13: The Sounds of East London (Transcript)

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake, Jr. and this is Everything Sounds. On the morning of September 3rd, 1939, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the country in a rather somber tone. He explained that earlier that morning the British Ambassador in Berlin gave the German government one final letter about removing their troops from Poland. The letter stated that if they didn’t hear anything back by 11am, that Britain would ultimately need to declare war on Germany. Well, it was 11am and I think it’s pretty well-known what happened next.

Nine months later on June 13th, 1940, with the war still raging on the continent, Britain put a hold on all church and chapel bell ringing across the entire country. It was called the Control of Noise Defense Order and only allowed bells to be rung on one occasion, an air raid. For two years England’s bells were silent. It wasn’t until the Battle of El Alamein that there was hope. Hope of there being an end to the war for England. Winston Churchill stated, ‘before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.’

During the war, the Nazis melted down almost 200,000 European bells for use as scrap metal, but England’s bells were never touched. So, Churchill celebrated in the best fashion England could. He ordered all of the bells in the country to be rung. Tens of thousands of church bells, which hadn’t been rung in two years all ringing at once across an entire country.

How often does an everyday sound fade into the background? And in the case of the bells in England, how quickly do we realize if those sounds go missing? Sounds define everything around us even within our jobs, like a constant elevator chime or a collage of phones ringing, but then there are the sounds of jobs you probably wouldn’t think of and that’s where we’ll actually return to present-day England, more specifically to East London to talk to this guy:

Dominic Wilcox My name is Dominic Wilcox.

George Drake Jr. He’s an artist, but he doesn’t just specialize in one thing. It’s pretty all over the place.

Dominic Wilcox I’ve come from a design background, but I normally make one-off things, objects, drawings, or in this case, recording a record.

George Drake Jr. He was commissioned to create a project that was, in a sense, a souvenir of East London, which isn’t as easy as you may think. If you’ve ever been to London you know that most of what the city is known for is primarily on the West end and if you’ve ever been to the East end of London, well, you know what I’m talking about.

Dominic Wilcox …and I actually found it quite difficult to get into that because East London doesn’t have any big monuments or big, grand buildings. So, then you think, you know, making a souvenir of something? Quite Difficult.

George Drake Jr. The one thing East London does have though, is industry. The East end’s culture is firmly rooted in production and manufacture, most of which centered around the Docklands or what is now present-day Canary Wharf. When it was first established, the East end was made up of some of the the poorest areas of the city and it also consisted of some of the noisiest and worst smelling factories, which is why they were all pushed together out East, away from the rest of the city. That industry on the East end is still prominent today although the area is not nearly in the financial state it was originally and some of the factories have changed or disappeared, the East end still houses some of the city’s most skilled and interesting people.

Dominic Wilcox You know, there’s a lot of creative people in East London. There’s a lot of people that make things and so, it was, you know, one thing led to another and I thought about the sounds that makers make as maybe not something that’s been focused on so much.

George Drake Jr. So, that’s what he did. The project is called ‘The Sounds of Making in East London.’ It’s kind of a souvenir to London’s East end on a 10 inch vinyl record.

Dominic Wilcox You know, we see photographs, we see videos of people making things, but actually, when a maker’s at work they’re in their own little world and they’re hearing these sounds every day and they get used to it. It’s almost like they don’t hear it, maybe. I don’t know. So I decided to capture the sounds of makers at work in East London.

George Drake Jr. East London is exceptionally diverse. So choosing which trades to focus on was difficult. Ultimately, he collected 21 different sounds ranging from a Vietnamese kitchen….

Dominic Wilcox There’s a local Vietnamese restaurant and I sat down and talked to the waiters saying, “Do you mind if I order some food and go into the kitchen and record the sound of you cooking that food and then eat that food?” It was fried goat and frogs legs, which I’d never had, but it sounded wonderful.

George Drake Jr. …to an old-school songwriter…

Dominic Wilcox …and he was using a typewriter, some glue, and some scissors to write his songs and he would write his song, print it, type it out, then if he wanted to change a word, he would cut it out with scissors then stick it on to the sheet.

George Drake Jr. …and even the sound of the record actually being cut.

Dominic Wilcox …and that was part of the process. Recording the sound of the people who made this record. That’s track one, actually. The sound of the reel to reel tape recorder and vinyl record cutting lathe in a vinyl mastering and cutting suite.

George Drake Jr. But what’s even more incredible than the sounds he captured are what they’re doing that makes those sounds and in some instances, the people themselves. Advances in technology and changes in economics have decreased the amount of trade professions. However their position in today’s society is still incredibly important. Trades are just often overlooked and most of them aren’t even practiced anymore.

One of the people Dominic recorded was a man named Steve Jones who makes press knives. Press knives are used to cut shapes out of leather for purses, shoes, and sometimes even entire belts by just pressing them through.

Dominic Wilcox So instead of, you know, using a knife, and doing it one at a time, you make a template and so these press knives are made from long strips of metal that is sharp with one edge and then Steve bends these into whatever template the designer wants and then they use a press to push down on the leather. It cuts out the shapes.

George Drake Jr. Essentially they’re just big leather cookie cutters.

Dominic Wilcox …and he’s the only one remaining left in London. So, it’s a sort of dying art. So, I found Steve in the middle of an industrial estate with no name on the front of the door and I walk in and it’s this amazing place with these shaped knives on the wall and leather everywhere and it was a wonderful thing. So, I had a long chat with Steve and he was telling us all about it and I recorded the sound of him bending these long strips into a particular design and then welding little bars between the strips to strengthen it and then using the press to push down, this 20 ton press, and you know, he was talking about trying to find someone to take over from him, but he thought it was really difficult because he keeps cutting his fingers. You know, Steve is in his 60’s and he wants to retire and these sounds may be gone, you know, quite soon.

George Drake Jr. Dominic also stopped by a place called Algha Works, which has been making eyewear since the early 1930’s. During the second world war, Algha Works made gas mask frames and aviator goggles and over the course of the next thirty years, they made over a million pairs of frames each year for the NHS, which is the National Health Service. However, this production was stopped by Margaret Thatcher in the 80’s when she deregulated the supply of free prescription frames from the NHS.

Dominic Wilcox …and so they actually stopped doing that and decided to go bespoke and high end so they made all of Harry Potter’s glasses in the films and he was saying how the sizes got gradually bigger as the films went along.

George Drake Jr. They also made Eric Clapton and John Lennon’s glasses as well.

Dominic Wilcox He took me up to the room where the manufacturing was and there was hundreds, literally hundreds, of different machines in the workshop. There was only one guy in the workshop going from machine to machine. So, all of the machines were there from when they made a million, you know, they’d kept them, but now they just make bespoke things. So, they only need, you know, a couple of people.

So I got twenty different sounds from different machines. “Just switch on that machine.” The starting up of the machine, the rhythm of the machine, the belts turning and each machine had its own personality. So, I enjoyed that.

George Drake Jr. Personally, I think the most interesting sound that he recorded was at the oldest manufacturer in Britain. The company has been in Whitechapel since 1570 although recently a link has been traced back all the way to 1420. 1420! Are you kidding me? That’s insane! It’s a job that I didn’t even know existed. So, maybe that’s why it’s so fascinating to me, but really it’s because it seems like a ridiculously cool job to have.

Dominic Wilcox It’s called the Whitechapel bell factory.

George Drake Jr. There’s so many bells in this episode…

Dominic Wilcox They make bells. Church bells, small bells, big bells. They actually made the first Liberty Bell and they made Big Ben’s bell.

George Drake Jr. Fun fact: Big Ben is actually the largest bell in the tower. Big Ben as we know it is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Tell your friends.

Dominic Wilcox …and they were actually retuning the church bell at the time. And I said, “How do you retune a church bell? This big lump of metal?” Well, basically they clamp it into a clamp and spin it, quite fast, and then a little sort of metal file pushes into the inside of the bell and scrapes off metal in different parts of the inside of the bell and this changes the tuning of the bell.

But the story was actually that there was a church in England and they had many bells, but all of the bells were made at different times in different places. So, they were never actually  all tuned together. So, their job was to bring all of these bells together and re-tune them so they actually sounded good. So, I do feel sorry for the local village who for the last two-hundred years have been putting up with out of tune bells.

George Drake Jr. As I mentioned before, trade professions are becoming a relic of England’s economic and cultural past. They’re often overlooked and many have either disappeared completely or have nearly been forgotten. The way sounds define our work environments has changed drastically since the late 1800’s or early 1900’s and it seems now that present day sounds are almost phased out every 10 years. The sound of a job used to be the sound of progress, industry, pride, and the sound of making something tactile. Dominic’s project is less of a souvenir of East London and more of a time capsule for all of London, one remembering the sounds of the way things used to be and the way they still do sound. If only even for the moment.

Dominic Wilcox You know, I quite like the idea that these are some sort of historical document of the moment, of sounds, time, because of course I wonder what the sounds were like a hundred years ago, if you visited makers then. I mean, a few of them would be very similar. They’d be exactly the same, in fact! But the area is changing in East London a lot. So, there would’ve been different types of makers. I think maybe before it was big factories of many people doing the same thing, but now there’s a huge amount of people doing it for themselves, working on their own or with maybe one other person and having a little corner of a room making something. There’s a lot of that going on. So, I suppose hopefully I’ve captured a little bit of that.

George Drake Jr. You can find out more about Dominic Wilcox and his ‘Sounds of Making in East London’ project from our website everything sounds dot org and while you’re there you can take a gander through our episode guide and listen to any previous episodes, including this one, again. Everything Sounds is an independent production. If you like what you hear consider becoming an Everything Sounds Audiophile. You can pay what you’d like and you’ll get access to our bonus material as it becomes available. Find out more at everything sounds dot org slash support and also consider rating or reviewing the show on iTunes. It only takes about a minute or two, but it does more than you’d think. It helps us move up in their rankings and gets us more exposure. We could use any help you want to throw our way. Until next time, thanks for listening to Everything Sounds. I’m George Drake, Jr.

Leave a Reply