Category Archives: Biography

My childhood and computers

I was 9 in 1969 and a child of the Apollo moon-landings, the film 2001 A Space Odyssey (more of which later), and TV. The time is significant because between then and my early teenage years my TV viewing was filled with the sci-fi fantasies (and re-runs) of Star Trek, the Gerry Anderson productions Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlett, Joe 90, UFO, and Space 1999, and the Irwin Allen productions The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In the background, lights blinking in seemingly meaningful patterns, were the computers, banked in serried rows behind the human actors. (I recently found out that all the computers in the Allen films were the same ex-US Air Force air-defence computer).

Lee Meriwether in front of computer, from The Time Tunnel (1966-67). Via Wikimedia Commons

These images also found their echo in my brief flirtation with the electronic-prog-rock group Tangerine Dream: when I saw them live I gazed, not at the performers, but at the rhythmic lights of the Moog sequencers.

Such was my fascination that I remember asking my bewildered dad, who was a wood-carver and joiner by trade, for help in building a computer (I don’t remember if we ever did build a replica, although I do remember us building a satellite out of wood and tin foil).

It is perhaps telling that the most magnificent and startling computer did not have tapes or blinking lights. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel at the same time), the single camera eye of the initially benevolent computer HAL came to symbolize its terrifying implacability when it murders most of the space crew. The film has, in all sorts of ways, left its mark on me. But it is striking that HAL was not left as a homicidal nemesis. In a scene of considerable poignancy, the surviving crew-member, Dave Bowman, pulls out HAL’s circuit boards. As more and more boards are pulled out, HAL says “Dave. Stop. … I’m afraid. … My mind is going. I can feel it’ and when it slowly sings a song it had been taught, it regresses to a kind of childhood.

Unlike the more recent films and a TV series about artificial intelligence and consciousness – Artificial Intelligence, I, Robot, Her, Ex_Machina, Humans) – this scene does not depend upon humanoid features to enable a leap of empathy. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, generating that connection for a machine that is both terrifying and awe-inspiring (and just look at my own anthropomorphic language). There is also an uneasy feeling that we are being pulled ever-so-slightly off-centre – but it is a hallmark of Clark’s fictions, and Kubrick’s film, that such human decentring is accompanied by feelings of the sublime.

After becoming a radio amateur and working as a telecommunications engineer the arc of my life swung away from electronica to embrace acting, punk, forming a band, going to University, becoming a lecturer in English literature. Now embedded in the humanities and fascinated by the impact of the digital humanities, and almost permanently glued to my very own computer, I find the old interests coming back, the arc re-connecting my fascination with humans and technology. I’m not sure, even now, where it will lead, but I feel again that peculiar off-centred-ness and excitement.




Ropemaker’s Alley and Digital Maps

Recently I’ve been playing around with the digital maps of London available online. Primarily, Allison Muri’s The Grub Street Project, Locating London’s Past and the map search function in Old Bailey Online. This inevitably led me to look at those places in London associated with Daniel Defoe. At about the same time, I had been re-reading Pat Roger’s Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture and was again impressed by his detailed ecology of the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate ward. It is an area closely associated with Defoe, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to use some of these databases to briefly map out Defoe’s place of death.

Here’s a view of Cripplegate, or ‘Creplegate Parish’ in Strype’s edition of Stow’s Survey of the cities of London and Westminster (1720, 2 vols), courtesy of The Grub Street Project (click to see a zoom-able image):

As Rogers argues, Defoe’s honorary membership of the Dunces club owes much to his beginning and ending his life within the purlieu of that home of the Dunces, Grub Street (Grub Street, 311-27). On Strype’s 1720 edition of Stow’s Survey (above), Grub street runs roughly North-South between and parallel to Moore Lane and White Cross Street. According to John R. Moore (Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World, 3) Defoe’s father ran a business from Fore Street: on the Strype map this began at St. Giles, ran into Moore Street which then became Posterne Street at its eastern end. The minister of St. Giles, Samuel Annesley, was praised in an elegy by Defoe in 1697. In the section of John Rocque’s A New and Accurate Survey of the cities of London and Westminster (1746), below, you can also see Grub Street running North off Fore Street (via Old Bailey Online, images courtesy of Motco Enterprises Limited Ref:

In the last months of his life Defoe was hiding from creditors, and between August 1730 and April 1731 he took lodgings in Ropemaker’s Alley, in the decidedly mixed environs of Cripplegate. Ropemaker’s Alley was just a few streets East of White Cross Alley where his wife, Mary, had property and Max Novak suggested that this might have enabled Defoe to keep in touch with his family (Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, 702). Ropemaker’s Alley cannot be seen in Strype’s Map: it is just North of the City Walls in the area known as the ‘Freedoms’. If you look on the Strype map it would be just above and just outside the far North-West corner of Cripplegate ward. On the next section of Rocque’s 1746 map, below, you can see it fairly clearly as a thin street running North-West from Finsbury, bordering Moorfields (‘a moorish rotten Ground’, Strype, 1.70). South East off Finsbury and below Moorfields was Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam. The dotted line represents the boundary chains of the City.

Strype describes Ropemaker’s Alley, in ‘Cripplegate Ward without the Wall’, as ‘pretty broad, with several Garden Houses, which are well built and inhabited’, which sounds rather genteel. Nearby, however, alleys and streets were ‘meanly built and inhabited’ and ‘very mean’ (Strype, 1:92) and the proximity to Grub Street would have confirmed for many Defoe’s association with the profession of hacks. Defoe died on the 24th or the 25th April 1731 and was buried in Bunhill Fields, just North from Chiswell street, and which is now the location of the nineteenth-century memorial to Defoe.