Wednesday, October 31, 2012

one day like this… 50 days on


Well, it’s been 50 days since I started my “one day like this” blog (setting myself a challenge to posting a daily drawing or painting or photograph) and I’m pleased to say that, thus far, I HAVE managed to post every day.
Rather as predicted, paintings are definitely something of a rarity (just one bit of watercolour wash on one of my drawings to date!) but I have at least been able to match the number of photographs and drawings  – which is rather better than I’d imagined at the outset.
The drawing quality has been somewhat variable (at best), but I’ve been quite pleased to have been able to produce the sketches relatively quickly – the average time for each sketch has probably been 20-30 minutes. 
I’ve also enjoyed the discipline the daily blog post has provided and the fact that I’m actually drawing on a regular basis.
I haven’t set myself any end date for the “challenge” and will just see how things develop (or not) over the coming weeks/months.
PS: but it’s costing me quite a lot in terms of sketchbooks!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

how NOT to boost construction…


So, it seems that the government has come up with another initiative to “cut costs for the construction industry and boost the economy”. This time, ministers have ordered a wide-ranging review covering all aspects of building regulations - including fire safety, wheelchair access and standards on energy efficiency.
In my view (given 30 years plus architectural experience), while SOME simplification of SOME regulations might be helpful, I feel that, once again, the government is missing the point. Self-regulation by the construction industry and changes in building standards will actually do very little to stimulate construction - it will do virtually nothing to encourage clients, developers and contractors to implement projects. At present, it’s really difficult to get speculative commercial and residential schemes to start on site due to the dire economic climate – with job security so uncertain and very little prospect of this changing in the foreseeable future, people are unwilling to commit themselves to new mortgages and, likewise, firms are loathe to take risks due to commercial uncertainty or, indeed, are unable to get banks to lend them money.
THAT is why, for example, the developer for the proposed mixed use scheme just down the road from us (Wapping Wharf in a prime harbourside location, comprising apartments, shops, restaurants, bars and a hotel) is NOT prepared to make a start on site – they don’t want to be faced with the prospect (and the crippling expense) of empty apartments and units at the end of the contract… modifying construction standards will NOT be the reason our local scheme gets built (and, remember, these have been introduced for a purpose, not on a whim, on the basis of vast experience within the industry)!
It seems to me that, with the urgent need for affordable homes throughout the country, it would make far more sense for the government to assist housing associations (ie. provide funding), so that they can get contractors building again.
Clearly, this would require some expenditure by government and, of course, we all know that’s not going to happen!     
PS: You might also recall that the government has recently announced an “emergency” year-long free-for-all in house extensions. In my view, this is a ludicrous step that will a) not increase construction to any worthwhile extent and b) will merely result in an increase number of neighbour disputes (oh, more work for solicitors… silly me!).
Again, a case of the government tinkering in things it doesn’t really understand.    

 

Friday, October 26, 2012

julius caesar


Over the past couple of years, Moira+I seem to have been acting as if we were pair of RSC groupies… we’ve seen seven of its plays, so perhaps this description is becoming pretty accurate!
Yesterday, we travelled to Cardiff to see the RSC “on tour” with this rather wonderful all-black British cast giving a fresh take on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. I have to say that, before seeing the play, I thought that the idea of an all-black cast was just something of a director’s gimmick. In the event, this proved to be far from the case and, actually, transposing the action to modern Africa was an inspired decision. Perhaps there really is a much closer correlation between Shakespeare’s “world of poetry and metaphor” (to quote the programme notes) and the hard reality of Africa – where political life is fierce; where “dictators rise and fall like Shakespearian kings and lords”; and where “tribalism is instantly recognisable”. Added to this, the soothsayer becomes a magical force in the form of the shaman.
It’s all a remarkably close fit.
The vibrant music (by Akintayo Akinbode) also contributed, and fitted, wonderfully well to the atmosphere of the production. The whole cast is excellent and there are really impressive individual performances from all the principal characters: Caesar (Jeffery Kissoon), Mark Antony (Ray Fearon), Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Cassius (Cyril Nri).
Another stunning piece of theatre.
Photo: Paterson Joseph as Brutus, with the soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe). 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

dignity of difference


I’ve just finished Jonathan Sacks’ book entitled “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations” – written in 2002 as a response to the 9/11 tragedy. It’s a brave, radical, intelligent and hopeful book from an orthodox Jewish leader (and someone who, I think, is often regarded as a conservative thinker)… he wants to celebrate the differences among religious traditions and use them to enlarge, not stunt, our humanity.
The book is full of thought-provoking comments and quotes – and, I kept having to remind myself that it was written TEN years ago. I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying people who often underlines memorable passages in pencil and the first half of the book, in particular, is full of marked sentences! Here are just a few examples… (most of you will, no doubt, stop reading at this point - which would be a shame as they provided me with MUCH food for thought):
·   “Television, with its emphasis on the visual, creates a culture of sight rather than sound – the image speaks louder than the word. Images invoke emotion. They do not , of themselves, generate understanding. The result is that the most visual protest, the angriest voice and the most extreme slogan. If confrontation is news and conciliation is not, we will have a culture of confrontation”.
·     “On the one hand, globalisation is bringing us closer together than ever before, interweaving our lives, nationally and internationally, in complex and inextricable ways. On the other, a new tribalism – a regression to older and more fractious loyalties – is driving us ever more angrily apart”.
·     “Society depends on the existence of certain relationships that stand outside economic calculation: among them, families, communities, congregations and voluntary associations. These are the institutions of civil society, and they have become seriously eroded in consumption-driven cultures”.
·     “Globalisation has immensely differential and destabilising effects. Its benefits are not spread evenly. There are winners and losers, within and between countries. The ‘digital divide’ has heightened inequalities. The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese, 30 times more than an Indian…”.
·     “One way or another, the two most influential actors – states and markets – have effectively marginalised ethical considerations from their decision-making procedures. The same is true about the most important newcomer to the international stage: the global corporation. Today, the large multinationals wield enormous power. Of the hundred largest economies today, 51 are corporations and only 49 are nation-states”.
·     “A consumer society is kept going by an endless process of stimulating, satisfying, and re-stimulating desire. It is more like an addiction than a quest for fulfilment”.
·     “We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind”.
·     “Morality has had a hard time of it in the past half-century. It has come to represent everything we believe ourselves to have been liberated from: authority, repression, the delay of instinctual gratification, all that went with the religious, puritanical, Victorian culture of our grandparents. Virtues once thought admirable – modesty, humility, discretion, restraint – are now dusty exhibits in a museum of the cultural curiosities. Words like ‘duty’, ‘obligation’, ‘judgement’, ‘wisdom’ either carry a negative charge or no meaning at all”.
·     “In 1968, 75% of college freshmen listed ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as very important, while only 41% said the same for ‘being well off financially’. Three decades later, the percentages had been reversed”.
·     “International trade and global financial markets are very good at generating wealth, but they cannot take care of other social needs, such as the preservation of peace, alleviation of poverty, protection of the environment, labour conditions, or human rights – what are generally known as ‘public goods’” (George Soros).
·     “There is a real and present danger that the market, left to its own devices, will continue to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, leaving whole nations destitute and significant numbers of people, even within advanced economies, without stable employment, income or prospects. Envy, anger and the sheer sense of injustice are fertile soil for the growth of protest, violence and terror from which, given the openness on which globalisation depends, none of us are immune”.
PS: well done if you made it to the end!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

beasts of the southern wild


Benh Zeitlin’s film is set at the time of the Katrina devastation and features a community of mixed-race eccentrics living on floating huts or primitive dwellings raised on stilts in a fictional bayou – on the water-side of the levee. The film is seen through the eyes of its central character, 6 year-old Hushpuppy (wonderfully played by Quvenzhan√© Wallis), who lives with her ailing, hard-drinking, fisherman father Wink (played by Dwight Henry who, in real life, ran the local bakery next to the studio!).
It’s a bizarre mixture of mysterious fable and apocalypse – featuring strange prehistoric creatures and the search of the absent mother who, according to family legend, was so pretty she could light the gas stove just by walking past it.
I came away with mixed feelings about the film – both impressed and perplexed perhaps? It’ll probably receive plaudits from most critics and, no doubt, calls for Wallis to be given an Oscar. I’m not so sure.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

we are most certainly not amused


It started so well.
I found myself applauding (in a virtual sense, you understand) the UK Government TWICE on Monday. First, the Home Secretary halted the extradition of Gary McKinnon and then the Attorney General decided to apply to quash the original Hillsborough verdict.
BUT then Dominic Grieve (the AG) made an announcement which seems to indicate that the Prince of Wales has every right – even a duty – to lobby government ministers demanding something or other. My initial reaction was disappointment and disbelief and, two days on, my views haven’t changed.
Apparently, the Queen has a “constitutional duty to consult, encourage and warn ministers” and, on this basis, then so too should her successor. What some see as unconstitutional meddling or even inappropriate lobbying, Mr Grieve sees as training for kingship and a constitutional duty. The Guardian newspaper, perhaps somewhat predictably (as they’re now in the process of taking the government to the high court), sees it rather differently: “It seems all too clear that the disturbing prospect of a systemic and fundamental abuse of the essentially passive role of the crown in our constitutional monarchical system was too dangerous to contemplate”.
Grieve has seen fit to block the publication of 27 letters written by Prince Charles in 2004/2005; he said these letters revealed the Prince's "most deeply held views", they were "particularly frank" and "would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality"… and "They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality."
That’s simply outrageous in my view.
This appears to give the Prince of Wales carte blanche when it comes to lobbying ministers and, as we DO know, there have been several matters on which he has imposed undue influence – in the field of architecture, for example (a field in which I have little sympathy with his views, I’m afraid)! See my 2009 blog for just one instance.
If I write a letter of objection or support in connection with a planning application (for example), then it is available for other members of the public to read. If Prince Charles does the same thing, we aren’t allowed to see what he wrote.
That just cannot be right.
Architect (Lord) Richard Rogers views the situation in the following terms: "It is either a democracy or it is not. I don't think anybody, be it a king, prince or poor man, has a right to undermine decisions by private interventions which have a public impact. The only way for Charles to be a public figure is for him to act publicly. It is not democratic to cover up his interventions."
The judges on the information tribunal had ruled in favour of releasing the letters, stating: "The essential reason is that it will generally be in the overall public interest for there to be transparency as to how and when Prince Charles seeks to influence government."
They decided "it was fundamental" that the lobbying by the heir "cannot have constitutional status" and cannot be protected from disclosure. The evidence, they said, showed "Prince Charles using his access to government ministers, and no doubt considering himself entitled to use that access, in order to set up and drive forward charities and promote views, but not as part of his preparation for kingship … Ministers responded, and no doubt felt themselves obliged to respond, but again not as part of Prince Charles's preparation for kingship."
Yesterday’s Leader in the Guardian described the situation thus: “It seems all too clear that the disturbing prospect of a systemic and fundamental abuse of the essentially passive role of the crown in our constitutional monarchical system was too dangerous to contemplate”.
I agree.
Unfortunately, it would appear that the Prince has rather more influence with government ministers than you or I have.
My impression is that the Queen has undertaken this aspect of her duties in an entirely appropriate, low-key fashion (ie. when it comes to “consulting”, “encouraging” and “warning”). I don’t think the same thing can or would be said for the Prince’s dabbling… and it really worries me.
It just shouldn’t be like this!
Photo: The only positive aspect of this shameful affair is this brilliant cartoon from The Guardian’s Steve Bell. Absolutely wonderful!

Monday, October 15, 2012

karine polwart


I went to another Karine Polwart concert on Saturday night – at Colston Hall. I think this was the fifth time I’ve seen her perform. Predictably, she was quite brilliant (performing alongside her brother Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson).
She studied politics and philosophy at university and later worked in the area of women’s and children’s rights and now, through her songwriting, she provides a powerful commentary on people’s lives and the world in general (that sounds VERY grand doesn’t it, but her songs definitely work for me in this respect). 
I’m not sure who wrote this about her, but I think they’ve got it absolutely right:  
“Her songs deal with humanity in all its many guises: there is tenderness, triumph and sorrow, raised flags of rebellion and independence, flashes of anger at power abused and misused. Perhaps most frequently she deals in spare, unsentimental empathy, often with those who have been dealt the least playable hands in the game of life”.
Eloquent, intelligent, political, lyrical, funny, rebellious, humble and inspirational.
PS: Travelling in their van from gig to gig, they apparently try to think up (and sing) cover songs they might be able perform with a ukulele accompaniment… and they’ve now begun to ask their audiences for suggestions too! On Saturday night, they sang Billy Bragg’s “A New England” in this format (which was quite brilliant – and the full house joined in very enthusiastically). They promised to post a version on YouTube. I can’t now remember what our audience suggested but, again, they’ve promised a YouTube posting! I’ll endeavour to remember to add the links in due course.
PPS: Her latest CD “Traces” is excellent (possibly her best yet?) and I was delighted to see that, as well as the song lyrics, the notes provide background information to each of the songs (in the same way as she does when she introduces them at her gigs). I like this!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

on the road


I don’t normally read a review before seeing a film, but I HAD seen Peter Bradshaw’s two-star review in this week’s Guardian. So I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon with relatively low expectations. In the event, I really quite enjoyed it. Walter Salles’s “On The Road” film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 book of the same name is a predictably heady blur of sex and drugs. It’s set in 1949 (the year of my birth!) and captures a thrill-seeking, free spirit of post-war America. Strangely, throughout the film, I kept comparing it with another road-movie “Easy Rider” (set in the America of the mid-1960s) and felt that the characters were much more like hippies of the 60s than beatniks of the late 40s/early 50s.
Nevertheless, and despite the film’s length (it’s 2hrs 17mins long!), I enjoyed it. The acting - featuring Garrett Hedlund (who plays Dean Moriarty), Sam Riley (Sal Paradise) and Kristen Stewart (Marylou) - is consistently impressive and the period details are excellent.
Photo: Sal, Marlou and Dean.

Friday, October 12, 2012

energy-sapping


So, yet again, our “poor” (interpret this however you wish!) energy providers are “having” to increase their prices to its customers.
Npower will increase the price of gas by an average of 8.8% and electricity by 9.1% from 26 November. Earlier, British Gas, the UK's biggest energy supplier, raised its charges for both types of fuel by an average of 6%, adding £80 a year to the average dual fuel bill. SSE (which trades as Scottish Hydro, Swalec and Southern Electric) has already said it will raise its prices by an average of 9% from Monday.
The firms blame the government's energy policies as well as wholesale prices – but the fact remains that they’re all making comfortable profits, thank you very much!
In July, Centrica (the owner of British Gas) reported a 15% rise in first-half adjusted operating profits to £1.45BILLION. In May, SSE reported first-half adjusted profit for the year ended March 2012 at £1.34BILLION. In March, Npower announced a 34% leap in annual profits. We have yet to hear anything from E.On, EDF and Scottish Power, but I have a sneaking feeling we might hear “more of the same” (of course).
Richard Lloyd of consumer group Which? criticised the lack of competition in the energy market: "What we need to see is action from the government and more pressure on... these very big lazy companies who think it's OK to clobber people with above-inflation price rises at the very time when they can least afford it”.
Although I’ve not written posts EVERY time energy price have been raised, I’m conscious that I’m in danger of becoming an “energy bore” (eg. click here and here for stuff I posted in February and March last year – nothing has changed!).
But, it seems to me that the BIG SIX energy providers have what amounts to a monopolistic control over the prices they charge their customers while, AT THE SAME TIME, ensure that they themselves make ENORMOUS profits. Of course(!), they have to pay their executives massive salaries/pay the market rate (and bonuses) to stop them taking jobs with rival companies (what utter “tosh”) and, once again, it’s also all about their shareholders’ profits (surely, that can’t be right either?).
We, the poor consumers, have absolutely no choice in the matter.
There seems little point in constantly changing suppliers because they ALL increase their prices on a regular basis and, frankly, we’ve all become totally disillusioned by the process anyway.
We just don’t trust the energy providers and Ofgem seems to be completely ineffective… and we can do absolutely nothing about it.
It’s frankly scandalous and government intervention seems the only option. But, of course, it’s global market and the consumer is a mere “bit player”.  
Surely, it shouldn’t be like this?

september/october books


More books:
Letters to my Grandchildren (Tony Benn): An encouraging book – idealistic and affectionate – comprising 39 letters to his grandchildren (together with a lovely postscript “The Daddy Shop” – an invented story of his). Even if you don’t altogether agree with his political views, you can’t help but appreciate his constant curiosity and zest for life. He seems to have been around forever and, when he eventually goes, he’s going to be much-missed.
On Bard Duty (Nicholas Day): Nick Day has been performing alongside our son-in-law Felix at the RSC for the past two years. This is essentially intended to be a short book that provides useful insights to young actors (especially those on the Shakespearian stage) plus extracts from his blog covering this year’s “Shipwreck Trilogy” of plays. It’s informative and entertaining and, at times, a little precious!
Crome Yellow (Aldous Huxley): Our latest book group book. I’m afraid I found it a little boring! It revolves about a small gathering of people at Crome manor house in 1922 and is essentially a philosophical novel about romance and sex – but that rather gives the impression that it be exciting (it isn’t!). Well written+observed and, at times, provides an interesting insight into the upper-/middle-class world of the 1920s. Very disappointing.   
Once in Europa (John Berger+Patricia MacDonald): This is the second in Berger’s “Into Their Labours” trilogy (my hardback copy – bought for just £2 instead of £20 - is also accompanied by Patricia MacDonald’s stunning photographs). It’s essentially a love story, set in a French alpine village, which celebrates life despite the shameful things we’re doing to the planet due to greed, exploitation, over-development, industrialisation and power. I found this short book really rather captivating.
Everyday God (Paula Gooder): I’ve been using Gooder’s commentaries as a daily focus for reflection. She reckons that “we need the ordinary in order to help us fully to encounter the extraordinary” and I wouldn’t argue with that. It’s a well-written, straightforward and encouraging book.

Monday, October 08, 2012

spicer+cole: new cafe of choice!


I seem to spend quite a lot of my time in cafes these days!
It’s something I’ve really been enjoying since retirement last year (and cafes DO seem to feature rather regularly in my recent determination to produce “a drawing or a photograph for each day”!).
We’re spoilt for choice here in Bristol - No.1 Harbourside and the Mud Dock Deli are two of my favourites.
BUT, I’ve now got a new “caf√© of choice” – it’s called Spicer+Cole.
It’s located on Queen Square Avenue - just off Queen Square and opposite the Welsh Back Health Club/Gym. It might not have a harbourside view (although the water is a mere 30m away), but it DOES have an awful lot of other things going for it as far as I’m concerned. It’s a beautiful, elegant, light and airy place serving truly EXCELLENT coffee (crucial for me!)… plus a wide variety of food for breakfasts, brunches, lunches and beyond. The staff are great too.
Simple, vitally-important pleasures!
Photo: taken from Spicer+Cole’s facebook page (sorry/thanks!).

Sunday, October 07, 2012

matti braun at the arnolfini


I love art and like to think I’ve got quite eclectic tastes.
Unfortunately, however, when it comes to art exhibitions at the Arnolfini, I frankly just don’t get them.
That’s not entirely true… there have been perhaps THREE exhibitions over the past nine years (ie. since we came to live in Bristol) that have struck some sort of chord with me. As far as the rest are concerned, I’m afraid it’s been a case of the “Emperor’s new clothes”. Perhaps I’m in a minority, but I yearn for a time when the Arnofini showcases more “accessible art” (maybe there’s something in its constitution that it insists on them focusing on the more obscure stuff?).
Well, I’m pleased to say (in my humble view!) that the latest exhibition IS worth seeing!
It’s called “Gost Log” and the exhibition opened yesterday (it runs until 6 January). It features a selection of work by Cologne-based artist Matti Braun from the last 15 years. Actually, for me, the key part of the exhibition features a “dark and shimmering lake” which takes over the whole of the central exhibition space and “can be crossed over by a meandering path of wooden logs, which invites the audience to become part of the scene”. It’s impressive and seems to provide a sense of wonder to all who experience the space. I’m afraid that most of the remainder of the exhibition “didn’t do it for me” (although some of the silk paintings were rather beguiling).
I’ll leave you with this extract from the Arnolfini’s exhibition guide – which might prove helpful in explaining a little more about the exhibition (or then again, if you’re anything like me, it’ll go completely “over your head”!):
"His delicate paintings on silk, prints, objects and installations are often based on stories and histories of specific people or ideas, but abstracts away from these into his own formal and conceptual explorations. Referring to different craft traditions, contemporary aesthetics, design and fashion, Braun’s work focuses on moments of intense exchange between global cultures.
His practice explores cultural misunderstandings and their impact on forms and ideas, elucidating social and aesthetic developments that may have been overlooked or buried. Following his research interests, Braun develops an eclectic and elaborate mesh of concepts that challenges conventional interpretations of Modernity.”
I hope that clarifies things!
Photo: Braun’s “dark and shimmering lake”.
PS: But it WAS brilliant to meet up with Dave+Tamsie(+Oscar+Hector)!

Friday, October 05, 2012

rich man’s toys*


So, it appears that Richard Branson was right. The west coast mainline franchising process was fundamentally “flawed” (a slight under-statement?) and the government has decided that it should be re-tendered. Of course, it’s all going to cost the tax payer - compensation figure of £40million has been banded about, but some observers reckon that this will look like “small change” when the true cost has been established.
Clearly(!), this is nothing to do with the Transport Secretary (Justine Greening has conveniently swapped jobs recently) and, inevitably, civil servants are being blamed. But, according to The Times, WS Atkins and law firm Eversheds were hired in January to give technical advice on the franchise process!
Perhaps it REALLY is time the railways were returned to public ownership?

In a letter in today’s Guardian, Green MP Caroline Lucas calls for exactly that and points out the following:
Since privatisation in the 1990s, the cost of train travel in the UK has risen by 17% in real terms – compared with a 7% drop in the cost of motoring…  Thanks to higher interest payments to keep debts off the government balance sheet, and costs arising from fragmentation and the complex network of subcontractors, the cost to the public purse of running the railways has risen by 2 to 3 times since privatisation…
Bringing the railways back into public hands could save over £1bn a year of taxpayers' money – some of which could be spent on reducing fares…”
Despite the fact that none of the three major parties is calling for renationalisation of the railways, it appears that the public very definitely DO want the railways to be returned to public ownership (93% in a Guardian website poll; 75% in a MSN poll and a similar number in a GfKNOP poll).
In its last year before privatisation, our railways apparently required just £431m in public subsidy. By 2006, the figure had reached over £6 BILLION. Economists at UBS found British fares are now the most expensive in the world.  The Labour government commissioned a review by Roy McNulty into the railways. It was published under the coalition and found that the costs of our fragmented system (note: there are apparently over 2,000 firms who operate UK trains!) had created a 40% "efficiency gap" over our continental neighbours and their mostly nationalised railways.
Oliver Huitson wrote this in The Guardian in March this year:
"For so-called ‘choice’, if you arrive at Victoria and you need a train to Brighton, there is one company and one price (£24.10). In Europe, the same fare would cost an average £11. If we paid the same fares as the French with their nationalised service, it is estimated we would save over £4bn a year. Yes, if you dig around three years in advance and have a small team of analysts at your disposal, you might just find a bargain. But woe betide the swaggering Johnny who turns up at a British station and expects to just stroll onto a train at a fair price; that braggadocio is a thing of the past”.
Don’t you just LOVE it!
Note: *words used by the Conservative former transport minister, Philip Hammond, to describe the railway system in September last year.