Notes & Queries by David Herkt


Time & Perfume

Smell is probably our most culturally neglected sense. We prioritise vision and hearing, and our words for them are numberless, with many careful distinctions. Smell, on the other hand, is comparatively a great unknown, without a general language or the ability to enunciate subtle distinctions. An entire history is undervalued and left undescribed.

A perfume or fragrance has intense physiological effects. Each of our bodies already has its own scent. We scent erotic arousal. We can smell genetic similarity and family smells different from strangers. We can smell fear and mood. Odour may very well form the infant’s first bonding with its mother.

In human culture, the ability to change our bodily smell came early. By the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, production of perfumes was already on an industrial scale in Crete. Later, the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Rome all had extensive and international commerce in both olfactory raw-materials and manufactured fragrances.

Despite this history, perfumes generally remain in the realm of unconsidered economic products, items in a store without cultural critical apparatus or analysis, intellectually ignored except in the most basic terms.

And nowhere is this clearer than the most neglected factor in our perception of perfumes – time.

A perfume is composed of aromatic substances with differing volatility or evaporation rates. As an applied perfume ages from moment to moment, it smells differently. Perfume happens in time, fundamentally, in a physical sense.  A skilled perfumer utilises this dimension in creating a fragrance, and the perfumes of the Guerlain family are an exemplary demonstration of this temporal dimension.

As well as being concerned with time in its fragrances, Guerlain has been a family company, with successive generations of family perfumers from 1828 to 1994, when it was purchased by luxury brand LVMH. Some of Guerlain’s readily accessible fragrances are more than a century old. It is possible to smell, for instance, 1889, 1906, 1912, and 1919. The label is an olfactory history in itself.

Jicky (1889) is the oldest commercial perfume still in production. It came from a period in which the first artificial colours were discovered, like mauve in 1856. Perfumery began experimenting with aromatic indoles created from coal after 1869. Jicky used the new coumarin and vanillin, alongside a number of natural ingredients. It was one of the first truly complex fragrances. The differing evaporation rates of its natural and synthetic components were utilised to create a fragrance that would not simply fade, but which would change over a period of hours.

Jicky presents this experience in its infancy – a fast sparkle of quickly evaporating volatile aromatics, a mid-range scent lasting for hours, and the dry-down base. It is a structure which has come to dominate perfumery  - although the so-called ‘linear’ fragrances, perfumes that smell exactly the same from start to finish (for example White Linen by Estee Lauder and Eternity by Calvin Klein) have made periodic appearances since the 1940s.

Perfume, in short, is a chemical narrative.

Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky was the opposite of the flower-scented fragrances that had preceded it. It has a rich odour (predominantly lavender and a deliberately chosen impure grade of the synthetic vanillin) with startling citrus aspects, at least initially. There is also the first hint of the base that would come to be known as the Guerlinade.

As the volatile aromatics evaporate, the Guerlinade accord remains. It is the layer of fragrance that gives the Guerlain perfumes their family resemblance. While it mutates with individual Guerlain fragrances, it is an identifiable ‘finger-print’ of the brand.

The Guerlinade would be the family’s secret for the next century, underlying their best fragrances with a skin-hugging nuzzliness. The Guerlinade is sweet (and even ‘sticky’ in early Jicky version), but is tempered with odd blurred high notes. It is deep with spice. It is familiar, intimate, and rich. It makes the best Guerlain fragrances completely unique.

Jacques Guerlain would become the family’s third major perfumer, and the most masterful. He created a range of fragrances whose complexity and narrative make them peerless in perfume history.

Après L'Ondée in 1906 and  L'Heure Bleue in 1912 were the first of Jacques Guerlain’s perfumes to achieve lasting renown. They were the precursors to the great 1919 Mitsouko.

Après L'Ondée is the scent-equivalent of an Impressionist watercolour. It has the fascinating appeal of an apparently minor work that is a masterpiece. Initially water-lit, melancholic and funereal to some degree, it is develops swiftly with a strange resolution. The violet notes are twisted and ramped up by the synthetic heliotropin.  Après L'Ondée has a subtlety that ends up broadcasting wide-beam with a single pitched note.

Fragrance chemist and critic, Luca Turin has referred to Après L'Ondée  as ‘one of the twenty greatest perfumes of all time.’ Culturally, it feels inimitably French - it is hard to think of another nation that could have created this particular accord and make it work. It is soft and rainy with a vibrant heart of fused metal.

L'Heure Bleue is a vastly different fragrance - bigger, drenched, and richer. It is a maximalist fragrance compared to Après L'Ondé’s restrained notes.

Using aldehydes for the first time, Jacques Guerlain’s L'Heure Bleue has a hint of the later Chanel No 5, which would ramp the aldehyde-levels up to saturation point, giving the Chanel its singular predominantly abstract base. However, L'Heure Bleue layers the aldehydes with intense orange blossom, vanilla and incense, and where Après L'Ondée  is fluid, L'Heure Bleue is powdery.

L'Heure Bleue is also a fragrance with an intense sillage – the wake a perfume leaves in the air behind it. L'Heure Bleue  trails like the skirts of an Edwardian dress. It is also one of those rare perfumes that smell just as good on the skin the morning-after.

Both L'Heure Bleue and Après L'Ondée  are complex. They both modulate temporally, offering difference with development. It would be a technique that Jacques Guerlain would further refine and bring to triumph with Mitsouko (1919).

If Mitsouko was a book, it would be Proust’s seven volume masterpiece devoted to Time - A la recherché du temps perdu. Mitsouko has an unparalleled perfumic narrative. Jacques Guerlain created a fragrance with a developmental span of at least eight hours, if not longer. It turns with duration, revealing new facets with a surety that has never been repeated. It isn’t just the fragrance’s longevity on the skin, it is the changes that are rung – continually and interestingly. It juxtaposes and recombines. It feels alive and responsive.

Mitsouko is a chypre perfume– a compound of citrusy top-notes and an oak-moss base. There is, at least initially, a peachiness. It is certainly and recognisably a member of the Guerlain family. But where Mitsouko differs from other Guerlains is the enormous story it tells – differing aromatics seem to roll in on tides - citrus-resinous, sweet-amber -resinous, and bitter-resinous. Sniffing a wrist periodically after an application of Mitsouko, one notes the different elements as they pop-up to temporary dominance and recede, only to be replaced by another. Mitsouko evolves with startling skill.

Mitsouko is perennially nominated as the ‘best fragrance ever’. It is addictive because there is simply nothing that equals it, no perfume that complex, no perfume that commands time so effectively.

But Guerlain has now lost its family ‘nose’. For the first time the label is not under Guerlain family creative control, and along with EU rules, many of their perfumes have been reformulated to avoid allergens. Mitsouko, for example, was reconfigured in 2007, to avoid the ‘oak-moss’ accord, which was banned by EU regulation, just like the rectified birch tar in the famous leathers like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. While many of the reformulations have been successful, it has led to a thriving trade in ‘vintage’ bottles.

Wearing a ‘good’ perfume is an essential luxury. Wearing a bad fragrance is worse than wearing none at all. Education in scent is as easy as making repeated visits to a perfume counter and taking advantage of the opportunity to use a free product - perfume counters offer spray-on samples. Knowledge comes from experience, and the consequent educated pleasure is part of a life well-lived. Smell may be the final frontier of sensory exploration, but it richly repays effort. The products of the Guerlain brand in the early Twentieth Century are one of the great rewards.


Little CD in a Prospect of Flowers


She did go out in time for the Sunday headlines. Her body was discovered at 11.15am on Saturday in her Finger Wharf apartment in Wooloomooloo, a respectable time as far as media coverage was concerned. The death of Charlotte Dawson would front the Saturday evening TV news, with that lead-time to gather the all-important file footage and comment. And she’d headline the Sunday tabloids throughout Australasia.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried suicide before. There had been a recent attempt which had ended up in hospitalisation, and there had been others. But this one was different. This one was by hanging. It wasn’t the ‘go-to-sleep-permanently-and-still-look-good’ produced by the sleepies in the pharmaceutical cabinet. In fact, it would be awful and ugly. But maybe that is was it was supposed to be.

‘Thing is when we all reach out with love, he rebels,’ is the last line of the second-last text she ever sent me. She was commenting on someone else, but she could have been talking about herself. She was good at giving love – generally – but being reached by love was another story.

‘I’m wrong, just wrong,’ she said on other occasions. It was something she deeply and fundamentally believed. Beneath all the impossible beauty, the alleged glamour, the public lifestyle, Charlotte Dawson thought she was ‘wrong’.

I’ve known – had known, I’m still getting my tenses right – CD for more than ten years. I called her CD as she called me DH. With journalist Jonathan Marshall, JM, we made a troika, three of a kind. It was a decade of laughter, respect, company, and occasional fury. We were all hard management. None of us was exactly easy. We all had low boredom thresholds.

We all first became fast and permanent friends when CD was at one of her many career lows in the very early 2000s – the cancellation of TV shows, the scarcity of modelling work, the drying up of income. I liked CD a lot. I liked her anarchic humour. I liked her intelligence. I liked her looks. She was perceptive. She was fun to be with. She taught me lots about fame and fortune. She taught me things about duty.

I looked at her sometime after midnight at a 2013 New Year’s Eve party for 100 or so people at her Wharf apartment, and said ‘Jesus, we’ve got another eight hours of this’. ‘I know,’ she replied. I’d been doing clean-up duty, really, sorting the shit as it happened, making sure the party went off OK. JM was being the party. CD was being graceful, making sure everyone got a little celebrity charm. ‘I’m fucking exhausted,’ she said. But she was still charming the world at 6am.

I guess this is what I want to say. CD had a knack of bestowing grace. I used to really love it when the eyes of small children in malls lit up because they recognised her. She was so infinitely patient with them and with people in public in general. She’d always talk to them and you could see the energy and charm she granted. She bestowed celebrity grace on the people that asked for it. It was an odd laying-on of hands, but it worked.

CD was a woman who had made herself in many ways. She always told me that she had been an ugly adolescent. I don’t know. I never got to see a photograph of her from that time. Later on in life, and she was always frank about this, she had ‘work’ done. She had one Sydney plastic surgeon, a Chinese doctor, who did procedures free because she was happy to recommend him, and there were others with exactly the same deal - and exactly the same requirements of post-op publicity.

CD could get out of bed in the morning, throw some water on her face, and look great. There were frequent fiddles with botox and her lips could look bee-stung at times, but generally the basis on which she worked had been pretty good in the first place. Good bone structure. She generally worked out at gyms. She ate well – though she was definitely a meat-eater.

How you see all of this is dependent on your own life philosophy. CD was making herself for other people, and particularly males, or the generalised ‘male gaze’, thus the tits. Unfortunately in CD’s case, they were males I did not think worth it. I never really figured out her taste. There were the sportsmen, the players, and the business-success wankers, but in general, I felt, they were using her for her status as she used them for the appearance of a relationship and confirmation of public desirability. ‘I’m going to have to fuck him,’ she said grimly one night about someone, and her saying it was as glum as it reads.

In general, her males were being granted a high-performance individual, with an acute mind. Mostly, they had no idea what they were receiving. In an era when sportsmen are cultural heroes, unfortunately a high-profile woman is going to get stuck with a lot of really dumb male flesh. She did. She was a notch on a belt and a locker-room boast. Her need to do this to herself didn’t work for me.

CD could drink. Her preferred drink was chardonnay. ‘Chard’, she'd call it – ‘a nice buttery chard’ for preference. Sometimes it was way more than a tipple. She had a fondness for repeat screenings of movies and always had favourite scenes. Then she’d curl up on the sofa with her phone, glasses perched on the end of her nose, a bottle of chard, and, too often, twitter.

I could never feel her fascination for twitter. You open yourself to the public, and frequently not in a pleasant way. The human audience can be a terrible thing and hasn’t changed much from Roman crowds baying for blood. The combination of twitter and alcohol was not a good one, simply because it made her vulnerable and she took twitter seriously. I’m not saying she didn’t give as good as she got, but she was opening herself without filter to the often vile bigoted mess of humanity.

CD was also at a crossways in her life. She felt herself to be old – ‘old, old, old’ was one reiteration I remember as she watched a clip of herself on TV. And all the social valuations were coming home to roost, and not in a good way. She had lost her Foxtel contract with its retainer which had been a foundation for her life for 7 or 8 years. Then she had always treated her rented apartment as a refuge, but the owners were looking at selling it. Her body was discovered by a real estate agent with buyers waiting outside the door

In many ways, it was a perfect storm. But it had one consequence, CD is dead and I miss her.

Often late at night, last-track-before-bed stuff, she’d play favourite music on the stereo, and her all-time favourite track was a world away from authorised choices or what you'd expect. The track was from the punk band, Proud Scum, on the AK79 compilation: ‘I Am A Rabbit’. She knew all the words and she'd sing along.

"Well I've been called a dope before
Say I'm not sexy anymore for you
Say I am an animal
Say I'm not a man at all, it's true!"

She’d stand up in the middle of the lounge while I sprawled on the couch. She’d dance to Proud Scum and she looked like a little girl: that hair sweeping in the air, her body a mass of compact taut energy. I’d laugh because it was my own much-valued CD and shared time with her that only her and I could understand.

Now I’m gunna cry.


Kiwi Queer Screen (Part One) - From 'Hudson & Halls' to 'Squeeze'

In an era when the Archive is being opened and formerly inaccessible items are just a search and a click way from viewing, curation becomes the name of the game. NZ on Screen has compiled a selection of GLBT movies, documentaries, shorts and TV programs. It gives us a glimpse of time and change, from the 1980s to the present. It is a remarkable journey and it effectively begins with David Halls and Peter Hudson.

Hudson and Halls was a New Zealand produced cooking show, where two men guided the audience through a variety of aspirational recipes, with flair and innuendo. There was blond, affable, British-born, David Halls and the smaller and snappier Australian, Peter Hudson. The programme was extremely popular, and survived mystifying attempts by TVNZ to cancel it. By 1981 the show was regularly ranked in the week's five most highly-rated programmes in New Zealand and the duo had won a Feltex Award for Best Entertainer of the Year.

The Hudson and Halls series was produced prior to New Zealand’s Homosexual Law Reform in 1986 and the hosts occupied the curious space of flagrantly homosexual men on a public medium in an ostensibly intolerant society. They were blatant, in full sight, and with all the innuendo associated with the curious complicity of the audience in the matter. Everyone knew but no-one was telling.

The associated publicity material informed the audience that the two men were unmarried and shared a house but their relationship was never specified. Even South Pacific Television, the programme’s later producer, was in on the act, quoting Noel Coward in their publicity material: ‘We’re not sure if they are gay, but they certainly are merry.’

Hudson and Halls were camp. They were part of the long history of British Queerness that for much of the Twentieth Century was the only authorised mode of public gay expression. Camp had its roots in the British theatre, particularly the broad tradition of popular entertainers and music-hall comedians. The audience was automatically drawn into a arch and mannered world that, despite its superficial comfort, was deeply subversive.

Hudson and Halls' primary mode of humour was the double entendre, a statement that could be taken on two levels, one conveniently safe, the other more sexually knowing. ‘I’m adding a few twists of coarse black pepper to that – very good for the wrist-action,’ Peter Hudson murmurs over a recipe.

While there were other homosexual men featuring on New Zealand television at the time, like the TV host and quizmaster Peter Sinclair, their sexual identities were not so obvious. The fact that Hudson and Halls were not New Zealanders also gave them permission to exist in ways that perhaps were not open to the New Zealand born – Hudson and Halls could be gay because they were foreign. 

Their speech was filled with the drawl and enunciation of an international gay culture. Hudson and Halls, with their often unscripted banter, took us to the heart of a homosexual intimacy.  Their on-screen dynamic was the style of a familiar gay couple, with spats, moods, and squeals. 

Hudson and Halls were long-term lovers. They were both immigrants, who'd met in New Zealand, and who'd begun hosting a small 10 minute cooking segment on daytime TV that had blossomed into a show. They’d have a decade-long run of success with their Hudson and Halls series and its spin-offs – cookbooks, media-appearances, a restaurant, and a radio show.

Buoyed by their popularity, they left New Zealand in 1986. They began a cookery series for the BBC but, despite European syndication, they would never achieve the same level of mass-appeal they’d had in New Zealand. Peter Hudson would die of cancer in London in 1992 and David Halls would commit suicide from grief the following year.

Apart from the nuanced and coded Hudson and Halls, and a current affairs documentary or two, the subject of non-heterosexual relations was seldom apparent on New Zealand TV between 1960 and 1980. Instead, somewhat startlingly – because it came completely without local precursors - its first major manifestation was Richard Turner’s 16 mm, 80 minute, feature-length movie, Squeeze, which would screen in New Zealand cinemas as well as many overseas film-festivals.

Squeeze was filmed in 1979 and released in 1980 and was the first New Zealand movie to focus on New Zealand bisexual and gay men - and a Kiwi gay subculture.

Turner had previously made a suite of short films based upon New Zealand poems, a TV documentary Two Rivers Meet / Te Tutakinga O Nha Awa e Rua, which showcased Maori poetry, and Death of the Land (1978) a courtroom TV drama which focused on the sale of a block of ancestral Maori land. He had also begun a documentary on Black Power that was never completed. As Turner would later say ‘Squeeze was part of a body of work that challenged form and content on a number of fronts. It did not sit in isolation.’

Squeeze received its initial script funding from the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council for Script Development Assistance, but was refused further government funding because it its homosexual content.

The movie would eventually be entirely ‘crowd-sourced’. Its $100,000 budget would come from individuals within the gay community, from small investors to larger partners like Tony Katavich and Brett Sheppard - the producers of OUT! magazine and owners of a string of gay saunas and nightclubs - and James Wallace - owner of the large Wallace Corporation, a tanning and animal by-parts rendering company and more lately a prominent Arts philanthropist.


Squeeze is the story a young gay man's first explorations of the gay world of Auckland, his developing relationship with a man who plans to marry, and his encounter with another who is more comfortable with his sexuality. A host of wryly observed secondary characters range from drag-queens to gay bar drinkers and street pick-ups. In some ways, it was a coming-out movie for New Zealand, opening up a whole milieu that had never previously been acknowledged or observed in such detail.

The movie was gritty and moodily-lit. It was New Zealand’s first truly urban movie – there are no farms, beaches, or scenic tourist clichés. Squeeze was entirely shot in real city locations – Auckland streets, inner-city flats and houses, the City Hotel, the Westside gay sauna, the Backstage gay club, and the cruising areas including the Albert Park public toilets. It remains a guide to this lost world and sometimes one of the few extant visual records of these places.

Turner states the visual look of Squeeze was the memory of being taken to Piccadilly Circus as a child and being ‘awed by the display of colour from the neon lights and the way they lit seething crowds.’ Another influence was the underground Australian movie, Pure S AKA Pure Shit (1975), directed by Bert Deling, where four junkies search inner-city Melbourne for drugs.  ‘What excited me about Pure S is that it showed me what I could do in an inner city urban environment with little budget, low lighting, and high speed film. Pure S showed me I could use Auckland's inner city to re-create my nine year old’s memories of Piccadilly Circus.’

Auckland punk provided the movie’s soundtrack: Toy Love, The Features, and the Marching Girls. The movie’s title derived from the Toy Love song of the same name which provided its title-theme. The selection of music is indicative of Squeeze’s continuing cultural relevancy for it is precisely this music that is now seen as a valued legacy of the era. It adds considerably to the raw urban feel of the film.

The plot of Squeeze with its bisexual lead character, played by Robert Shannon - who would later die from HIV/AIDS - was built around the phenomenon of the closet, where a man would conceal his homosexuality in one part of his life while acting it out in another. The movie juxtaposes a heterosexual world and a hidden gay milieu to considerable effect. The movie’s observation of the tensions of its conflicted lead actor makes it a crucial on-screen document for the sexual attitudes of New Zealanders in the mid-late Twentieth Century.      

‘I don’t think I particularly set out to challenge form and content,’ Turner said. ‘If I had known what upset it was going to cause, maybe I would have carefully tiptoed the line.’

From Squeeze's first script-funding a concerted campaign had been mounted against it. The movie and its finance were discussed in Parliament with questions instigated by Patricia Bartlett’s ultra-conservative Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. Squeeze, despite its relatively innocuous sex-scenes, would eventually be given an R18 Certificate by the New Zealand censor.

Squeeze received many laudatory reviews from the overseas media. ‘What is most important about Squeeze is the steadfast compassion with which it views its hero,’ wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. ‘Turner does not judge him for trying to accommodate himself to an oppressive society in which he’s trying to get ahead by its rules nor does he forsake him when his life begins to unravel. Squeeze is a drama of most painful self-discovery, well-acted and heightened by an aptly moody, restless score.’

Squeeze was a significant movie for both New Zealand film-making and New Zealand gay life. The raw, urban, night-time docu-drama was about as far as one could get visually from other New Zealand movies of the era. The movie also depicted a gay subculture and its conflicts in the last years of its illegality - a representation of immense importance to its first audience who had never before seen versions of themselves or their lives on screen. It represented a new confidence that would be subsequently be seized upon by other film-makers to explore their own visions of a local cinema and TV

Coming Next: Kiwi Queer Screen (Part 2)  - The Second Wave



There are lances through time, connections between things, links that run through years and spaces.

In an Internet world, where more and more of the archive is opened up to exploration, this vast mass seems indigestible.  Direct questions and direct answers simply lock us into linear worlds; in order to get the answer, you have to figure the right formulation of the question. Now we follow link-streams to their end… which is different.

We are coming to the stage where the connection is everything. But we need new words to describe just what it is that happening when we move upon these lines of linkage, when we follow the clicks.

“Browsing” is a verb which conveys little. Nor do we have words that explain the odd knots and strange connectives. The German critic and philosopher of technology, Walter Benjamin, and his consideration of ‘convolutes’ in examining the history of 19th Century Paris, is one possible step; for Benjamin a convolute was a knot of revelation, from a line of poetry to the activities of Parisian prostitutes and rag-pickers, whose meaning is perhaps not yet obvious.

There is also an aesthetic that needs to be created. What is a good search? What is a productive browse? How do the links and slants join? How do we explain and comment upon the process?

An example is necessary.

The first ever live-to-radio broadcast from an outdoor location wasn’t breaking news, a political event, or a disaster, it was the song of nightingales from the garden of British cellist Beatrice Harrison at Foyle Riding, near Oxted, in Surrey, at midnight on the 18th May 1924.

Beatrice Harrison in her garden, 1926.

Harrison was a cellist of some note in Britain. She had given several first performances of the compositions of Delius, and was closely associated with Elgar’s Cello Concerto.  Discovering that nightingales in the woodland that surrounded her Foyle Riding house seemed to sing along while she was practising late at night with her windows open to the summer air, Harrison contacted John Reith, the chairman of the BBC, with a suggestion that he broadcast the event.

Reith was initially dubious but he allowed himself to be convinced.

BBC engineers P. Eckersley and A. West set up the equipment at Foyle Riding that made the experiment possible, most notably the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone.  

Previously microphones had been rudimentary “repurposed telephone mouthpieces”, but the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone was beginning to revolutionise radio.  It was a microphone sensitive enough to pick up sounds which had confused engineers until they realised they were insects and birds. Suddenly radio and recording had become broad-spectrum.

From Foyle Riding, the amplified signal from the Marconi-Sykes travelled via the telephone lines to be broadcast from the central BBC station in London, 2LO.

An estimated 1 million people listened to the first nightingale broadcast at midnight on 18th May 1924. It created such a phenomenon the experiment was repeated a month later.

In advance of the second annual Nightingale broadcast in 1925, Reith wrote that the Foyle Riding nightingales had swept Britain with “a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism… a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life.”

Thousands of visitors began travelling to Foyle Riding during the Nightingale season. Buses were chartered, guests entertained, and charity visits arranged. The Harrisons received over 50,000 fan letters.

Capitalising on the phenomenon, an HMV Nightingale recording was made on May 3rd, 1927, and featured Beatrice Harrison playing the Northern Irish folk song ‘Londonderry Aire’ also known as ‘Danny Boy’, accompanied by nightingales.

The Nightingale live-broadcast tradition was maintained as an annual event by the BBC. Harrison left Foyle Riding in 1936, but the broadcasts continued with birds solo, until May 19th, 1942, the 18th annual broadcast, when the scheduled broadcast was cut dramatically as it was going to air.

It was World War Two. The microphones in Foyle Riding had picked up the sounds of 197 aircraft massing over Southern England en route to bomb the German city of Mannheim. Unwilling to warn the Germans of an impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug. The Nightingale broadcast was abruptly halted, but as the phone lines were still open and equipment still in place, both nightingales and bombers were recorded on acetate disc.

It is one of the strangely profound audio documents of the British air-war.

The 155 aircraft on that May 19th raid reported hitting Mannheim but once the bombing-photographs were developed, they largely showed forest or open country. The force had undershot its target. No more than 10 aircraft loads fell in the city. 600 incendiaries in the harbour area on the Rhine burnt-out four small industrial concerns: a blanket factory, a mineral-water factory, a chemical wholesalers and a timber merchants. Of the 197 planes dispatched, 12 were lost.

151 miles north of Beatrice Harrison’s Foyle Riding, was the RAF Station at Hemswell.  Some of the bombers caught on the BBC recording probably had their origin here, providing the aircraft that circled over the south and midlands of England in order to create the stacked stream that would then angle off towards Germany. 

The Hemswell Base Commander H. I. Cozens, had been trained as photographer and a filmmaker. He had been on the British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland to assess its suitability for a staging post for civil transatlantic flights. He had been awarded the Polar Medal (Silver), for his film of the expedition, 'Northern Lights'.

Commander Henry Iliffe Cozens (circa 1946)

In 1943 Cozens began shooting what would be the only contemporary colour documentary film of the Bomber airwar. It was designed as a training material for Bomber crews, to give them an overview of the process in which they were involved. It would remain a secret until the 1970s when it was released under the British Government 30 year rule.  It was broadcast, with added commentary, on the BBC in 1978.

Cozens shot the preparation and the implementation of a bombing raid upon Berlin. Designed as an information resource, it is a detailed glimpse of a technological war - even if the rudimentary nature of the technology now gives some pause for thought.

The operational life of the Lancaster bombers, as the documentary voice-over states, averaged only 40 hours flying time. They were mass-made devices, stripped down to the basics. The interiors visible in the film are basic metal. They were unheated, unpressurised aerodynamic alloy-cans, with attached bombs.

The glimpses of ops rooms in requistioned British manor-houses, the briefings, and the loading of aircraft give the film a similar air to Kubrick’s process-obsessed movies like Dr Strangelove or 2001. Cozens has the same eye for minutiae and procedure. But the glimpses of humanity are just as fascinating. The WAAFS, the first real roles women had in the support structures of combat are much in evidence. The insouciance of the bomber crews are remarkable, given the grim statistics. Pet dogs await aircraft return. Telephones ring and are answered. Markers are moved on boards.

More than 1,000 bomber crews were lost in the ‘Battle for Berlin’ airwar. Their average age was 22.

The target for Cozens’ bombers was Berlin, but despite the nightly bombings Berlin was also a city maintaining some form of cultural life - and its technical back-up.

When it came to sound-recording, Germany was leading the world. The Germans had invented and experimented extensively with magnetic tape in the 1930s. Superseding the previous ‘wire’ recording, magnetic tape was developed at BASF, then part of the industrial giant IG Farben, and later by AEG in co-operation with Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), the German national radio network.

 Friedrich Matthias of IG Farben/BASF had created the recording tape itself, the oxide, the binder, and the backing material. Walter Weber, working for Hans Joachim von Braunmühl at RRG had radically improved sound quality with the AC bias technique. Originally recording in mono, the Germans swiftly ventured into stereo.

The first stereophonic recordings (two separate channels on the one magnetic tape) were made in 1943 by the staff of RRG. Helmut Krüger was an RRG sound-engineer and utilised the AEG/Magnetophon R22  and the AEG-Telefunken K7 stereo tape recorders as extensively as he could. (Krüger had been nicknamed Krüger-Krüger by his RRG colleagues, in reference to his habit to record everything in stereo.)  He recorded more than 200 live concert performances in stereo, pioneering a miking pattern still in use today, as well as conducting many studio experiments.

The frequency range of the RRG recordings could only be duplicated by the Americans five years after the war, and it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the quality of the German material and the recording techniques could be equalled.

After the fall of Berlin, the Soviets removed the entire RRG Archive to Moscow in 1945. Some tapes were used to make records released on Melodiya in the 1960s, other languished in storage.  A cultural repatriation was organised in March 1991 and 1462 original RRG recordings found their way back to Berlin, including a handful of Krüger’s stereo tapes. 

Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 5 had been recorded by RRG in Berlin, as part of the on-going stereo experiments at the very end of 1944.  Featuring the great German pianist Walter Gieseking, and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester under Arthur Rother, the stereo taping had also unintentionally caught the sounds of the anti-aircraft batteries outside the RRG building during an allied air-raid. In the quiet passages of the Allegro movement, (2´30"+, 5´40"+ in the clip), the thumps of the anti-aircraft fire are clearly discernible.

The combination of Beethoven and artillery in a stereo recording from the heart of the German Reich in the last days of the war is another profound historic and audio experience. Under fire, Gieseking and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester prove themselves every bit as good as the well-regarded Berlin Philharmonic. The sound-engineering is crisp, even through the medium of Youtube. The bang of anti-aircraft batteries is an unrhythmic atmosphere. The counterpointing of human impulses, destruction and creation, is almost unique.

But what is this series of links? A meander of thought? Web-surfing? Something we have no words for yet?

For me, the steps from Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales, the RAF bombers and a lost and rediscovered stereo tape recorded in wartime Berlin are something natural, oddly-complex, finely shaped and even exhilarating. It feels whole. It is neat. It is logical. I have no idea what it means, if it signifies, and what it signifies if it does.

It is something most of us experience every day in our wanderings through the great archives that have been opened to us for the price of an internet connection. Sometimes we discover a somehow meaningful linkage. Sometimes our experience of these links fulfils and thrills. At other times they are a mess of truncated engagements and restless ennui, with intervals of engaging cats.

Writing about these link experiences is in its infancy. We need words to describe and shape them. We need concepts on which to base the aesthetics. We need ways to describe the discoveries. We need critics of link-series and commentators who can reveal the nuggets at the heart of the process.  We need new ways to formulate the activity and to judge it.

We especially need ways to describe the odd condensation of it, the 'slice through time' aspect, and how illuminating and bright it sometimes seems.


Confessions Of A Sleepwalker

I have been more than fascinated by the much-publicised recent case of New Zealand’s sleep-driving woman. I’ve followed maps of her route intently. She drove from Hamilton to Otara, and Otara to Mt Maunganui. A total of 302.8 km. I was interested in the fact she managed to text friends. I am disappointed no report contains the content of her texts. I was interested in the fact that, in her case, the event was described as a side-effect of a sleeping pill. The fact that she had no memory of the event was another point to ponder.

It also had more than a few resonances as I am an occasional sleep-walker, sometimes with consequences.

It has happened every few years since I can remember. Nothing seems to link the events. They do not seem to reflect stress, alcohol, drug-use, or situation. They don’t seem to reflect psychological state.

Any beginning is lost in childhood where parents are always dealing with confused children in pyjamas in the middle of the night. My own first sharp memory of a sleep-walking event was around the age of 11. I woke up standing in my pyjamas on the grass in the backyard by the mandarin tree. I had unlocked the backdoor and walked into the yard. I remember the moonlight and the glossy leaves of the tree. I remember the chill. I let myself back into the house, relocked the door, and refrained from telling anyone about it. I recall another a few years later when I woke up just sitting in the darkened lounge on the sofa as if I was watching TV.

Any nocturnal wanderings around the house were facilitated and concealed by the fact that my parents and siblings had long been used to the fact I didn’t quite keep normal hours. At High School all my homework was done between 10pm and 1am. Moving around a sleeping household is something I’ve always done. Sleepwalking, however, is an entirely different thing.

Unless you are woken in the middle of things or observed by someone else, it is easy to pass under the radar.  For me though, there often remain nagging odd slices of unexplained memory, when you know something has happened, but just what remains a mystery.

I am a 100% sure I must have taken a nocturnal wander down a road in Sandringham because I have an odd memory of a street, the streetlamps, and a feeling that is only explainable to me if I were sleepwalking. In my experience, small vivid stabs of sensation sometimes remain from the event: the feel of cold night-dew on bare-feet, a rotary clothes-line in moonlight, the nimbus around a streetlamp, and in one case, the feel of piled painting canvases being riffled through in a spare room.

My partner woke me one morning six years ago and asked me if I had enjoyed the egg-sandwich. He had come to the kitchen to make breakfast to find a mess. In the night, I had apparently buttered four slices of Vogels bread, broken a raw egg onto each of them, spread the egg with a knife, taken a bite out of one, and put both sandwiches in the bin. When I tried to recall the event, the only thing that remained in my memory was a certain cold unpleasant feeling in my mouth.

These little flashes of memory generally remain to be puzzled over. They can only be linked with things if some-one else has observed you or you've woken in the middle of it all. The memories always possess this odd aura, as if they are coming from deep-down or a long way away. They are muffled memories.

My partner has observed it once. He’d finished a late work-shift at 1am and watched me walk to the kitchen, pour a glass of milk, not drink it, and return to bed. When I asked why he didn’t wake me, he said that he had said ‘hello’ but I had ignored him, completed my odd half-task, and then walked past him, unseeing, though my eyes were open. Then I was once staying with a friend and was woken by him asking what I was doing. I had opened the wardrobe door and was riffling through coat-hangers as if I was looking for something. I was sound-asleep.

For some reason doors seem to play a big role in things, including my most embarrassing sleep-walking episode.

I was on a work-trip to Sydney, staying in a new just-opened hotel. On the second night I woke up naked in a very long passageway with lots of doors that had no numbers on them. I had no idea where I was. If anything it resembled one of those nightmare or madness scenes in a 1950s B-grade movie; there was a corridor to vanishing point and locked and unnumbered doors. I spent some time wandering along  featureless corridors with their numberless rooms before coming to an elevator.

I did remember my room number and my floor, so I punched in the floor. It transpired I was actually two floors away from my own room. Whether I’d got the lift or had walked down a stairway to get there was a mystery. Naturally when I got to my room, the door was firmly locked. I went to the utilities room on the floor, hoping to find a towel or something to wrap about my waist, but I was out of luck.

So I had to get the lift to the brightly lit foyer, cross it unclothed, tell the startled night-clerk that I had been sleepwalking and didn’t have my key, could I have a duplicate please… I also asked him to check my room-number because at that stage everything was in doubt for me. It was only the next day that I discovered there were two floors of the hotel that were still being constructed to the extent there weren’t any numbers on the doors and no corridor décor. The B-movie scenario was explained.

For me personally, these events and the others I recall feel strange. They feel like another world where things have different rules. There is a sense of fuzzy compulsion about them, like the pull of the moon.

I have only ever seen another sleepwalker once, if that is indeed explains the event. It was a very hot airless summer night in Melbourne and I couldn’t sleep. I went out to the second-story balcony of our old row-house in North Carlton where there was a hammock and made myself comfortable. It was around 3am.

There was a movement on the other side of the street. A woman in a short nightdress was wandering along the footpath. Something about the way she was walking told me then and still does now, that she was a somnambulist, a sleepwalker. The weirdest thing though was that she was being followed by a man, around twenty paces behind her, who seemed to be furtive and keep to the shadows.

Whether he was her husband or partner keeping an eye on her, a passing person who had spotted her and was assessing what was happening, or an opportunistic voyeur, I will never know. I remember the curlicues of the wrought iron lace-work of the balcony, the airy suspension of the hammock in the heated air, and this odd event on the other side of the street: a woman in a short nightdress walking straight along the night-pavement, a man following.

And that’s the nature of the thing. Sleep-walking is strange. It is strange to experience and it is strange to observe. The usual rules of logic, experience and perception are broken. To the sleepwalker, it is both fascinating and frightening. "I have done something but I was not I when I did it." To the observer, it is a human behaviour out of the ordinary and not quite explainable by ordinary rules.

As people, our being in the world is so much larger than our conception of it. Sleep-walking is one of those things that tell us that fact. And I have not really done justice to the very odd flashes of memory that remain from a sleepwalking episode. It is another world seen through different eyes. I do not have the language for it.


 [Image: La Rue du Tramway (1938) by Paul Delvaux. ]