue to its original schedule. Happier musicians make better music.

This is all hypothetical, but the same kind of situation happens all the time: people you’ve just met will force you to make quick and unreasonable decisions with big implications. Live with the noisy drill and you’ll annoy the team you hired. They’ll feel that their contract has become a ransom note, and they might refuse to work with you again. Send away the driller with a threat of litigation, and you will seriously upset the caretaker.

Which answer were we given? Let the drilling continue. Tell the owner to go easy on the caretaker for your sake. Give the orchestra the final choice about which of the remaining unpalatable alternatives they’d prefer.

Here’s why: the professionalism of an orchestra will carry them through almost any adversity. No matter how difficult the session, their income and reputation depends on finishing the recording and doing a good job. Keep within the Musicians’ Union rules, or stretch them with consensus, and you’ll go home with a session master that will pay the mortgage. They’ll get their money and a useful anecdote about what a prat you are and how soul-destroying it is to work for the bourgeoisie. Upset the caretaker, though, and you have a powerful enemy with nothing to lose. He may now feel entitled to ruin your session, and can do so in a hundred ways. He’ll prevent the engineer from running her cables, will insist on seeing a council permit that you don’t need or you’ve never heard of, or find some excuse to cut off the electricity. Perhaps he’ll lock you out of the control room during a break and disappear for the rest of the day, impounding your equipment.

While Dave Fisher’s intended conclusion was ‘never piss off the caretaker’, there are some wider implications. One: no matter how gingerly we avoid burning bridges, life demands that occasionally one or two get chargrilled towards a nobler end. Two: the balance of power often lies in the most surprising places. Get used to this, learn to embrace absurdity, and don’t take dignity too seriously.

Supper’s Digests: In and around Dalston

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 them lovingly in three fanned columns, 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 all their libraries to Costa Coffee.

Supper’s Digests: a walk in the park

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.