...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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December 30, 2005 || 8:18 pm
John Felton, Craig Murray and Gordon Brown

Over dinner two nights ago we came to a mention of the famous case of John Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, who, when told that he might be tortured in order to reveal who had put him up to the deed, said
"if it must be so he could not tell whom he might nominate in the Extremity of Torture. and if what he should say then must go for Truth, he could not tell whether his Lordship (meaning the Bishop of London) or which of their Lordships he might name, for Torture might draw unexpected Things from him." (source)

Another source has him pointing the finger more ominously: "if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself." The judges were then consulted and "declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England." This was the last time that an English writ for torture was attempted - in 1628.

We remarked then that this was particularly apposite given current debates around torture, and now today all over the blogs (especially here) is the case of Craig Murray former ambassador to Uzbekhistan, who the Foreign Office is now trying to gag because of the documents that he is trying to publish regarding the use by the UK of information gained through torture in that country. They've been trying to get his website (which publishes the documents in full) taken down (although even the Times links to it!) but numerous mirrors have been appearing in the blogs and his site is also now back up and running.

It is notable that Felton (who also plays a bit-part in the Three Musketeers let's not forget) was referenced by the Law Lords in the hearing in which they ruled on the inadmissability of evidence procured by torture, just three weeks ago on the 8th December. One of the things I love most about the English legal system is the use of historical precedent in this way to make strong cases about the principles of English justice and, perhaps, nationhood. I would like to think that Gordon Brown's speech recently might have had this in mind when he spoke about the values which
"when taken together, charted through our history, are at the heart of a modern Britishness...our shared values formed and expressed in the best of our history...[including] liberty as both the rights of the individual protected against an arbitrary state and, more recently, as empowerment... So there is indeed a golden thread which runs through British history of the individual, standing firm against tyranny and then of the individual participating in his society. It is a thread that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215 and on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 to, not just one, but four great reform acts within less than a hundred years."

He quoted Hazlitt, Voltaire, Locke and even George Orwell, though sadly not the judges in the case of Felton. I wonder what he will think, as someone who clearly does believe in the value of the 'historical view', and who is broadly read and thoughtful on the subject, when (as will happen soon) he or his ministerial colleagues will be asked to defend the gagging of Murray and more broadly, their possession and use of material (I can't call it evidence) obtained through torture conducted by a totalitarian regime that we call an 'ally'.

[P.S. I don't necessarily think Craig Murray is the pin-up that some on the left are making him...but regardless, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that the Uzbeks are horrendous torturers, and I'm just glad that the documents are out in the open. In case anyone accuses me of being in with the lefty love-in.]

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December 27, 2005 || 4:34 pm
Christmas 2005

I came down to my parents' house in the country on the 23rd and its been a very quiet Christmas. Although the day itself involved some raucousness at lunch, the growing age of my cousins means that every year it gets to be more and more like a pleasant dinner party and less like the mayhem of my youth. We have also reached, finally, some agreement within my family about no longer needing to give or to be given presents. We've all got more than enough of everything we need, so apart from a stocking full of socks and edible treats, that was, thankfully, about all. I've been arguing this for years but as the child of the family I've always continued to receive vast armfuls of gifts and I'm grateful that this habit is finally wearing off.

Today the snow finally arrived - we woke to a light fall glittering in the sun and then in the late morning while we were walking on the beach, we saw a dark cloud race in and suddenly the sky was white with huge flakes, the views along the shoreline below the clouds had disappeared and we became walking snowmen, peering through slitted eyes against the wind. It was perfect winter weather, and by the time we got home for a lunch of leftovers and good beer, the flakes - large as feathers - were sticking everywhere, floating silently down.

Tonight I think its time for turkey curry.

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December 26, 2005 || 4:28 pm
Arguing about America at Christmas dinner

It's not, let's face it, the best time to argue about America; around the turkey and booze, with my very left-wing family and myself, whose love affair with the USA has yet to end. I'm not sure how it started but I do know that I came perilously close to thumping my mother for a comment at an inopportune moment.

How to defend, as I try to do regularly, a country that many of my fellow British citizens denounce as evil? My problem is chiefly that they are often right in what they say. When the charges of racism come up, for example, I can't say that no, there is none. When they say, vis-a-vis Bush-Kerry 04, that Americans vote on personality not policy, they are right. Anti-gay - tick. Religious in the face of reason - tick. Sometimes, in the thick of one of these arguments, I feel like I need a new AA - America-lovers Anonymous. 'Yes, I know its the most bigoted and stupid country in the world, but I just can't kick the habit'.

My problem - and this does not comfort anyone who is black or gay - is that I'm not sure how important all of these 'national characteristics' are. (Let's leave aside, for a moment, the fact that they are not really national characteristics at all, because most of my defence of America is centered on Alabama, a place where they certainly do apply.) My experience of America has been about personal relationships across racial and sectarian boundaries, culture, landscape. To me, the States still has space within it for people's personal dreams to be fulfilled, and space where, if you want to come into a community and you are willing to listen and learn, dropping preconceptions and ideological baggage, you can find extraordinary generosity. America does still dream, yearning - beyond the materialism that is perceived on this side of the Atlantic - for better times, utopias, magic. It does still reward hard work, and also charity, volunteering, a personal involvement with the needy.

But there is no middle ground or shared assumptions that I have found to enable me to make this argument to the anti-Americans here. We simply speak two different languages about nationhood and value. The arguments that merely turn the coin back onto the UK - i.e., how can we talk about prejudice when we still have such a rigid sense of class, that we are racist too, that we too have our hidden and nasty underbelly of popular political thought - are weak and irrelevant. I sound - as I have just done here - like a hopelessly romantic apologist if I try to explain the everyday experience of living in a small town in the Deep South.

Perhaps there just isn't, ironically, a common language to describe two such different nations and cultures - and perhaps now, when feelings are running so high here among the 'old left' against the USA, it isn't the time to try. But reading even the most painful of American literature, they still manage to convey something of what America's soul - or souls, plural, for its essence is also in pluralism - is. And I'm not sure why it is so unacceptable to fall in love with somewhere that is still difficult, contradictory, even enraging sometimes - and whatever rage some of us here feel towards the USA at times, it is nothing compared to the rage that many Americans feel towards their government and institutions.

But until I find a better way to explain, I'm stuck with the unusual position of being, apparently, the most right-wing person around the table...

2 comments


December 21, 2005 || 6:05 pm
Local distinctiveness and change

I thought this was an especially welcome piece of blogging about the sensitive and difficult handling of local distinctiveness in the context of change, which is inexorable and, as Dan Hill says, "must be embraced so as to create an ally rather than an enemy". This is precisely the kind of approach that we constantly advocate and develop at our work here at General Public Agency - a creative approach to characterisation and identity, but founded in a genuine and layered understanding of place, culture (in the broadest sense) and the delicate, unique fingerprint of every area.

Dan Hill is on the money, however, when he writes that "if the meaning of Savile Row is not inculcated into the next generations... then how much longer will Savile Row mean anything genuinely useful, even as a prime piece of real estate? It ceases to have 'added value' even to property developers in the long term." This is precisely the conundrum that developers are starting to realise, but are woefully underskilled to put into practice, which is where GPA sees its role. As the most intelligent and hard-headed businessmen realise, you don't get really astronomical rates of return on your investment unless you offer a genuinely unique and right product. But we can re-find that 'added value' precisely by adding back into the mix all the things that have had developers running scared for the last decades: genuinely engaging local communities, carefully mapping and responding to all aspects of the context, allowing for uncertainty, spontaneity and pleasure rather than designing out any chinks, being provocative and above all, fully inclusive of not only the pretty bits but also the difficult and ugly parts that make up a place's DNA. It's not easy and it requires the absolute highest levels of quality, which I think and hope we reach.

But anyway, I always like reading his blog because I do think he is one of the few bloggers on architecture who actually gets these rich and broad issues without falling into either New Urbanist nostalgia or architectural heroism. I'm sure this is because he's not actually an architect or urban designer by trade...

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December 19, 2005 || 1:29 pm
Despair and depression on the football field

There's nothing better than the ecstatic euphoria of scoring a goal against Chelsea - the noise, the rush of blood, the realisation that you are on top of the game. There's nothing worse than the deathly hush that descends on the stadium full of home fans when Chelsea scores against you. The Highbury Library indeed. You could have heard a pin drop in the North Bank while at the far end, the small away enclosure was full of figures jumping up and down, yelling to bridge the distance.

Unfortunately the euphoria of the goal was an illusory pleasure, as it was disallowed, wrongly, for off-side. And we had to endure two of those dreadful, shivery moments of despair and silence. I'd never heard the stadium so quiet.

What to say? Arseblog did, I think, get it entirely right. We needed big performances from the older team members - Sol and Thierry - and they were both quiet. Dennis, when he came on towards the end of the game when it was already too late, added a dash of energy and created one good chance but apart from him, it was the young ones who threw themselves into the game. I worried about van Persie who got two bad knocks early on, but he always looked bright; Cesc and Flamini I thought also did pretty well and so did Senderos.

There just wasn't confidence in our play - we lost the ball too often and we got no fluency with our positioning at all. Chelsea behaved imperiously and showed the arrogance which has won them the league, which makes them untouchable right now. We know about that because there was a time when Arsenal looked that confident and at home in every stadium. But yesterday afternoon we looked, apart from a couple of short periods in the middle of the first half and just after the break, insecure.

All in all, a very depressing afternoon. Our league season is basically over and we're in the mid-table wilds. Come on Real!!

1 comments


December 16, 2005 || 9:46 pm
The Annual Record

I received the Annual Record 2005 from my old college, Trinity, yesterday. The 'austere format' of this volume - the same each year, a pale blue with a monoprint of the college fountain on the cover in navy ink - always prompts both my curiosity and some reflections on my time at Cambridge. Seeing who has died, who has become a Fellow, who has got recognised for some appointment, academic or otherwise, or (in election years like this) been elected as an MP (Oliver Letwin, I see) is a strangely satisfying delve. This year, among other things I note that my old tutor got a Gold Medal from the Bibliographical Society, and that one of my contemporaries (who I knew was writing a novel) has evidently finished it, because she donated a copy to the library.

But it also brings back to me the odd connection I have with Trinity. I read about the Annual Gatherings (where alumni from the same matriculation year get back together) and other events and realise how I am barely in touch with anyone from Trinity. I have plenty of friends from Cambridge as a whole, but my connection with the college in social terms was never strong. I had an ambivalent attitude with the kind of people who I got to know at Trinity which I ascribe to my general suspicion and lack of ease around people in groups, and never made much of an effort to get beyond the superficial judgments that I would make about them. The truth is, I've never been very good at making or keeping friends.

Yet my emotional connection with the physical fabric of the college, and with some of its rituals and quirks, is very strong. My lovely room in my final year in Great Court, and the view out over to the chapel; those particular doors on either side of the Hall entrance that you would pass through to go to the library; the magnificent library itself; having, even in the new millenium, to run outside in my towel to go for a shower in the next staircase along; the porters - I start quite easily to sound like a bad version of Brideshead-y nostalgia. I would love for nothing more than to see my name among the list of Fellows or those otherwise honoured in the Annual Record - or to be invited to High Table for that peculiarly English form of staggeringly intellectual conversation spiced with what might better be described as levity than wit. I love, to put it simply, old-fashioned Englishmen and women despite any rightful criticism others may make about the inequity and insularity that they represent.

What is it in these ancient institutions that inspires this odd mixture of disdain and yearning? My contemporaries, who I dismissed at the time for their ridiculous foppish habits, pretensions, love of stupid pranks and drinking societies, will in a decade have become those august, intelligent, characterful Fellows at whose dinner parties and drinks in the Masters Lodge I so want to attend. Trinity makes plausible the oft-repeated cliche that England's natural state of being is conservative - and makes it seem an attractive progression. The elite is now made up of state school pupils as much as the more classic demography, but they take on all the characteristics of their 'better-bred' contemporaries, even in their stances of radicalism.

I don't want Trinity to change, but I also know that for the vast majority of my fellow-countrymen, appreciating any value in its arcane customs and the breed that it supports is a difficult, maybe impossible thing. I know lots of very bright people who didn't get into Cambridge, and when they tell me about how disbelieving they were to be asked, at interview, about the latest government policy on healthcare when they were applying to study architecture, or set daft and indulgent mental tasks in the same way that one might set a rat through a maze, I nod seriously but inside, I am secretly happy that the place still operates like that.

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December 11, 2005 || 4:40 pm
Walking upriver

It was a stunningly beautiful day today, as every Londoner noticed, I'm sure. Time for a proper walk - and while what I really wanted to do was go to Blackheath for a brisk one and a late pub lunch, I had no accomplices amongst my busy friends so instead I set off northeast, aiming to get to the the Lea River.

The walk was many stages of parkland and Sunday football. Weavers Fields, my local park, was full of local Bangladeshis having matches in various stages of organisation. Then came the near side of Victoria Park, all beautiful mature trees, canal boats and strollers, with its edge of fine terraced houses that will, I'm sure, rival Holland Park prices in a few years. Crossing over the road, and the other side of the park is plainer, tower blocks on the horizon, with kids' football teams playing in impeccable striped kit and bellowing parents on the sidelines. Get to the other side, cross over the roaring A12 on a deserted cycle bridge and suddenly the land drops away into the Lea Valley. From the genteel terraces to car repair shops, odd corrugated shacks more reminiscent of my recent visit to Delhi than to London, past Hackney Downs station and along the Lea Navigation canal for a few steps before negotiating the motorway again and emerging onto Hackney Marshes.

I've never been to the Marshes before on a Sunday when the famous football games are in progress and it was quite astonishing. The testosterone, the rawness of the atmosphere was extraordinary, somewhere between intoxicating and terrifying. I was the only girl there - and almost the only white person, apart from the guys manning the tea-and-burger van. The car park was full of cars, some pounding out bass beats, and a mass of men milling around in muddy kit. On the pitches, violent shouts, messy tackles, a spilling over of all the stuff that had been ignored in a week of hard, obedient work, wives and kids. Real football, a world away from Highbury on a Saturday afternoon.

This is where, you might hope, at a stone's throw from the Olympics site that the future Beckhams and Lampards would be found - but of course this isn't so, these men are too old already and even the kids in Vicky Park with their parents urging them on are never going to make it. It's a world of football that will always live on the edge between clan thuggery and dreams of self-improvement, of lifting oneself momentarily into brief glory. The stories from those games will be retold tonight in the pub, or in diluted form to the wife or girlfriend who has never been near the games and will never understand why these rituals with such animal ferocity, yet playing by the rules, take primacy over anything else that a Sunday afternoon may hold.

I bought a bacon roll and walked round the edge of the pitches by the side of the Lea river, reached finally yet diminished here by being merely the overflow from the canal on the other side. At the top of the marshes the two join (or part) at the site of the old water filtration beds and millrace. Clapton seemed genteel here too - notices about community meetings tied to the railings, families, middle-class couples with vaguely well-bred accents in a real ale pub. Mill Fields had already seen its day's play, judging by the mud and stud marks, and only a father and son were still kicking a ball around in the wet grass.

A six mile walk, according to my calculations: not bad for a Sunday, and it took two and a half hours. I took the bus home and it was nearly dark by the time I got back.

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December 10, 2005 || 12:08 pm
Back in the East End

It's lovely to be back in the East End. Even while working far too hard over the last few weeks, there are little moments that remind me why I still live here despite the increasing crowds of scarily over-hipster teenagers.

The main thing is being able to walk almost everywhere I want to go - to work, to play, to the river. Walking to work, means going over the Thames in the brilliant morning light, battling against the tide of humanity streaming across London Bridge into the City. Walking home again means meandering through the back streets of the City past the Lloyds building and the Gherkin, both lit up magically on these winter nights, strange and beautiful when the streets are empty. And enjoying all those reverberant street names around Aldgate - Jewry, Goodman's Stile, Crosswall.

Having St John Bread & Wine as my local restaurant and off-licence is another good thing: bad for the wallet, good for making a happy heart. Last week we were in there for a supper after going to see Tintin [worth the trip, btw] and there was a group of around eight friends at the next table who were all dressed up for their Saturday night out in full and wonderful fetish wear - green latex, thigh-high boots, boobs spilling out all over the place. Where else, we thought, would a restaurant of that quality not bat an eyelid? All cred to St John for being somewhere I can go dressed in paintstained overalls, my pyjamas or fetishwear, order the cheapest thing on the menu with a glass of tap water, and I will get treated as fantastically as Jay Jopling at the next table.

It's also great being back shopping for food in the markets on a Sunday and on Bethnal Green Road in the week - the International supermarket with its fantastic selection of fruit and veg, and today bringing home half a pint of winkles to eat with my tea. Having a genuine high street to shop at is so special and rare.

Bagels, of course. And being an easy stumble home from any number of late-night watering holes. And all the other Brick Lane cliches. It's good, finally, to be home.

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11:36 am
Del.icio.us bought by Yahoo

One for the geeks (or wannabes):

Deli.cio.us has been taken over by Yahoo. For those who don't know, del.icio.us was one of the biggest innovations online last year and really revolutionised the way many people use the web, blog, read news and many other things. My 'ephemera' sidebar is enabled by deli.cio.us and it has become my essential online filing cabinet. Its had many imitators but its clean, absolutely simple interface has made it the winner in a world where community (i.e. number of users) really does mean success.

I wrote about Yahoo vs. Google last year and my frustrations with the design (concept and visual) of Yahoo's service remains. I never use Yahoo to search. I still use Flickr despite its takeover but I use the uploader applet so I never really encounter the interface and its true to say that it hasn't changed that much. But in general, I am rather sad that lovely del.icio.us has given up to the behemoth. My feeling is that Google's design ethos was much more suited for del.icio.us and would have been a better choice. I hate Yahoo's terrible logo, clunky interface and multiple 'click-steps' to get to whatever you want. But I guess Google's intent on developing its own version rather than buying an existing platform.

But will it make a difference to my life that I use Google Personalised Search and then bookmark using yahoo.licio.us? Maybe I'm just mourning the demise of another individual, brilliant enterprise. Maybe that's also fair enough. What's lovely about services like del.icio.us and flickr has been that they are communities defined by common interest, not some sort of habitual brand loyalty. I want to be able to find interesting bookmarks no matter whether the people who found them used Google, Yahoo or some terrible MSN search, but if it becomes so much easier for me to use a new Google bookmarking service, I will switch over and then never find anything interesting that comes up in the yahoo.licio.us community. and thus the world will divide: sad but true.

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11:31 am
Back to blogging

Apologies for my complete lack of posts recently. Life has been busy. Masses of work for the office and for school, house-redecorating and boyfriend-moving-in have left me with barely time to see a single friend, let alone spend a few well-earned hours typing for y'all's amusement. But now the boy's left for India for two months, I had my crit at LMU and I've finally had a lie-in; life's looking up. I've got the radio tuned to a local station playing Atlanta rap (reminders of Alabama) and a big cup of tea. Several posts to follow!

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