...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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October 30, 2005 || 9:15 am
Just in case anyone worried...

We were not in Delhi when the bombs went off yesterday - having arrived in Ahmedabad the day before. But it's quite awful that it has happened at this incredible holiday season, when all the streets we've seen are full of people shopping and looking forward to the 'Indian Christmas' - think bombs going off on Oxford Street on Christmas Eve and you might get the feeling.

This is a strange time to blog from India and I'll write in more detail in due course. But suffice to say, we've had some absolutely incredible experiences - the people we've met, the places we've seen, the projects and so on - inspiring and moving, and giving me lots of ideas. It's pretty humbling to see what some incredibly committed people (whether the schoolkids in Delhi that we visited, or the wonderful engineer Himanshu Parikh whose work we've been seeing here in Ahmedabad) can achieve, with such intelligence and sophistication in this chaotic country.


October 23, 2005 || 8:09 pm
More rural matters

Amazing - a survey has found that 75% of the British public want the railways re-nationalised, including 61% of Tory voters. Which is another interesting piece fo trivia to add to my growing file on the railways, tied into my emerging project for London Metropollitan about the architecture of rural services and community buildings (railways being a particularly interesting part of this, at least to me).

Another piece of this puzzle is this fascinating post on what happens to churches now they're not so useful for worship any more. Apparently old cinemas are being converted into churches for the evangelical masses, and churches are becoming everything from nail bars to climbing walls.

And another rural-themed report from We Make Money Not Art about the invention of self-milking machines for cows. I happen to know that a certain former-head of a big regeneration agency in town (no prizes for guessing) who spends most of her real energy on her organic farm, has been planning exactly such a set-up for her cows, claiming that they are much happier if they can milk themselves. Her version, I think, also involves a cow-triggered traffic light or something, so they can also get safely to the milking barn.


7:56 pm
Happy National Apple Day!

Yesterday we went on an outing to the Middle Farm Apple Festival near Lewes, Sussex, held to coincide with Common Ground's National Apple Day. I'd found out about it through (nerd that I am) a website about American old-time music gigs. Because yes, banjos were present. But more than that, it was the mention of chicken-racing that made me really want to go.

There were chicken races. And real proper old-fashioned fairground rides. And an amazing Mousetown (how much fun must it be to live as a mouse in a real model town, crawling up and down stairs, in and out of windows, sitting in the pub or disappearing into the manhole covers?). Many, many more varieties of cider than I knew could exist - and they were pretty tasty. Cows, ducks, geese, pigs, morris dancers and lots of apples.

All really lovely fun and made me, again, nostalgic for the countryside life. [Though I must admit, it being near-ish to Brighton, there were a few too many yummy mummys/novelty wellie boots wandering around for it to feel truly 'authentic...]


October 21, 2005 || 8:32 am
Open source in theory and practice

I am all for open-source. Blogs, the power of millions of people sharing, a decentralised knowledge base, f*** Microsoft, let's all hack around with Linux and GoogleMaps. It's so much easier and more fun not to have to know everything and then try to guard it - all you need is a great network of other people who know stuff, and then we can all share!

But when it come to my everyday work, I get very inconsistent. A large part of my work involves research into a very new and constantly shifting field of practice, which is globally scattered, and involves a network of fantastic practitioners who are, in effect, our 'open-source' collaborators. Which is all fine, but this 'creative capital' - our in-house knowledge, expertise, and our social and professional networks - are what we need to make money from. We're not after pots of gold, but we would like to keep ourselves in shoes and stockings. In addition, a lot of other people (in our view) don't really understand what's important and might easily hijack these great ideas, methods and people and turn it into some awful bland mess (for an example, look how almost every great thinker's ideas have been dumbed down and therefore turned into the opposite of what was intended).

So, we become minor control freaks. We're writing a book, which will be all about this exciting new world, featuring a whole bunch of projects that we have gone out and found, which have often not been published anywhere else before. We get touchy about letting too many of these discoveries out of the bag too soon, because we want to be the first to publish them and the leading authorities on the subject. When people want to do a great project, we want them to collaborate with us, not to run off with our ideas.

I feel the wrongness of this, and yet...I've somehow managed to almost never blog about these projects, despite the fact that I would really like many more people to take inspiration from them and apply their lessons more widely (hence the book). I've got to get over it, because all my hesitations are completely irrational. But applying the open-source philosophy takes a big heartbeat, a big dollop of trust that it really will pay off, and its interesting to find myself in the position of either having to practice what I preach, or fundamentally reconsidering what I believe.


October 20, 2005 || 9:31 am
Community strength: or, the government passing the buck?

I've been meaning to post about this for a while, but like many other topics it's been languishing behind a pile of other work. Recent work by the government's Neighbourhoods Unit proposes five ways to measure so-called community strength, which is meant to be one of those 'good things' although no-one really understand what it means. So here they are:

1. Governance - percentage of residents who feel that they can influence decisions affecting their local area
2. Cohesion and inclusion - percentage of residents who feel that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds can get on well together
3. Volunteering - percentage of residents who affirm that they carried out voluntary work in an organisation once a month or more in the past year
4. Voluntary and community sector - percentage of VCS groups and organisations affirming growth in activity over the past year in terms of (i) financial turnover and (ii) volunteering
5. Services - Proportion of services in selected public service areas delivered by VCS organisations on behalf of the local authority.

I've got so many problems with this that I hardly know where to start. Read Kevin Harries and David Wilcox for the more moderately critical view before succumbing to my rather vehement reactions.

Governance: well, that's a measure I have no problem with. What it has to do with communtiy strength or cohesion I don't know, but the ability to influence decisionmaking is called democracy and wins brownie points from me. Cohesion and inclusion, similarly, I have no problem with. I welcome the day when we are liberal enough that we do genuinely get along with others who are 'different'.

Volunteering. OK. Since when has volunteering been anything to do with holding society together? I don't volunteer, but I would like to think I'm a very good citizen. I look out for people on the street, I'm the kind of person who nearly once got bashed in the head for trying to stop a guy hitting his girlfriend, I vote, I comment on local planning applications, I go on protest marches, I get involved in all sorts of ways. But volunteering is such a strange way to define community-minded actions. In fact, perhaps I do technically volunteer when I pick up litter on my way to work, but I don't consider it as such. And those who 'volunteer' to leaflet for their church or mosque, or who fundraise for their private school - is that really about community cohesion? It seems more about defining oneself as part of a group to me - which can be the bastion of exclusivity rather than liberal inclusivity.

And then the last two - now here's the rub, really. Here's why the government may be so happy to class volunteering as an essential part of a healthy civic-minded life. Because actually they are now measuring the health of our communties by how few public services are provided directly by the state. Why on earth are communities more 'strong' if a mental health support service is run by a voluntary organisation rather than by the local doctor's surgery? Aren't you really undermining the people who do work in the public services by saying that they should be replaced by volunteers? Shouldn't health centres, town halls, parks services, libraries and all the primary publicly funded services be the long-term beating heart of a community, not something that's being phased out in favour of potentially ephemeral, constantly shifting volunteer or charity organisations whose acronym, headquarters, logo and staff change every two years? and what if I don't want to go to a Christian charity for my housing needs?

It's pretty ridiculous to me. Why don't we make our public officials the stalwarts of our communities and value what they do - attracting the most ambitious, civic-minded and community-focused people not to become part-time volunteers, but to become full-time mayors, nurses, housing workers, councillors, parks wardens. It would be easy if their job descriptions involved being more creative, responsible, inventive and independent. Instead, the bright people go volunteer, where they get to take initiative and feel like they're achieving something, while the couldn't-care-less idiots work for the state.


October 19, 2005 || 9:13 am
The Egg is open!

Allow me a moment to praise my wonderful boyfriend, whose first major (£2.5m) building opened last night. The Egg, the new children's theatre run by the Theatre Royal Bath, is not only critically acclaimed and utterly beautiful, but that miracle of a well-run project - on time and under budget!

You can see some pictures on the architects website in theirphoto dumpster. The boy crawled home late last night after all the boozing and backslapping at the opening. But for me the biggest praise for him as the project architect came from the contractor who built the thing. 'Tom' he apparently said, 'you're the only architect I've ever worked with who knows about building.'

Knowing what contractors generally think of architects (scum of the earth), that's not bad praise! Congratulations to the whole team - including the boy's poor underlings who've put up with his occasionally foul moods for the last two years...


October 18, 2005 || 6:44 pm
Preparations for India and crying at Godzilla

Yesterday I had to get up far too early to go and get the visas for myself and our photographer to go to India in a week. Quite an adventure - a sort of weirdly chaotic order of far too many people in the room, a supposedly quite strict and efficient system that actually broke down rather a lot and then resurrected itself in quite a human form when you least expected it. I eventually emerged triumphantly - five hours, two faxes, two couriered letters, and many phone calls back to the office later.

Then it was time for a couple of hours in the office before I went off to have my jabs at the BA travel clinic - a rather surreally efficient process whereby I was in, injected and out again before I'd barely had time to catch my breath. Back in the office for a few hours and then, off to see the original Godzilla movie, in the original Japanese and black and white. It was quite an astonishing film - not only for how terrifying it manages to be despite the primitive special effects, and also its appropriately ambivalent allegorical links to nuclear warfare, the American occupation and the contemporary troubling period for Japanese national identity, but also for the real sadness that I felt at the end - tears welling up, would you believe.

Godzilla itself looked a little comical at its first appearance (delayed in classic horror movie style for a good long while, during which we only see the looks of terror on people's faces and the aftermath of its destruction) but steadily got scarier and more awe-inspiring (or maybe I'm just too gullible). It really is a terribly silly concept and it is certainly to the films credit that it manages to draw one in quite so much despite things like the 'Oxygen Destroyer' and the 'Contra-Godzilla Operations Centre', not to mention all those toy boats that get sunk. Some model-maker really had a lot of fun.


October 16, 2005 || 9:21 pm
Weekend in the country

My first weekend down at my parents' house (where I grew up) since I got back from the States, for my birthday. A quarter-century didn't seem like a time I particularly wanted to celebrate in any elaborate way, for some reason, and was spent peacefully in my old birthday rituals, somehow reaffirming a connection to my homeplace. The weather was, as is traditional, beautiful - an Indian summer, eating birthday lunch outside with sunhats, it was so warm. We picked quinces and pumpkins, as we always do, and ate a lamb tagine with quinces. A lovely walk over the marshes and picking huge, soft, pinkish beige parasol mushrooms, beaded with dew, in the morning for breakfast. Pints in the Nelson in Southwold with friends and scrabble before bed (I won, which was precisely as it should be!) Good food and delicious wine, and the most fantastic present of a life membership to the London Library - an incredible, wonderful luxury - thank you, parents!

It capped off a week that saw my life get steadily busier. Racing through the rain to a meeting with Thames and Hudson on our book. Going to meet the Church Commissioners to talk about a potential new project, we drove through Parliament Square where a huge demonstration was going on against the new Racial and Religious Hatred Act by all sorts of Christians - a strange coincidence. It was possibly the most ethnically diverse demonstration I have seen in London, due to the good turnout form the black churches and other groups. And some exciting news - it looks like I'll be going to India in a week or so, for work! My first time in the subcontinent. I have my jabs tomorrow.


October 11, 2005 || 5:19 pm
Bluegrass infiltration

On my continuing mission to find myself more jam sessions to feed my addiction to old-time American music, Sunday night found me drinking in the Harlequin pub just behind Sadlers Wells theatre. A real gem of a pub, named after the clown Grimaldi who performed at the old Sadlers Wells (which itself has a fascinating history) - tiny, real beer, perfect, and at the back there were two banjos, a guitar, three fiddles and an autoharp playing real old-time mountain music. Ah, my ears were sated - although I love bluegrass, old-time is another thing altogether and I happily ensconced myself with a couple of friends. No Sunday night blues when you've got a banjo ringing in your ears.

Two of the musicians were also at the Hemingford Arms the other night when I went there, and I saw them again yesterday, when I finally took out my fiddle and played my first jam session in London. I went back up to the Hemingford and played with the old guys for three happy hours. It felt so good to be playing again - even though it didn't, of course, feel the same as playing in Alabama. Strange to hear Cockney accents, and even the guys there who were American had all but lost their accents. And they weren't (from what I could hear of their accents) from the South either - one was definitely from the Bronx and another looked pretty much like a Northerner too. But still it was hugely much fun, and I'll be back there and at the Harlequin often. If any of y'all are at a loose end on a Sunday or Monday night, come down the pub.


October 09, 2005 || 6:39 pm
Excursions on a London weekend

Another London weekend has passed by, with many typical London activities. Yesterday, after getting up late (the boy meanwhile doing his errands of recycling, shopping at the local grocers, butchers and Italian deli) it was off to the Tate Modern to meet a friend. We drank coffee watching the steely London autumn light and the wind blowing the birch trees, then wandered around a bit of 'art'. I rather enjoyed the little display of Beyond Painting - Piero Manzoni, Fontana and Burri, the latter's sackcloth works being intriguing and quite rich. Then it was off for a pint and then tapas on the Cut, to Meson Don Felipe, where I hadn't eaten for a long time. The Young Vic redevelopment, which I helped design in the competition and scheme design stages, is well uner way on site and it was astonishing for me to see something that I'd made endless models of, and drawn countless permutations, actually take shape in reality. Almost enough to make me want to be a 'real' architect.

Then today was another relaxed day, with a very late, big breakfast and then a trip on the motorbike to the V&A to dutifully check out the Deutschlandscape exhibit and then marvel at a randomly chosen selection of galleries - amazing metalwork, funny sculpture maquettes, and a beautiful wooden sculpture of Venus and Adonis, whose beauty lay in seeing how so many peices of wood had been joined together, almost like a jointed doll, to create a scene working in between semi-relief (the chariot and lovely dogs in a sort of squashed perspective) and full three-dimensionality (Adonis floating upwards).

Tea and cake by the Serpentine (ah, the rituals of English tea, I did rather miss them) and then back home. No church-going, so I'm making up for it by listening to Mozart's Requiem as I type.

Tea at the Serpentine


October 08, 2005 || 11:51 am
Adventures in searching out music

I realised that I forgot to chronicle my first success in searching out men with banjos in London town...which actually took place on Monday night. Which goes to show how, already, in London life, the concerns of the moment (work, etc) so rapidly eclipse experiences that one has had even a short time before. But in brief, I was hugely excited to go to the Hemingford Arms in Barnsbury, where I had read that there was an old-time/bluegrass jam every Monday night, and find that indeed, inside there were old men, banjos, mandolins and other assorted and appropriate instruments, playing that unmistakeable twanging sound...

I was wearing my Tannehill Opry top as a little signal just in case anyone might recognise it...and sure enough, although no closet Alabamian embraced me as a long-lost sister, the opry-word did attract the attention of one of the players, who came over to talk to me. It was quite strange to hear a broad cockney accent issue from the mouth of someone who was playing songs about moonshine, but I did reveal my fiddle-playing leanings and next Monday, I may even go along and jam...

Then on Wednesday, I got to hear a real Southern voice when Sam Douglas came into town for the screening of his awesome film Bound to Lose at the Raindance Film Festival. What a treat, both to see him and also to luxuriate in the movie, a funny documentary about the Holy Modal Rounders whose wholly irreverent, insane but inspired take on American roots music was definitely inspirational.

And last night, at my friend Sam's party I met another musician who is into, of all things, bluegrass and chicken songs. Any Kudzus reading this, don't get jealousl I've got to get that music fix somehow. So I'm pretty excited about the prospects. Though it is a little bit sad to me that most of the younger people I've met who say they're 'into' bluegrass a) don't really get the actual genre as a historical form, its relation to old-time/american geography/etc and b) do seem to like it more for its ironic americana value (hey! let's act like hillbillies, how funny!) than some of its more 'genuine' and touching qualities. That's one of the qualities that I loved about the Rounders - although they took the mickey out of old-timey stuff, they also did it with a tenderness and a love that I guess, as Chip commented, you only get if you've spent enough time around fires or on front porches pickin' with the old boys...

And, I fell asleep on the night bus last night. Awoke in Muswell Hill at 4am and had to get a cab back. Haven't done that for a while, I must say...


October 05, 2005 || 5:27 pm
Call for ideas!

I've started to work on my design and research project with London Metropolitan University in conjunction with the company I work for, General Public Agency. Broadly speaking it's on the spatial (planning and architectural) challenges faced by rural areas. It will start with some general research on current pressures and demands on differently located and sized rural communities and then focus in quite quickly on the potential for intervention/direct action in a few chosen places. This might range from working with a community group or parish council on a small building project, through to formulating a masterplan for new development or regeneration. A range of these projects (hopefully fairly radical, based in real places but seen also as 'prototypes' for other communities facing similar issues) would be worked up in outline form, in collaboration with local groups/agencies. One of them will ideally reach some sort of fruition by the end of the year - either being built or in motion towards a tangible outcome. The idea is to take some lessons from Alabama about direct intervention and activism and see whether it's possible to use similar approaches here.

So if any of you out there have ideas about places that you think I should be looking at, people (from heads of goverment agencies to local social workers) I should be talking to, particular issues that you think I should look at, any enterprising community organisations that might like to collaborate, please let me know! I'm aiming to talk to as many people as possible about this so absolutely any suggestions would be gratefully received.


October 03, 2005 || 5:58 pm
Harriet Miers and the US bloghounds

So Bush nominates Harriet Miers, a close friend and utterly undistinguished lawyer to be a Supreme Court Justice. Her only previous judicial appointments have been ones that she was appointed to by, erm, Bush.

And now, the liberal blogs are so up-their-own arses that they are actually happy about this nomination because, of all things, the fact that she's an unknown quantity appears to be getting the right-wingers up in arms as they don't know for sure whether she'll vote anti-abortion. I.e., the Democrats (including Senate minority leader Harry Reid) are happy about this ultimate stealth appointment who will agree like a lapdog with anything Bush asks her to, because of some ridiculous points-scoring off the rabid Republicans. How about kicking up a fight about nepotism? No, instead, we'll have "great fun watching conservatives go after Bush" while any tradition of judicial independence goes up in smoke. Guys, look outside your own petty Beltway posturing for two seconds.


October 02, 2005 || 7:19 pm
Sunday night blues

The English autumn is a very melancholy season. Even its most pleasant parts - a quiet, delicious Saturday lunch in Medcalf, the clean, warm sunshine slanting down the side streets - are tinged. Especially when tomorrow a delicious year of freedom ends and I start back at work and school, let alone when Chelsea thrash Liverpool at Anfield. There is something so inherently romantic and melancholy about Liverpool anyway - the passion in the face of adversity, the tears on the faces of hard Northern men, 'You'll Never Walk Alone" and the constant memory of a lost golden age - that makes me somewhat wish to have been born a Scouser just so I could have that in my inheritance.

But instead, I get a return to Highbury to see us beat a 10-man Birmingham not nearly as easily as we should have. Which is, indeed a great pleasure - the North Bank in the sun, the crowd and chants, the little rituals, the stress of watching the match and its battles, and Bloody Marys afterwards in the flat with chips from the Chinese-run Arsenal Fish Bar. I missed the football, for sure - it's one of the great, very London, cultural moments full of solidarity with one's fellow Londoners. But still, as the night closes in, its not enough to stop me getting those London Sunday blues...

Arsenal v Birmingham City


October 01, 2005 || 7:31 pm
On shopping

In my quest for a worksafe wardrobe I have, over the last week, shopped the whole of Zone 1 London. I've shopped from Topshop to Selfridges, from Beyond Retro to Browns Focus. It's quite an interesting and at times depressing experiment - to take the pulse of the capital's fashion zeitgeist after a year away of living in cut-off shorts and t-shirts from the 50 cent rack in the thrift store, and still looking reasonably well-dressed.

Fashion, right now, is pretty dull. Topshop famously produces instant copies of everything that appears in the high-end stores, but the depressing thing is that you might expect the quality to be far inferior but in fact, the Marc Jacobs top that's appearing in the basement of Oxford Street isn't really that much better designed or, to me, desirable, than its cheap rip-off. Too many frills, buttons, 'frayed' edges, cropped jackets, full skirts, 'military' jackets that look no more authentic when done by Stella McCartney than by (I assume) a sweatshop in Taiwan. And looking for a truly interesting fabric, cut or concept is well-nigh impossible.

I was looking for clothes to wear to work, to make me appear a bit more professional without being boring, and without falling too deeply into architect/design professional cliches - Camper boots, knee-length tweedy skirts, a bit of diffusion Martin Margiela or something Japanese, blocky Scandivanian prints and too much black. I was not looking to look like an East End teenager hoping to be talent-spotted on the Lane, a secretary for a 'trendy' office, an electroclash club kitten or Eurocrat looking fashionably distressed and 'trashy' while snorting coke in Sketch. I'm not going to wear leggings under a denim miniskirt or stiletto-heeled boots with skinny jeans and a gold-trimmed gilet. Even my 'staple' stores were full of black and brown, pinstripes and tweed. I want something to make me happy, not bored. To excite my sense of shape, touch and sight, to make putting together an outfit something fun, not a capsule wardrobe mix'n'match.

What's a girl to do? in my case, panic. Buy a couple of things that are way overpriced simply because they're the only things I see that do excite me. Then buy too many things in Topshop that I now want to return.


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