...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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April 29, 2005 || 12:44 am

Keeping up my resolution to blog more frequently, today was a somewhat sleepy day for me doing mindless and soothing tasks like digging a small trench for a water pipe and painting the inside of our house. I'm still not sure what timezone I'm in. But being back in Alabama is beautiful - the warm weather, the wildflowers spreading like crazy (vetch growing up the walls, the huge purple thistles everywhere, evening primroses in the verges) and more approaching fun things - tomorrow up to north Alabama for a bluegrass festival on the mountain at Horsepens, and of course, pig roast fast approaching...

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April 28, 2005 || 5:35 pm

Another week, another tool to make Google even more invaluable and to advance the trade of 'internet researcher' over 'librarian' - Google Print. Much as I love and depend on these things, and they do make my life infinitely easier and open up possibilities for inquiry that would be unthinkable otherwise, I do rather lament the increasing decline of real books and real libraries. If you have Google Print, will anyone ever buy an academic book again? One wonders what the publishers who are partnering this venture think. Or will the best of these tools become subscriber-only?

For me, I'm old-fashioned and there still will be no replacement for sitting in the reading room of the London Library. But I feel that increasingly I won't be sitting there because of the books I can find in the stacks around me, but because it provides somewhere quiet, dignified and uplifting to do my work, or spend a couple of leisure hours. The LL has always been a cousin to the gentleman's club, and maybe (my former employers take note) its forthcoming redevelopment needs to bear this in mind. But then again, until Google finds a way to mimic the wonderful happenstance of browsing through 'Science and Miscellaneous', there will be obscure corners of the world that can only be researched by trawling the stacks.

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3:12 pm

Long time no blog, as many of my readers have been pointing out to me...and for this, sincere apologies! There are several bad reasons for this:

After the Canadian visit of last week, I promptly came down with some kind of bug and lay in bed for a couple of days. I didn't want to blog about this as I knew my mother would worry unnecessarily and really, it wouldn't have been that interesting for y'all to hear about how I lay in bed, tried to go to the doctor, etc. The only new thing I learnt was how convoluted the American healthcare system is. I mean, asking someone who feels like death to ring up all sorts of people and check whether there is a doctor within 30 miles who falls under your healthcare plan? It puts you off going to the doctor at all. Oh, for the NHS...

Then, I had an exciting Saturday of errands in the morning followed by many hours of playing bluegrass at Chip's annual big party down by his pond. Lovely, as always, to jam and listen to others playing. We had Allan Tobert come to play, who is a 17-yr-old, amazing guitar player (as bizarre in appearance as amazing in sounds) and he came with his band, including Stanley, a backing guitarist who looked like he had stepped out of the 1950s yesterday, no change - the all-American smile, the tall, tanned body, the perfect white hair in a perfect 50's wave.

But I had not time to blog that either as the next morning I was up at the crack of dawn to come back to England for all of 55 hours. After a day's travelling, I arrived at Heathrow at 5.55am, went into town to have breakfast with the boy (finally reunited after 3 1/2 months - oh joy) and then straight to work for GPA on the shortlisting for the book. Major culture shock to go from Alabama to a meeting room in the RRP offices overlooking the Thames, and lunch at the River Cafe, compounded by the severe jetlag and lack of sleep that means that I felt like my feet were never truly on the ground and I was somewhat dizzy/nauseous from the whole experience. I had to wear my cowboy boots the whole time as they are the only vaguely decent footwear I have left.

London was grey, and this time I really noticed the difference in air quality. Ironic, of course, that city-dwellers are vastly less polluting in terms of quantity of emissions per person than us rednecks here, but because you're all crammed in together, the proportion of those emissions that gets into your lungs is vastly greater. Whereas here in Alabama, you can kid yourself that you are being really healthy despite burning up fuel in vast quantities. And I missed my rooster waking me up in the morning.

So, two days of hard work, then back on the plane to 'bama and now, back to work on the house!

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April 19, 2005 || 5:11 am

Having Canadians around is so funny.

'Listen to this. This song is about Winnipeg. IT'S SO AWESOME!!!!!' [jumps up and down in a pretty tame way in his nice checked shirt]

and...'I like the Weakerthans a lot. Actually a lot of their songs are about cities and urbanism, which is pretty cool.' Erm, yeah, that's exactly why I listen to rock music. Bless those lovely Canucks and their friendly social consciences.

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April 18, 2005 || 10:26 pm

Ah joy...I find myself with a spare half-hour to blog. This hasn't happened for a while - due to visitors, book research (now 'handed in' - hooray!) and all the stuff I'm meant to be doing here, ie build a house. Which, by the way, is coming along fine. The drywall guys started today at 6am and are proceeding mighty fast. We're midway through putting up our siding (asphalt shingles. This was a long debate but actually, I'm pleased about how they look - kinda cheap Adjaye Dirty House effect without the fancy windows). And now, I've only got my spare half-hour because I'm bunking off work - having been doing some car mechanics (yes, really, me) with Johnny Parker, I figured there wasn't enough time to make it worthwhile heading back to site so I'm hanging out at Beacon Street with Peter Macleod, who's visiting from Canada, before we head out to meet Andrew and interview him for an article Peter's writing for Azure on the RS.

I guess I need to fill in on a few of the latest small happenings down here! There was Thursday, which should have been a Friday the 13th from the moment I got up and couldn't find my wallet, had to borrow 50 bucks from GB Woods to buy gas to get myself to Atlanta to pick up Peter, pulled out of a Selma gas station and bumped the side of a crazy woman's car, nearly shot a major red light because my view was blocked by a huge lorry, realised I was 1000 miles over my oil-change limit and had to spend some of my precious money getting that fixed, whereupon they informed me that I had something leaking out of my engine, all the way to the moment when my tire blew on the interstate and I found myself on the hard shoulder of the exit ramp with NO MONEY to call a tow truck or anything else.

My luck finally kicked in at that point, as the first car I saw and asked to borrow a cellphone so I coudl call for help was...the Auburn rowing team. Who royally saved my ass by finding me a jack, filling my spare (luckily I had one) with air and changing my tire for me. Dear sweet Southern college boys, I love y'all. I hope you won your rowing races in Tennessee.

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April 17, 2005 || 8:14 am

I have played the violin/fiddle since I was four. In the twenty years since then I singularly failed to win any prizes (well, apart from the Suffolk Festival). I never got past the first round of the Young Musican of the Year. But tonight, glory came. I won the first prize in the oldest fiddlers contest in Alabama, in Frankville. And the band won best band. In the words of the bluegrass classic, we're sitting on top of the world.

Frankville fiddlers contest was started in 1926 to inaugurate the new schoolhouse they had built, and it has happened every year since in the same venue - a beautiful building, white clapboard outside and peeling beadboard inside, classic Southern architecture. We turned up on a sunny afternoon, outsiders to LA (Lower Alabama) as most of the musicians and events we go to are further north, and we are proud as hell that not only did we evidently impress the judges, the locals took us to heart. Days don't get too much better than sitting in a schoolhouse, timewarped from the 1950s, watching a buck-danccing contest.

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April 10, 2005 || 9:33 pm

The spring here has just burst out and almost overnight, it seems, the 'green fuse' has been lit and everything is covered in shooting leaves. The most wonderful and unexpected part of the spring for me has been the wisteria which grows wild and crazy in the woods, climbing up the pines and dogwoods and covering them in flowers cascading down. Driving with your windows down, every few hundred feet on the county roads you get a dizzying blast of their scent. There are also wild white irises growing by the roadside, huge deep burgundy thistles, ditches full of buttercups and pale blue bugles, vetch, wild sorrel (reminding me of Suffolk) and wild dogroses. The field in front of our site, on which our client grows turnips, greens and onions but which she hasn't ploughed up yet this year, amazes me with the wild flowers that grow on it. The whole field shimmers with their colours - sorrel, buttercups, bugles, some white flowers which I don't know the name of, and deep red clover.

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April 09, 2005 || 8:30 pm

I've realised I should really have a) been blogging more recently (you know it's getting bad when American Family Radio aka the voice of the Southern Baptist church starts commenting onthe importance of blogging daily) and b) been blogging about this whole book research shebang that I've been spending the hours between 7pm and midnight on for the last 2 months. It might even be interesting to those architectural/design/activist types among you.

Basically, it's been an incredibly interesting but hard slog through the internet to try and find really outstanding case studies of multi-disciplinary, socially and/or environmentally engaged architecture/planning/artistic practice. The premise being that in recent years there have been a growing number of projects, often initiated by practitioners as opposed to the usual client bureaucrats, that have addressed severe social and environmental problems and urban and rural renewal in creative, characterful, and ultimately more successful ways than the usual masterplans/housing schemes/regeneration initiatives which tend to cost billions, be generally disliked/ignored by the community they are meant to serve (and vice versa) and contribute to the dullification of places and spaces around the world into bland 'neighbourhoods' with nothing to do except the planners' idyll of 'neighbourhood services' (read a Costcutter, 'youth club' and Pizza Express).

We know there are many great projects out there, because we've featured them before in our work and we've been tracking them for some time through meeting interesting practioners in the field, and we think that to tell the rest of the world about them (especially the bureacrats who need some fresh ideas) might help more of these projects take place, ultimately engaging communities in more vital and meaningful ways, and contributing to more truly characterful, eccentric, holistic and varied place-making.

But we want to make sure that our book of international case studies (with essays by some of the leading thinkers in the field) doesn't just feature our top thirty projects we already know about, but truly represents the best of what the world has to show. So I have been spending my evenings not blogging as before, but trawling Google and Yahoo, following endless chains of links like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, emailing far-flung places and trying to track down the elusive best projects. It's a huge field to research yet very hard to find truly innovative and outstanding projects that demonstrate all of the aspects that we want to highlight.

We want projects that have been realised on the ground and achieved concrete results, yet inevitably many of the best ideas have never come to fruition. We want projects that have tackled real problems, not just the product of well-off and comfortable liberal environments. We don't just want a pretty building; we want a strategy that may or may not result in a building, depending on what is appropriate for that particular place and community. But when something is designed or built, we want it to be really well-designed - not just a good strategy resulting in the same bland architecture of dipped-in-brick neo-vernacular crap with efflorescence stains on the walls in three years.

It's been incredibly difficult and I still feel like my list of projects in wholly incomplete - that I must have been an idiot and missed some obvious anr really great projects. I've been attacking Africa, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and the central and eastern portions of Europe. Jointly with my fellow researcher, we've been doing the USA.

Lessons learnt: it's impossible to get hold of anyone in Cuba, by email (never replied to or the addresses bounce) or phone (weird bleeping noises construed by my paranoid mind as eavesdropping by the US authorities, lines going dead, etc). There are an absolutely amazing lot of fantastic projects in Japan that everyone in the West should know about, but I'm not surprised they don't, as all the websites are only in Japanese. I don't read Japanese and Altavista translation is not very good. Problem, when it comes to finding out more info than is given in the only two English-language articles I have managed to find.

Best web resources: the Aga Khan Development Network and it's myriad awards schemes, not to mention the invaluable Archnet; UN-Habitat and the other UN best practice sites (but why are there so many of them? can't they be consolidated into one?) and those countries that kindly translate their stuff into English, I'm sorry to say.

Personal highlights at the two ends of the scale: Japanese planning (for a flavour, look at this), and this small project, to me a wonderful design solution on many levels. And big thanks to my mum, for phoning the Snowman Institute in Japan for me.

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7:13 pm

YES!!! YES!!! YES!!!

Chelsea-Birmingham 1-1

Middlesbrough-Arsenal 0-1

And I check in to the BBC just in time to catch Norwich-Man Utd 2-0. Sweet. They keep saying that they're not declining, but really, to fail to beat the bottom team in the Premiership? And Birmingham drawing away to Chelsea?

It's a sunny day in Alabama. Some strange events today - a bagpiper in full Scottish regalia playing at the crossroads of 14 and 69, apparently something to do with a bikeathon (I hadn't realised that the trend for men wearing lycra on hot summer days had spread even to here), and a rather dramatic car wreck just in front of him at the precise moment we had stepped out of our cars to gawp at his glowing cheeks.

Yesterday was the first night of the first annual Greensboro Rodeo, which was also pretty good fun and quite surreal. I hadn't really realised that rodeos here are like fairgrounds, with a coterie of 18 year old cowboys who follow them from town to town, hoping to make a few bucks and avoid broken ribs from all that bull-riding. The horses are quite remarkable - their intelligence and response to the slightest signals, even when the rider is no longer seated, having slipped off to tie up a steer.

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April 05, 2005 || 3:53 am

It's been, again, an eventful few days, and again, I've been too busy to blog. In brief: lots of driving, showing my parents as much of the culture of West Alabama as possible...huge and dramatic thunderstorms...going to York to see the new Municipal Workshop project, going over for a blissful half day to Butch's, back for the christening party of my bandmate Ted's twins (really an excuse for drinking Bloody Marys and torturing a captive audience with lots of old time music) and now back to work on the house again. We're putting up the porch, which is pretty exciting.

If you want some visuals, have a look at Quentin's pictures from his stay here...

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