...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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February 28, 2005 || 3:05 am

Hot off the Oscars press - Born into Brothels has won best documentary. Well, never say that Alabama is behind the times. We're having a screening of it in my 'living room' (aka big tin warehouse) in two weeks.


2:20 am

William Christenberry, the wonderful artist of Alabama's decay, came to the Red Barn this weekend to give a talk in the building whose change he has documented for nearly fifty years. His quiet, calm, careful words and his photographs and sculptures were very moving, almost bringing me to tears. At nearly seventy, he stands tall and poised, with perfectly combed hair, crisp white shirt and slacks.


1:30 am

Yesterday was another vintage Alabama event - the Perry County Historical Society's annual Low Country Boil. This takes place at the rather distinguished, in a white-columned old South way, former Female Seminary in Marion, where the society is based, in a huge echoing dinner-hall of a room.

The good ladies of polite white Marion bake endless cakes and cook up an enormous amount of shrimp, sausge, corn, potatoes and so forth in a Cajun boil and my band, as two of my fellow members belong to the society, played along while a steady stream of old ladies, young couples with babies and Judson professors ate, drank and gossiped. Some old ladies were already waiting before the food was served at five, eager to secure their place in the line and get out with their take-home packages. Several Rural Studio folks came along, and were bought their tickets by the Mayor. The echoing hall meant we couldn't hear each other's instruments at all, but nevertheless we managed to get the serving ladies going, clapping their hands and vaguely shaking their hips, so we can't have sounded too awful!

I was accosted at the door by a lady who rather accusingly stuck out her hand and told me that we hadn't met yet, as if that was a huge social slight, and turned out to be the wife of the preacher at the Baptist church in Newbern , obviously canvassing for a new member of the congregation. Avoiding being roped into church here is tremendously difficult given the number of these formidable ladies who await one's every turn.

Afterwards, I sneaked out back for a drink out of sight of the disapproving church folks with Chip, our guitarist, who thankfully has a much more scallywag attitude while still managing to remain a thoroughly well-respected member of Marion society. Then after hanging out with our bass player for a bit, we made it over to the Shack, where we slowly drank a beer and Chip told stories and greeted everyone who wanted to get a word in with him. He's sort of a little prince of Perry County - a solid, self-made, old-time guy, never treated anyone badly, always with a smile on his face and a great story on his lips.

We stayed and stayed until almost everyone had left and we were exchanging jokes with the bartenders, one of whom is a sweet and nerdy sci-fi geek who subsists on cigarettes and energy drinks, and the other (the owner) is an alcoholic and, as it turned out, perhaps a little more casually racist than most of the white rednecks around here. When someone makes jokes about the Rural Studio building 'n****r playgrounds', there's really no point in trying to reform them, but it amazes me that someone can feel that at ease with me, an outsider girl, that such things will exit his mouth. But it happens all the time - a white man will lower his voice a notch and 'confide' in you that whatever the problem might be is, I'm afraid, down to them damn blacks. I exchange glances with Chip and we decide it's time to leave.

I exist uneasily in these places, on the one hand loving the raw honesty of it all, the unpolished backwoods faces, the country music and the small-town intimacy, and at the same time not wanting to offer my implicit support or collusion with some of the wisecracks. Like Agee and Walker Evans, I feel like a spy.


February 25, 2005 || 2:09 am

After the weekend's jam session, which ended up mutating from bluegrass to gypsy swing to jazz, I ordered a CD from Amazon of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, to remind me what I should be aspiring to on this front. It's such amazing music and reminds me of when I first got to know their stuff via an old LP in my childhood home. It's the kind of things that classical musicans (such as I was then) like to play when they branch out because it appeals both on a level of musical intricacy and on the showmanship - look what I can get my fingers round. High energy, that amazing soulful gypsy sound and the evocation of a more decadent yet playful party age. And of course, both Django's Paris jazz and old-time bluegrass and country have roots in the ragtime of the South, Scott Joplin, the delta blues and all that stuff, as our jam mutation showed. Old bluegrass irresistibly melds it with the Celtic dances and fiddle tunes, and of course French/Cajun influences rather than the European gypsy/klezmer-ish sounds of the Hot Club de Paris.


February 23, 2005 || 2:19 am

Apart from the whole football fiasco, today was pretty useless on the work front. Somehow it was one of those days where all my team, including me, had left vital brain cells tucked up in bed. Plus it was a ridiculously warm day, like August in England, so we all felt kinda drowsy and hot and not particularly like exerting ourselves up on our roof. So, we made silly mistakes, spent ages correcting them, and so forth. It was the kind of day when we should have all given up at about 11am and gone swimming in the Black Warrior river.


1:30 am

After a rather frustrating day of work, I get home, race to the computer, and find out that my damn team fucked up yet again.. This is not our season. For once, I'm going to give in to the urge to rant in public about the state of North London football and play pundit: we should have sold Vieira, who hasn't done anything for us this season, taken all that cash and invested it in some decent defendes who don't get injured every time they have an outing. Why on earth we needed Flamini, I don't know. Arsene's lost his touch. It's insulting to the world-class players we do have, like Henry, to put them in a squad with dunces like Cygan and the goalies. No wonder Reyes wants to leave. We draw or lose to teams we should waltz over.

Our players need a good Fergie-like kicking, not some kind of French philosophizing. I love the elegance of Arsenal playing at their best, but sometimes they just need to get physical, irritate the hell out of the opposition and get the damn job done. Stealing someone's wallet by sleight-of -hand is great when it works, but when it doesn't you shouldn't keep trying until he calls the cops, just knock the guy down, take it, and run. [I am not of course advocating pushing people in the face but simply imposing a bit of what the commentators call 'physical presence'. Just so it's clear.]

Excuse the rant. It's just that no-one in Alabama has the faintest idea what I'm suffering.


February 22, 2005 || 4:10 am

A really good lecture tonight from Koning and Eizenberg who are here for a visit and to give us all a kick up the ass with our projects. Great stuff, great bolshy attitude, I like. Made me excited about architecture again.


February 21, 2005 || 3:35 am

Better late than never, here's a photo from last weekend's picking with the Selma guys and Chip (on bass) my fellow Kudzu member.


February 20, 2005 || 10:22 pm

One way to get over a mild hangover is to do physical work, of course, and today a brief window of semi-un with the promise of mild rain later prompted me to get out into my garden. I dug and raked and planted salads, spinach and basil as well as doing some overdue nurturing of the coriander that I planted in the autumn that is battling through anew. And, perfectly, a little light drizzle started at the exact moment I finished sowing and covering my seeds - exactly the kind of rain that one feels will gently germinate the seeds.


7:56 pm

Hanification 3 and 4

I may as well come clean about a bit more Hanification that actually occurred some time ago.

The tape measure. I cut it in half with the chopsaw by mistake.

The hammer. I managed to break the wooden handle off from the metal head while trying to remove a nail from a 2-by. Crappy hammer, I say, but still...I got one with an all-metal construction as a replacement.

And as I write, people are offering me a responsible job for next year, fools. For those who are confused, 'hanification' was a term coined by one of my best friends to describe the process whereby I manage to somehow ruin anything of value or usefulness that I come into contact with. First applied (I think) to a pair of treasured second-hand Green Flash trainers circa 1997 which I wore out until they were more hole than shoe. I was subsequently informed that the BF had 'hanified' her Green Flashes while gorge-walking in Cyprus and she could think of no better term for what she had done to them other than invoking my name. Subsequent 'hanifications' include expensive clothing and shoes (rips, paintstains, burns, scuffs), most items of a electronic nature, gifts, etc. A true 'hanification' should not render the object functionally useless but merely show an obvious devaluing flaw. Psychologists may say it is a form of marking my territory, and saying 'this is irredeemably mine' and I tend not to feel fully comfortable with a new item until it has undergone some hanification. To this end, I have taken to buying pre-hanified (ie second-hand) items. I really punish my belongings...


7:48 pm

Hanification 2

I don't have a photo for this one. Because it's my camera, which is now stuck with the lens permanently extended. My camera mark 3, that is - the original (a boyfriendly gift) being stolen in 93 Feet East, the second (insurance replacement) being hanified by a pencil in my bag destroying the LCD screen, and now the third...So unless I manage to find a repair place in Tuscaloosa to fix it, there's another item for my Amazon wishlist...


7:25 pm

Its been another rather busy (in a good way) weekend. Again, lots of bluegrass and the obligatory Sunday hangover.

I performed my first paying gig on US soil on Friday night - slightly less-than-glamorous (a wedding party) but still a lot of fun and the provider of $120 to my needy pocket. The weirdest bit - being requested to play Sweet Home Alabama which definitely does not come into our repertoire of genres. Possibly the worst version ever played, but they loved it.

Then, yesterday I spent all day at the bizarre and wonderful bluegrass music convention in, of all places, McFarland Mall. This is the generally scummy and mall-rat-infested old mall in the terrifyingly sprawling no-man's-land of Tuscaloosa. And where, for one day only, the whole mall is filled with the kick-off to the new season of jam sessions, hundreds of musicians of all ages and abilities camping out in little circles, jamming, sizing each other up, passing the breaks around and challenging each other to little play-offs. I played from 11am to 9pm with only a half-hour break for lunch. It was totally surreal and absolutely wonderful fun, compounded by the total non-sequitur of the baggy-jeaned, blinged up, mostly teenage and black mall-rats sporting the latest gleamingly hip sneakers looking on at these (generally aging and white) people invading their territory, playing stringed instruments in a jangly style, wearing cowboy hats and Western shirts.

Then onto the Faunsdale Bar and Grill for a local country-rock band (apparently the editor of the Lindon Times is the lead singer) who had managed to assemble the entirety of West Alabama into the bar (never usually more than half-full) for a much-needed beer (malls of course are alcohol-free zones) and bantering into the wee hours, before heading back to Greensboro before we stepped (much) over the drink-drive limit to continue the party and fall asleep on the sofa half way through, bizarrely, a late-night cable screening of 24 Hour Party People (which I think makes no sense at all to drunk Alabamians. Ecstasy? the Hacienda? acid-house culture? the Pennines?)


February 17, 2005 || 7:13 pm

Not sure whether this is a post for this blog or my food blog but as I've just posted there, I'll give the ol' bottom drawer a chance to speak.

One of my personal battles on site is not with my teammates, my hammer, the mud or the splinters in my fingers, but with our client. And we clash not over the design of our building, or the mess we make when its wet, but over how many hamburgers she's allowed to eat each week.

She is partial to, of all things, McDonalds hamburgers and milkshakes, probably my most despised food on the planet. In addition, she is severely diabetic. On the other hand, she's an 86 yr old with very few treats in life. So when you're going back to town to eat lunch and she asks you to bring her back a hamburger and milkshake (she doesn't drive) what are you to do? It's certainly not good for her diabetes.

My compromise solution was that she would be allowed one a week. Last week, we got her one on Monday, and then on Thursday she asked for one again. I said she wasn't allowed one. She resisted strongly, trying all the wheedling of a small child. This went on for quite some time. 'If you get me one today, I won't have one next week.' Eventually I relented and said OK, just this once, I'll get one but next week she's not allowed any. Now that day the milkshake machine was broken so there was no milkshake for her, but did she believe me? No - of course, I had fabricated the story to get out of giving her a milkshake.

Then this week, of course it starts all over again. I tell her she can have a milkshake because she didn't have one lasdt week, but no hamburger. She thinks this is deeply unfair and that she needs to have a sandwich to eat with it. I prove a hard nut to crack and stand firm, so she tries out my other teammates. Then she gets in a sulk because we won't do what she wants. She sticks her lip out and does her knowing best to tug on our white middle-class heartstrings. This despite having actually been given a burger this week by a teammate's visiting boyfriend who thought he could bend the rules.

The standoff is getting more intense. Yesterday she pretended to withhold use of her bathroom in retaliation. 'I'll use you like you use me', she crowed. Except, Miss Phillips, we're building you a house, and all we want is for you to live long enough to enjoy it rather than clogging your arteries with all this crap.


February 16, 2005 || 2:27 am

The daffodils are out in Alabama! and we've got our sheathing on our roof, on a beautifully warm, sunny day (t-shirts all round).

Apart from the progress we are making on site, I'm learning a lot about Africa for the first time in my life, as I'm researching long-distance for a forthcoming book by General Public Agency. It's amazing that I can work by email from Alabama on a book to be published in England about international work, without many resources apart from Google and what I can let myself buy from Amazon. It's also really fun to start to explore an area of the world about which I previously knew almost nothing, save what remains in my brain from lessons on 19th century colonialism.

One of my main starting points for the area I'm researching (innovative best practice in socially and environmentally engaged urban and rural renewal - what a mouthful!!) has been the work of UN Habitat, a UN agency concerned with promoting and aiding good urban governance, land use and environmental practice. It's an enormously ambitious brief, and appears to be attacking its tasks with no shortage of energy. It is, however, too early in my researches to say how many of their projects have managed to produce real change, especially at the scale of their ambition. Its main benefit, as it seems to me, is its linking of issues of civil society and good governance to the issues of physical planning and building. The essays and papers that it publishes are full of extremely cogent thinking on the importance of empowered participatory processes, legal and institutional change, and alternatives to the traditional masterplan.

The thinking is holistic and sophisticated, but the case studies of this approach in action illustrate clearly the impossible scale of the problems UN-Habitat is trying to conquer. Major and necessary infrastructure projects such as clean drinking water, drainage, and slum upgrading dominate, alongside the creation of new governance structures such as community councils, city forums and NGO partnerships for areas encompassing up to 13 million people, in one instance. These are unimaginably huge projects, far from the scale of a Rural Studio, with its intensely local focus, emphasis on personal interaction and the modest, yet profound, changes it brings. The case studies I'm looking for are probably smaller and more specific than these mega-projects, but it's hard to find examples of change on the ground that really convince me that a more inclusive, place-specific and creative approach to local problem-solving is being nurtured in these intensely difficult areas. The enormity of the issues seems to be precluding a more thoughtful approach and use of local resources.

One exception to this, however, is the fantastic use of street theatre groups to allow debate about AIDS. For me, this perfectly illustrates how an absolutely specific local resource can provide a way to tackle a global problem in a manner that is creative, spontaneous and effective.


February 14, 2005 || 3:37 pm

It's a cruel coincidence that since I got my hands on the latest issue of Cabinet featuring work by the Atlas Group on the Beirut car bombings of the 70s, I wake up today to find a reprise has taken place on that iconic seafront promenade.


1:26 am

London news update: Sam (of the perenially wonderful and mind-warping Icarus yet again proves how much him and his set of musicians/film wizards/weirdos are absolutely the coolest by announcing the latest Arg! night at 14 Andre Street, E8. Expect crazy music, Mongolians, films: in his words, an "affably uncouth dancable mashup on 18th, with visuals." That's the 18th of Feb. Be there, Londoners!


February 13, 2005 || 11:30 pm

It's been a fairly action-packed weekend. Friday night ended up being rather sociable and lovely, sitting up till late drinking and chatting in the apartment of a couple of Rural Studio-ites, one of the amazing and enviable Main Street apartments that they are living in rent-free while they restore it to a habitable condition. Amazing painted pressed-tin ceilings, fantastic furniture that they found in the apartment, left over from the last time it was used, probably in the 50s, as a doctor's office (there is still an arrow painted in the hallway with the word 'Colored' above it). Its the kind of loft-ish apartment any urban dweller would dram of living in and only the very wealthy could afford, yet here all these apartments are uninhabited except for RS people.

Then yesterday, after doing some work on site, it was off for a bit of bluegrass jamming at a party near Selma. Lots of fun as always, and then on to Club 28 for their 'Valentines night' (8-piece band playing music to dance with yuor loved one to, supposedly) and the usual mayhem...so today was a lazy, drizzly day mainly spent eating a late Southern breakfast at the Waysider and reading the New York Times in the Books-A-Million cafe...the only place to find a paper for miles around...


February 11, 2005 || 2:30 am


Oh dear. This actually happened a while back, tripping over the power cord while trying to get my DV camera cable for my flatmate. But it's getting worse. Time to invest in a new laptop, methinks.


2:25 am

It was the first sunny day all week, so time to christen the baseball hat I got sent by a certain lovely English boy...


February 10, 2005 || 7:49 pm

I'm immensely flattered to have got my first convert to the blogging world!! Daniel, I take my bow...check out lovely pottery and more at his brand new potsblog. Congratulations!

(Actually, a certain Miss Begg has also registered herself with blogspot but doesn't get the prize as she's not yet gone public. Like all good architects, the pre-fab templates on offer are not sufficiently to her taste so I've been charged with putting my meagre web design skills to the test for her...when I get a sketch of what you want, Lucy!!)


2:32 pm

British spats from a US perspective are always amusing. I like the idea that Wonkette would think that BlackBerry-befuddled Alastair Cambell might be a hot catch.


February 08, 2005 || 1:21 am

I try not to write too much about politics here, or to talk about them to any but my most trusted friends as it inevitably leads to misunderstanding and conflict. But today, as the subject of my ire is the normally sane NPR, in which no-one I know is involved, maybe I can vent my anger.

Driving back from site (we've nearly finished sheathing all our walls!) The World on NPR was running an interview with someone on Iran. He was talking about, on the one hand, the grave mistakes made with the invasion of Iraq and the intelligence about WMD that served as the excuse, and on the other how Iran posed the greatest possible threat to the United States of America.

So, according to him, Iran is more dangerous than North Korea. North Korea is stable but Iran is an unstable, irrational place. 'Iran is a country with a very grave and great hatred of our country, and they have the potential to do something about it'. 'We must be pre-emptive about Iran.' OK, so like, because most Iranians hate the American government (which is true) they are going to launch an attack on the US? Uh, I don't think so. As if they are really going to fly/sail all the way to an American base and drop a nuclear missile on it, and then wait for their country to become obliterated. Then he says 'We must make a concerted effort not to repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq. We must improve our intelligence on Iran, on it's leaders and their motives.'. I think so. Go there and talk to the first person that you find on the street. Yes, the hate the American government. So do I. But I challenge you to find the total insanity that would posit that launching an attack on the US would be a good idea. Yes, Iran is a deeply patriotic country and their nuclear programme is symbolic of this. But they are also smart and very far from the totalitarian repression that allowed such delusional leaders as Saddam and Kim Jong-Il to maintain their place. So what kind of GOP paranoia might produce this kind of talk? Hmm, how about Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller, Vice-President of the Senate Intelligence Committee.


February 07, 2005 || 3:49 am

Mardi Gras. Great to be in a city which isn't sleeping. A lot of fun to be had in the ridiculously simple task of trying to catch as many strings of plastic beads as possible (and to try and get the most 'special' ones). Why are such things so endlessly amusing? Five hours later and we were still screaming and jumping up and down for more. The new nickname for this activity is Bead Whoring, or chasing the title of Queen Bead Whore (bad pun intended). And then, drinking and dancing till the sun comes up, in small bars with good loud bands and real beer.

The highlights: getting the mother of all beads by dancing on the shoulders of a big man; a four-hour set from a band called Sol Fiya whose bass player was definitely the coolest; the stoned kitchen staff in one bar whose close shaves with sharp knives were seriously worrying; escaping Bourbon Street.

Back in Greensboro on Superbowl Sunday, we were too lazy to do the crazy thing and go to the Birds Nest (a black bar promisng exotic male and female dancers at halftime) so it was beers round the TV wondering why on earth I have to share a nationality with Paul McCartney and where it all went wrong for my one-time pop idol.


February 04, 2005 || 8:44 pm

Hooray! we got all four walls up. This week we've been plagued by rain so it's really great to have actually achieved something apart from sitting in studio arguing about various things and being frustrated by being cooped indoors. Though I did make a new model and do some drawings to try to describe our current design. Below you can see my 'artist's impression [photoshop] and our current state on site...

It's Mardi Gras weekend so we're off to New Orleans...


February 01, 2005 || 10:03 pm

What can I say, but it's exceedingly depressing to be in the middle of Alabama with no-one to commiserate with when your team is trounced by a bunch of cheating Mancunians.


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