Sunday, September 25, 2022

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD THIS WILL BE [362]


I distinctly remember the hope that, when the Covid-19 pandemic eventually drew to a close, the ensuing momentum that would follow such a seismic event could have been the beginning of a new “Roaring Twenties”, last seen following the First World War and the flu pandemic of 1918.

Of course, it does not feel like this has happened, replaced more by a need to return things to normal, just as the proposals to redraw the map of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was replaced by a need to rebuild as soon as possible.

This has left me feeling like the 2020s haven’t really started yet culturally, much like when the 1960s were said to have started with The Beatles in 1963, or when the 1990s were ushered in by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. The pandemic acted more like a stress test than a creative inspiration, before counting the threat it made to live music venues, in places like Liverpool and Seattle, that help foment the scenes that changed popular music.

The reason I have started thinking about this now was its having been prompted by reading many articles about the prospects of a “post-Elizabethan age” – following the death of the Queen, having been a symbol of stability and consensus for so long, what country is the UK going to become, and how will things progress under King Charles III and Prime minister Liz Truss? 

It feels like fundamental changes are expected, but it is not known what they could be, or what for they should take, because elements of that expectation were themselves not expected. Who are we counting on to enact the change? Someone creative? A ground swell? 

I don’t think it is possible to expect a paradigm shift, unless this a result of anxiety. Beatlemania and Nirvana may have ushered in the “Sixties” and the “Nineties”, but the ironic detachment and post-Cold War relief that characterised the “Nineties” was definitively ended by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, just as the end of the “Elizabethan age” was not an event to prepare for. If the lockdown caused by Covid-19 is considered a paradigm shift, it is only in the sense that the standard procedure for progress to take was interrupted or stopped, while happening to coincide with the beginning of the decade.

I think this is one of those times where I don’t know what to expect. The UK has seen uncertainty in one form or another caused by Brexit, Covid, and by changes in Prime Minister and Monarch, unless this proves to be the character of the 2020s – we are already nearly three years in, so it might be time to either call it now, or start preparing to make the 2030s as great as possible.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

ON THEE OUR HOPES WE FIX [361]


With the UK still in a period of national mourning as I write this, I decided that discussing the prospects for the country and monarchy can wait for now. 

 

What I do know is that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II will be noted most visibly when the face on the UK’s money and postage stamps begin to change. I have already been witness to this, when the smaller 5 and 10 pence coins introduced in 1990 and 1992 respectively removed one and two shilling coins featuring King George VI, and possibly still George V, from circulation, but that was a change due to progress. Any change this time will be felt more keenly, especially when for the last fifty-five years, the UK has had perhaps the best postage stamps in the world.

 

The Royal Philatelic Collection is one of the largest and most valuable stamp collections in the world. It was begun by King George V, although stamp collecting has been a part of the Royal Family since 1864, not so long after the Royal Mail introduced the Penny Black in 1840 as the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. The Queen continued the collection, currently stored at Windsor Castle.

 

With the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland substituting the monarch’s face for writing its country name on its stamps, Arnold Machin’s standard “definitive” stamp design used since June 1967 is the most simple and effective design possible: the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II, created by Machin in clay, wearing the George IV State Diadem, a crown that includes the roses, thistles and shamrocks that featured separately on the former, more busy standard stamp design; the price value of the stamp; and a single colour used, helping to differentiate from other values of stamp.

I have a stamp collection, mostly kept within one book, and in looking back into it now, the cumulative effect of seeing so many of the “Machin series”, in so many different colours, across so many pages, puts me in mind of Andy Warhol’s pop art screenprints, again reproducing the same image in different colours, except they cost substantially more.

 

This simplicity and effectiveness of this design has doomed attempts to change it. A proposal to change the Queen’s portrait in 1981, just as Machin’s separate portrait for the original set of decimal coinage was also being replaced, was met with a letter from the subject’s private secretary: “Her Majesty is very content with the Machin effigy and thinks that a work of real quality is required if this is to be replaced.” 

 

Other attempts to change the design were rejected by Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee and by Machin himself, but the Queen’s gentle intervention does make you think that, if your face is the only change that can be made to something, you will more than likely say no. With the Queen having final say over her 1967 portrait, and even requesting the colour of the original 4d. stamp to closely match the original 1840 Penny Black, the sense of personal investment is palpable. It has made this portrait of the Queen into possibly most reproduced picture of a single person there has ever been, or will ever be.

 

Of course, Machin’s design will now have to be changed. My prediction, and hope, is that King Charles’s portrait will simply be used instead, the rest of the stamp staying as it is, but it remains to be seen if the opportunity will be taken to create an entirely new design. 




Sunday, September 4, 2022

COLOURS OF THE WORLD, SPICE UP YOUR LIFE [360]

Left: digitised VHS source. Right: colour boosted in video editor.

Having completed my video about Memphis furniture [link], I am confident I have made a well-structured piece of television with good use of archive material, but I also learned how terrible the Video Home System (VHS) really was.

Having decided to include a fake advertisement break that reflected the influence of Memphis design, I realised that the recordings I used literally paled in comparison to my photographs of the real-life furniture. I already needed to boost the colour of the Weetabix ad I used, using a different VHS copy of it for reference, having being unable to find a copy that was higher in resolution and also not muddy in colour, but then I realised the colour of Warninks advocaat is yellow, not cream, and the swimming pool ladder in the Kitekat ad had to be brighter to match the more obvious influences in the colours and patterns used.

This is not a case of my digital photographs versus (the digital sample of) an analogue tape, the relative age of the tape, or the decline in quality of the recording over time, but more the technical limitations of the VHS format that have largely been overcome by the switch to digital formats, through no longer being constrained by a physical form.

On a 12.5mm-wide VHS tape, the top 0.65mm is taken up with one or two audio tracks, and the bottom 0.75mm is a control track used for synchronising recording and playback. The remaining 9mm is used for the picture, with a signal bandwidth of 3 MHz for luminance – the black-and-white signal that forms the picture - and a 400 kHz sub-signal for chrominance, reproducing the colour. 

These numbers obviously doesn’t mean a lot by themselves, except that less space on video formats are reserved for colour signals because your eyes react more to changes in brightness, so a colour signal can be compressed more without much change in colour. However, the bandwidth of the original TV signal being recorded is much wider, with the PAL video standard using 5.5 MHz for luminance, and 4.43 MHz for chrominance, SECAM using 6 MHz and 4.43 MHz respectively, and NTSC, broadcasting a 525-line picture instead of 625 lines, using 4.2 MHz and 3.58 MHz respectively. 

In order to fit your recording onto the tape, VHS has to throw much of the signal away in a manner that befits having tape only half an inch wide, playing at 1-1.5 inches per second – older professional, broadcast quality tape standards like 2-inch quadruplex, 1-inch Type C and U-Matic recorded a better quality by simply having more surface area to play with, running a wider tape more quickly to pick up as much information as possible. The later S-VHS standard increased the luminance signal recorded to 5.4 MHz, but kept the chrominance signal, and the speed of the tape, exactly the same.

While the picture quality of the contemporary Betamax format was better than VHS, the throwaway nature of TV advertisements often mean that the format that won out in the video format war often winds up as the archive format for those ads. One point of my video as to show how colourful 1980s design was but, without me doing anything with some of the images, another point would have been how our recordings of the decade washed out that colour.