Beckett And The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

One of my favourite Samuel Beckett pieces is ALL THAT FALL, and, in search of a memory-refresher on a detail of the piece, I found this thing that I don’t think I knew before:

Since the journey of the main character is presented psychologically, Beckett asked for natural sounds to be adapted in unnatural ways. “New methods,” Martin Esslin writes, “had to be found to extract the various sounds needed (both animal and mechanical – footsteps, cars, bicycle wheels, the train, the cart) from the simple naturalism of the hundreds of records in the BBC’s effects library. Desmond Briscoe [sound technician] (and his gramophone operator, Norman Baines) had to invent ways and means to remove these sounds from the purely realistic sphere. They did so by treating them electronically: slowing down, speeding up, adding echo, fragmenting them by cutting them into segments, and putting them together in new way.”[80]Actors produced the sounds of all the animals but “Beckett was actually unimpressed by the use of human voices for the rural sounds when he listened into the … broadcast.”[81]

“These experiments, and the discoveries made as they evolved, led directly to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Beckett and All That Fall thus directly contributed to one of the most important technical advances in the art of radio (and the technique, and indeed technology, of radio in Britain).”

Also in Briscoe’s Guardian obit:

The pioneering sound engineer Desmond Briscoe, who has died aged 81, was among the first in Britain to realise the potential of electronic music in the 1950s, initially through composition and eventually as manager of the BBC’s electronic music studio, the Radiophonic Workshop, from 1960 to 1984.

His breakthrough commission – the success of which ultimately led to the creation of the studio – was Samuel Beckett’s first radio play, All That Fall (1957). Realising Beckett’s wish for a new kind of “pure radio” – one that blended dialogue, music and sound effect – Briscoe used the Parisian techniques of musique concrète (music made by editing together and manipulating bits of prerecorded magnetic tape) to create sounds previously unheard on British radio, thus bringing to public attention the potential for electronic tape effects in drama.

I kind of love the notion that the sainted BBC Radiophonic Workshop is all Samuel Beckett’s fault.



The Clock

I’ve never really had to travel constantly for my job.  But there have been times.  God, there have been times. There are those years, those moments, when you wake up at 4am in a strange hotel room in a strange city, and you’re coming up on one hundred thousand miles on the flight trail, and you look at the clock and think what the hell am I doing?  And that’s me saying that, a neurotypical log of low emotional content and dead nerves.  What the hell am I doing?  Does this stop?  Can it stop?

And in the morning you’re back in another car, on the way to another airport, knowing it’s three more continents before dinner, looking at the clock, and it keeps on ticking, and you keep on moving, and you try to relax back into the ticking and keep moving into the future.

If you can still hear yourself over the tick of the clock, you’re lucky.  Hold on tight til the sun comes up.


READING: THE FICTION, Curt Pires & David Rubin with Michael Garland (UK) (US)



I saw Kate Devlin tweet that How The Light Gets In 2018 destroyed her. I know the feeling but I wish I had time to be destroyed.  Got home late Tuesday, after that goddamn thunderstorm followed me into London while I was in for two meetings, and then stalked me all the way back to Southend.  I am heading out again in a couple of days, unusually for me, and fully expect it to trail me back into London.

How The Light Gets In festival was unusual, too.  For me, it’s not normally that incredibly social.  Sunday was a joy, drinking with Kate, Mic Wright, Kristen Sollee and Roxana Shirazi (and Tess Gruenberg, earlier).  I’m not sure any of the panels I did were especially enlightening for anyone, although I certainly learned things from the likes of the formidable Margaret Boden,  But, for the first time, I just had an incredibly fun and relaxed day full of laughter and stories.  It may not have been productive in any real sense, but, damn, I’d missed the experience of friends.

And now I’m back to the processing and the sending and the writing.  That should hold me for a year.  Here we go again.




London And Out

Made it into London after far too many trains out of darkest Wales, only to run back into the thunderstorm I left behind. Damp superheated London is not a thing I would invite you to experience. And suddenly Bank Holiday Mondays are a thing where people close shops and bars and restaurants again? When did that happen? Thankfully, when I made it back West to find Molly, there was a basic British boozer open, and we drank all their whisky until very late. Strange to think she’s one of my oldest friends now, as well as one of the best.

And now, for my sins, to Carnaby Street. And then home to the Thames Delta. Where I’ve just been told the thunderstorm awaits me. I remain the bringer of rain, no matter where I go.

The Yurt Life

I am in Hay. The rain is hammering down. I am in the green room yurt, which is filled to the gills with damp philosophers. I am still alive. This may not last. Last night I watched lightning scratch across the sky over the town. I may have to build a boat.

How The Light Gets In

By the time you read this, I’ll be on one of the three trains I have to take to get to Hay-on-Wye, in order to make my third appearance at the How The Light Gets In philosophy festival there.  You may ask, how far has Western society fallen, that I would not only be invited to speak at a philosophy festival, but invited back, more than once?  Oh, yeah, we are all beyond screwed.

(As is the British rail system – this used to be a two-train journey.)

I am, in fact, in no shape to do this trip.  My arse has been in this chair in front of this laptop since Jan 2 and I’ve had maybe three days off since then.  Dragging my arse through this country’s broken train system to uncertain accomodation in a flood-prone area on a forecast stormy weekend is not quite what I needed.  Still, I can feel several people giving me a hard stare for being a miserable hermit, so let’s give it a go.  And if I die in a river on the edge of civilisation it’s your fault.  Yes, you.


I’m packing my FIRE HD 8 tablet (UK) (US) because I need to rewatch some work by a director before I get lunch with him on Tuesday.  (Hi!)  It’s actually a great little portable video device.  That and the Kindle Paperwhite are all the tech I’m taking.



My Newsletter

Is currently on hiatus until June 4.  Because I needed the space in my week that it takes up, and because it was time for one of the periodic pauses I need in order to refigure what it’s for.  You can subscribe to it here — please disregard the fact that it’s so basic that Robin Sloan once said it looks like a dark web page.  I don’t know how to do proper landing pages.

It goes out on Sundays, currently to some 20,000 people.  I presume my mailing list service will implement some crippling GDPR protocol to that at some imminent point and half of those people will go away overnight.  But still.  For a weekly newsletter written by a fringe-culture hermit author in darkest Essex, that’s not bad.  I mean, most of them open it.  The 35% of people whose opens don’t register, it turns out, defeat the little pixel-counter by various means.  So it has an insane open rate.  When I say it goes out to 20,000 people, I mean that almost all of them read it within a couple of weeks.

And it’s mostly me just crapping away about random shit.  It’s not often about my work – in fact, it’s so rarely about my work that sometimes readers write to me to tell me that it’s okay if I want to talk about my stuff.

In my head, though, it’s always wanted to be a magazine.  A journal.  A curation of whatever I’m interested in, in any given moment. I’ve just never had the time to make it that thing — at the end of the week, there’s really been no time for anything but my emptying my head out into the newsletter machine and hitting send. This space was the place I was supposed to empty my unedited brain into.  The newsletter was supposed to be broader, more considered, and with more voices than mine.

So this is me committing in public to making that happen.  Writing it down makes it true, right?

I’m at warrenellis at gmail if you want to tell me what you want to see.




Recent Quotes 18may18

The Pandemonium Manifestos…  ‘an angry declaration of support for an art of recollection, mysticism, ecstasy, and fantasy. Comprised of absurd and grandiose phrases conjuring up loathsome images, the manifesto employs a language of apocalyptic proportions.’

All Gates Open: The Story of Can, Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt  (UK) (US)

Poets are men who refuse to utilize language.


The “engaged” writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change. He has given up the impossible dream of giving an impartial picture of Society and the human condition.

Literature & Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre (UK) (US)  (too early in the history of the universe to use “they” instead of “he” apparently)

To make metaphysics out of spoken language is to make language convey what it does not normally convey. That is to use it in a new, exceptional and unusual way, to give it its full, physical shock potential, to split it up and distribute it actively in space, to treat inflections in a completely tangible manner and restore their shattering power and really to manifest something; to turn against language and its basely utilitarian, one might almost say alimentary sources, against its origins as a hunted beast, and finally to consider language in the form of Incantation. This whole active, poetic way of visualizing stage expression leads us to turn away from present-day theatre’s human, psychological meaning and to rediscover a religious, mystical meaning our theatre has forgotten.

The Theatre and Its Double, Antonin Artaud (UK) (US)

Hegel now had just enough to live on, and he wrote to his friend Schelling asking if he could recommend a German city where Hegel could live cheaply – one with a simple local cuisine, a comprehensive library, and ‘ein gutes bier’ (a drinkable draft). At the time Schelling was the precocious star professor of the University of Jena, and he immediately encouraged Hegel to join him. (Unusually for philosophers, it appears that neither of them had good taste in beer. The local beer I tasted in Jena was certainly not in the Bundesliga of Great German Beers. I was later ominously informed that it originated from the local hospice.)

Hegel: Philosophy in an Hour, Paul Strathern (UK) (US)


Krapp’s Old Emails

Note to self: being a man of A Certain Age, do not read Beckett’s KRAPP’S LAST TAPE on your own in the middle of the night again.


I always go back to Beckett.  I found WAITING FOR GODOT when I was around twenty years old, and that was it.  I continue to learn from him.  I’ve never seen Beckett performed, which I guess some people might find odd, but, you know, I never lived in what you might call a cultural hub.  I’ve only ever read Beckett.  Once, I was too young to do more than admire KRAPP’S LAST TAPE.  Then, I was the voice of the younger Krapp on tape.  Now I’m Krapp.  This is how actors grow up with King Lear.  Except that Lear is a lion at bay, and I’m a mad old writer.  We have Krapp, instead, with the ghosts of the past and his seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade prices.

(“…sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language.”)



Adam Parfrey RIP

Never met him.  Don’t think I ever spoke to him.  We had a few friends in common over the years — once you’ve been doing this job for a while, the degrees of separation between you and the people who made your favourite things decrease quite alarmingly. And APOCALYPSE CULTURE was one of my favourite things, as was CULT RAPTURE.  The story going around is that he simply fell over, hit his head and died. This is unfair.  If he was going to go, then he should have exploded in a shack on the edge of a volcano, or have been found in a cult compound surrounded by people having sex with cars.

Parfrey was one of the last essential windows into the weird outlying territories of the world before the internet brought it all into our homes. He continued to be a force in bringing fringe literatures out into the light.  He made strange-looking choices in his work and his publishing because he was so obviously just so damned curious about the cracks in the planet and the things that lived in them. 61 is no age for the culture to lose him at.

I didn’t know him at all, but he brought me all these gifts, and I’m sad to see him go.