Tag Archives: architecture

Library Love: Do the closures really matter? – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


I’ve never been a library lover. I’ve never taken to sitting there, in some dusty corner of my local archive of books, losing myself not just to the act of reading but the musty, hushed atmosphere of the place itself. I don’t depend on libraries for my books. I haven’t been to one in years.

When it was announced that libraries across the country would be closed down, I was frankly unmoved and more concerned about prioritising the threats of more devastating cuts to public services and investment. Reading will not end without libraries. In many ways they are outdated and unappealing. The future of reading, writing and knowledge lies elsewhere.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the issue again. And it’s certainly wrong that the Coalition are getting away with the quiet removal of libraries and other amenities, just because they happen to be less important than other areas in danger of being swallowed by the avalanche of cuts. The government is constantly striving to be radical, often for no practical reason. In all their years of opposition our current leaders appear to have built up such extreme levels of restless energy that they desire to drastically change everything, regardless of its merits. Some things are less broken than others; they should stop wasting time and money by meddling in too many areas.

I’m not saying libraries do not require government attention. Part of my attitude to them is down to the problems of the system. However they are also something that democratic, educated, developed nations, ought to be preserving rather than eradicating.

As I’ve said, my view of libraries is largely passionless. But once, reading both the novel Fahrenheit 451 and an explanatory introduction from its author, Ray Bradbury, I was entranced by the power, mystique and heritage of the institution that is the library. Across the world they have been the foundations of our knowledge, the records of our history, for centuries, if not millennia. Particularly in modern Britain they are vital bastions of cultural identity and heritage; a heritage the government is unthinkingly decimating with its deficit hacking cuts. Most of the cultural organisations hit by the government’s spending plans require little funding but produce massively disproportionate benefits. The case for the pluses of cutting them is wafer thin.

I began by stating that I had never been a library lover. This isn’t 100% true. As a boy, my attachment to reading began with the free books of the local library. Back then I discovered that an hour is better spent with a book than a games console, and that hour would be unbeatably absorbing. I only read trashy children’s and teen fiction, detective stories like the Hardy boys for example, but gazing around at the shelves it was then I knew that the written word and the ability to devour them was the gateway to entire worlds and experiences and information.

I still didn’t like reading in the library itself, an unattractive mid 20th century building, but I liked taking the books home. I liked that it was free and always remembered that reading needn’t be expensive from then on. I liked learning how to interact with the librarian and make my choice. It taught me more than just the importance of reading. Of course then I didn’t realise how meagre and disappointing the choice at my local library really was. That’s the main reason I abandoned it at quite a young age, and the same factor behind me shunning my school library as a source of information and a place of work throughout my school years.

I still think that only the most wonderfully impressive libraries retain a magical air; provide the sort of feeling I got for them reading Fahrenheit 451. Great historical libraries with their own stories and vast collections are beautiful, captivating buildings. Even an ordinary academic library, when devoted to your favourite subject, can be inspiring. Whilst regular local libraries lack the architectural magnificence and legacy, they remain vital lifelines, if only for a handful in the community.

 David Cameron’s Big Society, “DIY” and “help yourself get on in life” message, is in many ways perfectly encapsulated by the library. And yet he cuts them. He removes hundreds of local centres for people looking to educate themselves, for children encouraged into reading and away from useless, sometimes harmful diversion. Instead of getting rid of libraries he should be increasing access to them and strengthening the ones that are already there; with wider stock and more attractive, better designed spaces. The Prime Minister’s political party no longer seem worthy of the name “Conservative” but the changes they propose are hardly for the better. I’ve made it pretty clear here that libraries have not been integral to my reading life for a long time. But it seems to me that the Big Society, if it is a real concept at all, would depend on community assets like the library for cohesiveness and development.

Obviously I don’t think we’re heading for quite the apocalyptic decline in information and knowledge vividly rendered in Fahrenheit 451. But Bradbury’s work highlighted that reading and access to learning can be a right as much as health care can be in civilized, fair society. And with the decline of independent bookstores and even Waterstones, libraries could have remained an inexpensive safeguard and positive starting point for the young. In a way the cuts have rallied some communities around their local library. But most will simply fade away, like so much else to be cut under this government. I feel part of a generation that is less widely read than any before it at times. So for me, for nostalgia’s sake at least, the loss of libraries is a grave mistake and a regrettable shame. They should not be allowed to die enveloped by the silence demanded within their walls; a nationwide, noisy debate about the future of reading should begin.

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In Brief Praise of Bryson and Brooker


I’ve been meaning to sing the praises of two particular writers for some time. However perhaps I have found their work so enjoyable and admirable that I’ve been deterred from writing and attempting to sum up their brilliance, as it’s certain I’ll fall flat on my face in a puddle of failure. Perhaps broadcasting my enjoyment will in some way diminish it. Perhaps I’m embarrassed of elevating these men to the status of idols and role models when I neither write funnily enough to be considered in the same humorous bracket as them, or seriously enough to be amused by their ramblings from afar, occasionally distracted from the rigours of my precise, academic dissections of culture and politics by their simple gags.

I don’t think the craft of these two men is simple or easy though, although embracing the merits of simplicity can often be an important part of their success. It’s a far from facile task to be simultaneously intelligent and laugh out loud funny. Of course one can write cleverly and with wit, but that sort of writing rarely plucks an audible chortle from the depths of the reader’s throat. These two writers share three qualities that I admire and often strive for in my own work: 1) they’re hilarious, 2) they have a knack of describing things in a spot-on, accurate, unique and truthful way and 3) an undertone of self-depreciation flows through their work that makes what they say accessible and allows a degree of more outrageous opinion and conviction.

These men then are travel writer Bill Bryson and critic Charlie Brooker. I’ve recently read Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island and Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb, a selection of his Screen Burn and opinion pieces from The Guardian. Obviously in subject matter alone these writers are poles apart, but I’ve already pointed out some of their crucial similarities to me. They also have appealing differences. In Bryson’s book he showcases a subtle humour through the description of characters as well as more rib cage rattling stuff. He also brilliantly evokes a sense of place and has encouraged me to consider strongly exploring a number of locations anew and afresh in our glorious land, such as distant Edinburgh and the closer South Coast. In Brooker’s book he consistently demonstrates a commanding handling of contemporary culture and an ability to scathingly insult and pick apart any target he sets his sights on. He also has a wonderful understanding and sense of pessimism about the media age we live in and has mastered the art of the interesting review. His reviews often relate to his own life or a version of it and do not feel like reviews until some way into the article. They surprise and baffle, whilst always capturing something essential about the essence of the show, programme or film.

Indeed both men refreshingly offer up a lot of themselves into their work which gives it an engaging, “real” quality. They basically have a recognisable and distinctive style and voice which most writers, myself included, struggle to emulate, especially as they remain versatile and able to cover a spectrum of subjects at the same time. Often the qualities I have described so far blend in particular phrases and images. For example early on in Bryson’s book he demonstrates his knack for perfect description, “The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere” and later in the same paragraph does the same thing whilst being humorous and self-depreciating at the same time with this gem of a line: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than it”.

That sense of experience pervades Bryson’s writing and he talks hilariously of times when he was still acquiring his nous, and of times when despite his age events still get the better of him. As an outsider Bryson also has a wonderful way of describing the faults and habits of the British, such as a hilarious passage in which he accurately describes the way we discuss traffic and routes on the road with terrible serious and deliberation. He also appears to have picked up a sense of British reserve, for when he insults someone he often qualifies the statement or does so gently but hilariously. Occasionally his musings and rants on architecture become tiresome, but he instantly acknowledges this fact and it is worth it for the injection of identity into the writing.

If Bryson harnesses experience then Brooker channels a youthful fury into his writing and displays consistently the art of the preposterous, rude and yet eerily accurate insult. There are too many to list but a particularly memorable image deployed during a rant against posing Mac owners, Brooker dubs the Apple computers as “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults”.  I always enjoy his articles, in the book and continually on The Guardian website.

In summary if I end up writing in a similar way or doing a similar job to these men later in life I shall be one happy bunny.

Cultural Wanderings of an Ignorant Youth


This week I went all middle-class and cultural. On Wednesday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for “An Evening of Vivaldi” with violinist Nigel Kennedy. And yesterday I ambled round the Tate Modern, hoping I didn’t look as stupid as I felt. It was all certainly a far-cry from my rural roots and the working class hubbub of a football match and the intoxicating odours of warmed sausage rolls. But if I’m honest I don’t feel comfortable in either environment.

Wednesday then and the much anticipated, long awaited evening of Vivaldi. I was spirited to the venue by an irritable cabbie all the more grunty and scowly I suspect due to the additional traffic clogging the arteries of the capital’s roads, vomited up from below by the tube strike. On several occasions his grumpy state prompted less than textbook driving manoeuvres and one of these bursts prompted the howling horns of a sleek BMW pulling out into our lane, along with an un-graceful involuntary spasm from me. Not daunted in the slightest he drove on and continued occasionally with his inaudible mutterings, and I listened to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 as he accepted calls about the change in the law allowing prisoners to vote, prompted by the EU courts. Eventually the Albert Hall crept on me from nowhere and I was out, stalking around its beautifully lit circumference, killing time until the doors were opened.

I was suitably impressed by the building from the outside and enjoyed snatching chunks of a singer that floated from a window in the Royal College of Music opposite, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the scale of the interior. I loved the deep scarlet (or crimson?) colour to everything and the history present in the antique seats, but whilst it was undoubtedly a big venue, perhaps my aforementioned working class sensibilities, used to giant football stadia, left me unmoved by the jewel in Britain’s musical crown. However I was pleased with the view from my seat and impressed by the impression that everyone’s seat must have a decent view. Still it felt smaller than it looked on the Dr.Who Proms anyway.

The only thing that mattered to my father (if I wasn’t writing would have called him Dad, but that sounded wrong and just a little too affectionate to be accurate, although father makes me sound more refined than I am) about Nigel Kennedy was that he too was an Aston Villa fan. All I really knew of him was a few performances on TV and the CD of the Four Seasons I own, played by him, that I know inside out and was my only real motivation for coming. That CD alone convinced me I loved Vivaldi and seeing as I loved his native city of Venice too it seemed like a good idea to delve deeper. But as I have said, I am a stranger to this world of cultured classical music and was therefore grateful in many ways for Nigel’s eccentric onstage behaviour with a working class twang. He honestly looked scruffy in my opinion. But he was instantly likeable. He swore frequently and strongly, to the shock of some and amusement of most; “Now I guess I have to play some shit on my own”. He bantered with audience members late because of the tube strike, pouncing on one with kisses and theatrical gestures; “You’ve only missed a few concertos but there’s loads of good stuff left”. He referred to sport when introducing his glamorous and beautiful female companions. He generally joked and entertained. And he seemed as baffled as I was at times at the ever so frequent applause. Every minor piece required a bout of praise at its finish, leaving me and by the look on his face at times, Nigel himself, wondering when they would get on with it. But then I guess it was all so wonderfully and terribly British, and why so many Germans, Irish and Italians were seated around me to enjoy the show.

I am hardly qualified to comment at length on the music itself. The first half of the show was comprised mostly of concertos I was unfamiliar with and consequently towards the end of it I found myself growing a little weary, especially during the softer sections. I confess that I enjoy the frantic and furious crescendos considerably more than the gentle, swaying parts, no matter how beautiful and intoxicating and calming they may be. I suppose the real revelation in seeing the performance live was the sheer visual spectacle of the violin. During my favourite intense moments the entire orchestra moved in energetic, synchronised slashes and jolts. All that striking swishing up and down through the air was like a chorus of swords striking at our ears, echoing the very “V” sound of Vivaldi, Venice and violin. Watching Kennedy duet with his various exotic female companions was also extraordinary for me, seeing the sort of chemistry I had only previously experienced between singers or dancers between two instruments was wonderful. The way he would undulate and stomp and stamp was so engaging at times, as if he was enjoying it then so would we I guess. Nevertheless I shamefully longed for some of the lively hip gyrations and sexy beats of Dirty Dancing which I had seen the week before as a present for my mother, at times. But of course when he finally got round to “four little unknown concertos” I was so delighted he was going to play the whole Four Seasons, and felt for a brief moment brilliantly middle-class and cultured to be in on such a joke. The striking strings tell such a story in that music and the waves of sound rising up stronger and stronger during my preferred pieces was wonderful and fantastic to hear the whole thing in one go. Admittedly by the end I was tired and keen to leave for bed, but I was privileged to have heard what I knew as tracks on a CD, treasured and enjoyed in quiet privacy, in the company of others, even if they were more than simply a casual appreciator as I was.

Mind you I am a bloody expert on Vivaldi when you compare my knowledge of his music to my knowledge of modern art. So I’m not sure why I had the urge to go and look round the Tate Modern, but go I did. I guess part of it was simply the wonderful approach and the walk past St.Pauls and over the marvellous Millennium Bridge, poised like a delicate, wobbly blade over the Thames. The walk was actually surprisingly easy and quick and I shall be doing it again. I loved the contrast of St.Pauls white marble with that of the Tate Modern building itself, beautiful in its own way. Part of my problem has always been though that I appreciate the buildings selected to store great art in more than the works themselves. Whilst I can see the value more easily in the traditional works at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (and I always pop in), with some pieces, such as those of the Venetian canals, blowing me away with their vibrancy and colour, I find it much easier to marvel at length at the scale and beauty of the building around me than the paintings.

Once inside the Tate Modern though the interior is nothing to marvel at. Disappointingly there was no sign of the controversial seed art installation that had made the news, but I picked up a map and set off aiming to educate myself. I was expecting to despise a lot of what I saw, as I am an ignorant, rural, traditional sceptic when it comes to “modern” art in many ways. I do not claim to know what constitutes art and what doesn’t, and would rather not get into that debate as it’s surely a subjective question, but for me a piece of canvas painted one colour, albeit a striking one, is interior design, not art. There’s no reason why it would not have been done before by someone. I’m not saying it doesn’t require skill and aesthetic appreciation, but it does not seem to be art to me. And yes there was the odd piece that I hurried past to avoid staring at it angrily and in disbelief. Even Matisse’s celebrated “the snail” which I was familiar with from a documentary and was surrounded by admirers, does nothing for me with its simple blocks of colour. For the most part however I was surprised at how engaging I found a lot of the works and generally enjoyed my couple of hours or so wandering about.

Calling the Tate Modern “modern” can be misleading in itself, as there is a lot of history to be found within the walls. Granted when you take human civilisation as a speck on the table top of world history then the twentieth century works on show are very modern indeed, but for me as a child born at the end of the century it’s a period rich in variety, close enough to be stirringly relevant but far enough away to be exotic. I stumbled across Monet’s Water Lillies for example, which seemed like a genuine progression of what the sceptic might term “real” art, as opposed to a cop out like some of the more controversial, politically motivated revolutionary pieces. I was happy to sit and lose myself in its colours for a fair few minutes and could see the value in the blend of colours expressing something true about what one actually saw in such situations. As I’ve said before on this blog, for me culture speaks to me most when it says something true and I found throughout the day that reading the brief background of a piece might help me see the meaning the artist was striving for and thus appreciate it more. Having said that some pieces were simply a visual treat I didn’t want to spoil by thinking about and dissecting, such as Jackson Pollack’s Summertime, on the opposite wall to Monet, which was a colourful splash of elongated colour.

Generally reading about and discussing the various methods of artists, especially when they produce dubious results, bores and alienates me. But when these methods are placed in the context of their times and given intellectual motivation I am more interested. I found a number of pieces by German artist Max Ernst interesting, for example. One of them, The Entire City, painted in 1934, was created using a technique called grattage or scraping. This introduced elements of chance into the work and I found this philosophical idea fascinating, especially when placed in historical context it is said to express Ernst’s pessimism at the unfolding Nazi situation in Germany. It also helped that the visual end product of The Entire City was visually intriguing as well as being not so abstract as to be unintelligible by my simple eyes.

I have always found it difficult to relate to the craft of the artist, perhaps simply because I was so utterly useless and talentless myself.  I have always preferred and understood the skill of the written word and seen more value there. But in the “Poetry and Dream” section of the Tate I found some pleasing overlap that could stimulate my brain as well as my senses. A piece by Juliao Sarmento entitled Mehr Licht, meaning “more light”, is interestingly ambiguous with the image of a man holding a woman’s neck and was intended to be so, as the artist points out that such a gesture can be violent or tender. Having said this I still found that the end product of some works seemed to bare no correspondence to their descriptions lavishing praise and finding intellectual enquiries where there were none. Francis Picabia’s Handsome Pork Butcher for example just seemed grotesque and silly and perhaps that was the point, although his Otaiti was more thought provoking.

So whilst I did appreciate the different and striking pieces, especially when they had inspirational ideas behind them and connected to them, the uneducated ogre in me still preferred the pieces that resembled “real” art and exuded skill. Yes there were sculptures by Anish Kapoor and others such as a tumbling stack of felt and a circuit comprised of ordinary silver kitchen objects that held me transfixed for a while, but these seemed to belong in a different category. The realist room containing pieces by Meredith Frampton and Dod Procter, seemed to have a better blend of skill and modern ideas. Dod Procter’s Morning had a wonderful 3D quality and captured the light and imperfections of the human form as well, and better, than any camera. Frampton’s works too seemed to have mastered the fall of light as well as containing symbolic, vibrant objects that made it more modern and set it apart from a traditional portrait.

Oh dear listen to me trundling out the sort of art critic bollocks that usually makes me heave. And worse still I’m a complete amateur; at least they’ve been taught or learned the bullshit they spout inside out. If I’m honest in the vast majority of the galleries I was often distracted from the works by the superior quality of female that creativity seems to attract. I mean seriously I may have to consider cultivating a sideline in bullshit art appreciation alongside my “writer’s beard”, as a friend of mine told me I was now sporting. I have literally not seen so many attractive girls in one place at once in a very long time. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. But anyway every other girl seemed to be a stunner, I was looking around for the gallery official whose glorious job it was to admit the beautiful and turn away those whose standards fell short. Was it always like this? I imagined that if I should ever be lucky enough to talk to any of these women, even if they churned out arty farty crap that was incomprehensible to me, I would listen, transfixed, jaw hanging in wonder and scraping the industrial floor. There was the odd creative guy type about who would clearly act as a magnet to all the budding female artists drifting aimlessly, except that a great number of them may have been gay by appearances. But then who can judge by appearances alone? Artists perhaps. Anyway needless to say I did not speak to any of these wonders, these fine specimens, these art drugged creatures. I simply marvelled and left, having enjoyed my cultural wanderings. But I remained essentially terribly ignorant.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.