Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Sound Map Tour: an immersive audio tour of Brick Lane

The Sound Map Tour is an audio tour of Brick Lane and the surrounding streets. Like the Walk The Line Tour, it is also one that can be downloaded for free from the Internet, this time from the Sound Map Website. They have produced four London sound walks and these have been made on a commercial basis. Probably due to this Brick Lane walk being slightly out of date, you no longer have to pay for it. 

The tour starts opposite the Beigel Shop at the top of Brick Lane and is introduced and led by author Tarquin Hall, who stakes his local credentials by saying he once lived in a flat looking over the Beigel Bake. The tour begins with some words of warning, which basically amount to keep your eyes open and if anything goes wrong, take off the headphones and pause the recording.

Unlike the Walk The Line tour, this tour has been properly researched, a polished script written, it has been well recorded and a specially commissioned sound track added. There are even three interviews, such as one with the proprietor of the beigel shop. I couldn't say if the grey haired man standing behind the counter was or was not the man I was listening to, but the recording said he was with a man in his 70s so it is quite possible that I was hearing him speaking while simultaneously watching him at work. This uncertainty, not knowing if it was or was not him, added a pleasant ambiguity.  

The tour made its way down Brick Lane and I could not but notice Broadgate Tower in the background, itself the site of a number of tours that I've been researching, and which I will try to cover. Perhaps the most tangential of them is it being a stopping point on a Skyfalll film location tour. This most recent of Bond films had to work to a tighter budget than anticipated and the tower had to stand in for a Shanghai office block, as it was too expensive to film in China. You can see the building featuring heavily in the out takes video starting at 18 seconds. There are a number of different tours that will take you there as part of a Bond themed tour.

I was perfectly comfortable taking the tour without a map, even though there was one provided as a safety net. It was possible because the narrator had a system for getting people to the right place, holding them there while he was talking and then setting them off in the right direction to the next stop. It basically involved him saying walk to the next junction and stop at the corner. Some music would play or he'd continue his story and he'd check in to make sure you were on course. Once that story was complete, you'd go the next track and you'd get your instructions on where to walk next. The sound was, therefore, pretty much constant and this made the tour far more immersive than the other audio tours I have taken, where you are switching between recordings and map. This was much more like being inside a movie, in no small part also due to the sound design which added music and footsteps to the recording. There was just enough time to make it from one point to the next, though it might be a struggle to do this on a market day as you'd have to fight your way through the crowds. The one thing I had to keep fiddling with was the volume; sometimes there would be traffic backed up and I needed it loud to cut through the car engines, other times the street fell quiet and the soundtrack felt abrasive.

The tour took me to The Vibe Bar and the narrator talked about the changing occupants and usage of Truman's Brewery. The general idea was that change was a feature of the area and nothing new in itself. Every now and again, when something bad happened, the narrator would introduce it with, "Sadly, ...." which became a bit of a running theme not only about changes for the worse but also unfortunate historical events such as a racist nail bomb attack. 

I arrived at one of the more fashionable shopping and eating areas and sailed straight through.  

Continuing on the blue plaque theme from previous tours, I spotted a further two on this tour. One is that of Anna Maria Garthwaite, who got a bona fide English Heritage plaque, and the other is Gizmo (a dog) who gets his own more homemade plaque outside the Golden Heart. I noticed that there is a website that attempts to record all the plaques and monuments in London. This would be the perfect resource for constructing a plaque tour. Standing outside the pub, the narrator  told me about the celebrity regulars, interviewed the landlady and encouraged me to pop in for a pint. I was however in a bit of a hurry so didn't take up the offer.

I passed the Ten Bells and got a short history of the pub's connection to Jack the Ripper and heard  how the pub was for over 10 years named The Jack The Ripper as you can see on the right. Not a pub popular with the ladies, I suspect, back then. He talked about how the Ripper tours have been a local attraction and source of revenue for some years.

The tour took me into Taj Stores, a sizeable Bangladeshi supermarket, where the story of the Bangladeshi community began. Listening to an audio-tour out in the street is one thing but inside a store it becomes more curious as you are being told information about the people whose space you are standing in and who are right in front of you. What's more, they don't know that you are listening to someone telling you about them; you could be listening to Lady Gaga for all they know. This information gap can made me feel ever so slightly self-conscious, as if I were spying on them. 

The immigration theme continued down the road with the traces of the Jewish immigrants being highlighted. The remaining traces were relatively few in number. To compensate for that, klezmer music played while the history of Jews in the area was recounted. This music returned at least once again later in the tour and became a theme to announce "jewish section of the narrative" in the same way that there was an Indian sounding theme that returned when you were in the general bounce-down-Brick-Lane-moments of the tour. In this respect the music was there to always support the narrative, both thematically and rhythmically. This was an carefully composed audio tour and not a work of audio art that made you ask questions about the status of the different elements.

Somewhat inevitably, the tour again took in the mosque. The story was again that of tolerance and change in the area. I heard, once again, how the building had been transformed from a Christian to a Jewish to a Muslim place of worship. Having heard this a few too many times due to the professional distortion of being a reviewer of local tours, I was more interested in the Renault.

While the narrator talks and you make your way from one point to another, you do of course see things which are not directly part of the script. In fact the majority of the things I saw were not mentioned as he was busy telling a story not listing the objects I could see when walking down the road. Come to think of it, that might make for a rather unusual sort of tour: no story just a recitation of what is there... or was to be seen, when the recording was made. This is much in the mode of George Perec's Species of Spaces where, for example, he suggests, "force yourself to see more flatly" (page 51). I'm not quite sure how I'd describe these artery thickening sweets, but I certainly saw many trays of them as I made my way down Brick Lane. 

Cafe Naz was another point of interest. I stopped and listened to an interview with the owner about his thriving restaurant whilst looking at the building site which is what remains of Cafe Naz. With a walking tour this dislocation does not happen as the guide can change his story to suit reality but with an audio tour, whose narrative is fixed in time, this must be quite common. The narrator talked about the process of change and so this was, to an extent not as jarring as it might otherwise be. It does strike me, however, that this must be a major drawback for most audio tours: their limited life span.  

I then came to the end of Brick Lane and heard about the main local bank that is used to transfer money back to Bangladesh, particularly to the Syhlet region, where the majority of the Bangladeshis who have settled in the area were said to have first come from. I also heard how this has created not just a pocket of Syhlet in London but also a reciprocal pocket of London in Syhlet as people have taken back things they have learned to like here, such as marmite. 

The tour concluded on Whitechapel High Street, close to Aldgate East tube. My overall impression was rather positive: it was intelligent and skilfully put together. This form of immersive audio tour has the effect of taking you properly into the tour, but this in turn can have the effect of removing you somewhat from the place. It was not so long a tour, about an hour in length, so it did not feel like an imposition but rather it gave a condensed impression of the Brick Lane and its life, both past and present. The contrast between this and The Walk The Line Tour is great and goes to show what can be done with a bit of effort. 

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