Sounds of lost London: early field recordings, and memories of the city

An evening of archive field recordings by the London Sound Survey inspires a remembrance of lost time.

London's most recognized sound, the marking out of time by Big Ben
London’s most recognized sound, the chiming of Big Ben, is one that marks time

I’ve recently been working in Westminster and, as I’ve shuffled down Victoria Street with the other commuters, I’ve heard a beggar tooting out tunes through a traffic cone, actors advertising lunch-break performances of Shakespeare and, of course, Big Ben sounding out 9am – all above the engines of endless cars, cabs, coaches and buses, and even horses and carriages.

I’m sure I’ll never forgot this period where I’ve marked out my working day with London’s mightiest clock, but even the city’s more humble sounds can evoke memories of past routines and phases of life, like the high-pitch electric whirr of Jubilee Line trains that brings to mind an old commute from Willesden Green, or the low drone of planes descending to Heathrow that accompanied a time I lived in Twickenham.

But can you feel nostalgic for the sounds of London you weren’t alive to hear?

This question came up during a wonderful audio tour of archived BBC actuality recordings given by Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey last month. These included street cries from the 1950s: a coal seller on a misty December morning, a loquacious jellied eel seller in Cambridge Circus, a violet seller, a muffin seller, a chair mender… all long since disappeared from the streets of our city.

You can find many of these atmospheric audio clips curated on the London Sound Survey website (along with contemporary field recordings plotted on various London maps old and new), but it was a treat to be talked through the stories and personalities attached to each of these snippets.

Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street
Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street

Each time we went further back in time with the clips, Ian pointed out the ratio of people still alive from that era, until we left living memory all together for the final recording: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed by a choir at the Crystal Palace in 1888 and captured on a wax cylinder. Hearing the frail quality of the recording and thinking about its relative antiquity brought something like a wave of sadness over me – was I feeling nostalgia for a forgotten time?

Even though chance has saved this fragment of audio from disposal or destruction, its partial nature evoked in me a longing for something lost to return. Indeed, the place where the singing was recorded has also disappeared, the Crystal Palace having burnt down in 1936, but if, like me, you’ve lived in that neighbourhood, then even now you can sense the poignancy of its absence on the skyline and may wish for its return.

The evening’s other particularly memorable recording for me was the song of a Battersea-dwelling lavender seller from 1938. Again there was something strikingly melancholy about the sound and the way it had been recorded. I found myself solemnly whistling the tune the next day – and so a lost sound lives on!

Vaughn Williams incorporated the cry of the violet seller into his ‘London Symphony’ and, serendipitously, I just found out that a new London Symphony is being created as a film for silent cinema. I’ll be interested to see how the makers renew this retro format, interpreting the angles, movements and sounds of London’s buildings, transport and inhabitants with cinematic visuals and an orchestral score to inspire an emotional or aesthetic response to the city.

As I consider how to use sound in my own story writing, I wonder if it is the incidental field recordings in the heads of Londoners, how they fuse with our habitual and transitory routes through the city, and the chance re-encounters we have with those sounds, that together have a power to induce feelings and memories. Could a particular city sound – the chime of a bell, the cry of a trader, the shudder of a cab’s motor – be akin to Proust’s biting of a madeleine, a sudden sensory input that brings back the past with irrepressible force?

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