Puppydog tails — 27 September 2011

Watching the new series of Downton Abbey I’m struck by people’s lack of discretion when within earshot of modern cabbies and the similarities with the butlers of Edwardian England. We may not be as erudite nor have the manners of Carson superbly played by Jim Carter but we are just as invisible, for at the dinner table the Granthams discuss the most personal aspects of their lives, quite oblivious that the butler waiting at table can hear their intimate details.

When driving the cab it’s impossible not to hear snatches of conversation and the adage ‘to keep one’s own council’ would seem apposite for the more verbose of my passengers. Some of my colleagues once would brag about making money on the Stock Exchange after overhearing City dealers conversations, no doubt they are now losing money by being so indiscreet. While only last week in my cab I had two women and a man discussing their drunken exploits and sexual conquests in graphic detail, and quite frankly I don’t need this during my working day.

It wasn’t so long ago that our vehicles weren’t fitted with internal rear view mirrors preventing the driver even looking at their passenger, let alone listening in on their conversation by way of the intercom.

An openness to one’s thoughts have now become common place with e-mails which are as private as a Donald McGill holiday postcard; Twitter; blogs; and Facebook broadcasting to the entire world a person’s life and innermost thoughts. My father’s generation was told in the war that “careless talk cost lives”, but now anybody who travels on public transport is subject to the minutiae of strangers’ lives as they chatter incessantly on their mobile phones.

Now award-winning poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw has recognised this chatter that surrounds us all in the modern city can give inspiration to writers and has created Audio Obscura a new sound work, conceived for the public spaces of St. Pancras International station. Audio Obscura is an aural version of the camera obscura, giving a heightened reflection of the passing world and its snippets of conversation. The audience listen to the work on personal headsets while wandering amongst the crowds of the Lower Concourse. Listeners will hear concentrated fragments of interior worlds drawn from monologues that glance off one another, listening to these many different voices it is hoped will enable visitors to engage with the connections, a process that Mark Mason has used with effect in his recently published book Walk the Lines. Audio Obscura is intended to remind people of the potency of the “fragment” and aims to explore our compulsion to construct narratives, to impose meaning, and to seek conclusion; the experience is not one of being told something but of becoming conscious of what we do with what we listen to, a bit like my colleagues who dabble on the Stock Exchange.

Taking place from 13th September to 23rd October 2011, Audio Obscura is 30 minutes long, it’s free, no booking required, but you’ll be asked to leave a credit card or mobile phone as a deposit. Lavinia Greenlaw will be in conversation with Cornelia Parker at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel on 3rd October at 6.30pm. Tickets are free but booking is essential – visit artangel.org.uk/talks to reserve a place.

We’re surrounded by other people’s conversations and while many of us try to block them out, for CabbieBlog fragments of overheard talk have been a valuable source of material for the blog and have even helped me get over a case of writer’s block.

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