Missorts in the Bristol Art Weekender

Bw2014Missorts, my permanent public soundwork for Bristol, is part of the inaugural Bristol Art Weekender which runs from 2-5 May 2014 — the May Day bank holiday weekend. Here‘s the blurb about the event:

For the first time in Bristol art organisations and artists have come together to stage a weekend celebration of art across this city. From 2-5 May you’ll have the chance to discover exhibitions by leading and emerging artists, go behind the scenes at over 70 artists studios, explore new artworks in unexpected locations and attend one-off events.

Missorts, screen simulationMissorts was inspired by Bristol’s radical literary heritage, and is set in Redcliffe, an area that lies to the west of Bristol Temple Meads railway station. Redcliffe is the birthplace of the poet Thomas Chatterton, whose childhood home is about all that remains of a warren of streets that once crowded up to the steps and the spectacular Gothic north porch of St Mary Redcliffe. The soundwork features ten original and interconnected short stories by Sara Bowler, Holly Corfield-Carr, Thomas Darby, Jack Ewing, Katrina Plumb, Jess Rotas, Hannah Still, Helen Thornhill, Isabel de Vasconcellos and Sacha Waldron, and is accompanied by Portwall Preludes, a series of striking new musical works specially commissioned from composer Jamie Telford for St Mary Redcliffe’s spectacular Harrison and Harrison organ.

If you are travelling down to the Bristol Art Weekender, I would recommend loading Missorts on to your phone in advance (more info here) and then starting up the app — putting your headphones on — as soon as you arrive at Bristol Temple Meads station. Walking west from either of the station’s exits you will find yourself in the work. You might want to orientate yourself by looking at the map on your phone’s screen every now and then, but equally you might just want to wander around and see where the music and the stories take you.

If you do experience Missorts as part of the Bristol Art Weekender, I would love to hear what you think.

There is some deep background to Missorts in blogposts from the development and production process here, here and here

If you want to get a flavour of the work, here is David Bickerstaff’s short documentary about Missorts, including interviews with me, Michael Smith, composer Jamie Telford and some of the authors I brought in to the project.


Click here to download the Bristol Art Weekender 2014 guide as a PDF.

Missorts by Tony White is a permanent public artwork for Bristol that is delivered directly to your smartphone as a mobile app. To download the app you will need a 3G, GPRS or WiFi data connection. This app works on Apple iPhone iOS 5 & Android v2.2, and above, only. If you do not have a smartphone, you can borrow a preloaded device from Bristol Central and Bedminster Libraries, on production of a library card. Click here to find out more about Missorts.

From . to Venice



Sarah Lucas has been selected to represent Britain at the 56th Venice International Art Biennale. She will present a major solo show in the British Pavilion, which will run from 9 May to 22 November 2015.

T-shirt and Flip-flops

On his way out, a PNG guard hit the detainee’s head with a wooden pole. As he picked his head up, the PNG guard recognised him as a friend who was giving him cigarettes every day. He was shocked and said, ‘Sorry, sorry my friend.’

This story has become one of the jokes currently in the camp. ‘Sorry, sorry my friend.’

They are all locals who are employed and work here, and yes, many were on shift in full uniform and many were off shift and in personal clothes. At one point there was a G4S PNG guard in full uniform, but he wore thongs* as he didn’t get a chance to put his boots on.

* i.e. flip-flops

This quote is from a story in the Sydney Morning Herald of 14 March 2014, where it forms part of a very disturbing eye-witness account of the violence in February 2014 against detainees in Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island, which resulted in the death of Reza Barati.

04_barthelmeParts of the account feel strangely redolent of the world of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, in particular Chapters 12 and 13 of my novel which are set in the ‘CBCP Endurance’, a fictional migrant detention centre on South Georgia. (Chapter 13 is in fact entitled ‘T-shirt and Flip-flops’.)

The quote above is also notable for two things.

Firstly, the euphemistic but nonetheless shocking description of detainees having to bribe guards ‘every day’ with cigarettes.

Secondly, the way it maps the communal and creative actions of detainees in developing jokes, with e.g. ‘Sorry, sorry my friend’ becoming an example of what (in Shackleton’s Man Goes South) I call ‘crowd-pleasing gags and locally satirical asides … in-jokes’, and which Donald Barthelme in his short story ‘Opening’ describes as ‘catchphrases of general utility’.

Barthelme and I are both talking about aspects of performance. In Shackleton’s Man Goes South this relates to the drawing of topical and satirical material into a performance, while Barthelme of course is referring to the way that actors in a play create jokes out of a performance by adapting ‘scraps of dialogue from the script’ to their own purposes. The creative process that the eye-witness describes on Manus Island may not be obviously to do with performance, but it does echo both of these acts.


Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website

Press about Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Listen to or download free audiobook extracts of Shackleton’s Man Goes South on the Science Museum’s Soundcloud page.

Fiction as first language

-1A short piece of mine has just gone up on the Huffington Post’s UK Arts Blog, focusing on Animate Projects and PEER’s Out of Site commissions, and my short story ‘Animate Me’ that was published to accompany the project. It is also an opportunity to briefly discuss the fact that for a while now I have been using fiction — mainly the short story — as a way to write about art.

Perhaps that sounds odd: writing fiction about art. Isn’t that (to quote Martin Mull) ‘like dancing about architecture’? Well, perhaps, but to be honest I have read more than enough bad and boring, jargon-laden reviews and catalogue essays in and around the art world. Besides, fiction is my first language, so why not use it to talk about art? For me a story allows both for a more subtle engagement with the artwork and the artist, and – most importantly – a more direct and familiar way to talk the reader.

I gave a reading and chaired a conversation with artists Savinder Bual, Karolina Glusiec and Margaret Salmon at PEER last Saturday. Discussion was wide-ranging but amongst other things we talked about some of the constraints and opportunities of showing film work in the street, ways of working spontaneously with film and animation, drawing and process, and how artists and artist film-makers manage to make work and make a living at the moment.

Out of Site runs until 8 March 2014, from 4-8pm (the films need to be seen in the hours of darkness, or dusk at the very least!). You can get a free copy of Joe Ewart’s beautifully designed pamphlet edition of ‘Animate Me’ from the gallery, download it here as a PDF or read the electronic version on Animate Projects website.


Fiction Is My First Language, So Why Not Use It to Talk About Art?


Shackleton's Man Goes South, paperback in display case. Image: Science Museum

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, paperback in display case. Image: Science Museum

I have had some exciting news about my Science Museum novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, but I can’t say anything just yet. In the meantime, James Bridle used his Observer column on 9 February to write about Shackleton’s Man Goes South (and my Bristol soundwork Missorts) under the headline ‘The novel: not heading south, any time soon’. Bridle continues:

At heart a book about climate change, it’s also, says White, “a kind of alternative history of publishing in extremis, examples of the apparent human necessity of finding new ways to tell and share stories, and how the future of writing, publishing and reading might need to be as much in the low-tech past as the hi-tech present”.

Visitors to the museum’s Atmosphere gallery can download the novel for free – as can anyone from its website. (Physical copies can be bought from the museum’s shop too.) For White, these collaborations allow him to explore the possibilities of writing further, and see their effects more directly: “As the physical square footage of the traditional book trade diminishes, these commissions have given me the chance to engage directly with readers and to learn from them.”

Elsewhere, publicist and campaigner Dan Bloom, who recently coined the term ‘cli-fi’ (a sci-fi soundalike abbreviation of ‘climate fiction’), is interviewed by David Holmes for Australian journal The Conversation. At one point Holmes asks, ‘What would you rate as the five most influential cli-fi texts to have emerged to date?’ I’m delighted that Bloom’s list of the ‘five most important cli-fi novels’  includes Shackleton’s Man Goes South.

645954Dan Bloom’s coining of the term ‘cli-fi’ echoes K.W. Jeter’s of ‘steampunk’ in 1987. In Jeter’s case this was pragmatic wit, a necessary way of drawing the influential editor of Locus magazine, and its readers’ attention to what he and fellow authors Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were doing (at a time when ‘cyberpunk’ was all the rage). Bloom’s initial intentions are not dissimilar: to draw the attention of editors, reviewers and readers to new fiction (about climate change), and to make explicit the connection to an existing genre. But there is more at stake, too, as Bloom tells David Holmes that for him,

cli-fi is a fiction genre that might be helpful in waking people up and serving as an alarm bell.

‘Cli-fi’ is now certainly starting to gain a higher profile, but whether the genre will take-off in the way that steampunk has done remains to be seen. It may well do if the indefatigable Dan Bloom has anything to do with it: already it seems that some booksellers are using the term, while a number of emerging authors are identifying themselves as exponents of the genre. Bloom himself is currently seeking to establish a literary prize to raise awareness further, using the success of 1957 anti-nuclear novel On the Beach by Australian author Nevil Shute (1899-1960) as an analogy for the impact he hopes a ‘cli-fi’ novel could make. Mind you, it has taken twenty-seven years for steampunk to become the massive subculture that it is today. If ‘cli-fi’ is to achieve what Bloom hopes, it may need to catch on more quickly than that, since in twenty-seven years from now — if emissions keep rising  — we may already have seen further significant rises in global mean temperature, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Sir George C. Simpson. Photo: K.E. Woodley, courtesy the Met Office.

Sir George C. Simpson.
Photo: K.E. Woodley, courtesy the Met Office.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South was written in ignorance of Bloom’s work of course (since his idea hadn’t yet gone mainstream), but not of Jeter’s, nor the proto-steampunk of Michael Moorcock’s earlier ‘Nomad of the Time Streams’ series. My novel’s opening chapter (originally published as standalone short story ‘Albertololis Disparu’ by the Science Museum in 2009) features such steampunk staples as early telephony, difference engines, airships, steam-powered computing, etc. — plus a Moorcockian ‘sonic attack’ — which prompted one reviewer at the time to write:

Any eight-page story that references Michael Moorcock and ends with a fleet of Zeppelins attacking Imperial College with plasma weapons is a winner with us.

Image: Science Museum

Image: Science Museum

But any steampunk stylings in Shackleton’s Man Goes South are quickly dispatched as the novel deliberately moves from such parodic Edwardiana to the challenges presented by the real thing: an overlooked 1911 science fiction short story about climate change that was written in Antarctica by Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s meteorologist (and a future Met Office director) George Clarke Simpson (1878-1965).

Interestingly, the nadir and historical death-knell of what has come to be steampunk’s defining icon was even directly presided over by Scott-survivor Simpson, whose subsequent directorship of the Met Office encompassed both the establishment of its Airship Division and his penning of an obituary of said Division’s late head — M.A. Giblett — following the latter’s death in the R101 disaster in October 1930. This event prompted the Airship Division’s disbanding, and — seven-years before the Hindenberg disaster of 1937 — led to the abandonment in the UK of the development of the airship as a significant form of civil aviation.

Coincidentally, the aforementioned Australian novelist Nevil Shute also worked on the short-lived UK airship programme. As well as writing many novels, including the one that inspired Dan Bloom, Shute played a leading part in the team that built the R100, a competing airship design which was also scrapped following the R101 disaster.

Airships! Genres! Talking of things taking-off, within the world of Shackleton’s Man Goes South it is suggested that the dominant passenger aircraft of our own time – glimpsed in a refugee camp’s fleamarket — is similarly defunct:

There are relics: here a box of broken calculators and there – trailing wires and hydraulics, partly covered by tarpaulins, bigger than their shelter and recognisable from illustrations in books – the best part of the flight deck of an airliner.


Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website or from the touchscreen ebook dispenser that is part of the exhibition accompanying the novel in the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery.

Press about Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Listen to or download free audiobook extracts of Shackleton’s Man Goes South on the Science Museum’s Soundcloud page.

Image © Science Museum

Image © Science Museum

Not counting but accounting for

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 11.41.19In recent days, both the UK Border Agency’s Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), and the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s offshore detention centres — and the elaboration of Australian policies toward asylum seekers associated with these, the so-called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ — have been in the news.

Last week author Zadie Smith lent her support to the campaign against the detention of asylum-seeking women in Yarl’s Wood that has been mounted by Women for Refugee Women. Petitioning current UK Home Secretary Theresa May, campaigner Meltem Avcil (herself a former child detainee at Yarl’s Wood), writes:

If a woman has already experienced rape, torture, imprisonment in her home country, then it is really hard for her to be locked up here. Women become depressed and suicidal in detention.

Furthermore, following an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood, Her Majesties Inspector of Prisons released a report (that has been picked up by diverse UK news sources, including the Guardian, the Independent and Sky News) that noted there had been sexual abuse of detained women at Yarl’s Wood. The Inspector of Prisons describes such incidents as ‘something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population’.

Storyboard Afghanistan PDFAt the same time, poor conditions and harsh treatment in Australia’s offshore detention facilities have been the subject of a bizarre comic book that has been published by the Australian Government with the apparent aim of dissuading potential Afghan asylum seekers, but which has the unfortunate side-effect of seeming to aggrandise and promote Australia’s anti-humanitarian policies; while reducing all refugees to the status of economic migrants, and sanitising the real conditions in Australian detention facilities. The comic is still currently available online from the Australian Government (where it is starkly saved as ‘Storyboard Afghanistan’, so let us call it that). It is a picture book that wordlessly shows a young man paying traffickers to take him to Australia via Pakistan and Indonesia. (Of course, since it is wordless, one could use it to tell other stories, too.) This is a journey that is thwarted by the Australian navy, and which ends in desperation and limbo in a tent-based detention centre, resembling those on Manus Island or Nauru.

In recent weeks the Australian navy have been involved in further controversy after revelations that asylum seekers were taken off their own boat only to be placed in one of a number expensive hi-tech lifeboats purchased from China by the Australian government, and then towed towards Indonesian waters. When one such lifeboat finally reached land, the refugees on board faced a hazardous cross-country journey, through jungle terrain, that three of the party did not survive.

Elsewhere a number of asylum seekers taken into Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian navy had severe burns that were consistent with their claims that they had been told by navy personnel to ‘hold on to parts of a hot engine [while their boat was being] towed back to Indonesia’.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 19.18.13In the last few days violence in the detention centre on Manus has left one person dead (a twenty-four-year-old man named Reza Berati*) and 77 injured, 12 of them seriously. Reports have suggested that guards funded by the Australian government — including a feared paramilitary police unit known as PNG mobile squad — have been involved in the attacks. This is not the first time that the PNG mobile squad have been involved in violence on Manus.

At the same time, RISE — an acronym of ‘Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees’ — have launched a campaign against Transfield, the company that currently holds the government contract to run the offshore detention centre on Nauru, and has also recently won a further contract for Manus. Transfield are the main sponsors of the Sydney Biennale, and RISE’s campaign recalls that of Liberate Tate who campaign against oil industry sponsorship of the arts in the UK (and who have just been shortlisted for ‘Best artistic response’ in The Climate Week Awards).

In their open letter RISE state:

RISE supports a complete boycott of the 19th Sydney Biennale as Transfield, a major sponsor and partner of this event, receives income from the operation of Australia’s deadly offshore internment camps for refugees and asylum seekers.

[...] Transfield’s income from these operations (as of February 2014) is over 300 million dollars, and they have now won yet another contract to run “welfare services” on both Nauru and Manus Island.  At the same time, there are shocking reports of mistreatment and abuse in these camps including eye-witness accounts from medical staff, welfare officers and other former detention staff. [...]

In 2011, RISE made submission to an Australian parliamentary enquiry predicting that unchecked expansion of Australia’s privatised detention network would lead to a US-style private prison industrial complex where immigration policy would be shaped by corporations who profit from misery.  Our predictions have unfortunately come true: a report released in 2013 by the US based Sentencing Project, stated that Australia has the largest private prison population in the world thanks to its asylum seeker policy.

Participation in the Sydney Biennale sponsored by Transfield makes artists partners in a system that silences the voices of refugees and asylum seekers and profits from their misery.

Events at Yarl’s Wood in the UK, and in the Australian offshore detention facilities — as well as the images in the Storyboard Afghanistan comic — have been sadly redolent of the world of my climate change novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. The connection might seem unlikely given that my novel was inspired by a science fiction story about climate change written in Antarctica in 1911 by British atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson (1878-1965) for a ship-board journal of which Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had been founding editor, called the South Polar Times. However, in a satirical reversal of Shackleton’s heroic escape from Antarctica, the novel tells of a woman and her daughter who are travelling south in a small boat toward the apparent safety that the continent now offers. In the slang of their post-melt world, Emily and Jenny are refugees known as ‘mangoes’, a corruption of the saying ‘man go south’.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, cover jpegParts of Shackleton’s Man Goes South are set in a fictional offshore detention facility, ‘CBCP Endurance’, staffed by paramilitaries, that is based upon physical descriptions of Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre and the UK Border Agency’s Yarl’s Wood IRC, reflecting the so-called ‘Detained Fast Track’ procedures operating at Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth in the UK. (Incidentally, for very insightful reporting on such ‘Fast Track’ deportation procedures in action, see ‘Planespotting’ by James Bridle.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 12.45.32Within the novel I coin the term ‘Convey’s Law’, after contemporary scientist Dr Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey. Convey’s area of study is the terrestrial ecosystem of the Antarctica Peninsula. It is, he says, ‘a very simple ecosystem […] consisting of lichens, mainly, one type of grass and one tiny rockery plant’. Convey suggests that ‘if you want to understand change in the future, you have to look at how things are responding to change now’. By ‘things’ he means these few plants and lichens, but this deceptively simple rubric is robust enough that with a slight shift of focus it can be applied to people, to institutions, governments or industries, and asked in relation to different types of change, whether social, political or economic: how are we responding to change now? This gives us what I call ‘Convey’s Law’: To imagine climate change futures we need to look at how we are responding to change right now.

Parts of my novel also trace continuities between the emergence of increasingly racist contemporary immigration policies and the pseudo-scientific and racist theories about links between climate change and Human evolution — and corresponding policy interventions — that were developed in the first half of the twentieth century by George Clarke Simpson’s fellow South Polar Times contributor, the Australian former Antarctic explorer Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963) and the US-based Elsworth Huntington (1876-1947), with whom the meteorologist Simpson was also briefly associated, if only by publication.

I’m not the only one making a connection between racist migration policies such as Operation Sovereign Borders and climate change. In his opinion piece for Melbourne newspaper The Age, Bruce Haigh berates Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison both for events on Manus and for taking Australian relations with Indonesia to their ‘lowest point since the mid-1980s’, then suggests that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Morrison

have created a vacuum in Australian foreign policy in the region. It should have been Abbott in Jakarta talking about climate change rather than US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 17.23.08If you have read Shackleton’s Man Goes South, you may recall that the book is dedicated to the 48 people thought to have died when their boat was wrecked on the rocks of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean on 15 December 2010 as they tried to reach the Australian Government’s infamous off-shore Immigration Reception and Processing Centre that is located there. At the time, the death of nearly fifty refugees (50 is now the official estimate) in a single incident, and in full sight of onlookers, seemed to me to be a defining moment, and one so grave that I wondered if it might provoke not only a more a humanitarian response to sea-borne migration, but a decision to prevent any further deaths on that scale, what the Border Crossing Observatory project has described as a necessary shifting of ‘the debate about contemporary border controls towards the acceptance of a more mobility-tolerant future.’ (A similar project, Watch the Med, was set up in 2012 to monitor the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU.)

Sadly, with Operation Sovereign Borders the reverse seems to be true.

Further, according to the Border Crossing Observatory’s Australian Border Deaths Database, since the Christmas Island disaster of December 2010, a further eight-hundred-and-fourteen (814) refugees have died in incidents associated with Australia’s borders. This figure brings the total of known deaths since 2000 to one-thousand-four-hundred-and-ninety-three (1,493).

At time of writing, the most recent addition to this terrible and growing list is Reza Berati, the 24-year-old man who was killed on Manus a couple of days ago. The Border Crossing Observatory suggest that their project ‘seeks to account for, rather than merely count, border-related deaths.’ At the moment there are few ways to account for Reza Berati, but at least — unlike the Christmas Island fifty — we know his name, even if there are no photographs of Reza Berati appearing in the media, nor any biographical information about him. Perhaps these will emerge soon, so that his death can (as the Border Crossing Observatory suggest) be accounted for rather than merely counted.

In absence of such materials, might I suggest that for the moment at least, and notwithstanding his differing country of origin, we could imagine Berati as being not dissimilar in age and appearance to the young man in Storyboard Afghanistan, and so co-opt the comic to this purpose; in other words, subvert it (as others have done). Transformed by this simple act of re-attribution the comic now ends not in a mosquito-ridden limbo oveseen by benignly short-sleeved Australian guards, but with the freeze-frame above, which is followed by an unseen death at the hands of some militiaman or persons (as yet) unknown; an unnecessary outcome that — seen in this light — bears the seal, at bottom right, of the Australian Government.


Shackleton’s Man Goes South by Tony White is available free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website in formats compatible with most devices. A limited edition paperback is available exclusively from the Science Museum shop.

Press about Shackleton’s Man Goes South.

*Many news reports give the name of the man killed on Manus Island this week as ‘Faili Kurd’, a mistake which I reproduced here when I first posted this blog a couple of hours ago. I am grateful to RISE for pointing this out and letting me know that his name is Reza Berati: ‘Ethnicity of Reza Berati who died is Kurdish (language: Faili, stateless i.e. no citizenship.)’

Greater than phenomenal

Click through for original article: Peter Hannam, ‘Temperatures off the charts as Australia turns deep purple’, Sydney Morning Herald, January 8 2013.

Click through for original article: Peter Hannam, ‘Temperatures off the charts as Australia turns deep purple’, Sydney Morning Herald, January 8 2013.

Perhaps it is just that having written a novel about climate change and spoken to many scientists about the subject I am tuned in to this, but over the past year-or-so it has been interesting to notice a few examples of ways in which meteorological maps — and the way that weather events are discussed — might be changing. In addition of course to the terrifying new terminologies that relate to emerging behaviours of water and water vapour in a warmer world: ‘atmospheric rivers’ for instance.

First of all at the beginning of 2013, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s interactive weather charts needed to have new colours added. The previous temperature range ran through red and burnt orange to black, but had been capped at 50°. Once temperatures started to go above 50° two further categories — deep purple and pink — needed to be added in order to increase the range to accommodate possible temperatures of up to 54°.

(This in a country with — currently — a right wing, climate change-denying and migrants’ human rights-busting government who are currently embarking upon what appears to be an ill-considered dash to cash in some of the continent’s vast remaining coal reserves while they still can. Of course the UK is currently embarking on its own dash for last-ditch, dirty carbon in the shape of fracking.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 14.18.34Here one hears the word ‘unprecedented’ being used a lot. The series of winter storms that have been battering the country since the so-called St Jude’s storm of 28 October 2013 (which then gave way to a particularly intense spell that has lasted so far from December to the time of writing) is described as unprecedented, as are the severity of individual storm events and their effects; the floods in Somerset; the washing-away of key infrastructure at Dawlish in Devon. All are tagged as ‘unprecedented’, for the moment at least. I’ve mentioned here previously that on Christmas Eve the UK Shipping Forecast announcer on BBC Radio 4 broke out of the forecast’s usual highly-codified language (‘Variable 4, becoming southeast 5 to 7, occasionally gale 8 later’) into a more conversational register to note the presence of ‘a massive area of low pressure of almost unprecedented depth’.

-1The BBC TV weather forecasts use the traditional, presenter-led format to show e.g. blue areas of rain moving across a simplified geographical map of the UK. These might then cut away to animations of white arrows that show wind direction and speed over the same map.

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 16.55.54A simpler BBC weather map and icon system — adapted and little-changed from that developed on BBC TV in the mid-1970s — is currently used for online applications, and this shows a familiar range of stylized clouds, raindrops, temperature indicators etc. A new symbol was recently introduced on these maps. Nothing to do with extreme weather events, but a grey crescent showing predicted distribution of clear or partially-clear skies! The British Isles are usually shown centre-screen — against a white ground or surrounded by a moat-like sea. Only very occasionally does the viewpoint ‘pull-back’ to show where the weather is coming from.

I wonder if an incidental, cumulative effect of the adherence to these conventions is an impression of familiarity and stasis, of business as usual. Whether the apparent isolation of how the British Isles are depicted, together with the sense of visual comfort, contributes to the way that every extreme event feels like a surprise, or is treated like one. Perhaps it is time to change the conversation about weather.

"@NWSOPC: ICYMI: #OSCAT winds w/70 kt at 01Z near E #Atlantic #hurricane frc low with 00Z OPC sfc analys."

“@NWSOPC: ICYMI: #OSCAT winds w/70 kt at 01Z near E #Atlantic #hurricane frc low with 00Z OPC sfc analys.”

I say this partly because in recent days I have been following the output of the National Weather Service — a US equivalent of the UK’s Met Office — part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which comes under the umbrella (sorry) of the US Department of Commerce. They have also been reporting on the storms hitting the UK, but (obviously) in a non-UK-centric manner: simply in as far as these are events that are happening in the Eastern Atlantic. Interestingly, the NWS use a much stronger vocabulary, e.g. highlighting ‘hurricane force’ winds where these occur, and a completely different — much less comfortable — visual language to describe these storms. The visual material feels very rough and ready, unfamiliar, and not just because the British Isles are marginal. The National Weather Service’s Twitter account (@NWSOPC) also collides different kinds of information and levels of resolution — satellite imagery, air pressure, windspeed and significant wave height — into crude, animated GIFs that are strangely compelling.

"@NWSOPC: 79MB Animated loop of #SEVIRI RGB Airmass Product showing #Atlantic #hurricane low developing: http://go.usa.gov/B5T9  pic.twitter.com/g5aijlWAKU" Click-through for GIF

“@NWSOPC: 79MB Animated loop of #SEVIRI RGB Airmass Product showing #Atlantic #hurricane low developing: http://go.usa.gov/B5T9 pic.twitter.com/g5aijlWAKU” Click-through for GIF

At time of writing the latest from @NWSOPC is another GIF of the storm that is currently approaching the UK. Here’s the screengrab they tweeted with the link.

Together with today’s Shipping Forecast (which is also published daily in text or printable form by the Met Office) this makes me glad that I am not at sea. While the UK Shipping Forecast is delivered in a very familiar, litanic style, even this measured and conservative medium is nonetheless capable of surprises — and even when it doesn’t stray from the highly abbreviated convention. Here is today’s forecast (7 February 2014) for the sea area Shannon:

South, becoming cyclonic then west, 7 to severe gale 9, increasing storm 10 or violent storm 11 later. Rough or very rough, becoming very high or phenomenal [my emphasis]. Rain or showers. Good, occasionally poor

I don’t know if I’ve heard the word ‘phenomenal’ used to describe wave height before, so I had to look it up. The designation comes from the Douglas Sea Scale (a.k.a. the International Sea and Swell Scale). By this measure the term ‘phenomenal’ is the top of the scale, used to describe a wave height of over 14 metres. The (perhaps more sophisticated?) Significant Wave Height formulation, which draws on satellite data to generate probable ranges, may render this question obsolete, but thinking back to that recalibration of temperature that was needed in Australian charts a year ago, the addition of purple and pink in response to temperatures going ‘off the scale’, I wonder whether the increasingly extreme weather that is predicted to be caused by climate change might mean that further degrees of wave height would need to be added to the Douglas Sea Scale. ‘Unprecedented’ is already being overused, so what happens when the extraordinary becomes ordinary? What do you call something greater than phenomenal?


Click here to see dozens of examples of the evolution in styles and formats of BBC Weather forecasts from the 1950s to the present, on the fascinating TV Ark website.

Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website.

Resonance 104.4fm annual fundraiser

I have been listening to Resonance 104.4fm and valuing the station’s unique contribution to the arts since its earliest days, when I was lucky enough to have been involved via my then job at the national office of Arts Council England. Since leaving the Arts Council, and wanting to continue to support the excellent work of Ed and the rest of the team, I have been a director and I currently chair the Resonance board, but I am still also a listener and a supporter, and Resonance 104.4fm continues to make an incredible and growing contribution to the arts in London and the UK. That is why I am devoting this post to sharing the information about some of the events that are being put on around London by Resonance 104.4fm programme makers as part of the annual fundraiser.

resonance web logoIf you haven’t tuned in before, Resonance 104.4fm is London’s award-winning arts radio station. It was established by London Musicians’ Collective and licensed as a community radio station by Ofcom. Resonance 104.4fm started broadcasting on May 1st 2002 as one of the first community radio stations licensed by the then Radio Authority, and it provides a radical alternative to the universal formulae of mainstream broadcasting.

Resonance 104.4 fm features programmes made by musicians, artists and critics who represent the diversity of London’s arts scenes. With hundreds of live sessions every year, with weekly programmes from, by and about just about every art form, and with regular weekly contributions from nearly two hundred musicians, artists, thinkers, critics, activists and instigators; plus numerous unique broadcasts by artists on the weekday “Clear Spot”.

Resonance broadcasts 24 hours per day on 104.4fm in London or online and via the Radio Player app. The station’s annual fundraiser runs from 10-16 February this year. Here’s the blurb from the Resonance site:

with a series of live events, an on-line auction and plenty of special broadcasts. We hope you will join us in our efforts to raise funds. The boring bit: we need to secure £50,000 reserves in order to bolster our next funding application to Arts Council England, who have generously supported us for the last 11 years. The exciting bit: our programme makers and many friends have organised a variety of amazing entertainments for you – all proceeds going to Resonance. With your help we can keep our unique and exceptional broadcast service on air and advert-free!

Resonance104.4fm Fund-raising Events!

Resonance programmes makers have organised a series of events from tonight. Featuring art movies, debate, ukulele luminaries, high tea with Max Keiser, Rough Trade DJs and Sound Art Superstars.

Please check your diaries and the booking info below, and do come along if you can. It would be great to see you at one or other of these events.

Monday 10th February

Facing the Music

The Pod Delusion and Little Atoms with Soho Skeptics present “Facing the music” – a cultural debate with Charles Shaar Murray, David Stubbs, Andrew Mueller, Jude Rogers and more. Lively discussion about popular culture and sound: a chance to meet like minds and disagree with them. T-shirt stall, bar. Buy tickets here.

Monday 10 February 8pm £6, NB: Change of venue and start time: The Slaughtered Lamb, 34-35 Great Sutton St, London EC1V 0DXL

Tuesday 11th February

Henry Scott-Irvine presents a night of blues & folk

Henry Scott-Irvine presents a night of blues & folk – Mollys Daggers + The Bermondsey Joyriders + Sasha Ilyukevich + Ronnie Golden + Howard & Clack. A rollicking gig with former members of Chelsea, The Little Roosters, and Johnny Thunders – and a Belarusian Troubadour.

Tuesday 11 February 8pm £5, 12 Bar Club, Denmark Street WC2H 8NJ

Thursday 13th February

Sine of The Gravy

Sine Of The Times & The Gravy present LV (Hyperdub), My Panda Shall Fly, Only Rays (Circles and Squares), DJ Bobafatt (Rough Trade), Will Ward and Patrick from The Gravy plus Sine of The Times’ very own Rita Maia.

More details here.

Thursday 13 February 7pm till 1am £5, Candela Clapton, 159 Lower Clapton Road E5 0QX

Thursday 13th February

Gala Sound Art Concert

Resonance104.4fm presents sound-art superstars Janek Schaefer + Rie Nakajima + Yuri Suzuki + Oscillatorial Binnage. Headlined by the UK’s leading sound-artist Janek Schaefer, this bill also features Arts Award Foundation Experimental Music fellow Rie Nakajima and BASCA Composer of the Year (and Resonance station manager) Chris Weaver.

Thursday 13 February 8pm £8, Cafe Oto, 18 Ashwin Street E8 3DL

Friday 14th February

The Relatively Good Valentines Do

The Relatively Good Valentines Do – Dulwich Ukulele Club + The Gents + Double Bass Dan and Friends + Santa Mozzarella + The Relatives. Resonance’s Relatively Good Radio Show presents a night of all-star local talent in London’s first cooperatively owned pub. Buy tickets here.

Friday 14 February 8pm £15, Ivy House, 40 Stuart Road SE15 3BE

Saturday 15th February

Bermuda Triangle Lovely Audio Visual Extravaganza

BTTTB presents Bermuda Triangle Lovely Audio Visual Extravaganza featuring Bruce Gilbert + Bermuda Triangle Test Engineers + Greta Pistaceci + James Alec Hardy + Chips For The Poor + DJs Art Terry and Dave Ball. A night of audio-visual treats with cult musicians including Gilbert (Wire), Ball (Soft Cell) and numerous Resonance luminaries. MC is The Man From The Bermuda Triangle. Bar, bar food, t shirt and merch stall.

Saturday 15 February 8pm to 2am £5, The Roxy, 128 Borough High Street SE1 1LB

Sunday 16th February

High Tea with Max and Stacy

Join outspoken financial pundits Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert of The Truth About Markets for a face to face high finance Q&A session.

Tickets available at the WeGotTickets website.

Sunday 16 February 4pm £15, The Roxy, 128 Borough High Street SE1 1LB


‘Something odd’s happened, but we’re gripped’

I pricked up my ears at an interesting but only half-heard fragment of conversation on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week this morning. I had to go back and listen again in order firstly to see who had been speaking, and secondly how the theme of climate change had briefly emerged in a conversation that had otherwise been largely devoted to news reporting of ‘the whistle-blower Edward Snowden’, and a posing of the question of why there had been so ‘little outcry among the British public’.

Click-through to listen to the programme again on BBC i-Player (until 9am 10.02.14)

Click-through to listen to the programme again on BBC i-Player (until 9am 10.02.14)

Joining host Anne McElvoy had been former GCHQ director Sir David Omand, journalists Annette Dittert and Luke Harding, and writer Alain de Botton (I resist using his self-styled title of ‘philosopher’).

What had caught my attention comes at around thirty-four minutes in to the programme (34:54), when the conversation takes a slight detour into the need to ‘popularise’, i.e. to create a wider and more engaged readership for, complex issues such as climate change (here called ‘global warming’).

Here is a transcript of that part of the conversation. It is worth bearing with the solipsistic newsroom jargon, the talk of ‘packages’ etc., because de Botton particularly begins (albeit fleetingly) to make an interesting case for the value of art, of literature and stories in understanding climate change. Even if ‘climate change’ here is being used as a proxy for any complex and international mega-news story, this strikes a chord. I’ve said for a while that if you want to hear interesting and engaging stories about climate change you might do better to ask writers of fiction rather than the vast committees of scientists and civil servants who are charged with generating the reports of the IPCC. Indeed this was part of the motivation for writing my 2013 novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (Science Museum).

We pick up the conversation as host Anne McElvoy asks whether it matters that more people click on celebrity froth than serious stories:

Alain de Botton: It matters hugely, because we’re in a democracy. And in a democracy you have to win a majority in order to get things to change. So it’s all very well, making a cogent, sober case and then blaming everybody else for being too stupid to care about it, but the real challenge is how do you get people to care as much about global warming as they do about Taylor Swift. That is an artistic, aesthetic, communication problem that places like the Guardian are only just beginning to think about. Because that’s–

Anne McElvoy: Well OK, you’ve beaten up the Guardian a fair bit there, but just look to the readership–

Alain de Botton: It’s a problem of all serious, a problem of all serious news.

Anne McElvoy: –here, an emerging readership, and the fact that we were just discussing where our children read news and if they did, did they read it online, and did they read it in the same sources as we did, and the answer for a lot of people is probably not, but in effect people probably vote with their eyeballs now. So, however brilliantly you presented a package on, say, global warming, you might find that you’re outdone in hits by a piece on Taylor Swift, and there’s not much you can do about it.

Alain de Botton: Well, you have to, I think, too often the most serious journalists think that the seriousness of the issue absolves them from the challenge of popularisation. And popularisation is a word with a sort of ambiguous history of associations. It’s seen normally as a sort of cheapening thing. If you popularise something you’re cheapening it, and serious people are very averse to popularisation. In a democracy, if you care about something, you have to know how to popularise it, because otherwise– [inaudible]

Anne McElvoy: But what would that, I don’t quite understand what that would look like.

Alain de Botton: Well, what it would look like, we all know that we’ve sometimes seen packages on very serious issues, and we’ve yawned and switched channel or flipped to another page on the internet. In other words, it is to do [with], I mentioned the word ‘art’, you know. Think of Shakespeare. Shakespeare takes us into the machinations of political dramas etc., and he makes us care about pretty weird stuff. So suddenly there we are in the Danish court and something odd’s happened, but we’re gripped. It’s really exciting. You know, sometimes when we get taken into what’s happening in Turkish politics, people are falling asleep, because the article that is telling you about it has not done it with sufficient artistry and imagination. And that’s a real problem in a democracy.

Anne McElvoy: For some reason I have a mental image of a piece on global warming accompanied by an image of Miley Cyrus saying, ‘Phew, it’s hot in here.’ [Laughs.] Annette, as news correspondent for many years, do you recognise that conundrum that Alain throws up.

Annette Dittert: I totally see the point and the problem, although you cannot accuse the Guardian of being too boring here, because it’s a complex story, but I think in general this is a problem: how do you get a story that complex still in the public interest. How do you make sure that the sense of outrage doesn’t wear off before something has changed and that is certainly a big challenge not only for the Guardian but for all the media all over the world …

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 14.37.31The discussion then returns to Edward Snowden. Perhaps climate change is too off-topic so late in the programme. In any case that aspect of the discussion is closed down rather than expanded. McElvoy seems to still be responding to some pejorative idea of what the popular might be, rather than to the larger more expansive point that de Botton’s talk about ‘popularisation’ presaged: how good art can engage the imagination on the most complex and/or arcane subject matter. (Dittert then seems to be about to speak of the challenge of making a complex story stick in the public imagination, but instead speaks of ‘the public interest’, and we return to Snowden.)

Perhaps it’s just me, but for a minute de Botton came close to saying something much more interesting than his usual ‘art-as-therapy’, self-help schtick.

Also listening — and commenting on Twitter — was Hannah Redler, director of the Science Museum Arts Programme.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South was published by the Science Museum as their Atmosphere Commission 2013, with an accompanying display in the Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery, out of a stated and specific desire to commission art works that might ‘explore potential political, social and cultural impacts of climate change.’ In other words, the Science Museum at least are already bringing the ‘artistry and imagination’ that de Botton calls for into how they are prepared to engage the public with climate change.


Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website.

Press about Shackleton’s Man Goes South


Interview archive

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, cover jpegHere are a couple of archived interviews about my novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South that have recently gone online.

Clifi Books. Mary Woodbury set up the Clifi Books website, in order to gather information and resources relating to depictions of climate change in literature, and the emergence of cli-fi as a genre (identified/coined by Dan Bloom). Mary got in touch to find out more about Shackleton’s Man Goes South:

I noticed that the book is part-fiction and part-non-fiction. I think it’s interesting how you accomplished telling a story this way. Do you have any insight about how you decided to narrate the book this way?

Resonance 104.4fm. Wendy Jones presents a weekly author-interview programme called ‘Interesting Conversations’ on London’s arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm. ‘Interesting Conversations’s is just one of several regular books programmes on Resonance. Wendy invited me to the studio just before Christmas to record an interview for the programme. Click-through to hear the interview on the station’s Soundcloud page, or listen via the WordPress player here:


Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers