...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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July 31, 2005 || 11:27 pm
Update from Newbern

Came over from Butch's back to my Rural Studio haunts today - Greensboro and Newbern. The sun poked out for a little while en route, but we emerged from lunch into the most enormous downpour. Now I'm off to the baseball game, so more later.

Everyone's been asking me for more photos of the finished house that I built. I finally picked up some photos today from CVS so I can reveal a few views of the house since Miss Phillips moved in! If you click on the photos you will get to see bigger versions, etc. Let me know what y'all think...

The $20k house

Miss Phillips on her porch

Miss Phillips in residence


July 29, 2005 || 4:08 pm
Why I love my little black burka

Slowly (Southern speed) moving from finishing a batch of work to planning my route up north. It's been an uncharacteristically grey week here, a fair amount of rain and heavy clouds, but only a slight let-up in the heat. Last night we went out in Columbus, GA, which was pretty amusing...ending up dancing to house music c.1999, which is something that my arms and legs have actually forgotten how to respond to.

For your amusement, I'll pass on this item - well, it asks for the bad pun of 'black humour'.

Apparently Iranian censors black out women's skin in magazines with marker pens before they can be sold (I never saw this while I was there, but then I didn't try to buy any Western magazines). Which, in the case of a Marie Claire feature on little black dresses, becomes a pretty funny spread. Click on the pic for a bigger version.

(via Stay Free Magazine and Sensory Impact)


10:51 am

I should stop hitting on Demos, I know. Actually, I narrowly stopped myself having a mini-rant about them yesterday in relation to their 'work' on the Olympic legacy. Today's post on the Greenhouse is about Pret-A-Manger's customer service and what public services may or may not be able to learn from them. Frankly, I'm scared by anything public having anything to do with Pret. Has everyone forgotten how Pret is basically owned by McDonalds? and even before that, how we all hated the amount of mayonnaise on all their sandwiches? am I the only dinosaur who still refuses to eat from Pret, or in my absence, has everyone gone back to their sticky crawfish-and-rocket sarnies?

The Demos post refers to Pret as having a "massive culture of loyalty, respect and satisfaction from their customers". Well, maybe it does. But isn't the important difference between a private company and a public service that a private company's customers choose to use it. Pret's customers may be incredibly loyal and satisfied, but those that hate it simply stay away. So in this respect, I don't really see the link to "the growing emphasis on personalised public services" - Pret is not at all personalised, it is a standardised chain and one-size-fits-all or else you go elsewhere. Now, we don't want that for our public services, do we.


July 27, 2005 || 10:02 pm
Anniversary Post

It's the first anniversary of my blog! A year of some patient people reading my long-winded ramblings and diary of thoughts and actions in Alabama and elsewhere.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends. Add me to your linklog/deli.cio.us list. And please leave me a comment to let me know what you have liked/hated about my first foray into blogging.

Over the next two months I'm going to be doing a major road trip round the States so please keep reading and send me suggestions of places to go/people to see/things to eat!


5:28 pm
A couple of mini rants

This campaign to stop architects working on prison designs (via Design Observer) seems rather inconsistent to me. OK, so prison might not work very well and for sure there are too many people locked up. But I would bet a lot of money that the kind of architects that would sign up to this boycott have never been asked to design a prison in their lives, and I am sure there will be no shortage of people willing to sign off drawings for new prisons, given that I can't see clients starting to boycott architects who design prisons. Hell, there are probably architects who only design prisons.

Surely we should be actually looking for better prison designs. Will Alsop has, I have seen, being working on precisely that, with prisoners themselves. Isn't this a more intelligent and clever way to turn the prison paradigm around into something positive, using the power of good design to make an environment that allows prisoners to see some hope, experience some creativity and be stimulated by the environment that surrounds them? Even speculative designs for 'alternative prisons' might spark a much more interesting public debate on what prisons are really meant to achieve, which might ultimately lead to a much better understanding of why we need to imprison less.

And argh - I don't know why this blog on Christian musings on urban regeneration in Sheffield makes me feel so shivery. But something about "lives and communities fundamentally transformed through encounters with Jesus" being the definition of 'regeneration', and the fact that this guy actually works for a local authority regeneration department, makes me really worried. I'm not sure that the rest of secular (or non-Christian) Britain thinks that this is how their problems should, or can, be solved.

Kinda interesting to see that plastic shopping bags actually use way less energy to produce than paper bags. But of course, they aren't biodegradable. Still, my lovely and eco-friendly BF will be pleased to see that the ultimate recommendation is to use cloth bags for your groceries.


July 26, 2005 || 5:51 pm
Back in Alabama

After a rather horrendous journey I arrived back in Alabama very late last night, but safe and sound, my jeep still intact and no incidents to report. Am now hiding out at Butch's to try to finish writing up my stuff for the book before setting out cross-country. It's got incredibly hot and humid here since I left - Philadelphia was 33ºC at 7 in the evening and Atlanta at midnight didn't feel much different. But out in the country the air feels lovely nonetheless...


July 24, 2005 || 6:18 pm
A weekend in East Kent

The boy and I just escaped for another weekend in an unlikely holiday destination: east Kent. The Romney marshes, a room above a pub in Hythe. I guess we're quite strange in our choice of romantic hideaway. But it was utterly wonderful, and I'm going to just try to list the things we did and saw, so as not to forget.

12 year olds smoking in the carpark of the Aldi's supermarket. Deserted, beautiful seafront with nine cars full of old ladies eating soft-scoop icecream and sandwiches, watching the sea through the drizzle on their car windscreens. A couple with their grandchildren, making sandcastles in the rather surreal steely light, straight out of Martin Parr. The Imperial Hotel and its golf course, also well-populated by old ladies, despite the soft rain. A very beautiful and rather large, French-feeling cliff of a church where a small string band is rehearsing Tchaikovsky, and lovely little walled lanes running up and down the hill. Some nice old pubs with lots of WW2 memorabilia - maps of doodlebug crash locations and pictures of 'The Few'.

Hythe's odd means of transportation - the Royal Military Canal and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. The former apparently a way to move troops around during the Napoleonic Wars when we were scared of the French invading this part of the coast. But seems like a lot of effort to go to just in order to move troops 20 miles or so. Very complex engineering, paid for by our first income tax. It's not very big, really rather domestic in scale, and now full of waterlilies, fat ducks and bordered by new EU-sponsored signage and 'youths' in tracksuits riding their bikes and smoking.

The Railway is a folly of a certain Captain Howey, built in 1927, but actually is an amazingly well-rounded business and even turns a profit. Running several steam and diesel engines on a 15" gauge line, its toy-like carriages (including superb 'first class' car with full bar service, for which you pay a 25p supplement) take holidaymakers up and down its 13 mile route, shoppers, locals and even runs a special school service, taking up to 200 children to school every day. In the winter a reduced service runs (with 'Santa specials' at weekends) but the line is used to train staff from the fullsized rail lines in Health and Safety, signalling, simulated emergencies and all other aspects of operation because, as our barman told us, 'we've got everything you need to demonstrate with here in only 13 miles.' We fell in love with it. I am in danger of becomeing a mad proselytizer for the virtues of small-gauge railways as the ideal form of local public transport. It also served a surreal military purpose - you can see bizarre photos of it carrying soldiers in armoured carriages with gun-mounts during WW2 - very Dad's Army.

It also has the most fantastic little context in Hythe - the railway greasy cafe, run by a middle-aged Italian couple, where we ate breakfast and noticed a steady stream of people going back and forth down an alley beside it, and emerging with shopping bags of produce. We investigated, and found the most wonderful, local farmers market taking place in the alley and in what looked like an old school hall (fading pale blue paint and a small proscenium stage, wooden floorboards) behind the cafe. A far cry from the middle-class contentment of a London farmers market, it was teeming with shoppers of all sorts and sold homemade bread, veg and fruit, eggs, cakes, gingerbread men, quiches, some cheese, Kent apple juice, olives and cheese and jam, all at cheap, local prices. It was everything you would hope a town's market to be - unpretentious, unfanciful, honest and eccentrically local, an extension of a WI cake sale - and totally unexpected, I must say, given the other shopping options that we had seen so far in Hythe.

Romney Sands holiday village with its tattooed young fathers taking their small children swimming in the pool, wrapped in West Ham towels. You felt that you might find Posh and Becks there, if they'd never make it big. The endless single row of bungalows facing the sea that goes on for miles all the way from Romney to Dungeness, sandwiched between a road and the little railway line. A sign in the Spar saying that due to incidents of eggs and flour being thrown at cars, they would no longer sell eggs or flour to children unless 'obviously part of a shopping list', and lots of St George's flags in the wind.

Dungeness was more populous than I had imagined. Busy railway end cafe and shop, lots of visitors. Two pubs at opposite ends of the village. Lots of houses. Two lighthouses. The huge hulking power station and the sense of the shingle going on forever in a rather dizzying way. Derek Jarman's garden, of course wonderful, and I didn't realise it has no fence around it, just melting into the landscape until you aren't sure if the rusting piece of something a dozen yards off was placed there by him or was always just there. We bought smoked sardines and prawns, and a dressed crab, from the little smokery to eat with the bread from the farmer's market on the beach.

Riding the motorbike through the rain around the coast to Whitstable. The redundant grandness of Folkestone, all four or five-storey Edwardian mansion blocks, and the strangeness and fragmentation of Dover. Seeing the ferries come in behind the lost terraced houses and B&Bs, cut off from the rest of the town by the big freight roads and some ugly 70s slabs - and round the corner, the cuteness of St Margaret's Bay with its village pubs and smuggler's hidey-holes. The Pfizer factory near Sandwich, an overgrown yellow brick office complex, a huge complex of factory and laboratories for sex masquerading as block of flats masquerading as a house. The Pfizer Sport and Social Club (part of their Section 106?) advertising Natasha Bedingfield, Amici Forever and Myleene Klass. Car boot sales and auto auctions, pick-your-own fruit and a deserted, romantic coal-fired power station which seemed transplanted from somewhere in Yorkshire.

Whitstable was bigger than I had imagined, and less trendy-feeling. We ate at the bar of the Oyster Company in our wet leathers before wending our way home throught hideous traffic around Dartford, and through my old stomping ground of Thurrock and the London Thames Gateway, back to Arsenal. It all got me in the road-trip mood, ready for going back to the States tomorrow and rejoining my jeep...


July 22, 2005 || 11:28 am

Events pile up so fast and in such a strange juxtaposition. The start of the Ashes series finds me clutching a prized ticket to the first day at Lords, sitting up in the Warner Stand with an old family friend, the kind provider. A fantastic two sessions of cricket, leaving the England crowd glowing with hope and pride and a little tipsy in celebration, are followed by the ruthless wicket-taking of Glenn McGrath, stormingly authoritative, accurate and utterly destroying our hopes. We bump into Harrisson Birtwhistle at lunch, who has a tenner bet on England batting before the close of play.

But half way through England's successful spell, those members of the crowd who are tuned in to the radio commentary through their taped-together headsets start telling us that there have been reports of more bombs, two weeks to the day after the attacks that killed 56 on 7/7. We are a little perplexed but the radio is inconclusive. We spy a police helicopter over Warren Street, near the ground. But then someone says that the police have told everyone in London to stay where they are so we all laugh, shrug and tell each other that really, we couldn't have better luck than to be witnessing this extraordinary day of cricket.

We hear that there were no casualties and there is some speculation that it was an unconnected copycat attack. Despite England's collapse on the pitch, it's a glorious sunny day, this is the peak of English sporting culture, and all seems too well with our situation for us to afford much worry. I leave the ground, and get nearly home by bus before I get a call inviting me over to a friend's house on the other side of the city, and huff and puff my way through atrocious traffic, with many speeding police cars trying to wend their way through. I pass Finsbury Park, where a van of police is unloading outside a 'Muslim Refuge Centre' which is displaying a banner proclaiming their condemnation of the 7/7 bombings, and I pass the Regent's Park Mosque where police are on patrol around its perimeter. At one stage, the driver of a bus that I'm on opens the door of her cab and shouts out to us 'Did those two guys who just got off leave any bags on the bus? Did you see anything?' and after the initial shock and stiffening, we all feel guilty because none of us even noticed the two guys who just got off.

But I get to the party and we have a lovely time, drinking cold white wine and eating Mexican grilled chicken, talking about the cricket and the Arsenal gossip. No-one mentions the bombings. Tumble into bed happy and slightly drunk, and get up late. We have only just finished reading the papers, only just catching up on the seriousness of yesterday's attacks and the fact that there are suicide bombers on the loose, when we realise that we're late for the start of the cricket, turn on the TV and find Pietersen on the brink of fifty runs, and the BBC reporting the shooting of a man on the Tube at Stockwell.

It all makes my head spin. I don't know what to think or feel.


July 20, 2005 || 1:47 pm

Yesterday I spent a lot of the day sitting in the National Theatre watching Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. And the other day I spent an hour or so in Sadler's Wells watching the much-acclaimed new collaboration between Akram Khan, Anthony Gormley, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Nitin Sawnhey.

Now, as someone who hasn't been to the theatre for a year but who previously went at least once a month, often much more, and had a real passion, nay evangelism, about the performing arts, my reaction to these shows was quite surprising. I really found myself spectacularly unmoved. It was all quite nice, but the joy and love, and quite visceral sense of empathy and catharsis, that I usually get from really good theatre (and almost always from Shakespeare, no matter how badly performed, due to the quality of the language) was totally missing.

The Akram Khan piece was fun enough - certainly I appreciated the skill of the performers - but ultimately I didn't really understand its message if there was one, and failed to uncover deeper meanings behind the gestures, any symbolic structure or emotional content. It was pretty but I remained unmoved - yet all my companions (and none of them are pushovers when it comes to high art) raved about it over dinner afterwards.

Henry IV - well, as it began, and characters in Tudor-ish costumes started to declaim on stage, not only did I find that I could barely pick out a word that they were saying (my ears too attuned to the slowness of Southern speech?) but the conceit of the set, costumes, exaggerated voices and mannerisms served to distance me totally from the 'drama'. I felt like I was experiencing Shakespeare for the first time, with all the alienation that I had never understood before that first-time theatre-goers complain of. Why did they have to speak so loudly? Why the forced unfunny jokes and pregnant pauses? and all the swooshing costumes and prosthetic bellies and noses?

Never before had I exited a Shakespeare play and felt totally unmoved. Kings and wars I know have no direct relevance to my current concerns, but what I had always loved in Shakespeare was the way he wove the universal and human into these artificial narratives. I could see which bits I was meant to find moving and significant, but they failed to touch me. Maybe it was the fault of the production, which seemed stuck in that very English tradition of staging and styling which seems to have been the norm for twenty years - but again, my companions, who can be highly critical, praised it, and it has been reviewed well.

My thoughts and reaction to what was on stage in front of me were the perfect mirror of Peter Brook's famous criticisms of the 'dead' theatre and its falsity. I wanted voices speaking normally, without the 'Shakespearian' declamation and posh accents, and without the mannerisms that signalled what they were supposed to with all the subtlety (it appeared to me) of a traffic light. I didn't want weeping and wailing and thigh-slappping jokes that went on too long. I couldn't understand why the only part of the plays where they spoke slowly enough for me to hear every word was the most supremely cringeworthy 'funny' scene between Justic Shallow, Silence and Falstaff, every creak of which made me want to run for my life.

But this was 'post-Brook' theatre - and yet it seemed to have learnt nothing. I can understand, finally, why schoolkids hate Shakespeare. Productions like this, if they make other newcomers feel as wretched as this one, are more dangerous to the cause of converting a new generation to theatre than they are helpful, for all the Travelex £10 tickets on sale. I love Shakespeare and he is the source of absolute spiritual sustenance for me - yet here I couldn't hear his beautiful language and found it utterly distorted when I could. But maybe I overreacted and a year as a redneck has dulled my senses. But the fact remains that I felt this world of theatre was alien and irrelevant, made for itself and those within its little world, and not for me.


July 17, 2005 || 11:02 pm
Folk Archive

After the Serpentine, we went to see Jeremy Deller's Folk Archive at the Barbican. What a fantastic, life-affirming and inspiring show. At a time when we are talking so much about British culture and identity, here is a celebration of the most wonderful, most strange and sometimes unsettling parts of our culture - none of the cliches about Britishness, but all of the forgotten rituals, folk art, odd regional crafts, inventive oddities and contemporary regalia (from motorcycle customisations to embroidered wrestling knickers) that exists and flourishes in all corners of our country. This has nothing to do with imperial history, dead Victorians or Tudor castles - and everything to do with a peculiar anarchy and an irrepressible, ebullient self-expression.

Coming from Alabama, where there is a huge interest in 'folk' art although sometimes a commercialisation of this that diminishes its reputation, it was so fantastic to see items from Britain, where it sometimes seems that we don't believe that we have a folk culture any more or a living, indigenous cultural identity - that it has all been replaced with 'pop' culture, hipster media and other cultural forms with, it is assumed, no continuity to something folk, historic or regionally embedded. A show like this shows how ridiculous this assumption is and how rich our culture is. It does ask the question, though, of how we can take a bit more of America's very public celebration of American roots culture, and celebrate these things without destroying their eccentricity and authenticity.

It's also really interesting from the point of view of what makes a community. These rituals - whether the parade of the applecart in Cumbria or the tar-barrel races in Ottery - are communal events, parties and bonding mechanisms. They are a far cry from the contrived 'community' of a 'community forum', a clean-up day on the local estate or a 'multi-faith ceremony'. No-one tells you to join in, there is no intimation of do-gooding or charity or condescension. But at the same time, these rituals are exclusive. They define the community from the outsiders - whether obviously (in the burning of the Pope's effigy in the Lewes bonfire parades) or more subtlely, through the somewhat guild-like organisations behind them. In this way they do embody that key contradiction in the very concepts of 'community' that we all want to believe in, because to be a strong community maybe we do also need to know who is not included. And in response, other 'excluded ' communities make their own folk culture, whether it's Gay Pride or the Notting Hill Carnival.

The friction and the rub between all of these is what makes our 'multi-cultural' country so fantastically stimulating as a place to live, but also so inevitably edgy and difficult. But we shouldn't be dealing with the difficulties by banning these powerful and important expressions of folk identity, or by trying to transform them into some kind of omni-cultural mush. (And before someone attacks me for this, I'm not suggesting we don't ban BNP marches, which have nothing at all to do with the folk culture of Britain and only try to piggyback on it.) We should revel in the complex mythology of these rituals and their contemporary expression, see in them the cathartic release of anarchic energy that might otherwise find darker outlets, and celebrate them not as dead historical pageant but as modern and, quite honestly, pretty damn cool.


10:54 pm
Serpentine Pavilion 2005

Went to the new Serpentine Pavilion yesterday, which was really fantastic. Lovely to see, in contrast to last year's concrete extraveganza, something that responds to the idea of 'pavilion' - lightweight, using undisguised, humble and simple materials (wood and plastic) and touching the ground lightly with a feeling of its impermanence. Siza's reference in the accompanying book to 'Arte Povera' struck a chord, and there certainly was something Rural Studio-ish about it.

I loved the feeling that you could almost make one yourself, with all the elements of a manageable size to be lifted by hand, and its construction method simple and clear to the eye. The Serpentine missed a trick by not making a little wooden scale model that you could put together yourself, with all the dovetail joints, which would have been a huge seller for their shop and maybe really inspirational and fun for kids...


July 15, 2005 || 7:00 pm

Hey, I'm honoured to be on things magazine today. For those of you not in the know, this is definitely one of the best London-ish weblogs around - a fantastic daily compendium of oddities and important stuff.

While I'm on links, do also check out this photoset of someone's mother's recipes - beautiful.


6:23 pm
More rants about buildings

On the subject of more mediocre architecture, I rode the bus through most of Hackney today on my way down to the Docklands for lunch. I saw the new Hackney Empire finally finished (when I left it was still partially shrouded in scaffolding). It's not a bad building, by any means, and I can see what Tim Ronalds was trying to do. It was also a really horrendously managed process for which I am sure much blame must lie with the client, and this inevitably had a negative effect on the design.

But somewhere in the process, some rather strange decisions were made - the way they used terracotta on the new portion of the facade (to blend in with the old?) is quite strange and really a bit naff, and the decision to clad the fly tower in Reglit over what presumably is some kind of solid panel underneath - why use Reglit when you don't need to let light in? If it was to make the bulk of the tower less imposing, it doesn't really work (although I could see that there might have been an idea about the colour blending in with the London grey skies). Plus, it's the only really 'slick' material visible from the outside and thus also is rather strange.

But that whole square in Hackney is a huge missed opportunity. The abysmal, PFI-funded Technology and Learning Centre, whose team should never be allowed to build again (well, they include Hodder Associates who are going to the wolves over the Swimming Pool Disaster, so...) is a classic example of the trade press praising a hugely horrible building ("restores civic pride to Hackney" said Building Magazine). It won PFI building of the year, which is even more depressing. The old town hall looks a bit sad and in need of a clean. The Hackney Ocean is probably the most successful of the buildings - a genuinely popular and innovative venue for music, club nights and much more.

But the patch of grass with benches and statues in the middle of all these is really a disgrace. Why, when pumping money into all these buildings, did Hackney not see that it might be worth spending a few bob getting rid of the ridiculous little stone walls that cut it up into segments, maybe getting rid of the grass altogether seeing as it is so minimal and scraggy, installing some decent paving and benches and encouraging people to not drop their litter by providing somewhere that doesn't look like a dustbin? If it is the 'civic heart' of Hackney, it's so depressing that a little simple TLC hasn't been considered for it...


12:06 pm
Tailoer-made cycle maps

I always thought that Transport for London's Journey Planner was a bit crap. But today I am completely converted (my excuse is it must have improved while I've been away).

It not only gave me a fabulous and uncomplicated bus route, I discoverd that it will tailor-make you a cycle route to go to anywhere you want, with a pdf map showing every single twist and turn that you could print out and take with you. Isn't this amazing?


11:35 am

I visited the East End today for the first time since I got into the country. It was much as I left it - more boutiques, more impossibly trendy 16 year olds on the streets making me feel ancient, etc - but the most - well, not shocking, I suppose, as I knew it woudl be thus, but certainly depressing - change was to see Norman Foster's monstrosity at Bishop's Square nearly finished, and some equally monstrous things being built inside Spitalfields Market.

I am, like most people, a big fan of much of Foster's work - the Gherkin, his earlier stuff at Stansted and the Sainsbury Centre - and I've been in meetings with him and found him extremely observant, attentive and intelligent. But I find it both inexplicable and scandalous that he allows his office to produce buildings like Bishop's Square. There is no aspect of it that is remotely acceptable. The urban design, the building design, its attitude to both its historical context and the innovation that is always meant to be a driving force behind Foster's work: all of these are mediocre, watered down and numbed - a total lack of any creativity, style or sensitivity.

It is, perhaps, no worse than most commercial developments in the financial district (apart from its effect on the historic market buildings). But Foster and Partners should not be allowed to get away with such a low quality of work. And instead of the robust criticism that the architectural press might level at him, there is an ominous silence; and no doubt when the buildings are completed, there will be a faintly praising, if not positively sycophantic, series of reviews in the journals.

For me this is the real scandal - that we don't demand more of our architectural superstars, and hold them to account when they fail, because our public deserves better. If quality is really to improve in this country, we had better stop being so soft on all the mediocre architecture that I see getting praised every week in the press and, I'm afraid, by CABE and other organisations. I know the argument that we need to demonstrate support for any effort to build something half-decent. But CABE's design guidelines and all the other policies intended to give us 'better urban design' shouldn't mean half-arsed and badly detailed modernism on every corner. Clients who cut corners, planners who don't have a clue, architects who can't be bothered and contractors who don't care do, I'm afraid, need a kick up the butt. I would like to see a series of really stinging reviews of the truly awful stuff that goes up, criticising not only the architects but clients and planners too - but then the hacks wouldn't get all their free dinners and fees for sitting on awards panels, so that's not going to happen...


1:34 am
Signs of age

I found my first white hair yesterday. Needless to say, I pulled it out.


July 12, 2005 || 7:39 pm

Pretty scary news today that the bombers are almost certainly suicide bombers. I took my first public transport yesterday and I must admit to some nervousness. It is difficult to absorb the news that London - Londoners - have been attacked and may be again, especially because we don't see any evidence of the attacks as we go around the city. And everyone keeps acting as normal (and so do I) in the mean time. It could almost have been a bad dream - yet the discovery of explosives in Yorkshire and the conclusive CCTV footage assures us that it is all very real and very close to home.

I hate feeling suspicious and wary in this city where the multi-cultural scene has always been something that I have loved. Living, as I did before I left for America, in the largely Muslim East End, I prided myself on being often more relaxed than my friends about the cultural friction that was undeniably present when hipsters get drunk in trendy bars while women outside wear full hijab. I haven't been to the East End yet this trip but I'm sure the atmosphere there is charged. I hope we don't see reprisals on my doorstep among the community that has been trying to hold together a shaky but good-willed peace over the last few years.

Londoners are continuing to live our hedonistic, ephemeral lives but the more details emerge, the more immediate the threat appears. Seeing TV pictures of houses cordoned off and being searched inevitably makes you wonder whether the next one will be next door to you, and one is more aware of police sirens than ever before.


July 11, 2005 || 9:54 am

In other news:

I was quite surprised to get such a vitriolic comment from Demos on my one-para, clearly signed as flippant, blogpost on their new report. I may write more about the report when I get time but as I am horribly behind with work it may have to wait. But for what it's worth (not much) I tried out the points that I made in that post, however flippantly, with friends over the weekend (and ones who quite regularly tell me to shut up when I'm wrong) and everyone cringed pretty badly at the "Hoody Two-shoes" title that I criticised, and those who had read the comment agreed with me that it was a bit of a bizarre overreaction.

The slightly more important point is that I don't want to have to censor the way I write about things for fear of being left off Demos' invite list (not that I'm on it anyway, but I used to regularly set foot in there for various things when my friend Peter worked there). They should be big enough to take the criticism and respond in the spirit that it was given in. But then, I seem to be attracting vitriol in the weblog comments world right now...as the only person who reads WorldChanging and also thinks New Urbanism is a pile of crap, and somewhat dangerous to boot.

On a different subject, I liked this, from the CS Monitor - a little cheesy, but as someone who is convinced that my total lack of a/c in Alabama made me way more hardy than all my friends there who moaned a lot more about the heat, I applaud the sentiment that we really don't need to keep our houses at 0º to be happy.


9:41 am
Post-disaster update

Well, I safely arrived over the Atlantic and back to the mother city. Given what Tom Coates quite aptly called 'the week that never ends' there's a fair bit to report.

Having been really in quite a lot of shock and distress over the bombings while I was in America, I was rather disconcerted and even more shocked when I spoke to my boy and family on the phone to check their continued presence on the planet and they all sounded incredibly blase. Having got back here, London has obviously had the same effect on me because any trace of fear, worry, anxiety etc has disappeared from my mind. I spoke to one friend yesterday to catch up and when I said something about the 'terrible events' she said 'what terrible events?' - and it is absolutely true that the whole city seems to be living as normal - drinking, eating, partying, moaning about small things.

I tried to think why this is - why the city stayed so calm in the immediate aftermath and even, why the evacuations of the tube trains were so panic-free as it seems. Some ideas - the much-repeated argument that we're used to this after the IRA. That we were all expecting something to happen and it wasn't as bad as it could have been so we're glad it's over with for now. My personal idea is that we are so used to daily security alerts, which are generally false alarms, and the tube breaking, bus diversions, transport hell generally because our system is so creaky, that when a train stops and everyone is told to get off we all sigh and just do it rather than panicking. Oh, we're late for work again, never mind.

Regarding life continuing as normal, well, what are we meant to do? I'm glad the British aren't the hysterical types. It's also quite strange that as almost all the damage is below ground, there is nothing to see on the surface that might disturb you. So it is very easy to just continue going around as usual with no visual reminder of the attacks.


July 07, 2005 || 2:43 pm
Shocked and worried

I'm in shock. Was woken at 7.15 this morning by a phone call from a friend asking if I'd seen the news. I managed to get hold of my parents but not the boy.

Please if any of my friends read this, can you leave me a comment to let me know that you are OK? I'm tremendously worried and shocked - the city that I love, so close to home - and I'm meant to be flying back tomorrow. All incredibly surreal for a beautiful sunny Alabama morning, everyone going about their business as usual.


July 06, 2005 || 3:39 pm
Announcing a new blog

Just to let you all know, that my good friend and long-time fellow food adventurerBen Yeoh and I have started a new blog, reviewing restaurants, food shops and other things in London (mostly). It's called Food & Life. Please check it out - it doesn't look very pretty yet, but it will do when I get a bit of time to do some designing on it! but there's already some content and much more coming soon.


2:09 pm
We got the Olympics.

Oh my. Us design-types have a secure employment future, thanks to London's winning the 1012 Olympics. Having been involved with much of the behind-the-scenes stuff on this before I came to Alabama, I think I'm pleased...but hope desperately that we don't do another very British f***-up. But at least architects and, erm, consultants like me (how I hate that term! I'm going to do a Hilary Cottam and call myself a designer!) will have plenty of work around to divvy up or fight over...

More seriously, I hope this starts a real push for good design in the Thames Gateway - and forces us to produce a quality that might not otherwise happen. After all, it would be embarrassing to house the world's top athletes in Wimpy homes. And I hope it doesn't have the opposite effect - that of holding local authorities over a barrel, so desperate to complete everything that needs to happen in time that they accept any old crap from the housebuilders.


3:43 am
Post-July 4th ephemera

I've been a bit lax on the church slogan front, but here's a great one for y'all...


A quiet (for me) Independence Day was followed, today, by a fairly quiet day as well - not that it should have been, as I'm meant to be working hard at the book ( I have a copy deadline in a week and a half.) But somehow after the holiday there were a lot of things that I needed to get sorted, bills to pay, my car's licence tag to renew, emails to read and reply to...so very little got done. But I did cook dinner for Bill Walthall, the Rural Studio's drug rehab project (joking, Bill!!! well, not entirely joking, he is that, but so much more too) and we spent a very pleasant hour and a half talking about Greensboro and the state of the world. Bill brought fresh blueberries that his sister had picked, and fantastic fresh, tender sweetcorn from his neighbour's garden - a real treat.

This one's for my mother - Rurality. Not because I think she should get into making natural soap or kittens, but just to show her a kindred spirit in photographing every kind of flower and tree that comes along, and how lovely it can be for the rest of us to see it online...


July 04, 2005 || 11:58 pm
My first comment spam

I got my first comment spam today. And no, it wasn't bot-generated adverts for viagra or porn, it was religious messages from a fellow Blogger user. Yes - long, long religious messages. I've deleted them. Mr James Fletcher Baxter, no matter how proud you are of your theology, I don't want to hear it.


2:47 pm
Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day!

It's very quiet here. Everyone's gone to the beach, or having a family reunion, or something. I'm on English schedule, so I'm working, answering emails, etc...

So from the world of English politics, two mini-rants.

How can Demos be so crass? Hoodie Two-shoes? do they know how patronising and naff that sounds? I'm afraid that, if you need to know why young people feel left out of political discourse, look no further. I've read the report, too...and I'm not overly impressed. It's a good start, but I feel that the fact they were funded by the Big Lottery Fund shows - there are masses of case studies out there that are more enlightening and interesting than the five they chose. Plus, some international context would have been interesting, especially of the USA where the culture of community groups/non-profits is so different. But I'm getting on my high horse as I've spent the last six months researching international precedents in this area and I live and work daily with US non-profits...

And it seems like John Prescott is an icon to American progressives. Scary. Makes us sound very 'old Europe' - massive public spending, etc. No mention of PPPs, PFIs and how Prescott is at the mercy of the mass homebuilders.

And here's a link to the Declaration of Independence itself - still, 229 years on, a magnificent piece of prose.


12:48 am

The other night I was sitting, as I do, in my kitchen with the doors open to the street and a friend passed by and dropped in - a young black guy who works at the recycling and scrap yard down the road. We got onto the subject of Greensboro, what its problems were and what to do about it, which was interesting and depressing. He's a smart guy, but he couldn't really see the value in trying to give the town any help. He didn't like the incestuous claustrophobia of the town (the same points as I made here) and he was of the view that it was impossible to change anything about the people here, their beliefs (however irrational) and the way they act, or don't. He said that Greensboro should have a new mall - and when I threw up my hands in horror at this, he suggested instead a decent club or a new library, somewhere to hang out - that familiar request of the 'youth'. But really, he was pessimistic and, like young people in rural areas everywhere, just wanted to get out.

But he appreciated the quiet and the fact that he didn't have to carry a gun - which led onto another, even more depressing/farcical conversation about gun control and the death penalty. A bystander would have been amused, I'm sure, at the sight of this nice white girl arguing that you shouldn't ever kill if you have the option, that the death penalty is proven not to decrease the crime rate, and that its irrational to carry a gun all the time, and this young black guy saying that the only reason he's gone straight from dealing drugs and other crime was the fear of the electric chair, that all the paedophiles should be be killed and that if he doesn't carry a gun, how is he going to defend himself when (not if) someone breaks into his crib or threatens his girl?

There was obviously never going to be any agreement between us in this classic, cliched discussion. But so much of the time he sounded like a bewildered boy in a world that was treacherous and difficult to negotiate - the words of a 'thoughtful' rap song, full of nervousness behind the bravado. He cast himself as the hero, at 22 years old trying to put his troubled past behind him and go straight, but beset with biblical problems and temptations at every step. He's smart and deserves to go far but it's true that he's in that classic demographic where nothing will be easy, and it's more likely that his nervousness will result in him shooting someone's head off in panic, and his fatalistic prophecies will be self-fulfilling.


July 03, 2005 || 4:45 pm
The end of an era...

It seems that, as I approach the end of my stay in Alabama, I've come full circle. I started off living in a house where parrots would attack me every time I came through the screened door to the porch, landing on my shoulder and pecking at my fingers. And yesterday, out of the blue, my lovely little chicken suddenly decided to run towards me at an alarming pace and settle on my left arm. I have morphed into a crazy Alabama bird-lady.

It has belatedly dawned on me that in a week, there will be no more Beacon Street living. Although I'm going to be back in the States at the end of the month and won't leave until mid-September, when I return I'm going to be a homeless nomad in my green jeep travelling around as much as I can, and certainly not greeting each morning by drinking coffee in my kitchen with the doors open wide to the street. Yesterday my band and I played a gig in Tuscaloosa (a wedding) and again, although it's not the last gig I'll play with them (we have a couple in September) it signals the end of regular Wednesday night practices down at Chip's pond and the point at which I now can't really have a say in what happens with the band.

I'm going to miss Alabama hugely. I'll miss having Beacon Street, my chickens, being able to live in such a rough-and-ready, improvised way. I'll miss not having to worry about having my purse stolen or my house broken into - here I can leave the doors wide open while I go to the shops with absolutely not worry. I'm going to miss the people, the everyday chat and folks dropping by, and going to the Shack and the 28. I'll miss being able to dress like a tramp and have no-one care (and I mean literally a tramp - the first thing I have to do when I get back to England is visit H&M and buy some clothes to wear before I embarrass myself.) I will, of course, miss the solitude and slowness, the precious, different meaning of time.

I won't miss the mosquitoes.


July 01, 2005 || 5:52 pm
On poverty

On poverty

Well, it's July, and I suppose it means that I should finally get on my soapbox about the G8, Live 8, etc. Yawn. In brief, I'm on the side of those who think the whole Live 8 thing and Make Poverty History is a feel-good waste of time for everyone to slap themselves on the back about. Personally I'm more worried about/interested in the climate change negotiations. (And just so you know, no-one here cares about the G8. And everyone thought that Tony Blair looked really daft when he came to Washington DC to ask Bush to join in with the whole debt deal and Bush basically told him to f*** off. 'What was he doing? Weren't y'all embarrassed? He looked like an idiot.')

I see the problems with how to 'end' poverty here daily. Political stability and maturity is key - and this takes time, not money - it cannot be hurried along. In Alabama, which has had nowhere near the extreme problems of sub-Saharan Africa, things are still not right here 40 years after the civil rights movement. How can you expect these countries that only gained independence - independence from colonisation, not just the repeal of some discrimination laws - at around the same time, to be just fine and dandy so quickly? Here we also have our corrupt local 'dictators', cliques of power and disenfranchisement, all of which drain energy from what the real purpose of the local government should be - to improve the living conditions and sustainability of these fragile communities.

We also have our aid agencies and do-gooder charity types. The group of crazy karate people who came to build a blitz-build house in a weekend here were exactly the same story as Live 8 and the gap year kids. They came, they had a great time, they built a house in two days, they were so, like, moved, man, by the poverty they saw, they had their pictures taken and felt like it was so great to be able to contribute here....and now, two months after they've left, the house still isn't finished.

Pam in the new housing office has files full of grants and is an expert at making that paperwork pay - she is a mini aid agency herself. And the dependency culture is a real problem. Because there are basically no jobs, how to get some kind of state handout is the name of the game. People pay lawyers substantial amounts of money so that they can get a disability check of $560 a month. Everyone tries to 'get a free house' out of the Rural Studio, or Habitat, or any other non-profit which they think they can play for a few bucks. It's exactly the same as trying to work the World Bank grants, or to get Oxfam to build you a well.

Now I wouldn't for a moment say that we should get rid of the safety net that these loans and organisations provide - the US has little enough of a safety net as it is and these people are living in desperate circumstances. But it's hugely depressing to see the vacuum, the lack of strategies that don't merely put band-aid on the problems here but actually try to address the root causes. We need to incentivise people to energise themselves, to create something to be proud of, to encourage more self-sufficiency, to provide money and support for small enterprise, not just for faking a disability and sitting in front of the TV because you feel there's no other option. We need major capacity building in the community, and for the community itself to take the initative, not to rely on outsiders. We need to make people recognise that they have skills, whether its the math and accounting that they learnt dealing drugs or the good soul food that they cook, or the vegetables that they grow in their garden and can for the winter.

I think it's exactly the same for Africa. We've got to get them off aid and onto their own resources, but its so much easier to give a few $bn than to start dismantling the complex web of subsidies and protectionism that means that Africa can't compete in the global economy on a level playing field (exactly the same as the reason why Alabama's agriculture can't compete with the factory farms elsewhere.) And it's so much easier to dole out aid than to do the patient, small-scale, restorative work that will allow communities to find their identity and how they can stand strong for themselves. Yes, Africans need to know that the world cares and it's great to spend your summer building wells in Mozambique. But if all we are teaching them is better begging skills, where's the sustainability in that.


4:32 am
Links for today

I know nameless people who don't like linklogs, but who did like Charles Clarke singing about ID cards. However, I've been saving up bits of web ephemera of varying degrees of seriousness, and tomorrow is Friday, so here are some things to happily waste your time with:

David Lynch reads the weather. Yes, that David Lynch. And he does it daily. Amazing.

A dictionary of imaginary places.

Video clip of Allen Ginsberg reading his seminal antiwar poem Hum Bom.

London's tube disruptions as a rather wonderful animation

How to make an Enigma machine out of paper. I really want to do this but I don't have a printer...

and, silliest of all, but really a work of genius, this complaint letter about sitting next to the toilet on an airplane. If you want more serious reading matter, visit my del.icio.us page.


My del.icio.us page

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