Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Living in glass houses…

I notice that the new homes, in the centre of Middle Tysoe, currently being erected at typical modern-building-method Benny Hill speed, are advertised as being constructed (meaning ‘faced’, if the large number of breeze-blocks being used is any indication…) in “stone”: and yet am unsure as to why this is such an important factor in their ‘saleability’; or their suitability for a locale that features many examples of (what could be called) ‘mixed media’ construction. Surely design is much more important?

As is proven by more than a few more recent village dwellings, simply being faced with ironstone – not even strictly that local, anymore: since the Hornton Masonry Company went into liquidation at the end of 2008; the shortest distance it can have travelled is the eleven miles from Great Tew (which is twice as far…) – does not mean that a structure will not end up presenting an architecturally malproportioned, aesthetically displeasing face to its neighbours. The converse is also true: there are several quite lovely brick buildings here that cannot be said to detract from their surroundings in any way. In fact, they add to them.

And, when we say “stone”, what do we mean anyway? Does it have to be ironstone, rock- or pitch-faced, with a large amount of pointing on display – as seems to be de rigueur…? Or will smoothed ashlar masonry (as featured on a select number of Tysoe’s relatively recent dwellings) suffice? Can we use cast, or reconstituted, stone: which, supposedly, “evokes a sense of timelessness which fits in with any type of massive construction, from domestic housing to cathedrals”? Or should we stick with the technology of our main church’s “Squared, coursed ironstone”; and pretend that we have not moved on since its “Late C11 origins, with late C12, C13, C14 and C15 alterations”; or maybe the nearer-present 1854 restoration by George Gilbert Scott? (I actually think it would be fun to have a few English Gothic revival houses scattered around the place! At least they’d have character – if done properly… – something that appears to be unacceptable to established/establishment predilections, nowadays.)

If all Tysoe’s new/additional dwellings – and we are supposed to have between fifty and seventy-five, by 2031, according to the latest version of the Core Strategy; although Gladman obviously wish us to have a great deal more than this (welcome to Tysoe City…) – were built from the same material, and to similar designs (continuing the current thematic trend), would we not be as guilty as the planners who plonked Trinity Mead, Poppy Meadow, St Peter’s Way, etc. around Stratford-upon-Avon – simply manufacturing our boxes from a (possibly) higher grade of “Poundbury-pastiche” ticky-tacky?

Why should we pretend that our vibrant village stopped evolving (i.e. died) at some arbitrary fixed – but almost certainly indefinable – point in time? What is wrong with what I previously called “Architecture with heart and brains” – designs that are led jointly by their environmental as well as visual impact; that use modern materials, or ancient materials in a modern way? If we build, say, eighteenth-century style homes; will they have eighteenth-century facilities (and eighteenth-century draughts) – hiding our non-eighteenth-century horseless carriages bolted behind faux stable-doors?

As I wrote a few days ago, “we live in… a beautiful place… – the random conglomeration of different building styles bringing variety and harmony, rather than discord”. Our village’s beauty is intensified, not diminished, by the assortment of different building materials, as well… – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety.”

But, perhaps, other residents in the village feel differently about this? In the recent Neighbourhood Plan survey, I noticed that one of the questions mentioned that “Tysoe has developed over many hundreds of years. Today, the character of the Parish reflects many different building styles and materials”; and asked for respondents’ opinions – from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree – on the following:
  • Plan should encourage uniform design and consistent use of materials in all future development.
  • Plan should encourage a continuation of the eclectic mix of existing design and materials.
  • Plan should encourage new housing built in a traditional local style using local stone.
  • Plan should encourage new housing built to reflect local style, but using reconstituted stone or modern brick.
  • Plan should encourage modern housing, reflecting style of housing in other areas.
  • It is important to get new houses built, and the exact style is of secondary importance.

Having spent half a lifetime writing and designing questionnaires, I know how difficult it is not to “reflect” your own loves and hates in ordering such multiple-choice responses: in their phraseology, and in their sequencing – especially if you are not aware of your own innate biases; and these are not caught in the review process. It is also easy to fall headlong into the trap of ordering options (synonymous with choices, alternatives, preferences, possibilities, selections) in line with those you foresee being returned.

I’m sure you can quite easily predict my responses to the above; but I look forward to finding out if I am truly the nonconformist I feel myself to be.

However, if the majority believes that all Cotswold villages – as well as those in proximity – are only successful (whatever that means) if they are suitable subjects for identikit postcards; the tops of mass-produced chocolate boxes; or for the habitation of Stepford Wives, then it is a sad day indeed. Homes should be designed to live in; as well as to look at – and, therefore, what may suit one person will not suit another. As General Patton said: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

Monday, 29 September 2014

What’s in a name…?

With discussions currently taking place in the national media, and around the world, about what we should call the supposedly-Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, it seems we have a parallel local problem with our conglomeration of planning guardians (or guerrillas, depending on your viewpoint…) – and what may be the correct nomenclature for the organization I had believed was called the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group (hereinafter known as “the Group”, whatever name they care to use…).

At this point, I have to introduce a disclaimer: as I was at the meeting (and, therefore, on the committee) which introduced (around a year ago) – and unanimously agreed on – this, to me, extremely descriptive moniker: which, when allied with its mission statement…

Working with Tysoe Parish Council, Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group is an independent body: established – because of the unprecedented volume of local planning applications – to advise on, influence, and respond to, proposals for sustainable and appropriate developments in Tysoe and the surrounding area

…made pretty good sense (to me, anyhoo). I even designed a logo – whose only appearance, that I am aware of, was on the back of the Sustainable Tysoe? briefing paper some members of the Group produced for the district council’s Planning Committee (East) meeting on 8 January 2014: something I had believed we were proud of, as a village, never mind as a committee.

However, according the the latest Tysoe & District Record – which seems, rapidly, to be evolving into a pulpit for those with dull spades, if not blunt axes, or even pointless lances; and will, as a consequence, have to start running a regular ‘corrections and clarifications’ column – the Group is not called what I thought it was at all: but the “Neighbourhood Plan Group”.

But why? And from when? And what’s the difference between the noun and the verb (or gerund, perhaps)? And is this the same body as the “Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group” that issued the recent survey? Or the “Neighbourhood Plan Working Group” that appears to be running the Tysoe Neighbourhood Plan website?

Being no longer a member of the Group, for health reasons, I’m afraid I cannot answer my own questions. (I’m now not even sure if this latest iteration contains, or is for, “Tysoe Residents”.) But I would like to imagine – with apologies to Monty Python – that a conversation about the Group’s name would go something like this:

– Are you the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group?
– Eff off!
– What?
– Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group. We’re the Neighbourhood Plan Group of Tysoe! Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group. Cawk.
– Bankers.
– Can I… join your group?
– No. Pee off.
– I hate the Gladmans as much as anybody.
– Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shhhh.
– Stumm.
– Are you sure?
– Oh, dead sure. I hate the Gladmans already.
– Listen. If you wanted to join the NPG, you’d have to really hate the Gladmans.
– I do!
– Oh, yeah? How much?
– A lot!
– Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Gladmans are the effing Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group.
– Yeah…
– Splitters.
– Splitters…
– And the Tysoe Neighbourhood Planning Group.
– Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
– And the Neighbourhood Plan Group.
– Yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
– What?
– The Neighbourhood Plan Group. Splitters.
We’re the Neighbourhood Plan Group!
– Oh. I thought we were the Neighbourhood Planning Group.
– Planning Group! C-huh.
– Whatever happened to the Neighbourhood Planning Group, eh?
– He’s over there.
– Splitter!

Friday, 26 September 2014

The words of Mercury are harsh…

Another rip-roaring success at the RSC: although the rip comes markedly between the two halves of Christopher Luscombe’s imaginative production of Love’s Labour’s Lost – the first, a tour de force of wit, romance, banter, intimacy, and fantastical, breathtaking scene changes; the second, alternating farce with roaring songs of music hall variety, fading, until – as Hamlet says – “the rest is silence”; the characters (but not their players) are spent; and love’s labour is well and truly shredded by what artistic director Greg Doran has described as “the shadow of war”.

The first half is also better paced, I feel; and it will be interesting to return, later in the run, to see if the second then flows more smoothly, tightly, evenly. [It does: and therefore completes the play perfectly… – and a little quicker!] Consisting solely of Act 5, it is an extended diminuendo into that “silence” (but not peace…) – echoed in the simpler staging – and therefore pitch, tempo, and intensity (of sound and emotion), become very difficult to sustain and control.

Set on the eve of World War I, in an astonishingly reimagined yet faithful Charlecote Park – courtesy of Simon Higlett (whose initials grace the main doorway and fireplace, along with Christopher Luscombe’s) and the miraculous RSC scenic workshop staff – the atmosphere, and the feel of this production – as well as the superb costumes, recreated period music (composed by Nigel Hess), mannerisms – are utterly consistent in their prelapsarian feel: with hints of the frothiness of the Twenties to come; but also of the horrors the world had to suffer to get there.

As just about always, with the RSC, the cast are uniformly excellent: obviously revelling in each other’s companionship – although I have to express slight reservations about Leah Whitaker’s Princess. Maybe it is the rôle of royalty to have to demonstrate more measured behaviour: but she seemed a lot less involved in the frivolities than her companions – and even I would have fallen for Sam Alexander’s cheeky charms (and bad poetry) as an almost Ian Hislop-like King…! – and she only really comes to life, ironically, when hearing of her father’s death; and then bidding her suitor “stay until the twelve celestial signs Have brought about the annual reckoning” before he may repeat his devout declaration of love.

Edward Bennett, as the witty – and occasionally flustered – Berowne rules supreme, though: making the most of the late Ian Richardson’s “favourite character in Shakespeare” – an actor’s dream of a part. His verbal jousting – although sometimes cruel, or perhaps thoughtless; beaten back, though, by Michelle Terry’s giving-as-good-as-she-gets Rosaline… – nearly always helps him, and his friends, escape from the sticky spots they put themselves in; and he ends up coming out on top (literally, in the roof scene, that ends Act 4 – surely where Dick Van Dyke should have made a guest appearance?!) for much of the time. It is easy to understand his well-earned popularity.

Special mention should also go to Tunji Kasim, as Dumaine (and a wonderfully mature Claudio in Love’s Labour’s Won…). A superb Edmund in David Farr’s 2010 production of King Lear at the Courtyard, I have a feeling he – and his teddy bear – will go very far indeed. Additionally, Nick Haverson’s Costard is a manic delight; as is Peter McGovern’s Moth; and Jamie Newall’s sardonic, laconic Boyet struggles not to steal every scene he is in.

In a play where language rules – the plot is thinner than the four friends’ disguise as “Muscovites or Russians”: drawing “out the thread of [Shakespeare’s] verbosity finer than the staple of his argument” – the production, somehow (especially in part one), keeps you gripped: only occasionally taking deep breaths, slowing the pace, before plunging headlong back into the action.

It will be fascinating to see, therefore, in a few days time, what the same company and creative team makes of Love’s Labour’s Won – in truth, Much Ado About Nothing – this time set after the war.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

All together now…

Dear Ed –

It’s me again. Sorry to bother you. I know how busy you are: what with your eight-month long “job interview”, and developing your ten-year plan; and you must be knackered, after the speech you gave on Tuesday, and all that walking around parks you did, working on it, and memorizing it, and meeting all those people.

However impressed I am that you delivered it without notes – and I can forgive you forgetting certain sections of it (or feigning to…) – what I can’t forgive are the two words missing from it. No: not “immigration” or “deficit”. What I’m talking about are “welfare” and “Sure Start” (okay, three words…) – different sides of the same coin, if you will; that are both to do with, as you put it, “the most vulnerable [who] have been thrown on the scrapheap, cast aside, not listened to [politically] even when they have a case… [who have] been told: you’re on your own.”

Sure Start
Looking at the latter: you are so proud of Labour’s achievements – especially, rightfully so, of our party’s creation of the NHS – “An idea rooted in this party’s character and our country’s history.” But why have you so readily forgotten about children’s centres – also rapidly “sliding backwards under this government”?

Yesterday evening, whilst writing this blog, I bumped into (let’s call her) Anne (after the original Mrs Bard). Okay, we were at home, I admit, in the kitchen, and she’s my partner: but she’s also – currently – a family support worker, based out of a pair of mainly rural, recently-privatized Sure Start children’s centres, in south Warwickshire. In the past few months, her job has been put in jeopardy several times; and now, because of that privatization, she is having to look elsewhere for work: as the part-time contracts on offer (replacing her current full-time rôle) will make our middles squeezed more than ever.

This also means, of course, that the small children she looks after – and worries about – will be lacking a crucial ingredient of care in the most crucial and formative part of their lives. The Tories have decimated early years – and, of course, later – education: but I do not see you on your red steed of togetherness rushing to its rescue, like you appear to be doing with our health services. And yet… and yet, such work as my other half does is on the same continuum as doctors and nurses; and just as valuable. She works alongside, and with, health visitors and social workers – and if the infants and toddlers (and their families) she is responsible for don’t receive the care and input they should, they will only go on to be a burden on and to the country, later in life.

Do you really want to add to the rough, uncertain start these kids already have; to the dirt that the Tories continually wipe their faces in; to the pain that poor, working-class (and usually working – but still impoverished) families must suffer – especially when they struggle to travel (because of decreasingly available public transport, that is no longer ‘public’, but in corporate, profit-seeking hands); suffer benefits sanctions, when unemployed, for their tardiness (or simply because they cannot afford the fares); or spend their days queuing for scant parcels of food?

The poor diet and stress that have become the norms for these people – no longer a hidden minority – will increase the pressure on the NHS. And if “together says that we have a duty to look after each other when times are hard”; and “Together we heal the sick”; why does “together” not also mean preventing this generation from getting sick in the first place?

Whether by accident or design, Sure Start children’s centres – and the critical work they do – have remained invisible to those who don’t need and/or use them: and therefore aren’t seen as important as your beloved NHS. However, they are fundamental to the wellbeing of many young children; and indispensable to their families. (Some of the centres even host those damned foodbanks.) They should therefore be a jewel shining in Labour’s crown just as brightly as Aneurin Bevan’s gift to the nation – but are they tarnished within our party, because Gordon Brown is not the hero that Bevan is…? Surely “giving children the best possible start in life” is more important than one man? (And he did come to your rescue, recently, when it looked like Scotland might raise anchors, and sail towards Scandiwegia….) Come on, Ed: just because your and Justine’s sons haven’t needed such services doesn’t mean these amenities aren’t important to the rest of us….

When I nagged you before about welfare, and your concentration on those fortunate enough to be in employment, your local parliamentary candidate – and only Labour member of Stratford-on-Avon District Council – Jeff Kenner, came to your defence:

I agree with you that phrases like “working people” and the use of the term “hardworking” makes many people feel excluded. I certainly don’t think this is Ed’s intention and indeed I have not heard [him] actually use the latter term (there are presumably people who have polled on the use of these terms and probably come to the wrong conclusion!). I would not take it quite so negatively, though. It is no doubt intended to make the point that most people are working hard and yet still struggling with the cost of living. Committing to abolish the bedroom tax and cutting student fees does show a widen concern about inequality and unfairness.

And yet, here you go again!

Labour is the party of hard work fairly paid. And it’s not the low paid but it’s all working people who should have their talents rewarded.

So our… goal is that all working people should share fairly in the growing wealth of the country. That means, as the economy grows, the wages of everyday working people grow at the same rate.

So, I ask again, what about us poor sods reliant on welfare – “Who are we to turn to?” (And, to answer my own question: the Green Party is looking increasingly attractive.) Where is our share of that wealth?

In your speech you said “Together we teach the young. Together we heal the sick. Together we care for the old.” Do “we” not also “care for… the sick” – especially when they cannot work through no fault of their own; and have no chance of recovery…?

The sound and fury
In an article in The Guardian on 24 June 2014 – Labour’s crisis goes much deeper than Ed Miliband – John Harris wrote how “Labour’s senior figures have done little in the past four years to show they understand the issues they must confront”; and, although your speech makes a little progress in the right direction, I, for one, still remain unconvinced (as you may have intimated). Anyway, just by way of (relevant) diversion, here’s an extract:

On Thursday the IPPR published its 280-page report titled The Condition of Britain, put together with the help of Labour’s policy review head Jon Cruddas and launched by Miliband himself. It is a bold, imaginative and surprisingly plain-spoken piece of work, partly based on an attempt to push Labour beyond its enduring belief in lofty centralism and towards a way of thinking more in tune with our fragmented, pluralistic times.

Its authors claim that “the concentration of power in the central state is holding our country back, fragmenting our public services and making local leaders too dependent on Whitehall and Westminster”. From childcare and housing through youth crime, skills budgets and long-term unemployment [my emphases] to care for elderly people, it insists that any future Labour government should emphasise “genuine devolution of power, and share responsibility for building a stronger society with citizens and civil society”.

If you missed any of this, that’s understandable: Miliband’s people decided to boil down his view of the report into a single headline, apparently driven by panic about what was coming back from focus groups. In keeping with a take that ran from the Sun to the Independent, the BBC’s top line was “Ed Miliband: Young jobless must train or lose benefits”. Says one Labour insider: “It was an attempt to rethink social policy for a different world, but we ended up collapsing it into the 24-hour news cycle with a story about hitting young people who are unemployed. And that was symbolic.”

It really was, wasn’t it?

So, Ed, in an attempt to partly excuse you – along with Jeff – is it that, in sixty-odd minutes, you had to concentrate on the headlines, the soundbites – as you did with that report? Can I take it that “unemployment” – as part of ‘welfare’ – and “childcare” actually are important to you; and that these issues will be addressed?

By the way, when I replied to Jeff, I promised him that I would “stick with” Labour – “for the time being” – and I think it worth repeating what I said to him, so that you can see why this “friend” of yours feels “the country doesn’t work for them. And they’ve lost that faith in the future.”

I would be happier were [Labour], as a party (and a potentially governing one) to, say, adopt (or at least publicize) policies, for example…
  • committing to a better future/existence for those in poverty because of unemployment or disability – a license for local authorities to build truly affordable social housing would be a good start, giving them priority over “rapacious” developers when it comes to planning; as would a benefits system that wasn’t utterly Orwellian;
  • demonstrating the importance of the environment, with regards to the generation of power, the protection of green spaces (no offsetting, please; no building [garden cities] on agricultural land, etc.; increasing subsidies for wind – onshore, as well as offshore – wave, solar power, etc. (even nuclear?), and decreasing those – in the form of tax breaks, especially – available to fossil fuel-based generation…);
  • ensuring that the NHS returns from the brink of privatization, shortens waiting lists (by learning from the private sector), and treats people as human-beings, rather than commodities (a theme that could be applied to government as a whole…);
  • re-nationalizing those (other) services that are, ostensibly, for the public good – e.g. transport, power… – as, sooner or later, the government will reach a tipping point (if not already passed) where so much of it has been sold off, and/or outsourced, that there will be no return, that government itself will just be one huge corporation with no direct relationship with the electorate;
  • legislating for a more realistic rôle for (and government relationship with) the unions, as bodies that truly represent workers (both employed and unemployed), fighting for the living wage for all, ending zero-hour contracts (and not just for those employed on them for twelve months…);
  • paying for all this by a more ‘fair’ tax system – both personal and corporate…
…and, to be utterly honest, returning more to the themes and ideas that first attracted me (and many others) to the party, back in the 1980s: i.e. ‘proper’ caring socialism – rather than moving further and further right; and, in many ways, appearing to echo the mores of the Conservatives: that is, once more becoming a party for the people, rather than appearing to be in awe of (and in cahoots with) corporate greed and power.

I am happy (or at least a little comforted) that you have gone some way to addressing what I believe are not unreasonable “demands” – that not only I, but others, have made of you. If Labour’s mission really is to “restore people’s faith in the future”, I fear it is an impossible one, if it is to apply to everyone. But it would be good if it at least helped the majority – and especially those most in need.

Thank you for reading. As always, I await your reply with eagerness….

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Neither tarnished nor afraid…

Being an habitual insomniac, I can occasionally be found treading the “mean streets” of wherever I happen to be, at what most people would consider utterly unsocial hours. Chicago, at dawn, is an entrancing place; and, even for this “country boy”, a magnificent metropolis to maunder in. No longer is the city’s peerless architecture cluttered with huddled masses; the air filled with big car and cigarette smoke; the skyscrapers echoing with cacophony… – and Union Station (which was my ultimate destination that morning), although obviously designed to accommodate huge throngs of travellers, emerges as a spacious, sometimes solitary playground. Some concrete jungles can easily overwhelm; but, early in the morning, they can lose their terror, no longer crowd in on you.

In many ways, this can also be said of Paris. Possibly my least favourite of the cities I know – for many reasons… – just before the sun rises, in summer, it becomes alive (for me): an entrancing ambience luring me towards the Seine, and across to the forest of towers at La Défense; before pulling me back to an early breakfast (I was the first to appear) at my hotel, after exploring social housing of learned and unfeigned architecture – in no way condescending to its occupants: with large green spaces, and obviously popular communal areas.

Some cities have areas that never sleep: parts of Vancouver have very useful independent 24-hour coffee shops and eateries; and Golders Green’s all-night bagel bakery, Carmelli’s, often enticed me in with its tempting aromas, friendly banter, leisured customer service, parents kvelling about their children… – contrasting with the tummel in the bakery at the back – and where I learned my first Yiddish: “Don’t make a tsimmes out of it!”

Often, I walk to clear my head – or gather my thoughts… – but, recently, I have also begun to take my camera, as well as a walking stick, as companion (and, if not, the convenience and quality of my iPhone will sometimes suffice…). Stratford is surprisingly busy before first light: a veritable conquering army of friendly street-cleaners and workmen ensuring that our local town-as-theme-park is ready for another day of sightseeing onslaught. As another dawn treader said to me: “It’s so much better without all the tourists!”

The three villages of Tysoe, though, appear completely deserted; and the few signs of human activity are confined to backlit curtains; and silence – apart from the occasional yelping fox; hooting and ‘kewicking’ tawny owl; screeching barn owl; and a shuffling, snuffling hedgehog (I presume), not yet ready for hibernation; as well as the church clock reminding you how long you’ve been out for… – reigns supreme.

Man-made light is, thankfully, as rare as sound (although, sadly, Windmill Way must contain as many lamp-posts as the full length of Main Street…) – however, on a morning when the moon rises with less than one tenth of it on display, as a thin waning crescent, sometimes oddly welcome: especially for creating atmospheric photographs!

The pools of darkness, inbetween, highlight what a beautiful place we live in – although you certainly gain a new perspective… – the random conglomeration of different building styles bringing variety and harmony, rather than discord – as they can do in bright sunshine. The overall effect is one of friendliness and welcome, comfort, even, despite the abandonment.

I found myself, therefore, lingering longer than I normally would: seeing my home with new eyes. In fact, the place may never be the same again….

Why not have a go… – but don’t all do it at once, please: I think you need to be on your own…. (And you wouldn’t want to bump into a strange man with a camera and a stick, would you…?)

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Look at it this way…

A man walks into an empty bar. Gathers up all the darts he can find; can hold. Just. Turns his back to the board, and walks to the oche. Stops. Throws all the darts in his hands, in one go, over his shoulders. Luckily – but then the bar was empty, remember – no-one is hurt. Unluckily, most of the darts either clatter to the floor: directly; or after bouncing off the brick wall. One even pierces a wooden ceiling beam; and hangs there, quivering for a while. Amazingly, two hit the sisal. One, outside the metal ring. The other, double top. The perfect finishing score.

No different to putting a needle in a map, blindfold, really.

So why Tysoe? Apart from an available and willing landowner eager to make a few quid (aren’t they all); and a field large enough to hold enough identical boxes (boxed in); what makes our village such an attractive target? Why not Hook Norton, for instance? Oh, sorry.

I spent most of my working life in some form of marketing; and we would not even think about thinking about bringing a product to market without a great deal of research – about its viability; about its likely customers; about the relevant competitors. But, above all, we would be creative: rather than simply producing the Mk1 Grommet in eternity; and hoping that enough people would carry on liking it, or learning to like it, as it always was, that we would make money from it. You have to innovate to accumulate. As they say.

Perhaps, though, in the property world, it’s not like that. Find enough fields; apply the same layout, the same whatever-the-word-is-for-the-opposite-of-design; prepare to repulse nimbys; throw a lot of money at the planning process; and, hey presto, you’ll have launched so many darts that it doesn’t matter if so many of them miss their target. One success will easily pay for a handful of failures. Rinse and repeat.

It doesn’t matter if there’s no gas to heat your brick estates efficiently in a world of oil and stone; nor that you will eradicate centuries of vital heritage (you can always offset the ridge-and-furrow somewhere, can’t you); or create flooding; jam the roads; remove productive land from the foodchain; not fit the local vernacular. Soon enough, so many examples of your commoditized crap will stick out of rural communities like sore thumbs, that no-one will notice that the original, manicured fingers are withering to bloody gangrenous stumps; now that this subtopia has become the norm. No more opposing digits: just interlocking hurt.

Now it’s the norm, all the rage, there’s no need to fight anymore. Acceptance. And from carpet bombing. Woot.

And all in the middle of nowhere. Now. here.

So why Tysoe? Because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter why, how or who. We are the faceless giants who will come in the night and eat up your tiny little dreams. We are omnivores. Grizzling and horrigust. We have no taste (except for money). We have no senses, no sense at all. Feed me, Seymour.

Might as well come quietly, then.

A man walks into an empty bar. It used to be called the Peacock, you know. They’re turning it into apartments, next spring.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Culture vulture funding…

Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.
– Oscar Wilde

Having been unfortunate enough (as a country boy: defined by choice, and by inclination, rather than by birth) to live in the outer reaches of London, for a few years, I was fortunate enough to attend concerts regularly at both Wigmore Hall and the Barbican – a continuation of a practical and involved love of music (most genres; as well as most forms of art) either bred into me, or inculcated from a very early age.

Sitting in the audience – especially at the Wigmore – it becomes readily apparent that its members are, shall we say, biased towards the greyer end of the age spectrum; and it seems that, the older the style of music (classifying ‘classical’ under a very large umbrella indeed: that encompasses everything from Palestrina to Panufnik), the older its core fan-base. (This is no relationship of direct proportion, though: as most jazz, rock and soul music events prove, it is extremely logarithmic.) I have therefore been worried, for quite some time, about the future viability of such creative ‘industry’ – but only from the perspective of those who paid to listen and view (the objectifiers, not the objects, as it were…). Why did these people not bring their children, their grandchildren?

Of course, there have always been accusations of élitism thrown at any art-form that, apparently, requires education to understand – although if a baby smiles at the complex cross-rhythms and frequent atonality of Bitches Brew (as my son did); or a toddler boogies to, and wants to hear more of, the pulsing, evolving repetitions of Shaker Loops (ditto): then either he, too, had it “bred into” him, or was “inculcated”, as a result of a very unusual childhood in a very unusual household (personally: I think he just digs music with emphatic beat and vigorous bass (his favourite instrument)) – or, perhaps, as my dad would say, he simply “knows what he likes”. However, this complaint about exclusivity – a form of anti-snobbery (why is pop music not such an “art-form”? Discuss…) – always seemed aimed, again, at those who enjoy (or simply pay for their) listening and viewing.

Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.
– George Bernard Shaw

Having a working-class upbringing (albeit with such supposedly ‘higher’ tastes; and therefore, possibly, aspiring to middle-class discernment), in an industrial northern town – among obvious dark (although maybe not quite Satanic) mills – where all forms of music were not just available at home, but from primary school (and its compulsory, distuned and overblown recorders) onwards – and being surrounded by ‘Art’ all my life – I had assumed that (whilst being aware, from the sidelines, of rumblings afoot regarding declining arts education) it was mainly the audience that was the ‘problem’. However, it is rapidly becoming obvious that, in some circles – particularly lower down the economic spectrum – music, its teaching, its learning, and especially its performance, is not the egalitarian subject (nor something spiritual that transcended class) it once was. (Perhaps it never really was; and I was lucky, in that my grubby knees did not preclude me from membership of the local cathedral choir – where not all probationary choristers could read music; but had angelic voices… – nor from having parents who were willing to make sacrifices to encourage whatever talents – and/or whims – their children wished to develop.)

I believe that much of this current predicament – a large-scale loss of opportunity – lies with this Government’s bizarre, and restricted, view of what actually constitutes education – but its parallel confining establishment views and opportunities also seem to be raising their ugly heads in drama, in stagecraft: where performance, too, is becoming limited by wealth, and, therefore, class.

I am not sure if my beloved RSC propagates this – perhaps it has no option, if those less fortunate never even get a chance to tread its boards? I do know, though, that its £16-per-ticket accessibility programme – “whenever you visit or wherever you choose to sit” – and its Key scheme for 16-25 year-olds – £5 tickets “for any of our shows” – both go a long way towards making theatre more affordable, as well as more approachable, for all. There is no apparent élitism front of house – not here, anyway; not deliberately.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
– John F Kennedy

Coincidentally, perhaps, matters – especially those regarding the availability of musical instruments for children to learn on; or discover a hither-to unsuspected ability – may already be a wee bit better ‘north of the border’. Perhaps this is a reflection of the presumption that ‘Scottishness’ (and its attached culture – both society and customs) is more well-defined than whatever ‘Englishness’ may be (although it would be a mighty stramash that erupted trying to establish whether the folksiness of Vaughan Williams et al trumps the outstanding heritage encompassed in MacCunn or that Sassenach Maxwell Davies). Or maybe it is just the more ‘social’ (both political and affable) character of those with “a tiny blue-and-white cell” hidden deep within their brains; allied with their innate awareness of how any art-form (“many art-forms”?) can extirpate class boundaries.

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.
– Ernst Fischer

It seems, therefore, that we have – despite individual institutions’ efforts – reached a point where you need to have wealth to have taste; or at least to participate (from either side of the curtain). Creativity has become commoditized – but at the rarefied (and unattainable for most) level of diamond or platinum trading – and the arts no longer “matter because they are about business, central to civilised living”; but have become business. As if to confirm this, we now have someone who “used to be a banker” as culture secretary. Strangely, though, on his ascendance to the throne, after stating that “culture is for everyone” (which I would agree with entirely, of course), he then seemed to blame it not being so on those producing it – his plea to them being that “I want you to make what you do accessible to everyone” – as if reducing what he termed being “culturally disenfranchised” to its lowest common denominator would somehow overcome issues of cost. (I wonder if it ever occurred to him that there were parallels with the electorate’s current disenfranchisement with power…?)

For a bus driver’s son…, the idea of popping along to the Donmar Warehouse – or even the Bristol Old Vic – to take in a cutting-edge new production was simply not on the agenda. It wasn’t what people like me, people from my background, did.

Nor did they, typically, become members of the Cabinet. (What a feeble excuse; and playing with stereotypes, too….) However, this cleaner’s son took in many such productions (and lots of Shakespeare!) – at Manchester’s Exchange and then Leeds Playhouse; as well as countless premières of works by the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Tippett, and William Mathias – although this, typically, “wasn’t what people like me, people from my background, did” either. It didn’t exclude me from doing so, though. Maybe – as I posited above – it would, now, though…?

Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.
– Groucho Marx

If you do “need to have wealth to have taste”: then – just to digress for a moment – why does it appear that those with money – old or new – have very little unique taste themselves? Even when they believe they are trendsetting: most of their money simply buys ostentatious objects with shallow reputation and meaning, and very short expiry dates; ‘old masters’ whose investment potential is equal to, or greater than, other forms of property; or something that is considered ‘safe’ – both monetarily and tastefully neutral. All things that someone has told them is art. They invest in the fine arts mainly for self-aggrandizement (rather than self-expression); and should therefore not be the arbiters – either through purchase or selective philanthropy – of what is deemed to be tasteful or acceptable to and for the rest of us.

We therefore need a view of arts that is not universal, nor money-led, nor imposed: but one that is sincere, and built from the bottom up – with almost the same public perspective that is supposed to be attained through those buzzwords ‘localism’ and ‘big society’. According to the RSA:

[The arts] matter, individually and collectively, because of what they are and what they do, which is to carry out a sustained, detailed and varied exploration of human motivation and behaviour…

…whilst, I would add, bringing a great deal of richness and emotional energy and meaning to people’s lives. (They can, also, of course – as demonstrated by the huge local tourist economy centred on a single playwright and poet – bring monetary wealth: but the generation of that should be secondary to their core purpose.) The production of the visual; the dramatic; the verbal; the digital, even… are all experienced as a modern ‘need’ as fundamental, in these modern times, as transport, food and water, health, education.

I believe, therefore, that the Arts Council should increase its funding to include much earlier interventions in our lives – i.e. not just in introducing all of our children to creativity, in all its forms, through isolated programmes, as they do now (sporadically); but in educating them continually, and adding depth to their appreciation; and then training those with a predilection for a career in the arts: so that they can demonstrate their artistry to everyone else. That way, even the “country boy” and the “bus driver’s son” can have constant opportunities to experience – view and create – whatever art is available; whatever art they like.

What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing. You wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.
– David Hockney

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf VII

Shelter from the storm…

The trek back to the Wild Wood, and home, seemed much longer than usual: a growing metaphysical burden adding to the heavy beads of water on the Mole’s mackintosh – and it was a dejected, forsaken-feeling animal that eventually propped his stick against the hall table; shrugged off this sodden coat; dragged his muddy boots from his tired feet in the worn jack; and let topple his wide-brimmed hide hat, dripping, to the floor. He did, however, take care in closing and bolting the dark-green door firmly behind him; and then hanging and reshaping his favourite woollen socks on the kitchen maiden; before shuffling into the second skin of his slippers and dressing-gown; then, abruptly, coming to a halt, in puzzlement.

In front of him, obscured in the corner of the room furthest from any passageway, partially overshadowed by the gaggle of other furniture, was a narrow three-sided cupboard: about the same height as his sloping shoulders, and covered with a dark felt cloth, on which sat a framed pencil drawing of what he knew to be Roman ruins. “Perhaps these very ones,” murmured the Mole, not for the first time, whilst trying to call to mind what was behind the tenebrous, varnished façade.

And then he remembered the Badger telling him, with a wink and his familiar wry grin, that this was the cabinet for “emergencies – not of the body, mind, but of the spirit!” Slightly baffled at this recollection, he shambled forwards, towards it; crouched a little; grasped the worn, warm, round handle; and – with slightly more effort required than he had anticipated – pulled.

For a door that had not been opened in living memory, there was only slight resistance, however; accompanied by an almost whispered, momentary groan. A warning; or a welcome?

The Mole, now even more curious, stooped down a little more to inspect his trove. On a short shelf, near the top, stood a serendipitous selection of chunky, cut-crystal tumblers: all in the same proportion; but all slightly different in size and identity. He picked up the nearest one: which fitted perfectly in his palm. And as it moved, it scintillated with the flames of the welcoming fire: transmuting them into a multifaceted, hint-of-green-tinged, hypnotic extravaganza.

Through this, and beyond, he could see, contorted, as if by a hall of fairground mirrors, two lower shelves of apparently teetering narrow cardboard and metal decorated tall boxes and canisters – again, no two the same. It reminded him of a city skyline the Badger had once shown him in one of his many books. Without his spectacles – defogging nicely on the console table in the hall, where he had placed them absentmindedly and habitually – he could not read their labels, though – if that’s what they were. However, each container held a significant, stirring weight: counterparts of the glass he had just placed on the velvety cover.

Choosing one of the shorter boxes – for the apparent simplicity of its design: plain and mostly dark; featuring a much paler wide band, near the top, that didn’t quite meet at what he assumed was the back (like some of his trousers: but at the front…) – he collected the tumbler, and retreated to the comfort of his snug, Mole-hugging armchair.

The neat, square carton he held, inquisitively, was of smooth card; but he could feel raised areas of type on the front of the broad cream stripe, and some sort of sheeny ‘splodge’ below: which was repeated, smaller, maybe, on the lid. (No better word would come to mind: but it was almost like a relief map, or possible portrait – “like you find on those chalky, blue vases”.) Opening it slowly, he confirmed what he had intuited; and, lifting the supporting inner flaps, grasped the short, widening neck of the somewhat dumpy translucent emerald bottle within. Behind its white print (still not clear or large enough for his old, worn-out eyes; and not helped by the dim light), it was full, he realized; and, although a much darker, thicker shade of green than his drinking glass, he could see the liquid gold rocking gently inside.

Carefully, he peeled back the foil, and wrapped his fingers around the bottle’s domed stopper, whilst cradling the chunky base in his lap. Twisting and pulling, cautiously, repeatedly, his efforts were soon rewarded with a reluctant squeak; followed by a slight, polite plop (how he so missed Ratty…); almost drowned by a surprising silence. He held the rich mementous opening up to his prone twitch of a nose; and inhaled, deeply….

In his eagerness to light the first fire of autumn, to flaunt his skill and independence in creating warmth-on-demand in his very first, very own burrow, the youthful Mole, fur as black as coal – having mastered the kindling twigs and tightly-screwed sheets of old newspapers – had inadvertently piled the densely-woven willow basket with THIS year’s oak logs: which he then inadvertently transferred to the longing, burgeoning flames… – which then, advertently, caused them to smoke, damply, but with an exaggerated and impressive keenness: clouding and permeating his new home with a lingering, subtle smell that would come to be as familiar, and as integral, as that of his favourite soap!

Much to the amusement of his giggling companion (who was, it has to be said, still bowled over – but not finding it TOO difficult to hide such a feeling…), the not-at-all-unpleasant aroma mingled cannily with the overabundance of crisp cut flowers he had arranged, tastefully (he believed) around his sitting room; as well as a fresh pot of wild honey – its gleaming dipper spooning on a stoneware plate with the still-steaming spurtle – sitting between two warm wooden coggies of just-right stewed apple, cinnamon and ginger porridge, topped with browned, flaked almonds.

Snuggling outside, on a too-small picnic blanket, hurriedly thrown down on the still-dew-damped meadowgrass and crinkling, rusting leaves, hugging their bowls close in the coolness of the morning, the pair downed their breakfast quickly; and then – not actually waiting for the internal smog still issuing palely from the entrance hole to clear – scurried back inside for extremely welcome mugs of dark hot chocolate and marshmallows, roasted in front of the settling flames….

When the Mole awoke, glass empty, but still held tightly, like his fond remembrance, he eased his creaking frame from the chair, and went to collect his eyeglasses. Rubbing the lenses clean on the corner of one of the many blankets, he then propped them on his snout, where they belonged, and, returning to the kitchen, diligently scrutinized every word printed on the bottle and its box (as was his wont – he would read ANYTHING; and always with a great sense of satisfaction). Much to his delight, above the brandname of the now-much-older-than-ten-years single malt Scotch whisky, was a handwritten inscription: “For an impetuous Mole! – Badger.”

Remembering the morning’s events, and the determination which had leached from him in the homeward rainstorm, these words gave him back the energy and motivation to do what he had set out to do, when turning his back on the pile-driving machine: to return to the plans in the study, and find a way of ensuring they never came to fruition. “But first,” he said, to no-one in particular, “I think, another little blash of that Tobermory might just help lubricate my brain-cells. I need all the help I can get at my age!”

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Keep on turning out and burning out…

And when you’re looking for your freedom
(Nobody seems to care)
And you can’t find the door
(Can’t find it anywhere)
When there’s nothing to believe in
Still you’re coming back, you’re running back
You’re coming back for more

So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time
– The Eagles: Take it to the limit

I am often told how well I look; or how relaxed I seem… “considering…” – and I take this, as intended, as a grateful compliment: as a willing collusion in the act… – especially considering that most mornings I struggle to wake up; fall out of bed; drag a comb across my head; find my way downstairs; or even drink a cup of consciously necessary espresso (mixed with my day’s first list of necessary potions); before collecting what I laughingly refer to as my brain from the floor, where I left it a few hours earlier, collecting dust; and looking in a mirror to discover that I am Snow White’s diametral antithesis.

This is not a plea for sympathy; nor for people to look further into my baggy, bloodshot eyes to see the continual tribulation that lies behind them; nor for impossible empathy: just to understand that even if my habitual “not bad” or “okay” in response to your habitual “how are you” appears convincing, it is only a performance – part of a repertoire we all have: presenting different faces, facets of ourselves – some true; some edited; some even false – to lubricate the cogs of social interaction. Once I have forced my way through the extended equivalent of the actor’s ‘half’, if I had to admit to myself just how rough I felt, how tough the ‘real’ me found things, then I would not appear on the boards of the outside world at all. It’s all pretence – and I believe that there are few (if any) people on this planet who could survive the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of being truly their raw selves in front of everyone.

For me, though – as I have only this singular perspective; and cannot place myself in others’ well-worn shoes – there are expectations driven by my fake normalcy that I cannot fulfil. And it is this acknowledgment – tacitly will do fine, thank you… – that I wish for.

We all have our limits – of endurance; of tolerance; of independence… – but ascertaining them, and then breaking through them, can be a life’s work. Some people make this – seemingly – into a career: athletes, explorers, even some writers – people who are described frequently as ‘driven’ (and often ‘to succeed’ – but at what – being ‘the best’; or just continually breaking their own personal bests? Perhaps there is little difference…).

For many with disabilities – mental, as well as physical – this has to become their way of life, of living, though. Their minds and/or bodies have given them no option, if they are to survive (never mind bringing ‘meaning’ to their existence).

When the first Superman movie came out, I gave dozens of interviews to promote it. The most frequent question was: What is a hero? My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous action without considering the consequences. Now my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. They are the real heroes, and so are the families and friends who have stood by them.
– Christopher Reeve: Still Me

This is why I so hate the ‘supercrip’ phenomenon – never mind the feasible technological creation of a race of Übermenschen (instead of using such inventions for equality; or to help improve a body, a life, with a disability) – which, to those who are disabled (and, yes, I include myself) can imply failure, if you don’t also ascend Everest in a wheelchair: a standard that you have to overcome, it feels, if you are to gain rightful access to the Government’s increasingly unattainable and impoverished disability ‘benefits’. But this is taking expugning limits to a ridonkulous – and externally imposed – level.

This is where, of course, in the middle eight, I usually riff on a parallel – as Tysoe’s unofficial genius loci – with the village’s struggle against the threatening world of rapacious development. And today is, of course, no different.

Seeking out a reference for the Sam Pig quote, above, I stumbled on something that appeared completely unrelated. (Proof, of course, that – as I was trying to stress – appearances are simply that: fascias that can be completely deceptive; and why dust-jacket design is such a difficult art.)

As I said to my friend Duke Senior:

To me, [this] sounds like a big capitalist whinge; but it (sort of) encapsulates, I think, the attitude of those we’re up against – and is, therefore, a mindset I struggle to either occupy (empathize) or sympathize with…. Of course, such people would never even deign to try and see our point of view…!

All industries have their associated costs – and limits – some caused (even) by legislation (even if it is incremental in nature). But instead of trying to work within these (or even with those who oppose them), and understand why they are there – or even why people may believe they are “rapacious” (a criticism which may seem rich (ahem) coming from another bastion of the right-wing establishment) – money is spent on lobbying (which sometimes, to my socialist mind, appears to be a disguising synonym of ‘bribing’ or ‘blackmailing’); or buying their way, not to surmount any such obstacles in their path, but to eradicate them. Perhaps an effigy of Eric Pickles should be their mascot?

Surely, though, you ask, shouldn’t I congratulate “such people” on trying to break through the limitations that (they perceive) hold them back? Isn’t this what this post is about?

Aha! I reply (glibly). But there is a huge difference between one’s own body, and the body corporate. I could even digress onto the social aspects of disability; and why trying to derive the cost-benefit of a stair-replacing ramp is a self-defeating exercise. Trying to gain financially, at a cost to others – implying greed – has no parallels with overcoming what used to be (appositely) called a ‘handicap’: even if what you are trying to overcome seems to you to have been deliberately placed in your path (and maybe even out of spite). Most disabled people simply struggle to survive financially, in such a world – without making any gains. Their limits aren’t there for any justifiable reason.

The problem with always pushing, trying to extend your limits, reach beyond your bounds, of course, is that you permanently risk “burning out”: overdoing it one day, at the risk of not being able to do anything the next (or for several days following, in fact). The supposed ‘cure’ for such incorrigible behaviour is ‘pacing’: a way of moving along a median of the energy available to you; keeping everything on an even keel; defined by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as “energy management, with the aim of maximising cognitive and physical activity, while avoiding setbacks/relapses due to overexertion”.

But, if you have the energy/ability to do the things you desire one day, you want it every day. And, to be honest, the word “pacing” brings back memories of tigers in zoos striding eternally backwards and forwards: wearing a path just behind the fence, bored, captive, desolate. All I wanted to do as a child was let them out. As an adult, all I want to do is break free (God knows I want to break free): and feel as normal, as healthy, as whole, as energetic, as I appear.

You know I’ve always been a dreamer
(Spent my life running ’round)
And it’s so hard to change
(Can’t seem to settle down)
But the dreams I’ve seen lately
Keep on turning out and burning out
And turning out the same

So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time