...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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January 28, 2006 || 9:27 pm
Life update; and the decline of my alma mater

Apologies for lack of posts. This was not due to anything exciting - rather, the fact that the office has been busy and I had an interim portfolio hand-in on Thursday that caused considerable panic and the use of every free minute in working, if not on actually producing drawings, on rather terrifying sessions of 'architects block' where I realise why I always hated being a student designer. However, hand-in is over and I've given myself a day and a night off. So its soup, wine, the footie on the radio and update blogging for my Saturday night. I'm really, really getting old.

Last night was the architect's equivalent of a high-school reunion, being the opening party for the Cambridge Compendium - a backslapping session to 'celebrate' my alma mater, which is sadly but surely sliding down the pan in terms of quality and vision. So much repeating of 'what are you up to these days' and the whole of Cambridge's alumni who are unsuccessful enough to bother, crammed into a tiny pub off Great Portland Street after the booze ran out at the RIBA.

I'm being a little harsh: it was very nice to see former tutors and others, but I don't have much optimism about the school. Many worthy, heart-in-the-right-place architects have come out of the school, and many running relatively solvent and interesting practices. But that fact is that there are no real high-fliers out there, a lot of frustration and struggle (the patented architect's 'business is fine, yes' complete with gritted smile seen far too often) and a lot of people haven't really moved very far since I last saw them, five years ago. Everyone is producing decent, well-considered buildings but there's a lack of people with real mouthy guts with radical positions, or even radical ways of promoting the approaches they already have, most of which are sound and, as I said, decent, which I think is a much undervalued quality in architecture.

Of course, most of these people graduated a long time before the recent well-publicised problems - but many are still sticking around the school, teaching or otherwise. At the risk of getting horrendously spammed by a lot of people who are good mates of mine, the school really needs to cut off from a lot of these people. Of course, there is absolutely no chance of this happening while Marcial Echenique is head of the department. I have no qualms at saying that he is the worst possible candidate for the job. Total lack of architectural vision, public profile or engagement with the world of practice. Someone who cites 'Computer simulation models of cities and regions' as his principal research interest - and having seen his work, he doesn't mean something more innovative than it sounds.

Well, rant over and enemies made. I was glad to be there and see some lovely people who I rarely bump into, but glad that my path since I graduated has led me to interesting, challenging and genuinely innovative work; the opportunity to engage with the real world, high-level clients and influential projects, rather than the world of slightly depressing small architects full of complaints. I respect them for their commitment to something that must be pretty hard to get up for, many days and I'm not saying that I'm somewhat magically superior. But Cambridge influenced my thinking in important ways and I think the fundamental tenets of its approach, underneath all the cruft, are important and valid. If the school wants to start producing more ambitious graduates who advocate these principles in public and influential ways, something really drastic needs to happen.


January 17, 2006 || 10:40 pm
Galloway update

I got a reply from Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, to my letter about George Galloway. He's not really having any of it. "Although I understand your concern...I am afraid that, on the evidence currently available to me, there is no remedy under the Code."

I know that the Code of Conduct for MPs is debatably concerned with issues of this kind - its purpose being basically to deal with financial wrong-doings by MPs. While this is a factor of the Code's history, I do think it should be expanded to contain much more explicit guidance on how MPs should use their time while the House is in session. What they do in their holidays I don't much care, but there should be limits to the activities that an MP can carry out which detract from their official duties in 'termtime'. This is not only about GG's relatively facetious actions, but also the number of non-executive directorships, consultancy jobs etc that MPs can have. I don't think that having to declare your interests on the Register of Member's Interests is sufficient - I would rather see Members not allowed to commit more than x days per month to outside paid work, for example. Sitting on charitable boards and so on is of course another matter but I would rather - especially given our constituency system - that MPs were given more concrete obligations regarding their use of their time for the public good. As Mawer's letter to me said, "there is no minimum attendance requirement or statement of expectations" - but why not? We pay our MPs a very decent salary, and I don't buy the argument that if they weren't allowed to earn extra money outside the House, we wouldn't get the talented people to put themselves forward for election. Surely they should want to become MPs not for financial gain but for the privilege of serving the interests of the nation?

Mawer wrote to me that "if their constituents are dissatisfied, their proper avenue of remedy is to pursue their concerns by political means". But I might ask, what 'political means' are open to a constituent like myself, whose MP is the head of their party? I can't lobby GG to get rid of himself. The only recourse I have is to external bodies like Mawer, until the next election in three years time when I can attempt to unseat GG. If I'm unhappy with my telephone service I can go to Ofcom. If my bank misuses my money I can go to the FSA. If I'm unhappy with a government department, I can go to the Parliamentary Ombudsman (an office that seems to be rather misnamed). But my political representatives have no regulatory body apart from Sir Mawer's office and none of the strict and clear rules for conduct that govern any other job. I am contracted to work a certain number of hours per week and I have to justify any time that I spend outside of this - conferences, teaching, media appearances - with relation to my job description. Yet our archaic political practices mean that our highest representatives - those in whom the governance of the nation resides - have none of the same expectations. Surely there's a case for reform?

Given this current state of affairs, I got pretty much the reply I expected, but I was pleased that he actually sent me a genuinely signed letter, not just some standard secretary's reply, given the fact that he has received over a hundred letters from my fellow pledgers! And GG was investigated by the Speaker of the House to find out how he has managed to table a set of Early Day Motions while incarcerated in the big Brother House - although cleared of wrong-doing, we still got the words 'Galloway'. 'cat' and 'box' uttered in the HoC in the same sentence.

And given GG has recently been seen pretending to be a cat and licking a fellow contestant's hands, dressing up as Dracula and hiding in a cardboard box for lengthy amounts of time, I can't wait for the catcalls (bad pun intended) when he finally re-enters the House where he's meant to belong...

Letter re George Galloway


January 15, 2006 || 9:12 pm
Observer 'Woman'

As with the Labour Party, thus with the Guardian/Observer stable of newspapers. Steadily less exciting, more saleable, more middle-of-the-road, more hypocritical. Getting rid of the old masthead and broadsheet format was a seminal moment, though the signs had been there for some time - the steadily decreasing amount of real content and the increasing number of pull-out sections printed on that horrible glossy paper that makes your fingers feel all funny after you've touched it. Now, I never buy the papers any more. I read it all online, thankful for not having to throw away the 90% of the paper version that I don't want to even have to buy.

I held onto the Observer for a bit longer - but now it too has resized as 'Berliner' (what a tempting sounding name for a rather horrible redesign), it's gone the way of the rest. (At least, until the boy comes back and starts buying it again, along with the News of the World, for our Sunday mornings.) And this week they launch the most depressing new arrival - Observer Woman.

Of course, it always was going to be depressing, wasn't it. We just knew it was going to be about shopping, how early-thirties professional women try to reconcile child-rearing with sensible work and boring fashion, and lame gossipy articles about lame famous women. But really, this was a triumph of focus-group marketing. Purves and Purves in magazine format.

I'm a woman (natch), perhaps on the young-ish end of their target audience but not so young that I don't hold down a good job and eat out rather a lot. But there, evidently, the similarities between myself and the new Observer audience end. I don't care about Liz Hurley - or rather, I do, but I'd rather read about her in the Sun because its so much more fun than trying to take her vaguely seriously. I do think society's fetish for hairless bodies is worth thinking about, but I'm not sure that the most interesting article you could write about it is the erstwhile Cocktail Girl recounting how disgusted she is when she grows out her leg hair. She was funnier as Cocktail Girl, and much more up my street (literally, when reviewing Loungelover). As for all the other filler - why wearing leggings is a bad idea, why simpering in the boadroom is OK even for ambitious women, what fashion items men and women don't agree on; it is a waste of paper, pure and simple. The only half-decent bit was Gordon Ramsay, because he talked about grating black truffle onto his girlfriend's breasts.

One day, someone will realise that women might want a magazine all to themselves that is actually funny, smart, edgy and dangerous. Not in-jokes for the Islingtonites. Not stuff that you giggle over with your boyfriend/husband but stuff that makes them squirm with discomfort. The other day, Norway announced that it will shut down any stock exchange-listed companies that don't have 45% of their board as women in two years. Or you could be writing about the star geeks of the female Silicon Valley sex bloggers. And all our oldest Sunday newspaper can think to report on is Polly Vernon's leg hair.


12:57 am
7-0 to the Arsenal!

What more can I say. A perfect day. Thierry Henry hat-trick, Hleb, Senderos, Pires, Gilberto goals. And Man Utd lose!

I'm sorry for Middlesbrough's stand-in goalie. Today probably ruined his career for ever. But up in Highbury, we're a happy bunch of gooners.

7-0 to the Arsenal!


January 13, 2006 || 5:07 pm
Ditch Monkey

I'm sure everyone apart from me already knows about this but I just found out that there's someone who has been living in the Oxfordshire woods - really in the woods, with no tent, just a couple of sleeping bags and a rucksack's worth of stuff - for seven months now while holding down a steady job in London. Amazing. Jealousy-making, despite the tales of the cold and wet and thorny. I want to go live in the woods now, sod this hip urban lifestyle thing. People think that my going to live in a big cold tin shed in the middle of redneck Alabama was a weird thing to do and I told them that it was great and really, having no central heating doesn't matter. But my squatting was absolutely nothing compared to this act of marvellous genius. Even Thoreau built himself a house.

Anyway, his blog is fantastic, go read. He's doing it all in aid of the Woodland Trust, so you should go sponsor him too.


12:29 am
Finally, the Labour whip catches up

I'm not a New Labour fan or voter, but it did amuse me to see the news that today - a week after I started my pledge - Hilary Armstrong, the Labour whip, announced the launch of a petition against George Galloway's continued presence in the Big Brother house. Which is supremely useless, really, as GG won't know that its going on, or how many people have signed up, because he's not allowed any access to the outside world.

Whereas, I might say, writing to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards at least has a point to it, however implausible it may be that it will have any effect - to get GG censured in the House (of Commons, not BB) when he returns to the real world, and maybe (if enough of us write) to see further action.

In any case, he may get evicted tomorrow, in which case Labour's petition will be very much too late. Whereas I have already got over 100 people to post off their letter to the Commissioner. I'm also wondering whether Labour are being tactical about mobilising their members to vote for the eviction. If they were smart, they should try to keep him in there - the longer he's there, the stupider he looks. I might rather he was evicted and got back to work in my area, but as he doesn't do much there at the best of times, I guess he may as well stay in.

I was on TV tonight. I didn't see it because I don't have a TV. Can someone let me know whether I came across as an idiot for the five seconds that they probably showed my face?


January 12, 2006 || 9:34 pm
Ricky Burdett on cities

I didn't think this piece in the New York Times was up to much, regarding Ricky and his ideas. This is not to say that Ricky doesn't have good ideas on 'cities'. But to say that the debate around "people, society, architecture" is one that "five years ago might have been a gently heated discussion among colleagues, [but] is now a global flashpoint" is, well, to be a bit five years ago. Burdett's colleague at the LSE, Richard Sennett, has been talking about this for years. Mike Davis's seminal City of Quartz was published over ten years ago. Jane Jacobs first brought it up over 25 years ago. Everyone in the developing nations sector has talked about nothing but the challenges of urbanism and civil society for a long, long time. Even little ol' me, I was talking about the crucial links between urbanism, democracy and social cohesion five years ago, and the debate was pretty live then.

Which is really to say that maybe even the NYT doesn't have enough perspective to see that the pre-9/11 world thought that urban development was important on a political level. But I might also question - at least, given the evidence in this article - what new Burdett is really bringing to the debate. What he is quoted as saying is old hat, despite there being some really interesting and innovative work out there that he doesn't mention. Even the cities on his longlist - Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico City, São Paulo, Bogota, Caracas, New York, Lagos, Johannesburg, Beirut, Istanbul, London, Berlin, Moscow, Copenhagen, the 'urban regions of Catalonia', Milan, Turin, Genoa - seem a bit 'five years ago'. What about Manila, Tirana, Addis Ababa (where the mayor recently won 'World Mayor of the Year' from the UN); why New York and not Phoenix, Arizona; what about Tijuana; why three Italian cities but not Paris (given the recent events), and where the hell is Jerusalem?

The Biennale is a difficult candidate. On the one hand, architecture is the most important thing for society, or at least that's what architects like to preach; on the other, nobody but architects actually goes to the Biennale. So the real purpose of a good exhibition there should be to give the profession a shot in the arm, not to preach to the converted, or to try and sell an message to politicians and others who quite frankly will never visit. 'Meta-cities' is definitely preaching to the converted. Every single architect is obsessed with urban ecosystems, favelas, uncontrollable social forces creating crazy urban spaces, gated communities vs. the starving hordes, etc, etc. Burdett, in icon magazine a couple of months ago, said "The visual manipulation of data – I'm very interested in that. Like what Bruce Mau did with the Rem Koolhaas book [S,M,L,XL, 1995] - taking dry statistics and turning them into something visually exciting. Like the fact that 50% of the world's population lives in cities; that in 20 years it will be 75%; that 100 years ago it was only 10%. That is quite a story to tell, but you have to make it visually rich so you can put it on the wall rather than in a book." We know. Yawn.

Well, if he's still stuck with mid-90s graphics, I hope that Ricky at least manages to do two other things with this Biennale:

Get a bit super-serious on the profession and ask, why aren't you engaging? Why are you churning out 'non-human species as a model for architectural form' or (outside of the student sphere) bullshit (sorry, Zaha) about how the "urban repertoire of deconstructivism and folding is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated...Key concerns are layering, interpenetration of domains and multiple affiliations of figures". World to architects: You what?

Get ahead of the game. Forget books by Rem from ten years ago - lets look at ecocities by Arups in China, the rebuilding of New Orleans, the stuff that's absolutely of today and tomorrow. There's a helluva lot of interesting stuff out there - whether you think it's 'good' or 'bad' is, to me, not the point. We don't want the Cities Programme lecture course distilled into an exhibition, thank you, nor a publicity job for the Thames Gateway. I want radical, I want heart-on-sleeve, I don't want any more of his big, bland statements.

I respect Ricky, of course, and having dealt with him in the past I know he's smart. But he's playing a good game right now, getting everyone to love him by peddling home truths with none of the difficult detail . To quote himself, "I start from the position that you can have your cake and eat it" - well, he's doing great at that. But curating the Biennale is a chance to really show your hand. He said, in that Icon article, that "It will end up with a series of propositions about how to change the world". That's a big statement, and I hope he can live up to it.


January 11, 2006 || 10:13 pm
Galloway letter

I've written the letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for standards about George Galloway and its available for download here. If anyone else feels like sending it off, please do! The bits in red should be changed to suit the sender.

Thanks again to everyone who signed up to the pledge and those who continue to do so. All this campaigning is quite fun!


January 10, 2006 || 10:38 pm

On the night the 'Respect Agenda' was launched by Tony Blair, I walked home past a classic example of what he's trying to stop. Zooming dangerously down my street came two cars, full of local lads sitting on the edge of the windows, hanging out, standing up on the seats so that they were heads above the roof of the cars. They were yelling at each other - in high-spirited couldn't-care-less competition rather than rage - and waving their arms before coming to a screeching halt at the end of the street.

This is, perhaps, the thin end of the 'anti-social behaviour' wedge - but certainly what Blair might describe as 'disrespectful'. I see worse, of course - kids on crack, threatening each other or random strangers, nicking bikes and phones and hitting their girlfriends. But I don't see how any of this behaviour is going to be changed by beating them with the stick of withdrawing their housing benefit, punishing their parents, evicting them from their houses or hauling them up in front of vigilante neighbourhood 'community' groups.

If people - not just teenagers - are to discover some 'respect' (and how I hate the cap-doffing associations of that word) for their neighbours, that is going to come about through better and less formalised communication between different groups, rather than one gang - the vigilante neighbours - confronting another one - the 'feral', 'anti-social' 'tribes'. And if kids grow up with no help, no real friendship shown to them from anyone, no investment from school or family; well, I don't know how they are meant to grow up to be normally socialised human beings.

At Christmas several of us - who have worked at various times with highly disadvantaged kids, including the criminal and nearly-criminal - recited the old cliche that everyone who works with these people knows, that if you just pay them a little bit of kind, normal attention - not patronising, just what 'we' might consider normal - they are fantastically bright and responsive individuals. And again, we all repeated, if this is so blatantly obvious to all of us, how is it possible that the policy guys have never managed to get hold of this idea?

It is not as dramatic as some people make out, but I agree with this blog post that we should be paying attention and worrying about the decline in what might be termed 'civil social relations'. But this is an incredibly long-term problem that will not be solved by £50m from the government and a whole lot of hope-less people feeling resentful because they've been made to take parenting classes. One might, if one was taking the historical perspective, say that what we are seeing now has its roots in the pretty disastrous social policies of the last forty years, where the ghettoisation of at-risk, low-income families has been state-sanctioned and even encouraged, and it will take a generation of serious investment into social infrastructure to get rid of these problems.

The fact is, maybe its not the 'problem families' that need parenting classes. Maybe the rest of us need to train as social workers, or somehow rediscover a sense of real engagement with our neighbours that goes beyond calling the cops on them. We need to learn a) not to be scared of people from a different social group and b) to go a little beyond the call of duty in befriending, getting involved and so forth. I can't remember whether I blogged about this before, but six weeks ago we happened to walk into a pub just as a pretty serious fight was breaking out. An incredibly drunk guy got glassed in the head by another drunk-ish guy, and after a brief but vicious fight, the second man walked out with his mates right through the crowded pub, right past me (still practically in the doorway) and out. No-one stopped him - and I'm not sure I would have even if I was a big burly man, for fear of a knife. But what shocked me more than anything was that when the cops pulled up mere seconds afterwards, no-one in the bar went to talk to them, or would give them a description of who and what they saw. I had gone to find a friend but coming back, overheard the cops saying that no-one would talk so I immediately volunteered, giving a description of what I saw and driving around in the cop car for a while to see if we could spot the guys.

Why did no-one want to get involved? Surely to give a description of a guy who just kicked someone else in the head isn't a big commitment, a big chunk out of your Friday night? Similarly, why do people just stand and stare, or walk by looking the other way, when they see other unacceptable behaviour take place in public places? I've just got over 100 people to sign up to a dumb pledge about George Galloway, yet 100 people in that pub would not give a few minutes to talk to the police about a guy getting hurt. And if we nice liberal middle-class people haven't got enough spirit of goodwill towards our fellow man to do that, no wonder the social fabric here is seen to be tearing.

Update: Simon Jenkins has an excellent piece in the Guardian that says it all fiercely and eloquently. As opposed to the leader column which makes some decent points but also this clanger: "Curbing incivility - noisy neighbours, teenage tearaways, Saturday night yobs - is less serious but much more difficult than tackling terrorism". Erm - I think 'tackling terrorism' might just be the harder task there, given that we can't even define what it is?


1:25 pm
Pledge update

This thing keeps snowballing. My pledge about George Galloway has passed its target of 100 people, and the numbers keep mounting - if you want to sign up, please do, because the more the merrier! I had my comedy interview for the Late Edition (BBC4, 10.30pm Thursday - I got it wrong before, sorry!) this morning - if you tune in, I may look like a prat but think charitable thoughts!

I'll be writing the letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards soon, in between all the other million things I need to do. Hee hee.


January 09, 2006 || 10:47 pm
Icons mess up

I'm sure I'll blog about the Icons project at greater length at due course, because it's an interesting and difficult project that also touches on lots of things I work with, but here's a quickie which starts with a BIG MISTAKE they made.

Oh dear - if you go to their atlas page, try to find the 'east of England' area. It's where the East Midlands should be. And vice versa. As an East Anglian, this riles me, and it's unfortunately ironic, symptomatic of the London-centrism of the trendy web designers that invented the whole project to look at 'Englishness'. While we're on the map, I'm not sure how the Isle of Man feels about being part of Cumbria either.

And then, when you do go to the East of England page - or, for that matter, any of the other regional pages - there's hardly any items on them. London gets a whole sheaf - but someone's really not been doing their research. Given that one of their first twleve 'icons' is the Empire Windrush, isn't it a bit strange not to put Tilbury on the atlas page for the East, when London gets Windrush Square in Brixton? and why does Chelsea and Man Utd football clubs get a mention, and not Arsenal, or Liverpool? are they only things of interest in the whole of Merseyside an Anthony Gormley installation and an art gallery - nothing about the Liver Building, the Cavern Club or any other Mersey icons?

I know that the idea of the project is to start a debate, and by writing this post I'm probably pleasing them, but it does strike me as more than a little insensitive to be so blatantly lazy about the regions. The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum round the corner from my office is not more 'iconic' than Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which gets its image used as the map 'icon' for the North-West but doesn't actually merit getting an entry. And poor Cumbria and West Midlands gets absolutely no entries - no Lake District, Staffordshire Potteries, canals, Coventry Cathedral, Stratford-upon-Avon - what the hell were they thinking?

What is stranger is that in the national press no-one I've read so far has picked up on this. Has our media really gotten so introverted? Surely someone's noticed the sheer laziness of this piece of work - thinking its being 'inclusive' by nominating the Windrush and cups of tea, while leaving out whole swathes of the country?


9:47 pm

if you're coming from PledgeBank, as I know many of you are. Normally I don't write at all about Big Brother, or much about politics. Mostly about urban development (and rural stuff too) - architecture, planning, 'community' engagement, sustainability etc - and about what I did at the weekend, what caught my eye on the way into work, a bit of geeky stuff and kooky ephemera, and (if you dig into the archives) what I did for a year in the depths of rural Alabama. Which was the really fun stuff - here's a post, and another one to get you started.

It's my online scribble pad - disorganised, but some people seem to like it! Hope you stick around and make it into the 'return visitor' bit of my stats.


4:29 pm
Fifteen seconds of fame

It's not only GG who is getting his moment in the spotlight on TV, being laughed at by the rest of the country. It might happen to me too. Yes, dear readers, the BBC emailed me as a result of my pledge and you may be able to get a glimpse of me on the Late Edition on Thursday, being made a fool of by some comedian type. Me, on the British equivalent of the Daily Show! Being interviewed in Bethnal Green tomorrow.

The excitement is killing me.

[Update] I thought it worth pointing out that the excitement is not, in fact, killing me. The problems of irony in electronic media. In case Je's comment was taking me more seriously than I intended!!


11:39 am
Galloway pledge mentioned in the Times

This article both mentions my pledge and quotes one of Galloway's important supporters in the Muslim community expressing dismay at his appearance in Big Brother.

I'm already over half way to my target for people to sign up, which has taken me by surprise. Sign up here if you haven't already...this could start getting fun soon!


January 08, 2006 || 1:06 pm
How to find me

I'm proud. Checking my site stats today (not very impressive) I nevertheless found out that if you google Marble Halls Highbury I'm the first website that comes up.

Other wasy to find me - muddy kit fetish, is Harry Redknapp Jewish [there's obviously a football thing going on] and "fake urbanism"/.

Its Sunday. Forgive the inane posting. I'm getting dangerously obsessed by Celebrity Big Brother. As I don't have a TV and the live online feed isn't available for Macs, I'm reduced to following it via the forums - which, as a friend of mine pointed out, is rather like what happens during cricket season, when one endlessly presses 'refresh' to follow the over by over commentary, and thus no work is done...


11:04 am
Spy on the unsuspecting

My Sunday morning was made much more interesting by the discovery of this new website which has found all the unprotected CCTV camera streams from all around the world and mapped them onto a GoogleMap. Absolutely enthralling stuff. I've spied on ski slopes in the Alps, a Portugese cafe at breakfast time, a cast aquarium with what looks like dolphins swimming lazily around, and some extraordinary square in South Russia (I know not where) - snow-filled, vast, with some incredible architecture. If you look at the map, its the middle marker of the three in that area.

An amazing way of seeing your way around the globe at this moment in time, from the sleeping USA to the super-activity of the Swiss Alps in January. The images open if you click on the markers - you don't have to go to the 'link' - just give it a little time as it can be a bit slow. Thanks to Google Maps Mania blog for the tip!


January 07, 2006 || 3:13 pm
Galloway pledge update

My pledge to write to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about George Galloway is doing pretty well, with a third of the number signed up already after two days. If you haven't signed up, please do so!

The Guardian has an article today on how impossible it is for a constituent to get hold of anyone in Galloway's office in case of a problem. This is really, to me, a serious dereliction of duty and while I'm sure there may be other MPs who are also less-than-perfect in this respect, the fact that Galloway has no party structure keeping a check on his behaviour must be responsible. You can't imagine the Labour Party allowing any of its MPs to do without a decent telephone answering service in their office, for example.


3:09 pm
Talking to the public about the Thames Gateway

Went to ippr yesterday for an update from their Centre for Cities and bumped into an old college-mate of mine who's now working there and is partly responsible for this report of findings from various focus groups of existing residents in the Gateway and the kind of social groups who are being targeted to move into the new developments there.

No real surprises, I'm afraid - pretty obvious conclusions about the lack of meaningful engagement with existing communities - and, although I'm not a statistician, I'm not really sure how a focus group of only 56 people can produce fully meaningful results, especially the focus groups of existing low-income residents in Tilbury and Sittingbourne - eight people in each town. But none the less it's useful to highlight the lack of engagement and produce a few 'shock statements' that might make policy-makers and the UDCs think a little bit more about the need to really take the public seriously.

It's a very serious problem, in my view, that at the very early stages of forming plans for things like the TG, the policy-makers never consider any form of public involvement. It's neither at all democratic, nor a pragmatic way to proceed; with big projects like this, as Kevin Harries notes here, you crucially need the local people to be behind if in the spirit of the inspirational WiMBY project that we used as a case study when we did our Thurrock project. There's simply no way that a 'sustainable' community - in the sense of a long-term, viable social entity - can evolve unless one works with the existing residents, who are generally the most deprived and least hopeful people. I'm not necessarily looking forward to seeing how these communities are behaving in thirty years time, unless the decision-makers really start addressing this fundamental principle of planning and governance.


January 06, 2006 || 12:25 am
George Galloway pledge

Sod it - I made a pledge. If 100 other people will do it with me, I'll write to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and complain about George Galloway appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. It'll get nowhere but at least it's fun to exercise by democratic rights from time to time.

Please help me by signing up here! and spread the word.


January 05, 2006 || 11:20 pm
I'm so lucky to be a Bethnal Green resident now

My MP, the extremely un-gorgeous George Galloway, is going to spend up to the next three weeks locked inside the Celebrity Big Brother house rather than attending to any of the affairs of our constituency. Oh, and I'm sure that cavorting around with Faria Alam and Jodie Marsh, who I'm sure will get their breasts out asap, will endear him to the Muslim brotherhood whose support he canvassed so heavily. So if for any reason I, or any of my neighbours, have a problem we'll have to find someone else to talk to.

Well, seeing as he managed to speak in all of 4 debates since his election, and attend a measly 15% of all votes (634th out of 645 MPs) I suppose it won't make much of a difference. I only hope that it backfires so severely on him that he gets slung out of the Commons for bringing the House into disrepute, or something similar.

You can read a surprisingly interesting discussion thread here if you want an insight into how ardent Big Brother fans actually make for rather lively political debate. Me, this is the one time I'm both sorry and glad I don't have a TV.


The more I think about this, the more angry I get about GG, although I know he isn't worthy of it. But have a read of the MP's Code of Conduct and see whether you think he is in any way keeping within the spirit or the letter or the code.

I don't know what happens to an MP if you complain about him to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards - can he get thrown out? Could be time for a PledgeBank pledge...


10:29 pm
Women in the boardroom

This old chestnut reared its head again today as the Equal Opportunities Commission reported that, surprise surprise, women are still decades away from achieving equality in the workplace. And some incredibly stupid man from Civitas says that this is because "women prefer to start families".

In case he wasn't listening in school, it takes two to start a family. For every woman who makes a conscious decision to have kids, there's a man out there who's also making that decision (let's leave out spurious anecdotes about sperm donors for now, hey?). And so why on earth that should mean that women are the only ones who need to make compromises between work and family life, by going part-time, worksharing or whatever, I don't know.

I am extremely proud to work in a firm headed by two extremely ambitious and dedicated working mothers - one with four children under ten. They both work full-time but it is a part of our weekly routine that some days, they pick up their kids from school and leave early, and they make meetings before 9.30 because they are taking them to school. Their partners both make the same level of 'sacrifice' by doing alternate days on school duty, and at half-term or holidays, they figure out how to share their time so there's always one of them in the office. They also use appropriate levels of childcare to enable them and their partners to have full-time jobs and it's simply not a problem.

These women work at the highest level; I don't see how a man from Civitas, or the misogynist at the Confederation of British Industry quoted in the BBC article, can claim that some high-level jobs are not suited to women because of their family commitments. If a woman wants to do a job at that level, she will work it out. Whether that means having a Denis Thatcher sitting at home, or employing a full-time nanny, there should not be any difference in the level of 'guilt' felt by a full-time executive mother and an executive dad.

Men can and should make 'work-life' choices in similar ways. Whether or not they feel pressured by a macho business culture into virtually denying the existence of their families is, to be frank, not my problem; it's an issue that these men should be strong enough to deal with, if they really do care. As far as I'm concerned, women should be much, much stronger about demanding that their menfolk contribute to caring for their families. There are jobs that do require extremely full-time commitment and long hours; well, if you both want to have a job like that, don't have kids, or get a good nanny and accept that your offspring will love him/her more than you.

The simple fact is, as every woman knows, that you don't get promoted into a senior long-term positions because it is expected that you will run off and have kids and never come back. It is all to do with the assumptions of male bosses, and nothing to do with what women actually 'want'. The self-perpetuating circle is clear; you aren't promoted to a position that you are excited by and committed to, so when you have kids you do decide to leave and do something different, thus reinforcing all the male assumptions about broody women. And it doesn't help that our laws are sexist too. I couldn't believe it when I found out recently that statutory maternity and paternity leave periods were still not equal. Two weeks paternity leave? You've got to be kidding - I thought 'getting left holding the baby' applied to single mums, not 21st century couples. When I have kids, their father is definitely going to have to take more time off than that to help out - whether he's got to go unpaid or not.

In any case, I can't believe that Civitas and the CBI are still spouting such incredibly sexist twaddle. If you meet David Conway or Iain McMillan, give them a good slap for me.


9:22 am

Willie Nelson's new biodiesel venture is in the New York Times today. I'm quite scared that Willie is already 72. But the biodiesel sounds interesting, although I do buy the point that to grow the fuel you have to do multiple passes over the field in diesel-powered engines, so what benefit you really get from all of that I'm not quite sure. But I trust that someone's done the maths and it must add up because otherwise how does anyone make a profit on all this?

And his filling tanks have a pretty cool retro-futuristic design, I think...


January 04, 2006 || 11:50 pm
New Year's reflections

It's been interesting reading over at WorldChanging about people's New Year's snapshots of their work. Today I particularly appreciated Zaid's honesty about the dilemmas his day job gives him.

We all, of course, have days where we wake up and wonder whether what we are doing has any importance at all in the scheme of the world. That is, those of us who don't do something really obviously necessary, like being a postman or a farmer (my personal pet fantasy). Zaid's dilemma about whether trying to achieve change in institutions and systems that are so huge and slow that it's like pushing the proverbial ocean liner is a worthwhile way to spend time or carbon dioxide rings true to me also, in some ways.

Admittedly, I don't deal with problems anywhere near the scale of 100 million children - but still, the effort we put into trying to work with people and institutions that are often so inimical to imagination, new ideas or even the acceptance of old truths sometimes feels like paddling against the tide. At the other end of the scale, I often find inspiration from, and sometimes carry out, small, quick projects that can have a real and satisfying impact - like building a very small house for a very poor woman, or even a tiny symposium that causes the mayor of one major city to say it changed his life. And of course some of the tiny ones turn into biggies - like the play and art strategy that turned into redesigning the whole public realm for one of London's most major developments - although even here, it will take years to find out whether all our hopeful ideas make the slightest bit of difference.

These experiments in 'making a difference' are all so long-term; it's a big leap of faith to retain one's belief that a handful of energetic people in a tiny office can really make better bits of city. As an office, we dither philosophically between a tactical mode of operation that's about targeted, often temporary interventions - publicity stunts even - that can trigger paradigm shifts and prompt debate, and the more embedded efforts at affecting the course of major public projects or institutions. At our strategy away-day next week, I'm sure this is the biggest issue that we will be talking about as we try to plan our way to becoming more successful both as a business and in 'doing good things'.

We all have our ways of rationalising these debates. When I get really stuck I like to re-read what the fantastic artist group Wochenklausur write about their work here, in response to a FAQ about whether their projects are "simply "Band-Aids" that fight the symptoms but do nothing to change the status quo".

This can be illustrated through the problems faced by a wheelchair user. If he cannot make it up the stairs because there is no lift, then he can be helped if two strong arms take up his cause. But this feeds the criticism that a general solution to the problem is being put off. The landlord sees that one can do without a lift after all and avoids an expenditure. Accordingly, it would be better to leave the wheelchair user on the stairs and start a political petition instead of helping him. Or one can help him and at the same time demand that a lift be installed.

The small actions matter; the big ones too. Phew - I can put off the existential crisis for another day. And when I really decide it's all useless, I'll become a farmer.


January 01, 2006 || 10:06 pm
Happy 2006!

Happy New Year to you all and I hope 2006 brings you good things and new experiences. I saw the New Year in down at a friend's house in Devon; much champagne was drunk and much dancing ensued.

To commemorate the passing of time (or something) I have a new flickr set. It memorialises some of the items that I have owned, loved, Hanified and finally buried in 2005. I've blogged about this before here, here and here.

I find it hard to say goodbye to a favorite pair of trainers or indeed any much-loved item that reaches a point of uselessness. I've been known to wear items that any reasonable person would long ago have consigned to the dustbin. Throwing things away is not my strong point, so I keep trying to find new ways of recycling, memorialising or prolonging the death throes of obsolescent objects. The flickr set also serves as tribute to my own slapstick clumsiness and lack of respect for precious objects (another crucial element of Hanification - the more expensive, the more likely I am to damage it ireeparably in a short period of time). Only I could try to pull out a nail, and end up breaking the hammer.

Expect the set to grow over 2006!



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