Friday, 27 November 2009
Dubai is a statelet with a very old-fashioned view of debt. Dickensian even. Bouncing cheques is a criminal matter there, and anecdotes are legion about newly-unemployed expats who scarper to the airport, and leave their cars with the keys in the ignition, to avoid ending up behind bars as their over-leveraged lifestyles unravel.
Meanwhile, on Nakheel's website, you wouldn't be able to see anything was wrong. Headlines focus on golf tournaments not debt defaults. The sangfroid of Drake playing bowls as the Spanish Armada approached, or the lunacy of Nero fiddling as Rome collapsed in flames?
Monday, 26 October 2009
The Downs rose steeply ahead of us, the sails of the Jack and Jill windmills peeking bashfully over the sheep-filled horizon. Turning back, we could see the coloured counties, or at least Sussex, turning shades of ochre in the hazy autumn sun. Beyond the windmills, we crossed the South Downs Way, busy with walkers, dogs and horses, and skirted the edge of Pyecombe Golf Club.
We joined the Sussex Border Path as it led through a freshly ploughed field, the bare flinty earth gleaming black under wheeling seagulls.
Past the Chattri War Memorial, an incongruous Mughal-styled memorial to 53 Indian soldiers whose corpses were cremated there during the First World War, Sussex Heights and Brighton's seafront could be seen in the distance.
After a quick pint in Patcham's Black Lion, a plastic Harvester restaurant busy with squabbling families, we walked back in to Brighton on the London Road. At the south end of Preston Park, the remnants of Steve Ovett's despoiled statue provided a surreal footnote to the journey.
Stats: 11.25km, 7 miles, 2.5 hours
Thursday, 22 October 2009
From here, a curiously complicated series of footpaths led me slowly south to Wivelsfield, over handsome stiles erected by the local Monday Group. The last footpath ended in a garden populated by geese and a goat. I followed the signs to cross a small bridge over a stream, but the geese had other ideas, rushing over the bridge at me with wings aloft, hissing furiously and trying to bite me between the legs. Like heavy artillery, the goat lurked malevolently behind the front lines.
Like a cross between Horatius Cocles and their Capitoline ancestors, the birds were clearly determined to defend their territory. While pondering these irrelevant classical allusions, I cast around for a weapon: would self-defence be a mitigating factor against accusations of poaching? Did I want to carry a dead goose for the rest of the walk?
Instead, I decided to beat a hasty retreat, and walked cautiously round the edge of the garden. After a mercifully brief stretch of road (the byways of Sussex are packed with speeding SUVs and white vans, not making for easy walking), I returned to open country, passing to the east of St George's Retreat (a rapidly-expanding care home) and between the heathland and industrial buildings of Ditchling Common.
Joining the Sussex Border Path and crossing the Lewes branch of the railway, I saw a first glimpse of the South Downs in the distance. The path led into 'the Low Weald' - small fields of horses and grapes, and through a free range chicken farm. My second poultry encounter of the day was much more relaxed than the first: the chickens had obviously come to associate humans with food, so came rushing at me.
As I walked down the track, I looked back to see that I had attracted a retinue of the daft clucking creatures, reminding me of Bertrand Russell's admonition: "Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken."
Ditchling's narrow high street was clogged with cars, and The Bull was packed with prosperous munchers, giving the lie to the recession with their locally-sourced and exorbitantly-priced lunches. Following an old Roman Road busy with well-dressed dog walkers, I skirted Keymer, and arrived at Hassocks Station in time to catch a train under the looming Downs back to Brighton.
Stats: 8.7 miles, 14 km, 3.25 hours
Saturday, 17 October 2009
Turning down Redcross Way from Union Street a few days ago, I was immediately confronted by a faded Jubilee Line extension worksite hoarding, a ghost of my own past. Beyond this, a gate was strung with faded flowers and tributes, like the scene of a truly cataclysmic road traffic accident, or the streets of New York after 9/11.
The gate (photo, left, ProfDEH) leads into Cross Bones, an uncon- secrated burial ground first identified as a 'single women's church yard' in the 16th Century. That is to say, it was a burial site for prostitutes, known as 'Winchester Geese' after the Bishop of Winchester who licensed their trade, together with other unsavoury activities (bull and bear baiting, acting etc) that were only permitted south of the River.
Cross Bones subsequently became a general paupers' burial ground, and was closed owing to overcrowding in 1853. The Jubilee Line extension works required partial excavation of the site, though only 19th Century corpses (45 per cent of them less than a year old at time of death) were recovered.
Successive attempts by Transport for London and its predecessors to develop the site have faltered in the face of local opposition. Led by a playwright called John Constable, a local community group runs monthly remembrance rituals, and an annual event at Halloween. Despite the neo-pagan/psychogeographical hokum that these seem to involve, it is touching that some people still honour the memory of what they term "the outcast dead", as the trains and lorries of the 21st Century rumble by oblivious.
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.
Which brings me to Boris Johnson's retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London's congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can't imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it's here to stay.
Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government's programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.
Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors' policies.
Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of "scars on his back", it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.
This is conservative, to be sure, but 'conservative' as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks: "To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Leaving Balcombe south on the B2036, I escaped from the rattle of the rails down into a wooded valley swarming with pheasants, scurrying indignantly ahead of me, or squawking and rustling from the undergrowth. At the top of the valley, the landscape opened up, with a glimpse of the Viaduct in the distance. I joined the Sussex Ouse Valley Way and turned east towards the Viaduct, which emerged through a landscape that seemed almost unnaturally green in the late summer sun.
The view from the top of the Viaduct is, at any time of year, one of the highlights of the train journey from London to Brighton. Rushing past incongruous Palladian gatehouses and stone balustrades, rail passengers are treated to a panorama of timeless southern English countryside, with old brick farm buildings dotted throughout the wide and well-wooded valley, and the schools buildings of Ardingly College in the background.
Approaching the Viaduct from ground level, you become aware of the strength and grace of the structure. The 37 brick supports are hollow-centred, creating mesmerising patterns as they retreat up the slopes of the valley. Texture and depth is added by the different styles of brick that have been used to patch and maintain the Grade II-listed structure through its 170-year history - according to wikipedia, more than 100 trains a day pass over it.
Beyond the Viaduct, I took a short-cut through River's Wood, then rejoined the path, as it led through the pastel-shirted ersatz landscape of Haywards Heath Golf Club. Disorientated by its homgenised sandpits and ornamental tree-planting, I took a wrong turn and ended up on High Beach Lane, which led me into Haywards Heath past suburban villas and McMansions.
When I walked in to the Burrell Arms, opposite the station, I was grateful that I only had time for a quick half-pint. If this pub is not the worst in town, I shudder to think what its competition must be like.
Stats: 5.8 miles, 9.4km, 2 hours
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
The path winds between the long-term car parks, and crosses over the internal road system, encased all the way in a wire cage, as the planes roar in overhead. As the airport sprawled, someone presumably fought for the preservation of this right of way, but it makes you feel like a perimeter guard at a high security prison. After a surprisingly long time, we cleared the airport, spotting a fox cub and a muntjac on the way, then meandered back over the motorway to Shipley Bridge.
Turning south, we followed roads and footpaths through Copthorne, then entered the western fringes of Ashdown Forest ('home', its website earnestly informs us, of Winnie the Pooh). Police signs on the gates warned of malicious damage to flora and fauna - bear-of-little-brain-baiting, perhaps, or thistle-rustling? - but the tracks through the well-managed woods were almost deserted, decorated only by piles of logs and the occasional feral club chair.
Abruptly, the forest gave way to the lawns, playing fields and golf courses of Worth School, a Catholic boarding school boasting the grandiose but grim architecture in which such institutions specialise. We were a couple of weeks away from the beginning of term, but already lawn mowing and line painting was immaculate, ready for the onslaught of a new academic year.
A thirsty diversion west through more woods led to The Cowdray, a recently refurbished pub with a sunny beer garden full of families. A slow-moving elderly lady, looking down at a toddling infant, remarked with casual menace, "If you get in my way, I will tread on you, you know." Outraged expressions all round. The Cowdray's reinvention of the club sandwich was - as reinvented club sandwiches tend to be - perfectly pleasant in itself, but not a patch on the original.
The rest of the walk to Balcombe, along the busy B2036, was functional rather than scenic. Balcombe itself was full of blackberry pickers, looking on each other with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as they hunted down the most fruitful and accessible branches.
Stats: 9.2 miles, 14.8 km, 4 hours
Saturday, 29 August 2009
Balancing the books requires a density of development on the rest of the site that cannot be reconciled with its poor public transport accessibility, and the costs of building new infrastructure (the most recent proposals include a spur from the Northern Line) just make marginally viable proposals more fragile still.
You could argue that the only way to bring the site into use would be to demolish the power station. That would be a shame. I have been lucky enough to visit the building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1933, and its interiors are as stunning as its looming form, if not more so. The turbine halls are elegantly tiled, and the control rooms truly magnificent. Crafted wooden fittings are surrounded by decorative wall and ceiling tiles, and bakelite switches are inscribed with the names of substations and districts. This, the interiors say, is a place where something important, and magical, takes place.
The overall impression is one of pride, pride in the modernism and progress that this temple of power once represented, a pride that can also be seen in elaborate Victorian shrines of sanitation, like Bazalgette's ornate pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills (left, photo Gordon Joly).
This pride in utilities is something we have lost. As I walked through Redhill a couple of weeks ago, the contrast between the grandeur of the Royal Earlswood Hospital and the shabby incoherence of the East Surrey Hospital could not have been starker. While offices, libraries and civic centres can still win awards, it is almost as if the mundane necessities of power, health and sanitation have become embarassments, to be covered up and smothered, like a burp in polite company.
We are left with tacky trash, rendered all the more conspicuous by its artless attempts to blend in.
Sunday, 16 August 2009
Back to Redhill, where a bit of fancy footwork along the A25 took me away from the shopping mall that appeared to have replaced the town centre, and to the south. Redhill's former 'asylum for idiots', the Royal Earlswood Hospital has - like so many of London's green belt asylums - been redeveloped as housing. The main building is imposing and impressive (you can see it from the railway line), as befits an establishment that was the residence of the Queen Mother's nieces for many secret years. It is now mocked by the cheap pastiche that surrounds it, buildings crammed together like Monopoly houses. There is still a gate, presumably to keep people out rather than in nowadays, though it's a pretty moot point.
From alongside the hospital (and leading past the newer East Surrey Hospital and the isolated housing estate (perhaps a 'New Village'?) of Whitebushes), a slightly monotonous bridleway and cycle track takes you south to Horley, staying a fairly consistent field's width away from the railway line. In several places, what was marked on the OS map as fields has been taken over by new housing estates. Many of these can be seen from the train. They do not look much more impressive close to.
The Farmhouse, just on the northern edge of Horley, lies alongside one of these estates, but has a good garden for a pint (and a magnificent 'smoking pavilion', in which the landlord has drolly made space for a bar "should the Government...ban alcohol in pubs in future"). Continuing clockwise round the town, I made for Thunderfield Castle, which looked more impressive on the map than it did with reality: a caravan site surrounded by a redundant moat of oily, stagnant water.
Modern buildings down these small back streets and bridleways were far more effectively secured, with electric gates and high hedges protecting the privacy of large houses and large cars.
Clear of Horley, the roar of the motorway grows again as you approach the M23 spur to Gatwick, this time mixed with the intermittent rattling of trains and the keening whine of aircraft. Cows in the fields alongside seem curiously nonchalant, as I creep through the din and the brambles to the airport.
Stats: 2.5 hours, 12.75km, 8 miles
Saturday, 15 August 2009
I spend so much time travelling between London and Brighton, that I thought it would be worth walking the route, if only to understand better the familiar but always half-glimpsed landscape as it flashes past the window.
Coulsdon South was the starting point. I wanted the trip to be more honest than scenic, but trudging through Streatham, Norbury, Purley and all points in between seemed to be an exercise in unnecessary masochism. A few yards from the station, the path across Farthing Downs takes you to the top of the North Downs, the hillsides dotted with forests in one direction and suburban villas in another. The road narrows and continues down towards Chaldon, with huge SUVs squeezing past each other, rushing to conclude the slightly furtive business that seems to dominate London's fringes.
I wandered off the road to try to follow a path through Devilsden Wood, but quickly got confused by too many paths rather than two few, almost all of them marked 'Happy Valley Nature Trail'. That wasn't what I wanted - it sounded far too urban and didactic for my mood - but it seemed to have taken over all signage, like Japanese Knotweed smothering native species.
I returned to Ditches Road pretty near where I had left it, dodged some more SUVs and the occasional tractor, then walked past Chaldon's 11th Century Church (no camera this time, but I hope to remedy that in future stages). Past a couple of farms and then the most fantastic vista over the great closerleaf of the M23-M25 junction, with the M23 snaking through misty skies to the South.
Motorways may be bad in all sorts of ways (planet, health etc), but watching them twining together through wooded valleys, you are reminded what beauties of engineering they are too. Walking through cornfields down to the road, the roar of the traffic growing steadily more insistent, you feel like an archaeologist or an alien, unearthing something at once thrilling and abstruse.
A path passed under the M23, through Merstham, cut off like a sandbank between two rivers, then over the M25. Following the bank round above the junction, I passed more intriguing edge of city developments (razorwire and daubed signs - 'GUARD DOGS LOSE AT ALL TIME! KEEP OUT!!!').
Nature reserves indicated the sites of past gravel pits, and the path eventually emerged at Nutfield Marsh. The Inn on the Pond was exactly the pub I didn't want to find for lunch: restaurant-focused, with precious little bar service, and an interior that looked like it had been selected by an auto-gastropub programme. Very sorry, very Surrey.
The chef cites "Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s ‘French Landry’ [sic] restaurant fame as his food influences". I had a ham baguette, in which few of these influences were discernible. It's a bit like me saying that this account is inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It may be true, but it has no bearing on the quality of my prose.
From there, the idea of walking into Redhill, past the huge new housing estates being built in gravel pits that I had seen from the train, seemed too depressing a prospect, so I took a slightly woozy route across fields to Nutfield itself, then a further stroll (downhill again) onto South Nutfield, where a train arrived, miraculously, as I did.
Stats: 3.5 hours, 13.25km, 8.25 miles
Thursday, 25 June 2009
Since 2005, redaction has been used in the public sector to describe the act of obliterating any interesting, sorry I mean 'sensitive', information in response to Freedom of Information requests, usually by use of a black marker pen. It was the publication of MPs' expenses (or rather the publication of Mondrian-esque blocks of black ink) that allowed the word to break out of its status as a piece of public sector jargon, and enter the real world.
The dictionary (Chambers 21st Century) defines 'redact' as 'to edit; to put (text) into the appropriate literary form', and traces its use back to the Latin redigere - to bring back. It is an irony worthy of Orwell that a word associated with tidying up for publication is now used to signify censorship and the suppression of information.
Thursday, 21 May 2009
In the meantime, here is one of Nick Asbury's 'corpoetics' - poetry assembled from the airy and conceited twaddle that infests corporate websites:
I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.
I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.
I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.
What am I?
I am the best.
Reproduced without any permission, but please go and buy the book, and enoy other features on the Asbury blog, such as distinguishing the names of Fall songs from tax avoidance scams. Harder than you think.
Monday, 23 March 2009
This year's star turn is one Alessio Lunghi, who is alleged to be proposing 'black bloc' tactics (whereby protestors dress identically to avoid identification) for the G20 Summit at the end of this month.
So far, so business as usual What is interesting this year is that, at the time of writing, these pernicious anarchists and their proposals to seize the ill-gotten gains of the capitalist system, appear to be getting a fair degree of support from on-line commentators in the Evening Standard (not known to be a house journal for the global resistance movement).
The main debate seems to be whether precipitating state repression and perhaps revolution through these tactics is appropriate, not whether the call to 'RECLAIM THE MONEY, storm the banks and send them packing' is right or wrong in itself.
Saturday, 21 February 2009
'Over the past week, each Directorate has been requested to send the Corporate PMO updates for the Pipeline Tracker tool. This tool ensures visibility of all projects that are expected to pass through the Gateways at any given time.I'd love to help (probably), but I really don't have the faintest idea what I am meant to co-operate with.
'This is an ongoing process requiring continual maintenance and review to ensure the Tracker is accurate and reliable.
'The Corporate PMO needs to identify representatives from each Directorate to act as a Pipeline Champion, and this will be initiated next week.
'Please can you nominate these representatives ASAP.
'Thank you for your cooperation.'
Saturday, 14 February 2009
Saturday, 7 February 2009
But, based on the evidence to date, their bid to craft a 2012 anthem is doomed to disappointment. From Barcelona to Beijing, understatement has rarely been an Olympic theme. London's bid was buoyed along by mannered M-People caterwhauling, and our contribution to the closing ceremony at Beijing was a faintly embarassing attempt to distill the essence of 'Cool Britannia' (remember that?), while ticking appropriate boxes. Red double-decker bus, as seen in establising shots in every film from Goldfinger to 28 Days Later? Check. Old white man from once-important rock band? Check. Inoffensive young black woman from talent show to counterbalance said rock dinosaur? Check. Global brand/footballer type person? Check.
I hope I'm wrong, and there may still be a lot of suprises before the 2012 opening ceremony, but I am afraid that Saint Etienne's music, while not always my cup of tea (too winsomely Heavenly Records, if you know what I mean), is too subtle, too particular, too crafty and crafted, to fit into the bizarre, homogenised world of Olympic culture and bombast.
Friday, 6 February 2009
There's something else too. Every time I start typing something about the shrill and intolerant outrage that seems to dominate debate at the moment, I realise I am sounding like a Daily Mail writer, protesting about 'political correctness gone mad'. And this is not a good sound. If you sleep with a dog you get fleas, true, but sometimes that's the only place to sleep.
This week has been particularly rich in its craziness. Jonathon Ross making jokes about sex with old people (and the grand-daughters of old people) was merely a warm-up act to Gollygate. Now, Carol Thatcher does not seem like the sort of person I'd like as a neighbour. I can only cringe as I imagine her crass and self-righteous air of martyrdom as she refused to 'kowtow to political correctness', by apologising for her singularly oafish and offensive remarks. But this can't make it right to ban her from the airwaves.
Jeremy Clarkson is another person that I wouldn't want to spend much time with (though Top Gear is a guilty pleasure), but it is hard to see how referring to Gordon Brown as a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' is so offensive to all partially-sighted people, let alone an entire nation, unless they are embarassed to be associated with the Prime Minister.
This fractious and factitious culture of complaint (to borrow the title of Robert Hughes' prescient book) is reducing a once-great institution to a punch-drunk pulp, incapable of distinguishing morality from manufactured outrage, or helping the hungry from helping Hamas. To mangle another Yeats line, the BBC lacks all conviction; its viewers are full of passionate intensity.
We are all going to hell in a handcart (as I believe is the the traditional closing sentence of such rants).
Monday, 19 January 2009
The show pivots on an initially contrived, but subsequently all-too-real clash between Blumenthal and Little Chef boss Ian Pegler. The problem is something like this: Blumenthal sees his role as recovering the reputation of a British classic and, for all his culinary curiosity, seems to nurse a genuine interest in and affection for the traditions of British cooking.
Pegler, however, seems to view Blumenthal as a performing food monkey, who will bring 'blue skies thinking' to bear on Little Chef's tired menus (but doesn't need to worry his little head with anything like business models).
I don't know much about catering, but my experiences on the fringe of architecture suggest that the clients who demand wacky, iconic designs for buildings with a 'wow factor' are those least likely to understand the careful, pains-taking accretion of change that the best architects can orchestrate. The neophiles want the glamour and the buzz, but are too superficial to consider the sweat and the craft that underpins it.
They want 'thinking outside of the box' (Ian Pegler came up with this with a mere two minutes of TV programme to go). To which my architect friend Mark has the only sensible response: "Err, I don't really think in a box."