Saturday, 29 May 2010

The reluctant tweeter

We’ve heard all about the celebrity tweeters with a million followers, and almost as much about the twitter refuseniks, the people who wouldn’t know a tweet from a pod, a tube or a flickr. What you don’t hear much about are the people inbetween: the part-time, reluctant tweeters. I keep coming across neglected Twitter pages on the internet, made by people who’ve been on Twitter for a year and have managed about five tweets, the last one on 9 November saying they really must get round to using this thing properly. Despite this twittery costiveness they don’t seem to have any problem accumulating followers, people who are hanging on their every infrequent word like truth-seekers waiting for the wise words of a holy man.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have joined this band of Salingeresque tweeters at

and have managed 7 tweets in just over a month. As you will see I currently have no followers, and no idea how you acquire them. If any tweeters out there would like to break my duck, I think I can promise I won’t be bothering them very often.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘One day is much like another for the desk-bound office worker: life ebbs away, almost imperceptibly, in a blur of meetings and memos and gossip, of coffee-drinking and conferences and sticky summer afternoons when a post-prandial slumber becomes almost de rigueur; and our passage from our thirties into our forties and beyond is accompanied, and given definition, by the complicated movement of pieces of paper from one place to another.’ – Jeremy Lewis, Kindred Spirits

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Road journey

On Roads is now out in paperback!

Found this in the Guardian, 7 December 1973: ‘The Kentucky Fried Chicken people have applied for planning permission to open a finger-licking branch in Forest Hill, South London. The reason they give for making the application: “To raise the tone of the area.”’

Very touched by Jonathan Bate’s account, in his biography of John Clare, of the poet’s famous journey along the Great North Road (now the A1) from his mental asylum in Epping Forest to his home county of Northamptonshire. Clare, penniless and destitute, walked the whole way and he must have been an odd sight to people passing by: no longer the famous poet of his twenties, just over five feet tall, in a daze of hunger and dehydration – occasionally eating the grass by the road side ‘which seemed to taste something like bread’, or chewing tobacco and swallowing it to ease his hunger.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The best views are views of familiar things, like cities and farms and bottlenecked freeways. So set aside the beauty of sunsets, the majesty of mountains, the imprint of winds on golden prairies. The world beneath our wings has become a human artefact, our most spontaneous and complex creation … The aerial view is something entirely new. We need to admit that it flattens the world and mutes it in a rush of air and engines, and that it suppresses beauty. But it also strips the facades from our constructions, and by raising us above the constraints of the treeline and the highway it imposes a brutal honesty on our perceptions.’ – William Langewiesche, ‘The View from Above’.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Sartre at the bus stop

I don’t write about queuing much any more – I’ve said a lot about it before and, anyway, now I’m a megastar I can get my people to queue up for me – but here are some thoughts about waiting in line prompted by having to get the bus this week because my car was being serviced.

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre describes a queue forming early one morning at a bus stop on the Place Saint-Germain in Paris. He argues that those lining up at the stop ‘achieve practical and theoretical participation in common being’ because they have a shared interest, as people who regularly use the bus service and who all have business that day on the Right Bank. But compared to people gathered together for some collective purpose like a street festival or popular uprising, these bus-stop queuers produce only a ‘plurality of isolations’. The bus passenger does not know how many people are going to be at the stop when he arrives or how full the next bus will be, and so is encouraged to see his fellow queuers as competitors for a potentially scarce resource. He takes a ticket from a machine by the stop, which indicates the order of his arrival and assigns him an order of priority when the bus arrives. By accepting this system, he acknowledges that his identity is interchangeable with that of the other passengers, a ‘being-outside-himself as a reality shared by several people’ which assigns him a place in a ‘prefabricated seriality’.

I would guess that Sartre didn’t often have to wait for a bus. Indeed, this passage is typical of the slightly begrudging, tangential way in which the quotidian emerged as a subject of intellectual inquiry over the last century. Sartre uses the bus queue as an easily understood example, raw material for a thought experiment which allows him to move on to weightier matters of politics and philosophy. He sees it as an abstraction of the laws of political economy, based on the competitive quest for a limited resource - in this case, seats on the awaited bus. The actual queue itself is devoid of any wider meaning: ‘This unity is not symbolic … it has nothing to symbolise; it is what unites everything’. The example only works because of the nature of the queue that Sartre describes. This orderly cohort of people taking tickets from a machine would certainly seem very strange to a contemporary British bus queuer.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again.’ – William James

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

How to live

In Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, she introduces him as the father of the blogosphere:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods brings up thousands of individuals, fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they write diaries, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self … This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity – has not existed for ever. It had to be invented. And, unlike, many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official and wine-grower who lived in the Perigord area of south-western France from 1533 to 1592.

People who write only about themselves can of course be self-dramatising and detached from the world. But they can also be more finely attuned to mundane realities. ‘There is no escaping our perspective,’ as Montaigne wrote, winningly. ‘We can walk only on our own legs, and sit only on our own bum.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Britain is the greatest nation in Europe for handymen and potterers-about; it has the highest proportion of people who do their own wallpapering, painting, drilling, and plumbing, and the highest proportion who buy second-hand cars. A broad picture unfolds of the British living a withdrawn and inarticulate life, rather like Harold Pinter’s people, mowing lawns and painting walls, pampering pets, listening to music, knitting and watching television. If one wanted a symbol of what distinguishes contemporary British life from that of other countries it might well be a potting shed.’ – Anthony Sampson, The Anatomy of Britain (1971)

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The yellow line to nowhere

I gave a talk at the Kenilworth festival yesterday. Kenilworth held me in such a welcoming embrace that I couldn’t get out of it. It took me three quarters of an hour to find my way out of the town on to the right road, especially as my satnav wanted to take me to Stratford-upon-Avon. What a relief to arrive on the motorway and be guided home by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s beautifully clear blue signs, even though I always think there is something melancholy about driving on motorways as the sun sets. It reminded me that I’ve been long been interested in signs and wayfinding, and of this piece I wrote a few years ago about the signage in the Barbican arts centre which has not seen the light of day until now:

In mythology, finding the way through a maze is a common initiation rite. Built at the gates of fortified towns, mazes warded off both human adversaries and evil spirits. When the Barbican arts centre first opened, visitors must have similarly felt like helpless non-initiates, dismissed as unworthy of the revelation of some hidden mystery. They would arrive at the wrong level, spend ages queuing up at the wrong box office or simply get lost in the concrete walkways.

Why was the arts centre so difficult to navigate? First, it was built later than the Barbican’s residential blocks, and the influential lobby of affluent tenants wanted an unobtrusive design. Much of the centre was hidden underground, and the fa├žade was almost invisible from the lakeside entrance. Second, the centre’s ambitious multi-functionalism meant that it was really one big building housing lots of little buildings, linked together by a convoluted network of part-floors.

An early attempt to alleviate this wayfinding problem, the celebrated yellow lines on the ground which were supposed to serve as a modern-day Ariadne’s thread guiding visitors through the labyrinth, only made things worse. The first serious rethink came with the Pentagram redesign of the early 1990s. Some improvements were made. Level 5, where most people entered, became, more logically, the ground floor. The attempt to announce the Silk Street entrance more emphatically with gilded statues of the Greek muses was less successful. The multi-coloured, abstract mural climbing up the foyer wall, designed to give each floor its own individual character and colour (the colours gradually lightened as the floors rose) was too abstract to give anyone a better sense of direction.

Pentagram replaced the overhead signs with floor-mounted stands containing maps with ‘you are here’ red arrows. At least people now knew where they were, if not where they wanted to get to. The navigational problems persisted. In 2000, one of the consultants hired to rebrand the Barbican got lost on the way to the press launch. When he finally arrived, he announced the new motto: ‘Clarity and Simplicity.’

At last, with the latest foyer redesign, the Barbican lives up to this motto. The architects AHMM have stripped away the clutter and worked with the original elements of the building. There is a proper glass foyer in Silk Street to welcome incomers, and the internal bridge has been moved so people can identify all the different areas more easily. The signage is bigger and bolder: there are huge floor-to-ceiling floor numbers, cut out of orange-clad walls to reveal the concrete underneath, and giant 3D arrows, more reassuringly assertive than yellow lines. Navigating a complex, multi-level building like the Barbican will never be straightforward. But if they do not arrive at their destinations easily, visitors now at least travel more hopefully. If anyone is still stalking the corridors with a puzzled expression, it will only be the ghost of a concert-goer from the early 1980s, tutting about his missed train and still looking for the way out.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A prickly affair

On this empurpled day in our nation’s history, it’s shameful to note that there was no mention in the party manifestos or leaders’ debates, or any of the horsetrading that’s gone on since last week, of anyone’s policy on hedgehogs.

I’ve been reading Hugh Warwick’s A Prickly Affair, so this glaring omission seems particularly apparent. Lots of interesting stuff in there, including the observation that we are sentimental about hedgehog roadkill partly because the body count seems deceptively large. This is because their spiny coats remain visible for much longer than other animals, which tend to be quickly scavenged by crows and gulls, so we notice the hedgehogs more.

But mostly I learnt – which is why I’m repeating it on this blog – that hedgehogs are everyday, suburban animals, the prickly residents of Acacia Avenue. As hedgerows vanished and prairie farms expanded with the emergence of agribusiness after the war, and much of the countryside turned into a wildlife desert, hedgehogs retreated to the rich and varied habitat of suburbia. ‘Lawns – hedgehogs must have really thought the gods were smiling when they discovered lawns,’ writes Warwick. ‘Short legs mean wet tummies, but mown lawns means easy walking and no need to go grunting through undergrowth as worms pop up conveniently to the surface. And then those benevolent gardeners would sometimes put out food as well – and who cared if sometimes it was not quite what they would normally eat.’

But now there is a dark cloud on the hedgehog’s horizon: patios, decking and front gardens concreted over to make parking spaces are eating away at its suburban Elysium. Sadly, although many of them live in the marginal constituencies of middle England, there are no votes in hedgehogs.

I’m doing a talk about On Roads at the Kenilworth Festival on Saturday (15th), if anyone is in that neck of the woods and fancies coming along.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A life in pieces

I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. It started out as a cultural history of jigsaws but became a memoir about family history and living with depression. The advantage of a jigsaw for the depressive is that ‘it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed’, unlike the formlessness of writing. The book ends with a rather bleak assessment of ‘the pointlessness of survival, the uselessness of all the little strategies by which we manage to stay alive and fill our time and get through our days’.

Drabble reminds us of the often unnoticed use of the jigsaw as metaphor and simile in, for example, the logos of Microsoft Word and Wikipedia, and the screen of the Barclays Hole in the Wall. Georges Perec – another mundanologist whom Drabble likes in small doses, as do I – has dubbed these instantly recognisable fretsawed shapes ‘les bonhommes’ [the little chaps], ‘les croix de Lorraine’ [the double crosses] and ‘les croix’ [the cross-bars].

Drabble also reveals that she was brought up within the acoustic footprint of the Great North Road, a biographical detail she shares with another high-achieving grammar school girl, Margaret Thatcher. ‘My first distinct memory is of traffic,’ writes Thatcher in the opening line of her memoirs. This is Drabble’s more lyrical account of lying in bed listening to the lorries:

All night long they journeyed, and I would lie in bed listening to the swish and the boom, the swish and the boom, as they came and they went, as they came and went. I loved that sound … it was like a cradle, endlessly rocking; it was like a lullaby, it was like a river pouring past, it was like the incessant movement of the Earth. You were a child in bed, trying to sleep, but the road was awake and alive with travellers, and therefore you were not alone, and life had not come to a grim halt. The blood coursed through the body, and the traffic along the road. Your heart would not seize up and stop if you fell asleep. It would beat on until the morning.

An interest in the everyday appears to be contagious. Alex Horne had a piece in last week’s Observer about his love of service stations, and a reporter from Newsnight spent the election campaign camping out at Donington Park services on the M1. And I don’t listen to the Archers but according to the Guardian it has a new character, a milkman called Harry who maintains a blog which is full of ‘fascinating stories about semi-skimmed milk’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying … to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own … It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me.’ – James Joyce

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Liverpool to Liverpool

In this post I want to introduce you to a brilliant artist: Simon Faithfull. A common thread that runs through Faithfull’s work is his effort to re-enchant the everyday and find the magical in the mundane. His luminous fake moon lit up 2008’s Big Chill music festival in Herefordshire, rising and setting like the real thing and fooling many festival-goers. His book, Lost, each page telling the story of an object he has lost over the last three decades, was left in random places around Britain for strangers to find and then lose again. “Escape Vehicle #6”, a bogstandard office chair, was sent 18 miles upwards dangling from a weather balloon, the onboard camera showing it nestling between the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space. From an early age, Faithfull says, he was gripped by “a melancholy awareness that I was tethered to this mundane realm” and remembers being jealous of flies because they “could even walk on ceilings”.

Faithfull’s idea of sending an office chair into space seems to have been ripped off by Toshiba in their new laptop ad and also in a recent edition of the BBC science programme Bang Goes the Theory, although they sent up a toy spaceman with a parachute.

Now he’s just completed Liverpool to Liverpool, a new piece of public art for Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, which is being renovated. The artwork tells the story of an epic journey that Faithfull made, from Liverpool, UK, to Liverpool, Novia Scotia, mostly by container ship. His initial plan was to sail directly from Liverpool to Montreal, but his container ship, the Joni Ritscher, was diverted to Belgium, so on 9 September 2008, he set off from Lime Street for the south coast and then got the early morning ferry to Antwerp to catch the container ship to Montreal. From Montreal he took the train to Halifax, then hopped on a bus and, three weeks after leaving Lime Street, arrived in Liverpool - a small town of just over 3000 people. Naturally, it was named after its British counterpart and also lies on the banks of a river Mersey. Faithfull did digital drawings on his Palm Pilot on his journey, each with latitude-longitude coordinates. These drawings and coordinates will be engraved in the paving and glass of the new Lime Street concourse so that the viewer has a precise location, which in theory they can go away and explore further should they so wish (although please note that the herring gull perched on a lamppost at N.53°24.30 W.2°59.77 may no longer be there).

You can view some of the images of the journey here:

I’ve written the introduction to the book of Simon’s Liverpool to Liverpool project, which has just been published by Liverpool University Press:

The painting above is ‘Cargo Ship’ by a Yugoslavian artist, Relja Penezic.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The light of common day

Some bad angel intent on eating up all my useful hours, who goes under the pseudonym of DonalFOley, has put the whole of the Granada TV series of Brideshead Revisited on YouTube:

and under the thin pretext of doing research for my TV book I’ve been wallowing in every episode.

It is the most anti-everyday book – and, by extension, TV series – ever written/made. It is all about cloudless days in June, bells ringing out high and clear over the gables and cupolas of Oxford, exhaling the soft airs of centuries of youth etc. etc. It is a strange thing to be watching when the Brideys of this world appear to be in the ascendant. I wonder what they made of it in 1981, the year of the Toxteth riots.

Charles Ryder, emerging at last from the charms of the Marchmains and Brideshead, reflects: ‘I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed. – I had left behind me – what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance? “I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself, “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses.” The light of common day, we are clearly supposed to think, is a serious comedown.

This blog should of course heartily disapprove of this attitude, especially as I am sure that if I appeared in the novel I would be one of those dull people in Charles’s rooms when Sebastian vomits through the window, and whom Charles quickly ditches in favour of his rich, beautiful friend. Even if I were willing to pay the price of admission to the golden land of Brideshead, as Charles is, I’m sure they would show me the tradesman’s entrance. But sometimes even this blog can see the attractions of following the “wildest chimeras” before “the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again”.

Anyway, as a useful corrective, Ken Loach has launched his own channel on YouTube with full versions of some of his films: Kes, Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow. More useful hours to be eaten up …