Interview: Dr Matt Green and the Sound of Coffee

Before Christmas I started working on an ambitious new project for Unreal City Audio who are producing multi-part audio tours exploring offbeat strands of London history. I am currently helping to produce part of their Coffeehouse series, which will eventually end up as an interactive iPhone App.

The tours are being developed as a series of ‘legs’ with an emphasis on narrative and rich sound design, so are suitable for listening both on location or elsewhere.

The Coffeehouse tour currently in development guides the listener along a mysterious and often dark path of London history, tracing the rise of coffee into the forefront of mainstream culture. The main challenge (and joy) of this project is in recreating an authentic and immersive sound which will pull the listener into the rich narrative written by historian, coffee expert and project co-founder Dr Matt Green.

The tours aims to provide what Matt describes as a ‘cathartic voyage of discovery’ into an alternate London history, not often visited by mainstream guides or tours. You can hear more about these tours, including how each leg is developed and produced in an interview I recorded with Matt: 

You can listen to a brief extract from one of the pieces I’ve been producing which takes place in George Yard (see map below) – in it we hear the flames of the great fire beginning to engulf the streets of London. Suspicion has fallen upon Turkish coffee vendor Pasqua Roseé whose mysterious new drink has been generating a lot of unease with many of the locals (and it appears they’re out to get him!) but not everything is as it seems…

In addition to the audio tours, Matt has also adapted the material into a series of ‘live’ walking tours, which he presents accompanied by actors and musicians, and are already being met with critical acclaim. He will be giving tours throughout March and April, to find out more and book a place drop by his website here.

You can also keep up to date with Unreal City Audio via their twitter (from which they also tweet unusual facts about London history).

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Audio tour: Hospital mortuary

Continuing with the rather morbid theme is another short audio piece based around a hospital mortuary, taken from my ongoing radio project which is probing contemporary attitudes to death.

What’s interesting is that mortuaries are notoriously hard to find within hospitals, they’re rarely signposted and often kept out of sight from patients and staff. It is almost as if death, through an act of denial, is banished from all walks of hospital life, forcing it underground where it remains out of sight and out of mind.

This is perhaps understandable when we consider the way in which modern medicine deals with death. So often is it concerned with prolonging life and keeping a patient alive that death has come to be seen as ‘failure’ – the inability to sustain life. As such death represents medicine’s limits, it reminds us of our own mortality and as such is buried away within the hospital. This isn’t just medicine’s fault, it’s a product of society and our own collective inability to accept death, we seem to live very much in denial, avoiding the ‘d’ word at all costs.

As a result those who work in hospital mortuaries take on an almost ghost like or gothic quality, whose activities remain in the shadows and unknown to the majority who dwell in the wards above. So what exactly goes on in a hospital mortuary? What do these places look like and who would we commonly meet in such a place?

It is perhaps only through the heavily stylised perspective of television and film that we gain any sort of insight into such places. Programmes such as CSI and Silent Witness are famous for their representation of pathology and post-mortem procedures, but they depict a world which is somewhat detached from the reality of such work. These programmes are slick, full of drama and entertaining to watch; they do little to challenge our relationship with death and present a very skewed image of those who work with the deceased. Instead they seem to maintain a common perception that death is something quite perverse, that mortuaries are dark gothic places and that pathologists run around solving murders (and of course that all bodies end up in the mortuary because of hideous murders).

Obviously these programmes shouldn’t to be re-written to reflect reality (probably wouldn’t make for very entertaining viewing), but it’s interesting none the less to look at how they deal with death and the contrast between fiction and reality.

What exactly goes on inside a hospital mortuary?

So the hospital mortuary remains a place largely unknown and unless you were unfortunate enough to visit one (dead or alive), it’s unlikely that you’d ever get a chance to peer inside. I certainly had no idea of what to expect when I recently visited the mortuary at Sunderland Royal Hospital. In the end it was perhaps not surprising to see just how normal mortuary life was, from sitting around drinking tea in a staff room to the usual ‘office banter’ being thrown about as the day went on. Pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton was my guide for the day and he very kindly showed me round, you can listen to a brief audio tour below: