Saturday, April 30, 2011

A hang-over?

Funny sort of day today. 

I didn't get up until almost midday, feeling a bit under the weather (a hang-over?).

Read the newspapers.  Ate too much.  In the afternoon I went for a walk (the countryside looking absurdly beautiful - and it is still April).

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Royal Wedding from a marketing perspective

Above:  if we were to open the box marked "royal wedding" what intangible attributes might we find there?

I didn't intend to write about the Royal Wedding today.  Not because I want a republic (far from it) but because there didn't seem anything new to say.  Everything seemed to have been said many many times over.

But an article in today's Independent by Economics Editor Hamish McRae asked what the wedding was worth in terms of brand awareness for the United Kingdom.  Which made me think about the Royal Wedding from a marketing perspective.  To do this I've tried to leave on one side all subsidiary factors and just concentrate on the business case.

Above:  both The Times and The Guardian today carried on their front pages audience estimates of two billion.

The cost of the wedding is supposed to be £22 million.  Assuming the television audience estimates of two billion are correct that gives a media cost per thousand of £11 for the whole session.  Obviously if you split the hour of the actual ceremony into 30 second spots you get a cost per thousand of 9p (3p if the audience watched on average for three hours).

By any standards that is good value for money, even without counting the hundreds of thousands of column inches the event will generate in magazines and newspapers around the world.

This makes you ask:  what was this event intended to do? 

It was of course a celebration of a wedding; and it was certainly a national party; but in many ways it was also a free gift to the world (France 24 covered it live, the Chinese news channel CCTV covered it live, the Indian news channel NDTV covered it live etc).

Having "given away" £22 million, what can we expect to get back?

Many people have attempted to quantity the direct benefits in terms of tourism etc.  And "goodwill" must have been generated on a fairly large scale.  But I want to look at more intangible factors, since they are often overlooked.

I think we can identify three likely subliminal messages unintentionally encoded in today's event:

1)  The United Kingdom is a well-organised society where everything functions superbly well.  Anyone who travels by public transport will no doubt disagree with this statement, but most of today's global audience will have gained the impression that this is a country where things happen on time and to a very high standard.  This has value particularly in terms of inward investment, since no investors want to go to a location that is shambolic or where the people are poorly motivated.

2)  The demographic of the British population is relatively wealthy, subscribes to middle class values and has a cheeful optimistic outlook (looking at the two thousand guests in Westminster Abbey and the million or so people around Buckingham Palace).  Of course, this is not really true (as a walk through Woodberry Down estate will soon tell you) but as Marshall McLuhan said perception is reality.  Companies around the world looking for new markets will see the United Kingdom as an attractive place to do business.

3)  The United Kingdom is a safe and stable country where institutions (the monarchy, the church, the army etc) can endure for centuries without any calamity.  This is not to devalue the argument that royal occasions give the "wrong" impression of Britain as old-fashioned.  But looking purely at the flows of "hot" money around the world, cash always gravitates to a safe haven - and today's event above all said London was "safe" (and possibly the safest place on earth). 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Woodberry Down Estate

Above:  Recently I was in Hackney and got off the tube at Manor House to look round the Woodberry Down Estate.  Places like this are fascinating - this is where real people live.  You cannot really understand marketing if you do not make an effort to understand all the various communities in which people live (and increasingly, where people have come from, since a big proportion of C1s and Bs will describe themselves as "working class".

Above:  the estate was planned in the 1930s, but not constructed until after the Second World War, only being finished in 1962.  The architecture is supposed to have "Viennese" influences.  One of the first comprehensive schools in the country was located on this estate (it closed in 1981).

Above:  although planned along utopian ideals, the estate soon exhibited social problems.  Local politicians have called the estate a 'forgotten community' and criticised the way the buildings have been allowed to deteriorate, the anti-social issues (drugs, crime, vandalism) that have blighted the community, the failure of the local authorities to intervene.

Above:  The Happy Man pub is part of the Woodberry Grove parade of shops.  In the window there is an advertisement for a party to celebrate the Royal Wedding (which is tomorrow).  The scale of the Royal Wedding seems to have taken many people by surprise - a Newsnight discussion this evening has just called it a "geopolitical event" and said that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have not been invited becuse of their responsibility for the Iraq War.

Above:  the Woodberry Down Boys' Club.  It looks like some kind of prison compound.  Note the murals on the facade - even in such depressed circumstances the community subscribes to utopian ideals.

Above:  the "Neighbourhood Sub-Office" has the feel of Fort Apache the Bronx with bars on the windows.

Above:  most of the Woodberry Down estate is currently being "regenerated" in what appears to be a final legacy of the New Labour project.  Reports talk of the population being "decanted" and many of the buildings are due to be demolished.  It is difficult to avoid the suspician that this is another example of social engineering.

Above:  a least a quarter of the new "units" will be for sale or private rent.  This will inevitably change the character of the community.  Presumably the presence of middle class private accommodation is expected to improve the area in some way.

Above:  this is just my opinion, but the new "regeneration" looks terrible.  I hope these are not going to become yuppie flats.  Architects have a lot to answer for.

Above:  the landscaping along the river has been done well.  The water in the distance is one of the two reservoirs.  At least some of the regenerated buildings will have a good view.

Above: the population of Hackney is ethnically very diverse, with only 40% being White British. What future do these people have? Whatever the mistakes made in the original construction of mega social housing estates, I think the gigantic scheme of "regeneration" planned here is not the right way to help these communities. They should have incremental (but significant) improvements to the everyday conditions of their lives, while leaving the overall social construction intact.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Although we have open fireplaces in the downstairs rooms, most of the time we do not use them (we have electric heaters which are a lot easier).  So usually the fireplaces have a fireguards in front of them to minimise the draught.  Last night I went into the big sitting room and found two of the cats and the dog "worrying" the fireguard.

Taking the piece of wood away I saw in the ashes (which must have been there ten years or more) a small brown furry creature that I first thought was a mouse.  Picking it up, it turned out to be a bat.  Taking it out into the garden I put it down on the path (see above).

It's right leg seemed to be damaged.  It crawled along the path for a few feet.  Then it suddenly flew off.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Break up these mega-corporations

Above:  I bought all my Easter chocolate from Lindt this year.  The taste is a lot smoother than Cadbury's.  When I had a piece of Cadbury chocolate the taste was chalky and over-sweet.

Interesting article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph about how the Kraft hostile takeover of Cadbury has not gone well. 


Also in Bristol over the weekend there was a riot to prevent the opening of a new Tesco's store.  In an interview in today's Times the CEO of Tescos, Richard Brasher, says local people supported the store by shopping there.  Would they shop there if they knew the true cost to their community of this pernicious organisation?

Probably legislation is needed to break up these mega-corporations. 

We also need to give local people (everywhere) the final decision in planning applications via small scale referendums. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Playing Days by Benjamin Markovits

Have just finished reading Playing Days by Benjamin Markovits.

It was one of the books I bought at Jewish Book Week.  They have these tables (about seven or eight of them) piled up with the latest books by Jewish authors.  Because of the crush of people inbetween the talks, you often end up standing by one of the tables waiting for the crowd to move, and that is when I saw this book and picked it up.

It's ostensibly a book about basketball, which is a sport I know nothing about (they didn't play it at the school I went to, and it's not the sort of thing you pick up in later life).  But actually it's about the fragility of relationships, the acceptance of failure, the impermanence of everyday life.  The writing style is one of the main reasons to read the novel - it is simple and direct, but also subtle and open to interpretation.

Anyway, I read the book and although I enjoyed it I couldn't grasp what the author was getting at.  There seemed to be a subplot that was just out of my understanding (I could tell it was there, but I couldn't decipher it).  Then towards the end of the book, in an almost thowaway paragraph, the narrator mentions a dream he had and immediately I understood what had been motivating him throughout the different episodes of his basketball-playing life in Landshut (Germany).

Benjamin Markovits is on the staff of Royal Holloway College.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

I was unsure which morning service to go to. If I went to the minster on the plain I would hear a full choir sing the Hallelujah Chorus, flawlessly. But at the minster I am never more than just "a visitor".

If I went to my local parish church the service might be less to my liking, but it's my local church. It's eight minutes walk from my home. My parents are buried in the churchyard.

I decided to go to the local church.

Big mistake. I felt as if I had wandered into a private party to which I was not particularly invited. But who knows, perhaps the fault was mine, perhaps my attitude was wrong.

Over the years, in my intermittant attendances, I have watched the local church move from fairly middle-of-the-road to decidedly "Low". Despite the emphasis the Church of England puts on democracy and "inclusiveness" this has been done without any real consultation. The choir has gone, the Rite A service (at the ridiculous hour of 8am) has gone, about half of the congregation seems to have gone.

It's not as if I am asking for six candles on the altar, clouds of incense, and "fiddle-back chasubles in mid-Lent pink".

My objection is to the relentless 1970s dowdiness of it all. Especially the 1970s choruses and liturgy. I'm not opposed to modernisation per se. If they (the holy huddle that decides things) were to do a Christian interpretation of Lady Gaga I would back them. 

But this harping back to the 1970s is getting us no-where.

Anyway, that was my Easter Sunday. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some anthropological thoughts on St George's Day

Above:  Today is St George's Day.  This is the George & Dragon pub - St George's Day is increasingly a drinking festival on the scale of St Patrick's Day.  Notice that this pub has equipped itself with a flagpole, and although I took this photo some weeks back I have no doubt that if I went there now I would see the flag of St George flying.

Above:  earlier today there were Anglican services to mark the Feast of St George (the Roman Catholics do not recognise the saint, which must cause them problems in trying to overcome the idea that they are, in England, an alien religion). 

Above:  in churches dedicated to St George the 23rd April celebrations take on the added significance of a patronal festival.  Here you can see the flag has been placed on the altar with a display of red and white flowers.  I took this photograph last year (or the year before possibly) as you can tell from the green altar frontal (as well as being St George's Day today is also Easter Eve and so in Anglican churches there will be no altar frontals on show until tomorrow).

Above:  Scouts on parade outside their corrugated iron Scout Hut, St George's Day 1914.  Three months later the First World War will break out.  I found this photograph in a display of local history (the Scout Hut has been replaced with a more modern building).

Above:  martial images of St George, especially in war memorials, are so ubiquitous that people hardly notice their iconic significance.  This First World War memorial caught my notice however because of its contradictions.  It shows a captain in the Highland Light Infantry, a Scottish regiment, and yet he is shown as St George, the English patron saint.  Did his ethnic loyalty over-ride his regimental loyalty and presumably his loyalty to the fallen men of his company?  Click twice on the image and look at the head - this is obviously a real portrait with the appearance of a sepia photograph.  The eyes unmistakeably look upwards, towards the cross of St George.

Above:  St George vanquishes the dastardly Black Knight, watched admiringly by his young squire and a serving wench.  We are conditioned in our society to think that good will always triumph over evil.  This has been a recurring motivating theme of history (not least in 1940) - but does the fact of good always triumphing create the conditioning, or is it the other way round?

Above:  this fascinating image forms part of the reredos of a side altar in a village church.  You might want to click on the picture to see it more clearly.  It shows Jesus with a group of children in Enid Blyton-style clothes, including at least one boy scout and girl guide.  Notice the date of 1960, which is quite late for iconography of this kind (and it is still in place today and hasn't been removed by some trendy vicar!).  The two central children catch the eye - a fair-haired boy in golden armour and a dark haired (but with flecks of gold) girl in what is obviously meant to be white samite.  The two children are clearly destined for sainthood - a martial saint in the tradition of St George and a virginal saint in the tradition of the Virgin Mary.  Presumably the side aisle was used by the church youth groups, so I wonder what went through the minds of the young people gazing at this image while the priest droned on?  This was not a picture on the wall, this was (is) on the altar itself.

Above:  this April issue of the New Statesman (with a cover pic of David Cameron as a Muslim) is a special issue on the topic of English identity.  Professionally I interview dozens, if not hundreds, of people a year on issues of identity (who they are, what they buy, why they make certain decisions) and I have yet to meet anyone from an ethnic English background who is "confused" about their identity.  So where does this idea that the English are somehow confused and in crisis come from? 

Anyway, some anthropological thoughts on St George's Day. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, warmest Good Friday anyone can remember.

At the big minster church on the plain there was a devotional concert at 7.30pm the gothic interior cool after the heat of the day.

Instead of the choir the church singers performed the concert.  About forty men and women, all ages.  The men wore dark suits and blue ties, the women in black clothes and blue scarves.

The priest stood in front of them and said Good Friday had been a very long day, tiring and emotional.  Because this was a devotional concert he requested no applause until the end.  He then read the Collect and the concert began.

Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt - all expertly performed.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today is Maundy Thursday

Above:  one of our neighbours has a set of Maundy Money.  Given in 2000 I think.  The silver coins (which are minted especially) were given in the two leather purses, and she later put them in this plastic display case.

Above:  screenshot of the BBC news report (note the mace-holder on the left).

Today is Maundy Thursday.  At Westminster Abbey this morning the Queen gave out the Maundy Money.  By her side was someone holding a heavy-looking medieval mace - in previous times if any one stepped out of line he would hit them (which seems a good system of crowd control, even today).  The choir sang Zadok the priest.  The Duke of Edinburgh read the Lesson (about the separation of the sheep from the goats).  The Cosmati Pavement was on show.

Rituals are important in society because of their symbolic value.  Probably a society could not function properly without them.  But it is not always clear what the symbols mean or what the values signify.

To unpick an 800-year ritual like Maundy Thursday would not be easy.  And even if you managed to trace back the various strands to the 12th century you may well find that the origins go back even further, maybe another eight hundred years, or eight thousand, or even eighty thousand.  What I am trying to say is that society is a lot stranger and deeper than most people realise.

If you were able to go back eighty thousand years you would probably see a tribal chief, protected by a guard holding a club, issuing gifts to the poorest members of the tribe (while warding off the plague with bunches of herbs and flowers).

We flatter ourselves that in a marketing-led consumer-choice society like the United Kingdom we are in control (mostly) of our lives and make all our decisions based on rational thought processes.  On a superficial level this might be true, but as soon as you look more deeply at why people make buying decisions you realise we are not in control at all.  The cultural instincts we obey were laid down centuries ago, probably millennia. 

What is a fair price?  Why is silver valuable?  Who decides what high status is? etc.

You tell me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Above:  I learned about the research from an article in The Guardian yesterday.

Fascinating research by Nottingham University about Chinese attitudes towards Europe.  "A reservoir of goodwill" exists towards Europe and European products according to commentators of the survey.  There is something about data of this kind that always makes me feel excited.

Patterns, clusters, trends - they are all there waiting to be discovered.

And who will be the first to do a Mosaic-style geodemographic classification of the households of the Middle Kingdom?



Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The organisation Common Purpose

It is difficult to take the organisation Common Purpose seriously until you see it in action.   I don't wish to be alarmist, but Common Purpose seems to be achieving a significant hold on the public sector.  At the very least I think public employees should declare (when applying for promotion) whether they have had any connection with Common Purpose.

Lots of speculation surrounds Common Purpose, including that it is secretive; that it operates along quasi-masonic lines (except there is no bar to women); that it resembles a cult.

Or it might just be an innocent power-networking organisation.

Even so, what I have seen and heard gives me cause for concern.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Recently I went to see two exhibitions on the 18th century artist Watteau.

I find looking at old masters helps me to deconstruct creative work and get to the essential meaning or message conveyed by an image and the techniques which transmit that meaning.

The first exhibition was at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly and was of Watteau's drawings.  These were incredible from a technical point of view.  Especially the economy of line with which he captured a particular scene.

You got the sense that he was collecting characters that he would later use in his paintings.  He took the everyday elements of his society (comedians, soldiers, shopkeepers) and integrated them into his own personal weltanschauung (which is what all artists should aim to do).  The fact that Watteau's weltanschauung was the frivolous fete galante shows you how dedicated he was to the mechanism of high art, irrespective of the purpose to which it was put (and in any case, you could argue advertising is just a form of depoliticised propaganda).

The second Watteau exhibition I went to was at the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square.  In an upper gallery about ten of Watteau's fete galante paintings were on show.  Looking at these canvasses you immediately saw the way in which he built huge elaborate scenes from innumerable tiny detailed studies.

I liked the double-meaning of A halt during the chase.

More: and

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday.

At the 11 o'clock service:

Hymn:  All glory laud and honour to Thee redeemer king.

Reading from Isaiah:  "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways..."

The sermon looked at the true meaning of "hosanna" - which can be translated as "bring salvation now".

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"We shall miss your suppressed yawns" - the past week at work

After a week's holiday getting up this morning was a bit difficult.  Outside the house a mist had rolled over the fields, but it soon burned off and the rest of the day was hot and sunny.  Instead of going to the office I went to a Conference Centre where the NGO's Awayday for senior managers was being held.

Beautiful old mansion, a bit shabby inside. 

We dress-down for these Awaydays, and this causes as problem as how casual should you go?  If you dress down too much no-one takes you seriously.  In the end I wore some very casual grey trousers (these are my brother's, but they fit me perfectly), a polo shirt, and a Tommy Hilfiger blazer I never wear.

I was half-an-hour early and sat talking to Felix S, who is also part of the Marketing department.  We were joined by a consultant who is to make a presentation to the management team.  It was awkward talking to him as neither Felix nor myself knew why he was there.

When everyone had arrived we went upstairs to one of the big conference rooms and sat round in a semi-circle as each department made a presentation about what they had done over the last couple of months.  My boss, Marketing Director Tom D, give the presentation for our department, so there was nothing for me to do except watch.  Lunch was boiled eggs with cream, and some roast pork.

After lunch I could hardly keep awake.  It was torture trying to look alert and interested.  I really longed to close my eyes and doze.


Very relaxed day.  I got up at 7.30 and had a leisurely breakfast.  Another hot and sunny day and I wore sunglasses for the first time this year.

I drove to a Midlands town for a collaborative meeting with representives from other organisations the NGO works with.  We are pooling our resources to develop some software, but the project is not going well.  No-one really knows how to get out of the situation, so I suggested we just stopped the development.

This suggestion was met with enthusiasm by the other people at the meeting.  I think they were relieved that someone had at last made the obvious decision.  I was not bothered about taking this responsibility as I am on a short-term contract and will be long gone before any repurcussions develop.

After the meeting I simply went home.


Again a drive across to a Midlands town - a different one to yesterday.  The urban centre was confusing, and I got completely lost several times.  Eventually I parked my car and walked to the hotel where I was booked to attend a training course.

There were three other people attending the course, which was organised by a government department.  I was the only non-civil servant there.  "Three days to learn how to fill in a form is a bit excessive" one of the others said.

The two trainers came in and we had coffee and biscuits.  The training venue was a long room in a half-basement, so the windows looked up at people's legs walking on the the pavement outside.  The morning went quite easily.

Long two-hour lunch break.  I was at a loss as to what to do.  After wandering round the streets I went into the old castle, which is now an art gallery and museum.  Some good paintings, a big military section, some ethnography. 

The afternoon went well, and we were finished by 4pm.


Second day of the training course.  Because I knew where I was going I was able to park closer to the hotel.  HUGE daily parking fee, but I can reclaim it on expenses.

The training is quite interesting, but also bureaucratic nonsense. 

Another long lunchbreak and again there was nothing much to do except walk around the museum and sit in the sun.

We finished at 3pm.


I have become very lethagic recently, and it was difficult for me to get up again this morning - mainly because I know the training course is completely unimportant and even the trainers are not taking it seriously.

Last day of the course and it was mostly role-playing. 

Then we had to fill in evaluation forms - I didn't dare put what I truly thought (that it was all rubbish) but gave medium marks in all the tick boxes.

At the end we shook hands with the trainers and with each other.

"We shall miss your suppressed yawns" the female trainer said to me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Eagle starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell

Yesterday I went to see The Eagle starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, and directed by Kevin Macdonald.

The film is based on the Rosemary Sutcliffe novel Eagle of the Ninth which had a big impact on me when I read it aged about ten (along with The Lantern Bearers and The Mark of the Horselord).  In a way going to see this film was a risk as it could have destroyed important memories.  I needn't have worried as everything about The Eagle was exceptionally well done.

Kevin Macdonald has constructed a work with multiple layers:  it was an action film (fighting, chasing, feats of endurance); a philosophical film (ideas of identity, loyalty, memory); a history film (Britannia recreated, Roman colonialism examined, the pre-Roman tribes given an anthropological interpretation).
Lighting is one of the things I notice most about feature films, and I liked the way the strong Caravaggio-style scenes of the early part of the film (strong side lights) became more muted and shaded as the story progressed.  It was as if the lighting director was following the storyline where the black and white certainties of Roman Britannia become more questionable and nuanced in the tribal lands.  This careful lighting makes the film a visual gem.  Also need to mention the colours, which were muted and authentic.  The only strong colour in the whole film was the gold of the eagle.  The total result was visually intriguing and absorbing.
Atmospheres were also captured well - the claustrophobia of the fort, the chaos of the fighting, the menace of the highlands (possibly they overdid the rain, rolling thunder and fog).

Channing Tatum is an impressive actor, particularly the way he conveys the act of thinking - pensiveness, pondering, intuition, calculation, contemplation, inspiration.  I don't think I have ever seen a "silent" character portrayed so strongly and expertly.  It was this factor that made the film so true to the original book.

Channing Tatum also has integrity in the way he acts - everything he did contributed to the overall impression of the character, with nothing out of place.

I liked the great breadth of detail in the film, with the strong narrative built up from myriad individual elements rather than everything shown all at once.  The fighting scenes were much better for being implicit.  The athleticism of the cast was convincing.

There were a few places where the film fell down, particularly the cliched sound of bagpipes at a funeral.  Also were the stripes on the togas of the Roman officials correct, and was the senior Roman a senator or a proconsul?  At one point a map was shown with Lincoln as Lindum and York as Eboracum, but "Hadrian's Wall" written in English instead of being called Vallum Aelium.

But these are minor points.  In my view the film is a triumph.  In time it will be seen as a classic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hugo Boss ad

I don't often comment on fashion/clothes advertising - mainly because it is a specialist niche that I don't have much experience of; the target audience is usually female (and obviously I am not a woman); good fashion advertising is complex and relies on emotional arguments I don't always understand.

But this Hugo Boss ad is so wonderful I can't stop looking at it.

For a start, it appeared in a newspaper (The Guardian), and newsprint is not kind to colour advertising. The designer has got round this problem by using a highly-variegated photograph, so any imperfections of ink on paper are hidden within the image (Dolce & Gabbana has also used this tactic recently, but in black and white). The corner position also worked really well.

The quality of the photograph is exceptional. The photographer has chosen a low angle so that we are looking up at the figures - as if we had just paused to fasten a shoelace and happened to look up directly into the eyes of this tall, blonde, statuesque woman. Placing the figures behind a plate-glass door was inspired, and the reflection of blue sky, drifting clouds and waving trees is staggeringly beautiful (it takes a true genius to see beauty in banal objects).

However it is the narrative that really makes the ad.

The woman is about to leave the offices of a large company. The man seems to have stopped her (look at the delicacy of his hand on her hand) but from her posture and the angle she is standing she is clearly not happy with him. So many questions are raised by this image!

Did she go to the office to deliver some kind of final ultimatum? Did the man follow her to the door, and even now is whispering to her: "You know I love you but I can't leave my wife just like that, you know we need to wait, why don't I come to you tonight and we'll talk it through..." The beautiful blonde heroine-victim stands there pouting, the tears in her vulnerable eyes hidden by Hugo Boss dark glasses, the only consolation left to her being the sense of dignity conferred by her Hugo Boss outfit.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Great Estate: the rise and fall of the council house

Yesterday I watched The Great Estate, the rise and fall of the council estate on BBC 4. It was a documentary by Michael Collins about social housing over the last hundred years. It was a fascinating exploration of the way communities function, how architecture can create identity, and the way in which publicly-owned resources have been usurped by the political class (first the Left, which rigged the selection criteria; then by the Right which sold the assets off).

Everything started to go downhill with the 1977 change to the Housing Act.


Above: Recently I had a look round the Brunswick Estate near Russell Square. Modelled (loosely) on the Ziggurat of Ur, the cascading effect is very attractive. Originally the estate was intended to stretch as far as the Euston Road.

Above: The rectangular design encloses a shopping plaza that seems bustling and full of life. Upmarket supermarket Waitrose, a medical centre, a cinema etc. Everything you could want seems to be here.

As well as a trendy smoothie bar (one of the best in London) the central plaza includes a Starbucks and a branch of Patisserie Valerie.

Above: Just nearby is the Lord Cornwallis pub, which has open fires in winter.

Above: to one side of the centre is the beautiful park Brunswick Square, and beyond are sports facilities.

Above: immediately adjacent to the estate is the Foundling Gallery, one of the finest art collections in London.

And yet despite all the facilities and the distinctive architecture and the convenient setting the Brunswick estate has struggled to establish itself. The flats are supposed to be pokey, and riddled with leaks. At one point the centre became a "concrete canyon" with most of the shops boarded up. Only after an intensive refurbishment has a sort-of renaissance been achieved. This has been accompanied by dubious social cleansing of about a quarter of the social housing units, the council tenants being replaced by designers and knowledge-workers. And you still get a feel that the area could regress.

I suppose my point is that if somewhere like the Brunswick can falter, what hope is there for places like the Heygate Estate? Why can't the architects simply give people what they want? Individual family homes with gardens.

Phone hacking scandal

The News International 'phone hacking scandal is becoming an explosive issue for the media group. Having issued so many denials, obfuscations and (in my opinion) downright lies their increasingly contorted behaviour has created a narrative drive to the story, with the instinctive reaction to every new statement now being "there must be much more still to come out". The story combines illegal 'phone tapping (possibly sanctioned at the highest level of News International) with political conniving and police corruption (surely not too strong a word if they have deliberately failed to investigate criminal activity).

The period that News International have so far admitted they broke the law was 2004 - 2006, a time when the New Labour administration was intertwined with News International operations in the United Kingdom. Yesterday's Observer indicated that a "go between" (widely interpreted as Tony Blair) last year tried to get Prime Minister Gordon Brown to nix the police investigation as a favour to Rupert Murdoch. This sounds like Al Capone's Chicago rather than London in the 21st century.

Excellent articles by Toby Helm and James Robinson on the topic - easy writing style, all complexities explained, on-going issues identified.


Para spacing

Not sure what is going wrong with para spacing on Blogger - it's all over the place. PS managed to work out what was wrong. I'm not completely useless!

Monday, April 11, 2011


I don't pay much attention to Blogger stats.
But I did notice that while I was away (and not blogging) pageviews from the USA outnumbered pageviews from the UK.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I have been on a short holiday in a part of the country I have never been to before. American friends ( a husband and wife I had stayed with in Los Angeles) had taken a furnished apartment for a month on the attic floor of a large house conversion. They had a spare room which they offered to me for a week.

Above: staying in the apartment was a surreal experience. No radio, no television, no internet, no telephone, no newspapers, no people (apart from my friends and an occasional glimpse of a neighbour).

Above: being on the attic floor the apartment consisted of tiny rooms, low ceilings, awkward passages. Although the total floor space was quite large, there was a slight sense of claustrophobia. Apart from birdsong, there was absolutely no noise from outside the flat.

Above: my room was little more than a cupboard. The bed was narrow and a bit hard. Lying in bed at night I had the sense that the room was swaying.

Above: the view from my room was sensational. I would sit on the windowseat and gaze out at the landscape for large parts of the day. Although we were in a fairly developed part of the country I couldn't see any trace of the modern world.

Above: it was lambing season, and in the surrounding fields the baby lambs were gambolling around. This little lamb was lame, and limped everywhere. All the week the weather was fine, as if summer had arrived.

My friends went out sight-seeing each day, but I preferred to just stay in the apartment and read, or walk through the fields to the nearest town. I got through five books I have been meaning to read for ages (excellent books, full of ideas). At no point did I ever feel lonely or bored.

Only once did I join them on one of their excursions. We went to a National Trust property in the west. Rather too many people in the house to completely enjoy the visit.

Only the ground floor was worth seeing.

Gloomy entrance hall, the wood painted to look like stone. Sitting room with steel engravings, Meissen china flowers, bookcase full of a jumble of old books. Ghastly paintings (much admired) up the stairs. Estate room with heraldic china, cavernous black fireplace, faded tatty Persian carpet. Ultra-formal dining room with everything designed for display. Shabby and uncomfortable drawing room.

Afterwards we had a cup of tea at one of the tables in the open air. The heat from the sun was intense. Waves upon waves of people were passing from the house to the gardens and out into the parkland.

Looking back at the austere facade of the house, I thought of the hundreds of other properties owned by the National Trust and the millions of people who visit them each year (the organisation has three million paid up members, far more than any political party). Although not overtly party political, the National Trust does have an ideology and vision that it projects into society. And as a "political re-education facility" it is far more successful than anything set up by any totalitarian regime.

Friday, April 01, 2011

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Andrew Amesbury is away.
I might manage something Monday and Tuesday but otherwise probably nothing until Sunday 10th April.