...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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March 30, 2007 || 6:01 pm
Schooling in the Falklands

Sometimes the BBC does some wonderful bits of journalism - like this photo essay about the schooling of a seven-year-old boy in the remotest part of the Falklands, where he gets taught, in a class of one, by a travelling teacher for two weeks out of every six. Strangely alluring.


March 29, 2007 || 10:14 am
Interesting stuff about 24/7 media

The Guardian is really embracing - and innovating - in the whole field of news and media across platforms. As Alan Rusbridger says, "The print-on-paper model [for newspapers] isn't making money and isn't going to make money. It's no longer sustainable. Though the future is unknowable, we are taking an educated guess about what we should be doing and where we should be going."

It is interesting to read about how they are tackling their new 24/7 model from the human perspective. As a feature writer apparently said, "I've already lost track of where my working week begins and ends... how do we begin to define what working week is, and what it will be?"


March 27, 2007 || 7:21 pm
Some current projects

A couple of big projects that I'm involved with are kicking off at the moment and might be of interest. I'm working with 5th Studio on this very exciting new park along the Lea River from above the Olympics down to the Thames. A Lower Lea Valley Park has been an idea on paper for a long time; now we will try to set a framework for it to become real over the next decades. It's a big and ambitious project and will certainly be an interesting process.

And I'm working in my home county of Suffolk on another ambitious initiative: Suffolk: Creating the Greenest County. A cross-cutting programme that is aiming high, we are just starting to figure out what making a 'greenest' county might mean. But with a group of very radical and committed local people who are already engaged in ground-breaking work from local food hubs to eco-schools, waste and serious amounts of renewables in the form of the Greater Gabbard wind farm among other projects, this is no hot air pledge. I'm helping them put together a conference in the autumn that will start the process of engaging local businesses and communities with how they can put this into practice, as well as with the development of a strong brand and web resource that will allow wide local engagement and debate.

All exciting stuff and not the only projects on the boil right now...keeping me busy!


March 21, 2007 || 9:50 am
Reyner Banham loves Los Angeles

Found via cityofsound: an absolutely wonderful 1972 documentary wherein Reyner Banham - yes, he of all those architectural theory/history books - tours LA in a bushy beard, big sunglasses and hat. "I love the place in a way that goes beyond sense or reason" he declares. When did the BBC stop commissioning such works of genius?


March 11, 2007 || 11:02 pm
Pimlico Opera in HMP Wandsworth

I went last week to see the production of Les Miserables in Wandsworth Prison, by Pimlico Opera. It was a hugely moving experience, as twenty convicts and remand prisoners performed together with astonishing confidence and energy, not to mention real skill in many cases. While the singing may have been patchy here and there, for a six-week rehearsal period it was an extraordinary achievement. Beyond criticism, I was brought to tears.

The production held real power, with the subject matter of a hunted ex-prisoner transforming himself and proving more virtuous than most of the so-called 'authorities' resonating clearly enough without needing to be hammered home. The staging was direct, clear, authoritative and certainly not amateur. It was humbling to see the commitment and ability to learn that was demonstrated by the prisoners, who had to return to their cells after the adrenaline of the performance without so much as a celebratory drink. A worse or more depressing come-down I couldn't imagine, as we exited the prison and stared up at the barred, lit windows and into tall atria of stacked gangways and cells.

Two of the performers mentioned, in their brief biographies, that they had played football for the youth teams of high-ranking clubs. Several claimed to have enjoyed maths at school; one had been on remand for 190 days - ruining a life without even having been convicted. And most saddening of all is that, despite their evident capacity for positive work, when each of them leaves their prison record will probably mean that they fail to be even considered for a job as a stage hand or usher, let alone acting on stage. Wandsworth prison - a collection of terrifying Victorian buildings full of the symbolism of punishment - would have been recognisable to Victor Hugo and it is astonishing that for all our advances, the ways we deal with people who break laws is so medieval.

In Alabama I occasionally drove three convicted killers back from their day-release jobs with us to their prison ranch. After years of brutalising imprisonment - which they would never discuss with me - it is astonishing that they had managed not only to keep any humanity, but to be some of the gentlest, kindest people I have ever met. I'm not sure that I would manage to make myself that good after years inside; and I have no mental illness, addictions or major grudges in my worldview. While I would never claim that those who pose a danger to others should be allowed to roam free, surely there has to be a better way - the current system disgraces us all.


9:53 pm
Lords reform

I am, perhaps predictably, not in favour of the current proposals for reform of the House of Lords. I enjoyed the Lords before they threw out most of the hereditary peers, and as far as I am concerned, the more idiosyncratic and diverse voices that are heard in the process of government and lawmaking, the better.

It is interesting to me how sections of the left-wing press, whom one might have expected to rail against an appointed House and campaign for an elected one, have in fact run articles saying the opposite. I enjoyed this piece by a crossbench peer in the Guardian, as much as reading Tony Benn's inevitable plea. This evening I particularly appreciated Bruce Ackerman's piece in the LRB that cogently sets out the merits of the many forms of second house that exist and could exist.

I also have him to thank for articulating much of the detail of the current bill. I'm sure I'm not alone in not realising that the elected 'Lords' would, in current proposals, be elected for a single fifteen-year term and then not be allowed to stand for a second term? I'm also not at all convinced by the proposal for a partially open list system, which seems to be complicated and also overly political. I see the role of the Lords being to garner a broad selection of voices, not a second party-dominated house, which is the result of the semi-closed list system. Either these reforms should go the whole way, with shorter terms, re-election and open lists, or leave it as it is, perhaps getting rid of of all hereditary peers for the sake of consistency, and with a strengthened, statutory Appointments Commission to rid the system of the cash-for-honours taint.

But of course, these options would leave the Commons vulnerable, when the clear aim is to hobble the Lords so much that it become a mere rubber-stamp. Ironically, the damage done to this Labour administration through the cash-for-honours affair is boosting support for what may be its most significant legacy.


March 08, 2007 || 8:48 am
Handbags at dawn

My latest WorldChanging post here is about Anya Hindmarch's non-plastic bag, and the organisation behind it We Are What We Do. I'm afraid, being me, I'm not that complimentary. Having said that, one of the guys behind it founded the truly fantastic Community Links project in Canning Town, so I didn't allow myself an all-out rant...


March 05, 2007 || 11:19 pm

I seem to remember Sybille Bedford writing most wonderfully about arriving in Switzerland by car, meeting a friend (I think Martha Gellhorn?) and how the two of them had such wonderful, if slightly disconcerting, times gallivanting around in the country where everything runs just perfectly and there are never any problems. How the hotel staff can do anything for you at any time of day or night; the trains and boats around the lakes run impeccably; food is reliable and solid; fresh air and mountains make you feel oddly sprightly.

It is all, still, quite true. This time we took the sleeper from Paris, arriving early in Zurich, which is of course by far the most civilised and lovely way of travelling. Leaving London after work, time for a croque or sandwich at the Gare de l'Est, a Kronenbourg on board the train brought to you by the charming steward and then arriving in Zurich with time for a coffee and croissant before catching the first of your impeccably punctual trains across country, ending up at the small village where we go to ski. [I say, we go; of course, I never ski-ed before the Boy and am still absolutely terrible at it all.]

We have a lovely apartment; the car starts; the Co-op sells organic veg, local cheese and decent wine; everything is great, but nature doesn't take after the national character in this age of global warming. There is barely an inch of snow anywhere - icy patches that terrify my amateur snow-ploughing legs and patches of grass all over the place. Yet still the whole place is, well, so civilised - no problems anywhere, everything easy and relaxed - that it doesn't matter. When the snow really ran out, we went walking along footpaths that were signed just enough that you are never lost, with the occasional moment where you play a satisfying game of I-Spy to spot the next yellow-painted triangle; not too taxing on the legs but not too easy either; and all planned so that you can walk to the next station or two along the valley and catch a train back after a beer or a meal in the station buffet. The mountains are beautiful and scattered with crocuses and primroses.

Ah, the station buffets, epitome of all the good things about Switzerland. The Boy, I sometimes suspect, would like to live in a Swiss station buffet, or at least next door to one. Hearty good food, rosti and steaks and emince de veau a la zurichoise, locally sourced and cooked simply but excellently - none of the disgusting limp sandwiches and crap coffee of an English station. Always open and welcoming and reliable; no arcade machines or garish lighting, just wood panelling and lace half-curtains. Busy-ish but not too so and right on the platform so you can just get up when you hear the train arrive.

The Boy would also like to have a Swiss woodpile. The tall, long ones where the logs are all exactly the same length and stacked perfectly with no gaps, and have cunning little patterns in them to provide stability. We watched a man tapping the ends of his logs with a hammer to make sure they were all exactly aligned. They are truly masterful pieces of construction that explain everything about why Swiss architects build the way they do.

It is a bit weird, how everything works and even getting a rural bus is completely painless and punctual. The people smile and the villages have facilities for everyone. I know that the Swiss are creepy and bank for those of dubious morals and worse. All that cheese and bourgeois values and plump women throwing back tanned faces as they laugh. But still, for a holiday - it is as relaxing as you could hope for and more. And I know it's a cliche, but I wish the Swiss could run our trains.


9:43 am
London's Climate Change Action Plan

[Also something that I put up on DN.]

Last week, Ken launched his Climate Change Action Plan for London. Let's be clear right now, the 60% CO2 reduction by 2025 that has been widely quoted as the "target" is not, in this plan, put forward as an achievable figure without significant nationally implemented change. It is simply the milestone for what London would need to do, in order to reach a Contraction and Convergence-based quota of emissions. He's aiming for a still ambitious figure of 30% through London-only measures.

I still think it is a good plan and have written about it here on WC but, because of this issue about what is realistic to achieve, has also been causing some strong feelings elsewhere in blog-world. I appreciate these sentiments but fundamentally, I think Ken is doing the right thing. Plans like this need to be ambitious - what would the point be of a target that was only what was unambiguously, conservatively achievable? A challenge and a high bar needs to be set up in order to spur both individuals and businesses on and to make the policital case for tougher measures, more funding and tighter controls. It shows us all how small change isn't going to make big things happen. I know Ken is also self-serving in placing environmentalism at the heart of his political platform while not guaranteeing much, but I think it is also smart to challenge others to join him in making it happen, rather than guaranteeing something that either can't be met, or will come across as unambitious and tokenist.

Put more briefly, I can't think of a better way to tackle the issue given the limited powers Ken has. And I think that it behoves all of us who do take this issue seriously to band together around initiatives like this that do have integrity, rather than to shoot them down.


9:25 am
Chicago, Bruce Mau, David Adjaye

[I posted this over at DN but thought it might be interesting to some people over here, too...]

I've been listening to the podcast of Bruce Mau talking to David Adjaye as part of Artangel's talks series around Longplayer. An interesting bit was about Chicago and Mayor Daley's fantastically interesting initiatives. Apparently Daley takes an artist to meetings with him where he has to make big decisions because "artists see things differently and see things that I don't." He's also insisting that from next year, all new buildings in the city have to be LEED (American equivalent of BREEAM) certified.

It has to be said that most of the talking is done by Mau, which pretty much figures, as Adjaye is a very good designer but doesn't have many verbally expressed opinions. I've met Mau (he even offered me a job although I didn't end up taking it) and one thing he is good at is talking. He is an excellent designer-thinker of, in a sense, the first generation of "designer" being a much broader term, and retains much more clear-sightedness than much of the design-based thinking that has come after him. He immediately picked up on the fact that the Idea Stores don't have bookshops: why? He isn't quite as blunt to Adjaye, but it is rather ridiculous. You could use the Idea Store computers to order online from Amazon but can't pick up a book or a magazine right there.

This isn't something that Adjaye had any potential to influence through the way that he interprets his position as a designer - he concentrates on physical typology and image. But Mau immediately leaps in on issues like that and puts them centre stage as part of what he sees as doing his job. Mau also says that he finds the idea of an 'architect' ridiculous. He calls design "an entrepreneurial model for thinking", when talking about the projects he does that aren't about objects, and cautions "if you are going to do that kind of work, your methodology has to be more robust than less". This is where a lot of the second-generation "broad designers" fall down, to me. Their methodologies become fantastically complex, which to me is the opposite of robustness. You can understand how Mau works in a sentence or two, but it is tested to a degree where it doesn't fall down.


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