UK Soundmap / sonic time capsule

In May 2011, Felicity Ford created a Sound Diary inspired by the idea of making a sort of sonic time capsule. This project was undertaken in conjunction with the British Library’s UK Soundmap initiative, and sounds typical of Felicity’s daily life in Britain in 2011 were recorded, considered and presented here on the Sound Diaries website, and uploaded to the UK Soundmap via audioboo.

Felicity’s introduction to the project, recordings, and notes are presented below.

I recently attended a meeting at The British Library, in which a group of us reviewed the progress of The UK Soundmap project. During his presentation there, Ian Rawes* played some sounds from earlier times in history, and described the specific way in which sound recordings document eras and ages. One of the recordings Rawes played featured people whistling in the streets while another featured street barkers. Both of these sound clips prompted discussions about changes in the nature of advertising and behaviour in public spaces. Street barkers are no longer an ubiquitous feature of city life, and whistling isn’t the fashionable past-time it once was… those features in the recordings date them, and also convey something of the texture of life in previous times.

Also, I noticed that there were a great many more bicycle bells in those recordings than would be heard out walking today, and the car engines had a distinctive tone to them, reflecting the mechanics and materials used in an earlier period of manufacture. The recordings evidenced subtle changes in the way our streets feel and the ways that we behave in them, because they captured time passing in actual minutes and seconds, and because they captured the things that were happening in those minutes and seconds.

This made me think about time and the way that sound recordings literally record time passing, and everything that takes place during that time.

After listening to Ian Rawes’s presentation, I found myself thinking about the sounds which typify the time in which we now live. Since the UK Soundmap is due to close for contributions in June 2011, I decided that in May, I will make a concerted effort to record sounds which sonically document my existence in 2011 Britain. I have developed a list of sounds which typify – for me – the sounds of my daily life. My plan is to create and upload recordings of these sounds to Audioboo via the sonicartresearch Audioboo account throughout May 2011, and to present them here with a little contextual commentary. The idea is to explain to the listener in the year 3000, what the UK sounds like now; to create some sense of how this time which we live in sounds right now.

– Felicity Ford, May 2011

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In considering the creation of “a sonic time capsule”, I listed some sounds that might not exist indefinitely into the future. The first such sound is the sound of filling a car up with petrol. When do you think this sound will cease to be a part of the UK Soundscape?

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I don’t remember this public service announcement existing when I used trains in the UK as a teenager, and can find little information on when it was first introduced to the UK Soundscape. It seems to me that this sound is grounded in a particular era of history; it seems to be a post-7/7 sound, laced with fears of terrorism and the threat of state control. I hear it every time I am in Reading train station.

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I prefer to pay with Chip and PIN than with cash, as it means I don’t have money in my pocket which I might be tempted to spend. I also like having a record of my financial transactions. Chip and PIN is one of the technologies that we use regularly in daily life, but it was only introduced in 2003, so it has not always been part of the UK Soundscape.

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One of the clips that has featured in several discussions about the UK Soundmap (including the BBC News TODAY programme feature) is this recording from audioboo user bulldozia, featuring the announcement voice at a self-service checkout. Bulldozia – AKA Alasdair Pettinger – has written a superb piece about the UK Soundmap, and has contributed many interesting recordings to the project. Today we are going to talk about “buying bananas at the self-service checkout” recorded by Alasdair:

This recording documents the ubiquitous nature of the self-service checkout voice which is the same all over the UK, regardless of region or dialect. It also evidences the frustrating nature of the self-service checkout experience which has already become such a matter of debate and conjecture that we cannot be sure whether the system will endure indefinitely into the future.

I tend to shop for several days, and to try and re-use bags – a practice quickly made impossible by the self-service checkout, as the scales don’t seem able to cope with different weights of bags! I also like the people who work in our local supermarket, and so usually I ignore the self-service check out option. This recording is from a day where I didn’t know the person on the till, and where my binaural microphones probably resembled headphones, so there is none of the usual chatter. You can hear groceries ramping up the conveyor belt towards my bags and trolley, and the beep as the items are scanned.

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Since a tasty Chinese takeaway place opened up less than five minutes walk from our house, we have become regulars. I wonder how much the sounds in this recording will change over time… I am holding keys all the way to collect my order, and they jangle throughout the recording. The door into the shop makes a certain kind of suction sound, and you can hear the warm fuzz of chatter, kitchen apparatus and the acoustics of a very tiled space. Will we still have keys in one hundred years’ time? Will kitchen appliances sound the same?

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I don’t remember large vehicles always being fitted with automatic beeping systems to notify the driver that they were close to a wall, or currently in reverse, but such devices seem extremely common now. Here is the sound of a lorry reversing, with its characteristic warning beeps. I heard it in Chichester while walking with my brother there a couple of weekends ago.

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Every night, just before I fall asleep, I hear the sound of a shop shutter closing on the main road adjoining our road. This sound is a sort of punctuation mark to the day, indicating that the surrounding businesses and buildings are temporarily closing their doors on wakeful life and trade. The shop which I can hear from my home is a pizza shop, and I have tried many times to record that final daily sound. But it doesn’t always happen at the exact same time, and being half-asleep and about 140m away from a recording subject hasn’t helped.

However, during my residency at Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green, I realised that the metal shop shutter sounds very like the one I can hear at home when it is drawn to a close at night. I talked to Rachael about the sound of the shutter, and learned that closing it at the end of the day has some of the same connotations for Rachael as hearing the sound of the shutter closing at home does, for me. Maybe many people around the UK hear this sound as they are falling asleep, or as they are on their way home from somewhere. Or maybe – as for Rachael – this sound marks the end of the working day, signalling the change as the workplace goes from being “Open” to being “Closed”. Both Rachael’s shutter and the one I hear closing on the pizza shop in Reading are closed by hand; you can hear the heft of a human arm and the weight of metal; a split second where the momentum of the uncurling shutter sections takes on a force of its own and drives downwards. And surrounding this sound, the vague patina of night traffic, and buildings shaking to the subsonic soundwaves of lorries rolling distantly over tarmac.

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The sound of a washing-machine is a constant background accompaniment to modern, domestic life. Pants, socks, hankies, trousers, bras, shirts, jeans, tracksuit bottoms, work clothes, weekend clothes, party clothes, underwear, school uniforms and pyjamas all get used regularly, and all require frequent cleaning. The washing machine is one of the most transformative appliances in the domestic household in terms of the labour that it actually saves. Before its widespread introduction, laundry day in most households was exactly that: a day spent arduously soaping, rinsing, the wringing dry all the garments worn by the members of a household. There is still work involved in doing the laundry, but the invention of the washing machine has changed the nature of that labour and also the sound of that labour taking place. Today the sound of a washing-machine is a very watery, slooshy sound, but in years to come, washing machines may sound very different. The University of Leeds have been researching the concept of a nearly waterless washing-machine to deal with the fact that washing machines use a lot of water – nearly 50 litres per wash – so that we might better preserve our precious water. It is possible to hear the quantity of water that is used in the washing machine which I recorded for this addition to the UK Soundmap, and if the research at Leeds is anything to go by, we might assume that the washing machines of the future will not sound so wet or slooshy as this one. I wonder if any washing machine recordings exist of the earlier 1950s models, which used up to 150L per wash?

AN ASIDE: Unbeknownst to me, while I was happily recording Rachael’s washing machine during my stay in London this week, my binaural microphones were in a shirt pocket inside it; I wonder if the tinks and dings you can hear in the machine are the sounds of them being destroyed by all that water?

ANOTHER ASIDE: if you thought that there would be little regional distinction between washing machines in one country or another, check out this recording of a washing machine made in Thailand:

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Joey is our cat. He is not very good at defending himself against the bigger cats who live in our street, and when other cats started invading the house through his catflap and stealing his food, we decided he needed the protection of a better cat-flap. After some research, we discovered a cat-flap which could be programmed to read his microchip, meaning that other cats can’t come into the house. We also found many interesting threads in which cat owners discuss whether or not their cats like the sounds which the cat flap produces! Some cats are apparently frightened by the snapping sounds as the mechanism inside the cat flap locks and unlocks, and other cats – like Joey – appear to deliberately activate their cat-flap in order to make it produce a sound. You can hear in this clip how Joey experiments with the cat flap before leaving the house, by pushing his paws through it several times before actually exiting. This is one of the sounds we hear throughout the day, always followed by the gentle padding of his paws on the wooden floorboards.

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There is a longer recording here, which contains all the time it takes for Joey to decide whether he wants to be inside or outside.

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There is regularly talk in the newspapers about the demise of local pubs, and I wonder how long the characteristic sounds of the English pub will be a feature of our soundscape. 100 years? 1000 years? Historic accounts of the sounds of pubs mention clattering pewter pots; harps and fiddles; the flutter of a canary in a cage, and the soft spurt of beer; and “ripe male voices…” …the sound of slurry, drunken, boisterous voices surely has not changed very much over the years. But pewter has given way to glass, and the sound of a fire crackling in the grate is no longer one you hear in every pub that you enter.

Mobile phone sounds and the sounds of electronic games machines are more common today though, and sometimes you get to hear the sounds of darts or pool being played. Our local has lots of creaky chairs in it, and is carpeted throughout. The carpets, heavy curtains and big comfy chairs somewhat muffle the noises of the revellers and the banging glasses, but you can still hear the laughter. Music coming through speakers is another very common sound in pubs in 2011. While thinking about pub sounds, I found this boo by Robert Johnson – who is a prolific contributor to the UK SoundMap;

I love how Robert has described the sounds you can hear… piped music, people talking, glasses…

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I have left my recording free of spoken decription, but many of the sounds “down the local”, are similar.

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We have a gas cooker. We also use gas to heat our house and all our water. Like petrol, gas is a finite resource and it is reasonable to assume that one day the sounds of using it will no longer be an everyday layer of sound in the soundscape. I love cooking with gas; I love the boom of the flame as it takes, and the way that the sound of gas burning corresponds exactly to its heat output. What I mean, is that I love the way you can instantly understand whether the gas is burning too fast or too slow for cooking purposes when you cook with gas. I also love a fried egg. I start off by cooking it on the hob in a frying pan, then I move the pan down into the grill to make sure that the eggwhite on top is all cooked through. It’s my very favourite breakfast and its creation is a regular sound in our house.

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I felt ambivalent about putting a voicemail message on the UK Soundmap because voicemail messages are private and are only intended to be heard by the person the caller is calling. However, as well as having this interpersonal, individual dimension, The Voicemail – like The Email – has a kind of mass aspect. Many hundreds of people today are on a train somewhere – as I was in this recording – picking up messages from partners or parents or friends, asking what time they will be at the station and whether or not they want picking up when they get there. So although this particular message is distinctive and personal, it’s also evidence of a mass phenomena; a mass yet individual sonic experience which is repeating itself over and over all over the UK right now, as people pick up their messages either in a moment when they have some time to do it, or when their phone is once again in the range of a network signal. Picking up voicemail is such a ubiquitous sound in today’s world that leaving it out altogether would be a kind of ommission. How many times do we pick up voicemail messages while we wait for the bus, sit in the Doctor’s office, walk to work etc.? How often do we hear the voices of the people we are in regular communications with fizzling through the digitization and transmission processes which give them that distinctive, telephonic quality? It wasn’t a part of the soundscape when I was growing up; we arranged everything by landline, letter, or face-to-face communication.

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How many times have you taken a lightbulb out of its fitting and rung the bulb gently beside your ear to check that the tungsten inside is actually busted? The delicate little ring is like a confirmation, saying “you need to change the lightbulb.” This sound is a miniscule detail in the soundscape, but it will soon be extinct. We have only a handful of incandescent bulbs left in the house, so we still hear the sound sometimes, but in years to come, nobody will know what it sounded like when a tungsten lightbulb needed changing.

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Some kind of lawn-mower or other whirring DIY apparatus; the songs of various birds; traffic going very fast on the main road adjacent to our side-street; coughing; woodpigeons… this is what I hear anytime I step out of the back of the house and into the garden and I expect its not dissimilar to the sounds of many suburban streets all over the UK. It’s hard to predict what will sound different in the future; less/quieter traffic? Different birds? Fewer whirring DIY products? Do you live in the suburbs? What does it sound like in your back garden?

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I remember when ring-pull mechanisms for opening drinks cans fell out of use during the 1980s. You still see the discarded ring-pulls which came off so easily in odd pockets of old litter, but today most drinks cans in the UK use a stay-on-tab mechanism so that it is harder for the metal tab to come loose and cause environmental harm. The stay-on-tab mechanism hasn’t been adopted globally, but for now it is the sound of opening drinks cans in the UK. I don’t know of any ring-pull tab recordings from the past; probably there are lots in old advertising sound-design archives…

The Beverage Can, on Wikipedia

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Many mornings on our road begin with the sound of the council’s Recycling van driving through it, belting announcements that “this vehicle is reversing” into the air. I often wake to the loud clang of tins, cardboard boxes, empty plastic bottles and other such recyclable materials dropping into its cavernous recesses, and the efficient clattering of bins being wheeled to and from the houses to the waiting vehicle in the street by the men who run it. Recycling facilities as they exist today were first introduced into the UK in 1997, so before this time many of the sounds associated with local council management of reuseable waste were not really part of the soundscape. Now around 94% of the country is involved in some kind of locally-managed recycling scheme and so this sound is slowly becoming one which we all know and recognise.

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This recording – while not in any way containing “typical” sounds in 2011 – does involve one of the sounds which I associate with my everyday life, and one of the sounds which will be gone very soon from the UK soundscape. It is the sound of a transaction taking place in Jackson’s department store, in Reading Town Centre, where pneumatic money tubes are still in operation around the building. In Jackson’s, when you pay for your goods in such a way that change will be required, your money is placed with a docket inside a tube into a secure metal box, and the tube is then shunted elsewhere in the building using air-compressing or pneumatic technology. A cashier elsewhere in the building receives the metal tube and organises your change, because moments later, the metal tube appears once again in the same box which it was originally placed in, and the shop assistant extracts it and then hands you your change and your receipt. In this recording, I purchase 2 handkerchiefs which cost a total of £1.10. I hand the shop assistant a £5 note to pay for these goods, and this money is then committed to the pneumatic tube system via a large metal box behind the counter. You hear the assistant explaining that my change won’t be very long, and then we wait together then for the clatter of the returning metal tube containing my receipt and change. I love shopping at Jackson’s for such things as handkerchiefs, tights, umbrellas and yarn. I can buy these items elsewhere, but nowhere else provides the sound provided by this technology operating. Where does the tube system go? Who actually handles the money and where in the building does this labour take place? So this is a personal sound for the UK Soundmap time capsule; the sound of a very specific piece of rare technology in operation for who knows how much longer, from my life here in Reading.

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Market traders all over the UK have specific ways of vocally promoting their wares to passersby; here is the man selling lemons and cherries one Saturday, in Reading’s Street Market.

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According to The BBC’s Norman Walk around Reading, the oldest part of the town or its birthplace, is St Mary’s Butts. The Church there was built in AD 978 by Queen Aelfthryth, who stabbed her stepson Edward to death so that her own son could inherit the throne. After thus inheriting the throne, her son ordered her to build a Nunnery on the site that is now St Mary’s Butts, to “cleanse her soul.” A full report with dates and names can be found here. The BBC walk and PDF explain that there has been a religious building on the site for just over 1,000 years. I am not sure if there were always bells in the soundscape around here, or whether they have only been a feature since the 1600s. However, according to this article, “the present peal consists of three (bells) dated 1640, two dated 1740 and two dated 1743. In 1611 the first clock was installed in the tower.” So the sound of the church bell announcing the hour has been around for a while. More recent additions to the soundscape of St Mary’s Butts include the revving of bus engines in all the surrounding thoroughfares, and the prevalent music of the buskers who regularly play in this area. In this recording the musician is playing a kind of slide-guitar blues, with a cigarette lighter being used as a slide.

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WM Vicars & Son, on West Street is the only butchers’ shop in Reading where you can buy game. Buying meat there and witnessing the ruby red blood droplets in the sawdust underneath the hanging deers and pheasants is a more visceral experience than buying a polystyrene tub with anonymous lumps of flesh in it, wrapped in clingfilm, from the supermarket. I buy rabbit often as it is a lean meat which is guaranteed to have had a great, wild life; we have a surplus of wild rabbits running about the countryside; and it is cheap. The sound of the butcher deftly jointing the rabbit is a necessary part of my eating it, and whatever meat I eat in my life, somewhere someone has cut it up. Like so many small and local businesses, the butcher is threatened by the prices of the global market and by the ubiquity of the supermarket. I do not know for how long I will be able to walk into a small room off the high street, with the bustle of the crowds and the roar of the bus engines just outside, and buy myself a rabbit for a stew, but for now, this is a sound I sometimes hear in 2011, in Reading.

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Visiting the ladies’ toilets in the Oracle Shopping Centre in Reading creates a complete sense of remove from the physicality of the body and its functions. Very few sounds of actual human bodies can be heard here amongst the din of automatic ablution systems. Dyson Airblade hand-driers, automated flushes and automatic taps wash out other less mechanical sounds, in a sort of sonic sanitisation of space. The Dyson Airblade and other noisy contraptions are recent additions to the plethora of technologies which humans live closely with; I wonder what the public bathrooms of one hundred years’ time will sound like, by comparison?

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When I lived in Ireland between 1997 and 2004, I was for some years dimly aware of the widespread use of sound signals at pedestrian crossings. Pedestrian crossings in Dublin emit a loud, no-nonsense racket whenever it is safe to cross the road. I did not fully appreciate the point of this until my great friendship with Isolde, who is visually impaired.

Travelling around the city with Isolde and her Guide Dod, Quasi, I quickly learned that the sonic signals at crossings gave them all the information needed to navigate the busy roads without my assistance. I clearly remember Isolde explaining to me that relying on friends to announce “it’s safe to cross the road” was never going to be a decent substitute for the ability to determine this for herself, based on auditory cues.

Since that time I have come to love and appreciate accessible design in cities, and I am frequently angered by the lack of audible cues around Reading’s city centre, as it makes independant navigation of the city much harder for visually impaired travellers. Implicit in the ommission of these auditory cues is the assumption that urban spaces are essentially designed for sighted users. Other users excluded from these spaces are people with mobility impairments who cannot navigate steps, for which there are no adjacent ramps; or roads with pavements that are too narrow to traverse in a wheelchair or on a mobility scooter.

The Disability Descrimination Act, (The DDA) and the Town and country planning act are some of the relatively recent bits of legislation which have been passed at parliamentary level to change the way that towns are built and planned in regard to disabled people. In short, the towns of the future must be designed with a wide range of users in mind and we can expect that features of design – including sonic signals for visually impaired users – will become a more prevalent feature of the soundscape.

At least I hope so.

For now, we have just a couple of pedestrian crossings with auditory signals in them; here’s one.

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The Oracle Shopping Centre in Reading has two massive, multi-storey carparks, which provide parking spaces for 2,300 cars. The Oracle Shopping Centre opened to the public in September 1999, so the sounds of people clamouring up and down the stairwell, banging doors, and the thrumming bass of car engines revving in sonorous, long, concrete corridors is probably only a decade old – at least in the soundscape of Reading.

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This sound isn’t necessarily one I hear every day; it was recorded in Ingleby Barwick, in Middlesborough, when my brother was living there. It is a year or two old, in fact, but it is the best recording of blackbirds that I have and blackbirds are a huge feature of my daily soundscape. In Ingleby Barwick (which is a massive housing estate) there are many pedestrianised walkways. The walkways are bordered by walls, which separate all the residents’ gardens from one another. Many trees and bushes have been planted in these gardens, and blackbirds and starlings and sparrows and robins fill the air around the pedestrian walkways with their song. I have spoken to people who remember sparrows being the most prominent birds in suburban gardens, but their numbers are in decline and sparrows are considered now to be an endangered species. How will changes in our developing world influence which bird species thrive, and which do not? And how will those factors influence the nature of the soundscape?

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The milkfloat is now so infrequent that I recorded it by accident one morning and realised it used to be a much more prominent daily feature in my life than it now is. We buy all our milk from the supermarket, although I vaguely remember having it delivered when I was a small girl.

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When I lived on the Wokingham Road between 2009 – 2010, I was in a bedsit and there were 8 flats sharing the one washing machine, so it was often in use when I was up for doing a wash. I became very familiar with the local launderette, although as you can hear in this recording, I wasn’t very good at operating the machines. It used to be that going to the launderette was what most people did, but more and more people own a washing machine, and more and more rented properties are leased with a washing machine already installed. So for how long will the sounds inside the launderette be a feature of the UK soundscape?

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There are many more cars than spaces on the road where I live, and it is a very small road where most of the residents know each other. It is also a road inhabited by many cats. For all of these reasons, the traffic moves slowly, and one of the main sounds I hear in daily life is the sound of cars being slowly and carefully manoeuvred in tight spaces. It’s a specific sound; you don’t hear it in busy thoroughfares or carparks where people tend to drive a little more carelessly; and it means that when the occasional fast driver bowls down the road at speed, you know they’re not a regular resident. The slow way that cars move in the street is – to me – somehow representative of a contemporary form of neighbourly courtesy, and I don’t mind the sound at all.

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This sound – like the Tungsten Lightbulb – is a sound which I have included in this sonic time capsule because it is an endangered sound. The watermill at Mapledurham is the oldest working watermill on the Thames, and flour is still ground there. This sound, which was recorded inside the mill, dates from a point in 2009. Plans to add a turbine to the mill to increase its power mean that the sound of the mill may change. This recording preserves the way that it now sounds, in 2011, and the way that it presumably has sounded since it was recorded in the Domesday book. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the mill for both the flour, and the wondrous creaky perspective that walking around it lends to wood, water and stone.

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My partner, Mark, has only one houseware penchant, and that is for nice wineglasses. He favours a tall, slim-stemmed wineglass with a large bowl on top of it. My penchant is for a never-ending supply of clip-shut tupperware and clean, used jam jars. During our first years of dating, I regularly destroyed the fancy wineglasses in Mark’s dishwasher, as the delicate stem and fine glass of such items is not really fitted to my impatient and ham-fisted approach to all housework. One day I replaced the wineglasses, and we agreed that from then onwards, they should be washed by hand. Because we both hate housework, the wineglasses tend to fester on the side until one of us can’t stand the sight of them anymore, and then they are washed and left to drain on the draining board. I normally take on this task, as my tupperware collection is nearly always cluttering the draining board and must be cleared before wineglass-cleansing can take place. I find that if I concentrate on the sounds of the activity and the anticipation of the nice wine which will be enjoyed at a future point in clean glasses, I hate the task of washing them up a little bit less. Washing up the wineglasses is a very specific sound to me; one which symbolises both the ongoing quest to fairly allocate housework tasks in shared households and domestic pleasures already had and yet to be enjoyed, again.

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I never seem to have enough room for all of my clothes and I am a very messy person, but every once in a while I do a kind of essential clothes-clearing-blitz, and the otherwise quiet bedroom gets filled with the sounds of clothes being put onto coathangers; items being tucked into drawers; and the sounds of folding and sorting of various garments. I imagine the sounds of managing clothes are a feature of everyone’s household; but the drawers of today with their precision-engineered mechanisms sound different from the drawers of the past, and coathangers have only been part of the soundscape since some point towards the very end of the 1800s, and the beginning of the 1900s. The tiny, clippy little sounds of wires and coathangers would not have been part of the soundscape two hundred years ago, and the rolling drawer mechanism – heard at around 2.10 and again at around 3.40 – is also relatively recent. I wonder how clothes will be organised in the future and how those methods for organising clothes will sound?

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There are only a handful of recordings featuring toilets on the UK SoundMap, even though all of us use toilets several times a day and many of us – though not all of us – clean them. I thought it was important that this quiet, private, essential domestic chore get a place amongst some of the more exciting, public sounds on the UK Soundmap, as this sound says much about both the technology of this time, and the things that still have to be done by hand.

*the UK Soundmap Editor, and also creator of The London Sound Survey