Wednesday, 25 February 2009

An offer you can't refuse

As a keen student of the vocabulary of the new managerialism, I’ve noticed that the word ‘offer,’ preceded by various adjectives, is becoming almost as ubiquitous among the suits as that better-known, ill-starred phrase, ‘going forward’. While eating a meal at a motorway service station recently I read a free booklet titled ‘Good Enough to Eat’ (not, on reflection, much of a recommendation) which boasted that ‘we have a team of what we call “foodies” (they live and breathe food) who are dedicated to the continual evolution of Welcome Break’s food offer’.

The meal was as appetising as you would expect something described as a ‘food offer’ to be.

I have also noticed that universities, in their mission statements, have started to talk about ‘our academic offer’ – not in the conventional sense of 2 B’s and a C to do history, but in the sense of the overall student experience packaged as a commodity.

Then on Radio 4’s PM programme I heard the man from Wirral council justifying a programme of library closures in the borough by arguing that we have to ‘use our remaining buildings more imaginatively … if we want to improve our cultural offer’. The argument seemed to be that reducing the number of library buildings was not necessarily worsening the library service – the all-inclusive ‘offer’.

The significance of the word ‘offer’ is surely not simply to do with its associations with consumerism. It suggests that goods and services can be trimmed down and corralled into a manageable whole. The natural partners of the ‘offer’ are the ‘one-stop shop’ and the ‘hub’ – more voguish words de nos jours. Any amount of centralisation and rationalisation can be justified in the name of that nebulous entity, the ‘offer’ eg ‘We’re sorry we’ve had to sack all our librarians, dump all the books on landfill sites and turn all the library buildings into tanning centres and massage parlours. But we feel this is the best strategy for improving our overall cultural offer going forward.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Is there anyone who has not once been stunned, emerging from the Métro into the open air, to step into brilliant sunlight? And yet the sun shone a few minutes earlier, when he went down, just as brightly. So quickly has he forgotten the weather of the upper world. And as quickly the world in its turn will forget him. For who can say more of his own existence than that it has passed through the lives of two or three others as gently and closely as the weather?’ – Walter Benjamin

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Street writings

I have a piece in this week’s New Statesman about the archaeology of the contemporary past which you can read at As part of the research for this article, I walked round my neighbourhood picking up street debris, and discovered a surprising amount of writing discarded and neglected on our pavements. Some of these works are as gnomic as imagist poems; others are as gripping as mini-novels. Here is a sample of what I found on scraps of paper:

‘A Passage to India: A Journey to Authentic Indian Cuisine. Tikka Dishes will have £1.00 surcharge.’

‘Do dodgy electrics get you in a nark? Then ring your local bright “spark”!! No job too small. All electrical work including alarms. Available evenings and weekends 7 days a week! Call Michael on -----. Anytime!!!’

‘Year 10 and 11. Please could Mrs Hornby see all girls that are interested in attending a Dance Leaders Award at Childwall College during half term. Meeting at break time today in the Dance Studio. Please do not be late. Thank you.’

‘Please could I have 2 extra pints and 2 bread. Thank you.’

‘Dear Parents/Carers, Next week, Thursday 12th February, we are having an own clothes day to raise money for school fund. Children may come to school in their home clothes for a donation of 50p. Kind regards, Lisa -------, Deputy Head.’

‘Home Bargains. Tunnocks Caramel Wafers 4pk 0.59. Total to pay 0.59. Cash tender 1.00. Change due 0.41. Please retain your receipt. You will need it in case of product exchange, refund or warranty claim.’

‘Village Satellite Cars. Your nearest not dearest. Fed up with your usual taxi service? Paying over the odds? Waiting to long? [sic] Drivers grumpy? Want a lady driver? Or do you just want a change. Village taxis!’

Written on one side of A4 paper along with lots of street names: ‘Mass marketing gloss leaflets: 10,000, £155. A7 flyers: 10,000, £135.’ I hope this is the price for producing the flyers, not someone’s fee for sticking them through letterboxes. That really would be slave labour.

‘The Star 0.20. Football Cake 5.47. Total 5.67. Cash 6.00. Change due 0.33. Sign up for Clubcard. You could have earned 5 Clubcard points in this transaction. Tesco: Every Little Helps.’

On a piece of laminated card: ‘Certificate of Achievement. Oliver ------- has earned this certificate for Excellent work in Spanish. All Star Student. Trabajo Excelente !!!!!!!!! Senora Volante, 9th February 2009, Mrs Volante’s Spanish Club.’

On the related theme of tantalisingly incomplete pieces of writing, the poet Simon Armitage has a column in the Observer Music Monthly in which he recounts his attempts to spend exactly £33.33* on old vinyl records. I liked this description of the writing on one second-hand record:

“My final purchase is Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, mainly for the handwriting on the back, saying that the album was once the possession of one Malcolm Dunn of Yeovil. Inside, a sadder note: 'Mandy 4 Malc', it says, but with Mandy's name semi-obliterated with blue ink. I search the net: are you Malcolm Dunn, webmaster of the Mill Church organisation, Somerset, or are you the Malcolm Dunn that came 570th in the 2003 Beachy Head marathon in a modest five hours and 44 minutes? In my head I hear the voice of Simon Bates and the music to 'Our Tune'. I feel that Malcolm must be found, that the Malcolm and Mandy situation needs closure, and that Malcolm must once again allow himself the pleasures of the mighty Zep. Malcolm, are you out there?”

*If you don’t know the reason for this precise sum, you are clearly an unredeemable member of the iPod generation. Off with you, you young whippersnapper.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Above us only sky

Every week, on the way to the supermarket, I pass Liverpool John Lennon airport with its very unreassuring sign (at least it is for a nervous non-flyer like me): ‘Above us only sky’. This has prompted a few disconnected thoughts about airports.

1. London Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe, employs more people than the city of Oxford. The late architectural critic Martin Pawley argued that Heathrow ‘is not only better than London, it is everything that London isn’t’.

2. Airports are ‘designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, and seem to be almost the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.’ – J.G. Ballard

3. I remember an edition of You and Yours on Radio 4 from a few years ago, in which they interviewed a farmer with land near John Lennon Airport. He said that more than half of his annual income came from allowing people using the airport to park their cars in his fields. Cars were his most profitable cash crop.

4. Jock Kinneir, the designer of the blue motorway signs, also designed the British Airport Authority’s signage with black lettering on a yellow background and pictograms which has since become the international standard.

5. ‘It is not the limitless anarchic space of everyday life, where you must scrabble for a living. It is circumscribed. It is newer, cleaner and smarter than everyday life; and services wait to spring to the salute when you press the button. You are free to supply your own wants, but all the sources of supply are within stroll.’ - Brigid Brophy on the airport

6. In a typical episode of the BBC docusoap Airport, which deals with the comings and goings at Heathrow, there are four narrative strands. An Alsation dog in a stop-off from Hong Kong to America has to be relieved and taken by the animal squad to a special kennel because of the quarantine laws. Four Norwegian women have lost their bags and are refusing to fly on to Oslo until BA finds them. A photographer waits around for a supermodel but the supermodel refuses to be photographed. A womble dressed in a kilt and sporran arrives and finds that he cannot travel unidentified for security reasons, so he has to change.

7. ‘[The airport] is a miniaturised city. As a simulated metropolis it is inhabited by a community of modern nomads: a collective metaphor of cosmopolitan existence where the pleasure of travel is not only to arrive, but also not to be in any particular place.’ - Iain Chambers

8. For the French anthropologist Marc Augé, the airport is the classic example of a ‘non-place,’ a new type of environment that renders the role of the anthropologist redundant. A Durkheimian analysis of the transit lounge at Roissy is impossible, he writes, because here the ‘organically social’ has been replaced by ‘solitary contractuality’. The airport offers a series of stable reference points – internationally standardised icons signifying toilets, duty-free shops and departure gates, internationally recognised zones such as passport control, customs and baggage reclaim, internationally known retail outlets. In the airport, we surrender to the authority of experts who check us in, take our baggage, usher us through security barriers and relieve us of responsibility and identity. Once we go through the passengers-only gate, navigate the passport and security checks and enter the transit lounge, we are literally nowhere, a kind of international non-place where different rules apply. Airports are self-contained little worlds, microcosmic societies which lack the geographical justification of traditional cities, owing their existence instead to the distribution of international trade and tourism.

9. If we surrender our identity in the airport as Augé argues, we do so by adopting the persona of the airlines’ most valued customer: the white, middle-aged, businessman. Airports and aeroplanes are the last bastions of the old-fashioned hierarchies of commercial travel. Airlines ruthlessly segregate the flying elite from what is known contemptuously in the trade as ‘zoo class,’ the economy fliers who are offered less facilities, less oxygen and less legroom (thus being exposed to the greater risk of deep vein thrombosis, or ‘economy-class syndrome’). This is not simply a matter of money – the frequent flying or loyalty to a particular airline which will give the customer access to executive clubs and luxurious lounges – but the successfulness of one’s impersonation of the ideal customer. Economy-class passengers are far more likely to blag an upgrade or be able to check in at the business-class desk if they are well-groomed and besuited, not dressed like a backpacker.

10. Airports are not always spaces of smooth contractuality, as Augé suggests. Or at least, the contract is unfairly weighted to the producers, thanks to the Warsaw Convention which gives air passengers virtually no right of redress if things go wrong. Airlines always overbook their flights in the expectation that passengers will cancel or not show (a highly likely eventuality since full-fare tickets are block-booked by businesses who know they are fully refundable after the event). A customer is far more likely to be ‘bumped’ – taken off the flight because it is overbooked – if she is not an exalted member of the frequent-flyer club. Business-class travellers stuck in transit because of missed connections are given hotel rooms, meals, free long-distance calls; those in economy class are fobbed off with a token for a cup of coffee.

If anyone else is interested in airports I recommend David Pascoe’s Airspaces (Reaktion, 2001), an elegant meld of cultural history, architectural/literary/filmic criticism and personal observation.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Funny Valentines

Seen inside a Hallmark Valentine card (which for some reason I feel the need to say was neither sent nor received by me): ‘Falling in love with you is the best thing that's ever happened to me. Whether we're laughing and enjoying each other’s company or spending quiet moments in each other's arms, the times we share are the best times in my life. Our relationship means so much to me. And I know that I could never love anyone else the way that I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.’

The sentimental doggerel traditionally found inside Valentine’s cards is now being replaced by these strangely specific messages, which remind me of the tailor-made marriage vows used by Americans in secular weddings, and which will no doubt be over here soon as well.


My dad found this on the internal website at his place of work, which I think better remain anonymous:

‘Struggling to get away from your desk for a Campus Walk? Do not fear, help is here. The web-based workouts, called “Deskercise,” will allow office-based staff to build exercise into their daily routine. The exercise programmes have been devised around the themes “Stretching and Posture,” “Strength & Conditioning” and “Relaxation and Breathing”. Click on the image above or the link below to try DESKERCISE.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If we had a keen vision of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ – George Eliot, Middlemarch

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Greetings from Earth

I’ll read any book and watch any film about astronauts. If this seems like an odd thing for a student of the everyday to be interested in, let me explain. Sometimes it helps to look at the mundane like a visitor from outer space might do, deprived of the universal narcotic of habit. That’s what the Martian school of poetry was trying to do in the 1970s, and it’s presumably why Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, after a spending a month on the French freeways, wrote a book about it titled The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

I'm particularly interested in the Voyager project, those space probes sent off into the farthest reaches of the galaxy in the 1970s with a disc containing music (Bach, Chuck Berry, Peruvian panpipes) and images (Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids) for the bemusement of hypothetical extraterrestrials. The disc also contained a series of messages composed by different nations in various languages. I found these messages strangely moving in their collective decision to break the silence of space with the phatic communion of the cocktail party. So I made this sort-of-found poem out of them.


Hi. How are you?

Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday.
Good day to the entire world. Are you well?
Welcome home. It is a pleasure to receive you.
Hello! Let there be peace everywhere.
Greetings to you, whoever you are: we have good will towards you and bring you peace across space.
Dear Turkish-speaking friends, may the honours of the morning be upon your heads.
We greet you, great ones. We wish you longevity.

To all those who exist in the universe, greetings.
How are you?
Welcome, creatures from beyond the outer world.
Wishing you a peaceful future from the earthlings!

Hope everyone’s well. We are thinking about you all. Please come here to visit us when you have time.
Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth.
How are all you people of other planets?
Greetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact.

Hello to the residents of far skies.
We are sending greetings from our world, wishing you happiness, good health and many years.
We wish you everything good from our planet.
Greetings to the inhabitants of the universe from the third planet Earth of the star the Sun.

Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.
Hello to everyone. We are happy here and you be happy there.
Good health to you now and forever.
Good night ladies and gentlemen. Goodbye and see you next time.

(Source: Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, eds Carl Sagan et al (New York: Random House, 1978).)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

20 Sites n. Years

I don’t know much about art but … it beats me why anyone bothers with unmade beds and sheep in formaldehyde when they could be stimulated, provoked and moved by the work of Tom Phillips instead. Phillips tends to mirror the repetitions of everyday life by working incrementally, collecting similar materials together or recycling leftover mixed paint to produce a series of works, then meticulously documenting and cross-referencing this development in diaries of activity. His autobiographical concrete poem, Curriculum Vitae, connects this aspect of his work with childhood obsessions, recalling the ‘anal diligence’ with which he collected trolleybus numbers and steamed labels from matchbox tops, ‘all strife of art inside a filing clerk’. His work Brent Cross (1991-2) is a crucifix created out of glossy advertisements from Sunday colour supplements. Named after a particularly soulless shopping mall off the North Circular Road, it is perhaps a reflection on the residual pull of spirituality in the rituals of mass consumerism. Women’s Work (1997) is a gigantic patchwork quilt made up of the vividly coloured calling cards left in London telephone booths.

My favourite work of his is 20 Sites n. Years, an ongoing photographic project begun in 1973, the development of which Phillips illustrates in a biennial lecture and slide show held at the Tate Gallery. (You can check it out at Phillips’s website at Every year, on a day between 24 May and 2 June, Phillips takes photographs of the same twenty locations around Camberwell and Peckham on the closest walkable route to a circle half a mile in radius from the central point of the house he was living in at the beginning of the project. Between 10.20am and 5.30pm on the designated day, he walks the circumference of the circle, stopping at the various sites at regular intervals, which are thus photographed at the same time of day each year. He marks each spot with a cross using a car spray aerosol, so that the pictures are always taken from exactly the same position and angle. The sites are humdrum locations chosen more or less at random: residential streets, shops, pubs, car parks, bowling greens, housing estates and cinemas. This is what I wrote about the project a few years ago in an article for an art journal:

“Phillips locates 20 Sites south of the river, in that generally less cosmopolitan and more domesticated area of the capital that the nineteenth-century novelist and historian Walter Besant once referred to as ‘a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history’. The photographs are taken in a particularly downbeat and economically deprived borough, one which is almost literally off the map: Camberwell and Peckham are routinely excluded from guidebooks, and are not serviced by the London Underground.

But Phillips’s project is not a sociological investigation of urban decline, even though it mimics the form of the longitudinal study, an attempt to identify the causes of social change through an observation of the same group or situation at regular time intervals. Instead, he uses the fact that these neighbourhoods have not experienced the impact of property developers or the upwardly-mobile middle classes (unlike most areas of London since the 1980s), in order to reflect on important but barely perceptible changes in urban landscapes which are not covered within the conceptual frameworks of social science. In some of the sites, the evidence of external events will be seen in the minutiae of private lives: a general election poster, a sticker celebrating the Pope’s visit, bunting for a Silver jubilee party. Other sites will show how daily routines change under the impact of technological or commercial innovation. A milkman delivers bottles in 1981, soon to become an anthropological curiosity; the Peckham Odeon is knocked down, perhaps under pressure from the multiplexes; Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic red telephone box morphs into the more functional glass kiosk of the 1980s; satellite dishes sprout sporadically from roofs. While cars, fashions and street furniture change, though, this project is largely an exercise in sameness and resemblance. In one housing estate, change can only be spotted in tiny, insignificant details: a new drainpipe on one of the houses, a splodge of yellow paint on the road, a piece of tape on an iron railing. If these photographs were not clearly organised as a series with a running commentary from the photographer, it would be difficult to work out their chronological sequence.

When change occurs within the project, it often seems pointless, as if, in Phillips’s words, ‘there are spots in suburbia where the world feels an itch and needs to scratch itself’. Benches, paving stones and flower beds disappear and then return in slightly different places, while some streets seem to be used as practice areas for road diggers or sign erectors. Phillips speculates that, if 20 Sites is typical of the country as a whole, then a lot of people ‘are involved in totally random and arbitrary activity. They seem to cancel out each other’s work in a long dance of job protection.’ Like the I-Spy Books, those monuments to trivia which have sent many a postwar British schoolchild on the useless quest for a ‘no loading’ sign or a mini-roundabout, Phillips’s search for mundane detail in the urban landscape generates its own logic.

Photography has a potentially closer relationship to the everyday than other visual forms because of what Walter Benjamin calls its ‘unconscious optics,’ its ability ‘to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder’. For Benjamin, photography succeeds in uncovering elements of experience that are overlooked by the fallible human eye. No matter how posed or artful the camera shot is, it will still reveal contingent elements which are not part of the compositional strategies of the photographer. Photography thus makes visible ‘the physiognomic aspects of visual worlds which dwell in the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams’.

Phillips’s photographs break some of the cardinal rules of ‘good’ photography. The subject matter has not been selected or arranged in any way, so the compositions are untidy and lopsided; there are several points of interest, with no attempt to hierarchise them; individual figures are often moving out of shot and looking out of rather than into the picture. The people who enter the frame are determined not by the whim of the photographer but by the rhythms and rituals of the day: a retired woman walking her dog in mid-morning; a man walking past at lunchtime eating a burger; a boy returning from school in mid-afternoon; groups of men and women filing home at the end of the working day. These people are rarely aware that they are being photographed, and are often at the edges of the pictures, obstructed by objects or slightly out of focus. The artlessness of the photographs suggests that they do not represent a self-contained universe: life goes on outside the frame.”

All this may sound familiar to fans of Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s 1995 film, Smoke, in which a writer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), befriends Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), who works behind the counter of a cigar store in downtown Brooklyn. Auggie proudly shows Hurt his life’s work, a photographic project of over 4000 stills. Every morning at eight o’clock for fourteen years, he has stood at the corner of his street and taken a picture of the same view, and has then collected the photographs together into a series, with all the dates meticulously recorded. At first, Paul is puzzled at what he is being asked to look at. ‘They’re all the same,’ he says. When Auggie tells him to slow down and look more carefully, Paul begins to see what he has missed: subtle changes in the weather, seasons and angle of the sun, the shift between weekdays and weekends, and the same passers-by appearing and reappearing on their way to work, in slightly different configurations each day. Auggie’s seemingly boring and mechanical snapshooting is an attempt to capture the meaning of those aspects of city life that normally lie beyond the realm of the visible: the intricate texture and fabric of lives, the unconscious ways in which human activity moulds itself around the physical environment.

In 2002 I started my own Smoke/20 Sites-inspired project, taking pictures at every bus stop on the Sheil Road circular, the number 27 bus route that goes all the way round the centre of Liverpool. Taking a tip from Phillips, I made a little mark on the pavement with an aerosol can of black paint* so I would know exactly where to stand the next year, and the year after that. But I gave the project up after a few hair-raising encounters with people who, perhaps understandably, did not like their neighbourhoods being turned into a piece of art-cum-urban sociology. After one of these people threatened to lamp me, I made my excuses and left – on slightly wobbly legs - for good.

*This blog accepts no liability for any damage which may or may not have been done to public property by any person or persons associated with it.