Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Into the future, looking backwards…

As 2018 staggers uncertainly towards the finishing line, the image of my nation that keeps impinging on my thoughts is of a Tardis wobbling across cardboard space-time in an early BBC special effect.

Brexit-fatigue may be growing, but that vexed issue seems to have provoked a wider spate of introspection about the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything – and a general dissatisfaction with the state of our country.

The throwing of my own life into the blender a couple of years ago, just at the time when I thought I knew how the near future was going to pan out, was ample reminder not to take too much for granted. Falling out of a teaching career at the three-quarter mark due to stress-induced illness necessitated a wholesale re-appraisal of the future. There is not a lot of point of putting one’s energy into bringing back the past; much better to try to build a positive future.

The issue of EU membership has cast a harsh light on a binary division in human psychology, namely how we deal with uncertainty and the future. The matter was thrown into relief recently by the news that our ancient town is to ‘receive’ a new development of 300 houses in the next couple of years. Small fry compared to some places no doubt, but this will add around 25% to both the building stock and the local population – enough to make a significant impact on a small and historic place.

The reaction of people locally is indicative of a wider human fallibility, particularly in relation to how it deploys time. There had been warning signs for some time – with only limited reaction from the wider community. Now that a major impact is inevitable, people are asking why something could not have been done to stop it.

Given that – as far as one can tell – the human experience of Time is fairly consistent between individuals, in that it only really moves in one direction, one wonders why humanity so often still gets caught out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but one might have thought we would learn from the experience. It often seems not.

Actually, the problem seems to be that bit of Time which has not yet happened. People seem remarkably resistant to thinking in any disciplined way about the future. There may be very good reasons for this – not least the fact that as Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead. And perhaps not even the so very long term: beyond youth, a human life speeds past. Maybe that’s why people shy away from thinking about it.

Or maybe it is an acceptance that anything so unknown cannot be reckoned for. But while that is undoubtedly partly the case, denying the ability at least to influence the future seems to me very defeatist. While much does indeed remain unknown (and neither is it easy to allow for unintended consequences of any particular course of action), doing nothing is hardly better. A proportionate, realistic, but optimistic attempt to affect things for the better seems to me a much more sensible approach – while always accepting the significant degree of uncertainty involved.

What seems to me even more unwise is to seek solace in the past. Nostalgia is big business, and it affects a huge amount of human activity. The Christmas season is predicated on it – goods times past that may or may not be entirely illusory. What it is, in reality is sentimentality – an emotional response from the less rational part of the brain to the inherent uncertainty of the future – and sometimes even the present. It is more comfortable to deal with the apparent ‘knowns’ of the past – even when they may be more fiction than fact. At this time of the year, especially with the prod in the temporal ribs that passing New Year inevitably brings, it seems just more comfortable to reside in the past. And more generally, people become more resistant to change at times when change is most rapid.

More curious still is the extent to which this propensity may be culturally determined. One of my permanent frustrations with my country is the extent to which the national identity is so predicated on looking backward. I cannot think of another developed country, at least in Europe, which relies so heavily on past (supposed) glories for its sense of self. From the heritage tat we shamelessly flog to tourists (and each other), to the companies that know the best way to ingratiate their high-tech trains with customers is to paint them in heritage colours and call them GWR or LNER, this country is only ever dragged into the future looking longingly backwards.

There are some countries, of course, whose past is something to be best forgotten, and in that sense future-orientation may be more a necessity than a choice. Neither is resistance to change a purely British phenomenon. But I cannot help thinking that a country that still yearns so strongly for the past is one that has run out of good things to say about its present – not to mention any new ideas for its future. And when we do have new ideas,  we crow incessantly about them, a self-consciousness which suggests we know that somehow they  don’t sit easily.

My attempts to persuade my neighbours that the antidote to yet another Lego-clone housing estate on their historic doorsteps is to push for something that makes a confident statement about the future, seems to be something that most simply don’t want to consider. It seems the whole point of living in a historic town is to pretend that we are still living in an arcadian past when present-day problems didn’t exist – even though they patently do – and whose future we would rather not think about. When it comes, for example, to suggesting that judicious modern architecture can work even in a historic setting, the response is a knee-jerk No. Completely unbiddable. I wonder whether it is deliberate, or just the conditioned response of a lifetime lived in a change-averse culture.

I’m sure people are sincere when they say they are more comfortable with tradition – but they never stop to think about why. Why reject the benefits of modernity? Where would we be now if prehistoric people had done that, let alone those who built from new the heritage that we now venerate?

Meanwhile, the contemporary problems of the place – traffic congestion, affordable/sustainable housing, maintaining local services and the rest – remain unresolved because of the fear of thinking radically. It seems many would rather cling to an imperfect past-orientated present, rather than contemplate a future that is different, but which could be a real improvement.

Yet time waits for no one. No matter how we seek to deny the fact, or dress it up in historic garb, the future is the only destination we have. That means facing up to uncertainty, not to mention the pressures of modern life that many appear to want simply to disappear. The problem with it is that failing to live in the present (and anticipate the future) means that sooner or later that future is likely to come along anyway and kick the unprepared firmly in the arse. It has happened in the development case I mentioned above – and in the many other communities whose apparent preference for ‘traditional’ architecture gave unsentimental developers all the pretext they needed to churn out yet more estates full of tweely-named meagre little Lego boxes whose main purpose is to enhance the bonuses of those at the top – and which, of course, they will never have to live in themselves. Clinging to the past often simply makes the present, let alone the future, worse.

Another line of approach of Nostalgics is to claim that a preference for the present is a betrayal of the past, that it is somehow disrespectful not to venerate the legacy of previous generations. It is probably true that a civilisation that has no shared memory of whence it has come is indeed placing itself at risk of future mistakes – but sentimentalising and editing the past in order to make it artificially palatable is not at all the same thing – and is equally unwise. To continue with the architectural example, while conservation may be desirable, selecting only the superficially ‘pretty’ bits is dishonest, and does the opposite of creating a genuine heritage: it manufactures a shared lie, whose only effect is to reinforce the misconception that the present was a better place than the present.

The British yearning for nostalgia does serious harm to the nation. Sentimentalism smothers more realistic appraisals of the options for the future. Necessary change is avoided, or reduced to a minimum. Difficult decisions are avoided – or sent underground, difficult conversations not had, democratic compromise replaced by shouting matches. Ironically, excessive reliance on cost-benefit analyses and psephology (designed to make the future look like the past – certain and secure) increases the risk of delusion and error. Meanwhile, opportunists leap to fill the void with changes intended only to benefit themselves.

Quite apart from the damage being done to the genuine architectural heritage by the vast swathes of pseudo-heritage development, it seems to me that the issue of the moment – Brexit – is grounded on the same illusion. Most of the case for leaving the EU has been built on a return to some era when Britain was Great(er than it is now) in a way that is nothing more than a denial of the reality of the modern world. And try as we might to make this illusion reality, the only real effect will be that sooner or later the Future will once again come along and kick the nation in the arse too. Arguably it already has: one of the few explanations I can find for why this country has such unique difficulties with the idea of the EU is that it prefers to live in the past, rather than looking to the potential of European co-operation (done properly) to create a better future. I suspect the different balance that I have sensed elsewhere has a significant effect.

This is not to suggest that other nations are not respectful of their pasts too: one only has to look at the care with which the Swiss and Germans for example, preserve their heritage to see that. But they seem much less afraid of mixing it with the present, and of adapting it to modern needs. In fact, some of the most impressive conservation I have seen has been that which blends it judiciously with the ultra-modern. It is possible to respect and appreciate the past without wanting to live in it.

The other half of the binary choice is to rush open-armed indiscriminately into the future. That is probably just as unwise, as the truth is rarely found in extremes: ill-considered, ideological progressivism is probably just as risky as uncontrolled regressivism. But realistically embracing the future seems to be a much more constructive way of spending our time on this planet than yearning for that which has already passed.

Nations that get this right seem to me to have a generally healthier attitude towards Time as a whole. They seem to have a generally more can-do, less defeatist attitude. They make considered decisions that (can) lead to healthier societies. Those that seem to prefer living in an increasingly imaginary present, built mostly around a fake version of their supposed history, seem to be in a form of denial that says little other than that they are culturally bankrupt: tired and out of ideas. “It can’t be done here!” is a familiarity cry in this country. Why not?

Driving using only the rear-view mirror is not a good idea: it seems to me like a recipe for a rapid demise.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Google-bombing Europe – or a nation in ten pictures.

One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.

But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.

Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.

In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.

The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.

In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.

A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).

Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Germany:D01D02D03D04D05D06D07D08D09D10

The U.K.:

UK01UK02UK03UK04UK05UK06UK07UK08UK09UK10

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Empty vessels….are world class.

We in Britain are regularly regaled with the claim that every next new thing is going to be ‘world class’. Methinks the country doth protest too much: anywhere that needs to bang on like this with such tedious regularity deep down knows that it is way off the mark. But it’s cheaper and easier to slap the ‘W-C’ label on something than actually do anything about it. But too often, that abbreviation really does have a better meaning.

Case in question is the new Swiss-made trains shortly to be delivered for my local Greater Anglia rail service. (Non rail-enthusiasts bear with me here – there is a wider point coming…) Knowing Swiss Railways inside out, I leapt with anticipation when the announcement was made a couple of years ago that Anglia would be the first British franchise to be buying Swiss in a big way.

Now I generally have a favourable view of Greater Anglia as being one of the more enlightened franchisees – probably something to do with their in reality being Dutch. And it is true that excellent cycle facilities now abound at stations all over their network.

But an article in the industry-journal Modern Railways suggests that once again, the new trains represent a missed opportunity. The first train is due in the U.K. about now, and I await visual confirmation that we do have proper Swiss build-quality.

But the insides are as dull as every other British train. Anglia claims to have focus-group tested the designs – but as the MR article points out, people can only compare against what they know. And in the case of British trains, that is not a great start.

Comments from the manufacturer also sound underwhelmed with the end result – but they pointed out that they only deliver what the customer asks for. How Swiss. But that lays the blame for this lost opportunity firmly back at the British end of the contract.

It is of course true that British trains are smaller than continental ones, and that does create real problems – but why does Britain have seat-specifications (supposedly in the name of safety – read litigation) far in excess of what the EU requires – and which rule out most of the better seating in use elsewhere? It leaves us with ultra-high backs which render the interior claustrophobic, while fire standards mean that almost no padding can be provided – hence recent widespread complaints about how hard the seats are in new trains. It is most definitely NOT that pesky EU spoiling our chance to have good old British rubbish here.

The real problem is that those who specifiy British train design are more concerned with maximising capacity (hence revenue) and minimising repair costs. It is also the case that many who profess to be impressed quite possibly haven’t seen the alternatives available in other countries. And yet the country persists with the ridiculous nonsense about world-class everything. It kids no-one with a slightly wider perspective.

While train design might hardly seem to be a world-stopping issue, this matter serves to illustrate some wider issues:

1) Poverty of expectation in this country is alive and well and expressed in things as everyday as trains. It is partly because so few experience what happens elsewhere.

2) Short-term, profit-driven so-called public services will only ever deliver bargain-basement quality because of the need to make a quick return.

3) ‘World-class’ actually means precisely the opposite. It is an excuse for having to think genuinely hard about getting something right.

4) This country never learns. And that includes the fact that in many cases, standards really are higher on the continent. I expect that these trains really will represent an improvement on what went before – but that is more an indictment of the past, rather than much to crow about. We are still a good way off the best.

Never mind, soon with our World-Class Brexit we will officially soon be officially rid of those pesky continentals and their ludicrous ideas – and we can carry on doing World-Class mediocre to our hearts’ content.

img-1451_w555_h555
The new Greater Anglia ‘Flirt’ unit. Not bad from the outside, though it would be better without the non non-obligatory yellow end.
tn_ch-sob-traverso-stadler
Yep, this is definitely the same train – albeit built to rather larger continental dimensions…
tn_gb_stadler_flirt_greater_anglia_interior_2 (1)
The cramped and grey standard class interior of the GA unit. Still, at least we have continental-style window blinds.
stadler_flirt_sobvoralpen06Südostbahn
The equivalent interior for the Swiss Sud-Ostbahn. Respective interior specifications courtesy of the customer consultation.
First-class, Swiss-style. Admittedly, also a bit grey.
41615510_342015486368932_4879372965262620119_n
On-board catering. When will British providers (of almost anything) stop banging on about being world-class while diluting standards for the U.K. market?
Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travelling in Style?

I named this blog carefully, in the belief that attention to the small things is often what transforms mere existence into Living. It is also a study in how this happens – and rather too often fails to.

I think that the truest reflection of the nature of a place or people is found not in the grand gestures, but in the small, everyday matters that contribute to making life what it is or isn’t. Sheer experience has shown that the approaches to this are not the same everywhere: some cultures appear to attach more importance to both pleasing appearance and high quality than others; one of my perpetual gripes about Britain is that so much here feels temporary and insubstantial, even when it is perhaps not. Maybe we need to pay more attention to the details.

Or rather, it’s not that we can’t do things well – but the average British mindset seems to view everyday life as a fairly rudimentary affair, and any grace as a luxury for which one must pay heavily.

This is a great pity, given the tendency of the British to grumble about everyday life, because I firmly believe that the solution is actually in people’s own hands. Special occasions may be great, but what we do with each and every day has a larger impact on the full experience of life. Hence my valuing of the notion of sprezzatura.

I am going to take several posts to examine some rather esoteric example of how different nations approach everyday matters. This post is one of two about transport design. On the face of it, this may not seem an important matter – but quite apart from the technical complexities of the subject, the way in which nations treat their travel spaces is a small but accessible window on the national psyche (I recall a senior Ford marketer once telling me that in Britain people buy cars on the strength of the exterior, whereas in Germany it is the interior that counts…)

Getting transport design right has the potential to transform a trying necessity into a stylish, enjoyable experience.

Railway carriage design might be expected to be important to the British, given the length of time many of them spend commuting. It is also a challenging design problem, given the many constraints that bear on it – from the inherently awkward, tube-like shape of the vehicles, to the increasingly stringent health and safety requirements, let alone the need to squeeze huge amounts of functional technology into confined spaces while keeping the whole usable by the public. I have travelled thousands of miles around Europe by train, and have experienced many approaches to this conundrum, some much more successful than others from the passenger’s perspective. One cannot but help compare and contrast. A comfortably-executed train journey is one of life’s pleasures, and with the need to get people out of their cars, one might have thought attention to that experience would be high on operator’s agendas. It is – sometimes.

So here is a selection of interiors from around the railways of Europe, with a little cultural commentary…

We’ll start with the home offering. Given the fragmented nature of Britain’s railways, there is no standard design. Companies do their own thing, and it is fair to say that maximising bums-on-seats is their top priority. One can forgive them the inherited problems caused by vehicle dimensions significantly smaller than those on the continent (notably 300-plus mm less width) – but arguably this is all the more reason for creative solutions. In the 1850s, regular-class accommodation was little more than cattle wagons; while standards have obviously risen across the board, the mentality for standard-rate travel in the U.K. is still largely the same…

FGW interior

Exhibit 1 is fairly typical of a British inter-city train today. This is a First Great Western example, and shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a bus company. The high back seats are a legislative response to rail accidents, while the airline configuration does provide leg room and a little privacy in a high-density interior. But the lighting is stark and far too bright, while the colour scheme is naive and garish – precisely the wrong shades of pink and blue. The overall effect is bleak: I can say from experience that this is not a restful environment in which to spend a couple of hours. In fact, if it were not such a challenging assault on the senses, it would be downright unpleasant.

The same company is taking delivery of a new fleet of government-specified trains, and exhibit 2 shows the latest offering:

gwriep02

I have yet to travel on one of these trains. I find the pared-back, more ‘streamlined’ interior an improvement, though apparently the seats are uncomfortable. Streamlined is a good approach for rail vehicles, given both their inherent shape and the safety considerations involved. But it is still just rather dull, and a real disappointment compared with the sleek enticement to travel that these new flagship trains could have been.

Virgin is also taking delivery of the same fleet. Exhibit 3 shows an original Virgin Pendolino interior, which shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a cut-price airline. I found to be extremely cramped and claustrophobic, not helped by the sloping walls (needed to keep the vehicle within its dynamic envelope when tilting). I also greatly dislike Virgin’s overly funky, pop-approach to design (and affairs generally – note to marketers, I don’t want to be told I’ve successfully bought a ticket with the word wayhey!!! in huge letters – where’s your dignity, let alone mine?)

virgin pend01

We have more garish primary colours, naff blue lighting in the luggage areas and the generally low-brow feel of a fast-food outlet.

The refurbished fleet on Virgin’s East Coast route fares a little better; this is the company’s second attempt at a train interior; perhaps they are slowly learning. (Exhibit 4):

vtmk403

…while the same company’s interior (exhibit 5) for the new Inter-City fleet (not yet in service) is at least a little less gloomy than the Great Western offering for the same train – but is still garish in its primary brightness. I suppose this might play well with Virgin’s core youth market – but what about the other segments of the travel market? Still, compare and contrast with exhibit 1…

azuma

One of the chief failings of the private companies that entered the British rail market was that they has little ‘feel’ for rail design issues such as the inherent form of the vehicles, something exacerbated by the ‘need’ for loud branding.

Chiltern is a long-term franchise, and it has been a good innovator over the years. Exhibit 6 shows the interior of one of its latest inter-city offerings. I must admit I am not sure what to make of this, and I have not sampled one in the flesh. Chiltern evolved from an old British Rail sector, and I think the its inherent feel for the design of rail vehicles shows, but while this arguably has atmosphere and ‘presence’, it is also perhaps rather drab, and just too subdued.

chilternmk3

We start to look a little further afield now. Exhibit 7 (below) shows the interior of an Irish inter-city coach from the flagship Dublin-Cork service. The outside ‘face’ of these trains is daringly raked – but as a result, the interiors are all the more of a disappointment: dull, cluttered and visually noisy, with little design credibility at all. Not sure the Irish have really developed much design cred as yet. Straight out of the 1980’s – and they haven’t even got the excuse of a restricted loading gauge.

cie mk4

Things start to get more interesting when one crosses the Channel. Deutsche Bahn is a highly efficient operator, and as expected its best fleets are high in quality. German design perhaps lacks a little visual flair, but everything feels very solid, with lots of leather, glass and blond wood; there is a hi-tech sleekness to it all. Exhibit 8 shows the interior of an ICE high speed train. I like the imaginative use of glass partitions to keep the interior open and airy, while the snazzy mirror-fronted information display is much less obtrusive than those in British trains. What’s more, the electronic seat reservation system always seems to be working…

db1

…and who can resist this opportunity (Exhibit 9 – which I have taken more than once)? In a move that would give British H&S bods nightmares, it is possible to sit in the driving vehicle, and watch the route ahead unfold at 300kph over the driver’s shoulder. The driver can blank the screen out if (s)he needs, as it is liquid-crystal glass. The seats are even banked for a better view…

db2

Heading to the rail paradise that is Switzerland, we find low-key restraint. SBB has a very modish image, but its interiors are quite sober. However, the quality is again high – more like the fittings on a luxury car. Exhibit 11 (below) shows the upper deck on an inter-city set; the careful lighting mitigates any feelings of claustrophobia in what is a fairly restricted space.

sbb01

Exhibit 12 shows another glory of Swiss railways – the retention of proper restaurant/bistro cars. This is the design for the latest upper-deck incarnation, and they still have proper table linen, cutlery and china… The monochrome colour scheme is nicely relieved by just the right hit of purple…

sbb02

More of a surprise comes from some of the nations traditionally associated with good design: Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. The Italians have never quite translated their mastery of automotive design to their railways, and the results often look as though they are trying too hard on the outside, and not hard enough on the inside (exhibit 13). Interesting to note that the same capacity preoccupation exists on private trains in Italy as in Britain…

italo2

First class on the FS Frecciarossa is a little more like it (exhibit 14) –

fs freccia

but in fact some of Italy’s slightly older trains actually seem to have more style, here almost a classic mid-century feel… (exhibit 16)

fs old

At least first class on the privately-operated Italo has a little more Italian brio about it (Exhibit 16). I’m not sure that all that shiny caramel leather really works, but I like the sleek partition behind them and the generous sense of space. The same preoccupation with advertising seems to be present…

italo

Spanish railways also major on cool design (Exhibit 17). This is the interior of one of RENFE’s AVE high speed trains. Admittedly this is first class; the leather seats are nicely tailored, and the colours scheme cool – but I wonder how long that pale wood floor will stay looking pristine. All in all, a good offering from a network that has been extremely successful in attracting travellers from their cars in recent years.

renfe01

 

In design terms, Danish trains are very disappointing. I suppose they do reflect the low-key organic Scandinavian approach to design, but despite the abstract end-panel graphics, I would have hoped for something more achingly stylish than this…

dsb02

(Exhibit 18)

I am of course saving the best until last. Of all the nations of Europe, when it comes to rail, the French seem to have the best, most innate design sense; from their graphic design to the chic announcement chimes that are almost a national institution, and the contemporary daring of some of their station architecture, they seem to have the right conditions in place to perceive a rail journey as a stylish rather than functional matter. Their train interiors reflect that. This is the nation that put its best fashion designers to work on its train interiors, and the latest offering from Christian Lacroix strikes an excellent balance between the inevitable constraints of a railway coach and doing something chic, different and yet accessible with it. (Exhibit 19). From the asymmetrical seat backs to the integrated reading lights, the funky carpet and the quite daring choice of colours, this is a stylish yet fun environment in which to travel.

sncf lacroix

The following images show a refurbished elderly regional train in France, and the latest experiments for the next generation for inner suburban design. Can you imagine such things happening in Britain?

corail

banlieu

By contrast, Exhibit 22 shows the latest British offering for the forthcoming Crossrail service in London; no contest. (I refuse to call it by the fawningly sentimental name Elizabeth Line). Even the upholstery (which I suppose is meant to be stylish) looks as though it is trying too hard and yet simultaneously fails to make any impact.

eliz line

Exhibit 23: Credit where credit’s due: the interiors for the new generation of Eurostar trains is up there with the best, something close to what this service should have offered from the start. It was always the best offering on British soil – probably because the designs were French. The latest version, of which this is the buffet, is a German designed train, with an Italian interior by Pininfarina. Why aren’t all trains like this?

eurostar01

It is perhaps pushing the point a bit far to claim that national train interiors reflect national temperaments and priorities – but there is nonetheless a wide variety of approach. As I said at the start, the design of things like train is a significant factor in the whole experience of using them, and it is not as though there is no precedent – from Pullmans to Wagons-Lits, style has always been part of rail travel. But in the case of modern British offerings, there is as usual, still too much reverence for traces of ‘heritage’ in the use of bulbous chair shapes, swirly carpets and soft-font signage, while the actual (hidden) agenda is pack ‘em in cheaply in Standard and fleece ‘em for First.

It is a huge disappointment that Great Western Railway (itself a self-conscious resuscitation of a historic brand) has seen no better than to regale its state of the art trains with fake-heritage insignia and a dull, supposedly historic livery. It is a far cry from the strong contemporary image of British Rail in the 1960 and 70s.

There is insufficient clarity and simplicity of line and surface in the interiors of modern British trains, and too little reference to the form that the design needs to follow. This is all the more apparent when one sees some of the crude exterior treatments that have also proliferated, which make no reference to the inherent shape of the train whatsoever. Likewise, the choice of colours is often ill-considered: there is a world of difference between a chic acid green and a dull bottle green, such as GWR have seen fit to throw wholesale over the exterior of their ultra-modern new trains. Graphic art is another field where the French excel, whereas too many British efforts are just dull and clunky.

This is not, however, to say that the continentals always get it right either, as the preceding pictures show.

But there, in one, is the difference in temperament after all – between the sleek chic of the best continental design, and the dull clunky norm in Britain. From the way they dress to the way they furnish their homes, it seems to me that the average Brit has learned little from the supposed design revolution of recent decades. Even IKEA modernism was just another passing fad. So I very much doubt that the average Briton even notices poor design when it comes to public transport, even if they still suffer its ill effects. For all that we bang on about being a world-class nation, when it comes to matters of public utility – not to mention the ‘shop window’ that public transport presents to the visiting world at large – too often we are plain, simple disappointing.

I suspect visual literacy just isn’t in our genes.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

The High Life

rtg03

After my previous complaints about the state of Britain’s town centres it was a pleasure, a few days ago, to visit somewhere that it still getting it right. Norwich (in Eastern England) has always been a law unto itself; I lived there for a year in the mid 1980s, when it was still a haven for as many alternative and offbeat scenes as you can imagine. Being rather out-on-a-limb geographically speaking has helped: only recently has it received the mixed blessings of a dual-carriageway road to the outside world, and while a modest 200,000 in population, its position as the centre of a large and quite remote rural hinterland lends it a big-city feel.

The building of the University of East Anglia in the 1960s added to its instinctively liberal character, especially after the construction of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an early work of Normal Foster, put it on the map forty years ago.

Even today, while it has ‘normalised’ somewhat, Norwich is still a city of great character, of course helped by a fine medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectural legacy and a network of narrow lanes still crammed with independent shops. As was the case everywhere, the sixties and seventies were generally less kind, with the usual bland corporate construction on the margins of the city centre. However, it was to one such building that my visit took me.

I was there for a professional rendezvous, and Chris had suggested meeting at The Rooftop Gardens, a restaurant atop a six storey office block not far from the station. This really is a case of making the best of the available opportunities in a way that provincial Britain rarely manages.

There is something appealing about getting high up in a city: it’s as though one has found an eyrie, tucked away yet simultaneously with a commanding view. Even for one who struggles with heights, the reason why penthouse apartments command a premium is immediately clear: an enviable 360 degree view taking in one of the city’s two cathedrals, its many medieval churches, the castle, the handsome railway station and the whole sweep of the city on its rise in the centre of a meander of the River Wensum. It’s a pity that so many such places are resolutely private.

The restaurant itself is smooth, exuding the kind of lounge-bar appeal I have seen in similar places on the continent, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the cool of somewhere like Bar Rouge, on the 20th floor of Basel’s Messeturm. But then, it doesn’t come with the vertigo either… The food is modern British in style, attractively produced if not especially generous of portion, and the staff attentive,  even a little eager.

There are two outside seating areas, with clear screens and a large awning to mitigate the climatic extremes in what is quite an exposed position; I can imagine it is an excellent spot on summer nights. There is also the advantage that it is the one place in that part of the city from where one cannot see the rest of the host building…

While Norwich is clearly a city of some means, the essential ingredient for remaining a “fine city” (as Norwich bills itself) is making the most of one’s assets. In that, imagination and vision are as important as hard cash. This is the city that, when its library burned down some years ago, built itself a fine contemporary mediathèque in the middle of the old town. In many British towns, the missing factor seems to be any kind of vision, which can work wonders even when money is short. As I have found more locally, there is a kind of dull, downtrodden provincialism about many smaller towns, a lack of any sense of urbanisme – civic pride or sophistication that is the necessary spark for places like Rooftop Gardens. I barely need to say that one gets a far wider sense of this on much of the continent.

Norwich is one example of how a place can have the best of both worlds: a city small enough to remain personable and eminently walkable, yet big enough to achieve some sophistication.  The Rooftop Gardens an excellent example of how to capitalise on an otherwise rather doubtful 1970s ‘asset’, and as such could easily be replicated elsewhere.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

What is becoming of the British town centre?

When Richard Beeching closed many of Britain’s branch line railways in the mid 1960’s, he was probably doing some necessary pruning – except that he didn’t realise that he was cutting not branches but roots. It later became evident how those smaller operations fed nutrients – in the form of custom – into the bigger lines. The consequence was a decline in use of the railways that took decades to reverse.

One might have hoped that we had learned the lesson – but it seems as though Britain’s town centres are going the same way. Walking around my local one (which had better remain nameless for fear of doing it more harm), I was shocked at its state of decline. I must admit, we go there rarely these days – which probably tells its own truth – so it was saddening to see the number of empty premises, tatty-looking streets and rather unsavoury-looking characters hanging around. Perhaps more frequent visits would have concealed the steepness of the decline.

This is not one of the centres of despair in the post-industrial wastelands of the North, but a major town of over 120,000 people, in one of the more prosperous parts of the south – and it is growing quickly. So what is happening to its urban fabric?

I think a number of factors are playing a part – and just as in the case of Beeching and the railways, own goals feature strongly.

I am part of that problem. I don’t mind for one minute being thought of as having obscure or even rarefied tastes – but be that as it may, my local town simply no longer caters for them as it used to. Consequently, I rarely find any need to spend money there, because it provides little that I need or want. The internet is of course a major part of this – but equally culpable, in my opinion, is the retail sector of Great Britain which has increasingly been dominated by chains such that anyone whose taste does not fall within the mainstream is less likely to be catered for. If you want to buy leisure-wear, you have the entire town to play with; look for any other form of decent menswear and you are struggling (except for a couple of very expensive shops). The same is true for music: the high street stores used to keep reasonable selections of minority genres; mostly now gone – so I buy my music from online specialists. I could go on: the point is this – by narrowing their offerings, and simultaneously putting many local specialist shops out of business, the retail sector has in effect excluded many of those smaller tribes who nonetheless collectively brought patronage to town centres.

There then followed a downward spiral – not helped in the least by three other factors:

1) the insistence of the local council on bleeding people dry for parking in the town, while for many years failing to provide workable alternatives in the form of good public transport. I know many people who will not use the town on account of its parking charges. I am talking here about often well-heeled people who live in the surrounding hinterland. Those who are left are the ones who cannot afford to go anywhere else.

2) The same council’s granting of permission for yet more out-of-town retail and leisure developments ostensibly to cater for the town’s growth – but which in reality only deprive the centre of trade.

3) The bleeding dry of funds from central government that has prevented local councils from maintaining their urban fabric, let alone innovating. But that is not the whole story: the town received a spectacular new art gallery some years ago – but the approach path is still half-screened off behind rusty, corrugated iron in an area where a redevelopment scheme never seems to happen. It can only be off-putting to potential visitors and the public image.

I am puzzled by one thing: towns on the continent must be encountering the same challenges from e-commerce (though I gather the Brits have been early adopters, as usual with anything that allows them never to leave their couches) – and there is no shortage of out-of-town retailing on the continent either – but the same hollowing-out effect seems not to be present.

Maybe it comes down simply to the fact that people in those countries simply have greater spending power to support more retailers – but I also wonder whether it is also something to do with the fact that continental towns have never been simply retail machines in the way British ones were allowed to become. There still seem to be more inner-urban dwellers on the continent (though it does also seem to be increasing in Britain) – and perhaps more significantly, people in France, Italy and elsewhere know how to inhabit their towns in a way the British have lost – or never had. The variety of cultural events seems to be much greater – and the food scene is not dominated by the increasingly tacky-looking chain restaurants that now line most British town streets as retail has fled. They also tend to have better public transport to bring people in from outlying districts.

I am sure the desire for greater choice has something to do with the problems in Britain: while I don’t buy often, I do spend money on good quality when I need something; but I will not part with cash for something sub-standard and no doubt I’m not alone in that demographic. People of that profile have been repelled by mainstream retail as I described. They also happen to be mobile: I can buy premium goods more cheaply at a nearby outlet village, likewise those and specialist goods online – and when I want the full urban experience, I am less than a hour’s drive from one place that is noticeably bucking the trend: Cambridge.

Cambridge also shows that while money clearly speaks (it has an evident glut), town centres can still work in Britain by providing for people with diverse needs and by offering more than just bleak, clone-retail. While Cambridge does have its critics, the sheer attractiveness and liveliness of its townscape makes up for a lot.

My local town also has an attractive townscape – indeed one of the more dramatic High Streets in the country – which the local council has repeatedly failed to pedestrianise it properly. It has other fine buildings too – some of which have been left to become weed-covered eyesores for want of an enlightened planning policy.

In the end it is the ability of local worthies to capitalise on what they have that I think has made the difference between Cambridge and my local centre. Quite what all the extra thousands who are expected to come to live in the newly-built acres of rabbit hutches are going to get out of their lives there is anyone’s guess.

A little vision goes a long way. And a lack of it can create a disaster where there need be none.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Authenticity and the modern Brit.

Bb01

I know: a post about Brexit and a Scottish folk band is going to have most clicking straight on past – but that is my point: hear me out!

There is much in modern life not to like; that ultimately seems to be what the Brexit vote was about. I am not however going to enter the fray here as to whether it is right or not – but it is unarguable that it has provoked a national debate in this country the like of which I have never seen. After several decades of somnolence, the conspiracy of ‘events’ has finally woken the British up to what their nation(s) have become – and plenty (on both sides of the debate) don’t much like it.

I would argue, however, that the reasons for this have little to do with our membership of the European Union, so much as the free reign that the forces of globalised capitalism have been given in this country – see the previous post. It is that which has really generated the crisis of identity currently being experienced in Britain. We have willingly been fed a diet of mass-produced, commercialised everything, whose main purpose is to hoover up as much of the nation’s disposable income as possible, as efficiently as possible. That means products that are cheap to produce and so bland that they will offend no one. As a result, they also come completely devoid of any cultural references that might make them distinctive – and this is no less so with the music industry as any other.

So it saddens me that for all the bashing many have been giving our country, perhaps justifiably, there are plenty of things of which we can still be proud – but which are regularly overlooked or ignored by the national mainstream. The fact that we have a vibrant folk and roots music scene is one – our musicians are in demand around the world within their own relatively small pool. Breabach, the subject of this piece are off to Australia next month, and regularly play across North America and continental Europe, where people seem to appreciate our native music if anything more than many British do. Possibly the strongest elements of a varied tradition are found in Scotland and Ireland – but while the Union endures, I am going to claim part of them for myself. In particular, the Scottish music scene has benefitted from the cultural confidence that devolution has brought, and a generation of young musicians has grown up shamelessly bringing new takes to something anciently British.

Breabach may well look like a traditional pipe-and-fiddle band – but that is not the half of it. Their music is almost entirely original, for all that they introduce traditional motifs and instrumentation. They are superb musicians, as tight as anything you would expect to find from people with a far higher profile. You won’t find much more than a hint of strict traditional music here – much of it ranges from a ‘wall of sound’ associated with much more contemporary genres, to lengthy pieces that verge on the symphonic on occasions. They are unafraid of sophisticated, syncopated rhythms, in amongst which they weave elements of Gaelic song and traditional tunes as well as many of their own compositions. There is even step-dance, used on an amplified ‘floor’ in part for its percussive quality.

They played to an appreciative full house and standing ovation in The King’s Place in London on Thursday, the first of a few warm-up gigs for the slack period between the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and their Australian tour. There is little affectation and few huge egos about these people: for a first encore, they went completely unplugged on a Gaelic song – and in the interval and after the concert, they were out front-of-house in good folk style, chatting with their audience and selling the inevitable CDs themselves.

The Scottish scene is but one part of a lively music genre that is affirmative and authentic. It exists not in a few large stadia for the financial gain of large international promoters, but in small venues the length and breadth of the nation, where it is a real and distinctive part of community and national identity. Breabach, however, show that it can also put its best clothes on and become something of much more contemporary relevance – a mark of a newly-emboldened national consciousness – in a way that is entirely of the present, even as it pays its due respects to the long and ancient history of these isles. Those in search of genuine Britain for a dose of national pride could do a lot worse than listen in.

http://breabach.com/

Sceptics also see also: https://tommygirard.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/breabach-the-desperate-battle-of-the-birds/

Bb02