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Waiting for a left-wing bureaucrat to make a heart-beat: The electroacoustics of Rosemary Tonks

January 12, 2011

Rosemary Tonks is a poet and novelist about whom very little is now known. She was active in the sixties and gained some acclaim for her collection Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963) which by most accounts had a genuine claim to belonging to the Symbolist and Surrealist poetic traditions. (Edward Lucie-Smith, an authority on these matters, certainly seems to have agreed, and that’s good enough for me.) English Surrealists have always tended to drop off the map somewhat – I remember having an undergraduate essay on David Gascoyne returned to me with the comment, “well, it’s certainly all your own work, because no-one talks about Gascoyne anymore.” But none have disappeared in quite the same way as Tonks, who apparently became a Fundamentalist Christian in the seventies and has since ceased communication with the outside world. This blog post has some fascinating speculation about what might have become of her (though of course it can only be speculation) – the suggestion that she packed it all in after seeing the ghost of Charles Baudelaire is a particularly striking one.

I was starting to suspect that Tonks was actually one of those mythical, hoaxed-up literary beasts, until I got my hands on a couple of her short, supposedly quite autobiographical sixties novels, The Bloater and Businessmen As Lovers. The narrator in each novel (Min in the first case, Mimi in the second) wields a snappy wit at every aspect of modern urban life; sexually frank, world-weary — something of Djuna Barnes’s cosmopolitan-grotesque aesthetic lurks in them; or perhaps Katherine Mansfield at her most urbane (I’m thinking of the acid and super-decadent ‘Je ne parle pas français’). The later Muriel Spark novel Loitering With Intent also has a bit of this quality – a kind of well-cultivated savagery. The politics of Tonks’s two novels are at times questionable: in Businessmen As Lovers, set in May 1968, Mimi and her friend travel nonchalantly through France and onwards to a Mediterranean holiday with their wealthy friends and lovers whilst Paris revolts; in The Bloater, liberals and lefties are dismissed as joyless bureaucratic bores. I do sense that Tonks is apolitical in all directions, though, and in the second novel she punctures the pomposity of capitalist playboys at every turn – the title refers to both the sexual and material comforts that women can or can’t get from wealthy men, and also to the more specific observation that businessmen “make love” to each other by “flirting” over deals, waiting anxiously for calls to be returned, giving each another gifts…

To get to the point, though. In the first of these novels, The Bloater, the narrator is employed – quite in passing, not particularly crucial to the “plot”, whatever that may be – as the manager of an electronic sound studio. As such it’s required reading for those interested in the development of mid-century electroacoustics. Tonks’s first-hand experience of such studios, I would guess, came from the BBC – her experimental sound-poem, Sono-Montage, was realised by Desmond Briscoe and others at the Radiophonic Workshop in 1966. Briscoe writes about working with Tonks on this work in his book The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years, and the radio reviewer for the BBC’s Listener magazine was impressed by the sound-poem’s strangeness. These sessions presumably gave Tonks the required familiarity with the practical matter of producing electronic sound to set several scenes from her novel inside a studio.

The first thing you notice is that there’s a complete absence of futurism in depictions of the oscillators, tape machines, reverb boxes and so on used in the studio (much in the way that the truly urbane writer is unastonished by modern life and is quite familiar with its grime). There’s no wide-eyed wonder at strange new sounds, and the studios are not gleaming, metallic sci-fi spaces (in the way that Stockhausen-esque electronic music is part of the sci-fi furniture in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, published three years earlier). Instead, we have this:

There’s no air in the workshop, we’re sealed in like tinned shepherd’s pie. The clock is silent but the hands go round fast with that railway station stutter. I’m late of course, and the little silver music-stand has been put out for me already. I arrange my papers; I stop being human. There’s no time to make mistakes in here, they’re too expensive. We are setting a poem about Orestes to electronic sound. We’re taking the sentiment straight, no wit, no discords. We know that however well we succeed, fifty ‘experts’ (people who acquire theoretical knowledge without ever using it) will pour cold water on the result. And the five years later, grudgingly, and ten years later, publicly, stuff our work into sound archives, and refer to it incessantly to intimidate future electronic composers.

Tonks’s recording (I mean in writing) of electronic sound is actually a study in obsolescence. The atmosphere, claustrophobically academic, is stuffy in every sense. The studio that Min works in isn’t identified as the Radiophonic Workshop, but its collaborative atmosphere and the strong presence of female sound engineers (think Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Maddalene Fagandini) is evoked. The working process is depicted as one held up by multiple squabbles, such as this one to do with the correct recording of a heart-beat sound:

‘You’ll never get that heart-beat to sound like a heart-beat’, says Fred, the defeatist.
‘So what? It’s a real heart-beat. It was recorded in hospital. It’s the real thing.’ I’m trying, at least.

Fred plays with his tools, a razor, a miniature screwdriver, and some joining tape. He wants to make his heart-beat, and that will take at least three-quarters of an hour. If it’s better than the one I’ve brought in from outside, from the sound library, I can use it. If it’s worse, we shall have to start at this point all over again tomorrow morning. And if you stick in one place too long in constructing electronic sounds, you lose your ear, your memory of sound already used, and your ability to improvise spontaneously so that the whole thing ‘jells’.

I don’t mean to suggest that Tonks’s novel offers a true depiction of the Radiophonic Workshop — I don’t think it’s even intended to be anything of the sort. The things we usually talk about when we speak of Delia and Daphne and Desmond — a sense of fun, an almost twee charm — persist because they’re perhaps in part true. Tonks’s account, though, is useful and interesting as a counterpoint to the kind of discussion. Ultimately, there is a sense that the studio is frustratingly provincial. Tonks’s somewhat continental sensibility dictates this. Min’s co-worker laments that

‘On the continent in electronic studios enthusiastic young people with ideas work together as a team.’ …
We both have a picture of flashy continental composers in white macs, young, clean-shaven, and curt in speech, arriving at London Airport with pamphlets and lectures in bison-skin despatch-cases. Whereas here we are, sitting about, waiting for a left-wing bureaucrat with no imagination to make a heart-beat.

(note: The picture accompanying this post is of Maddalena Fagandini, not Rosemary Tonks. As far as I’m aware, there are no pictures of Ms. Tonks on The Internet.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 12:35 pm

    Thanks for that post. I just went into a charity shop and found the first edition of Businessmen as Lovers. I am looking forward to reading it, after your post – interesting lady! (Tend to agree about her opinion of joyless left-wingers. As a sixties left-winger myself she’s spot on!).

    • June 30, 2011 1:20 am

      That’s a marvelous and rare charity shop find — I’ve always had to make do with library copies. I hope you enjoy it!

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