In praise of… The European Union

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Things have changed. Those who voted in the last referendum didn’t vote for the EU; they voted for a Common Market. That’s true. But the EU didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened since in isolation; the world didn’t stop just because we in Europe signed a trade deal. The world changed, at great speed. The world is a very different place to 1975.

In 1975, the world was a slower place, a larger place. Transport and travel was not so cheaply accessible; communications were not mobile, nor so cheap; media was three channels (at least in the UK); world events took time to filter through. There was no internet; no Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn. The planet was polarised into First and Second worlds, ready to obliterate each other with a few presses of the button. Companies in the West had little penetration at all in China, Russia, much of Africa. Markets of millions of people in India, Pakistan, China, South America were still developing; industries, mineral wealth, natural resources remained in many cases unexploited by big business. Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft, all yet to become the global behemoths that they are today.

Today, all this is different. For the price of a weekly tram ticket, one can travel from Nottingham to Berlin and back. A Starbucks latte in San Francisco is made to the same method and recipe as one in Warsaw, Wellingborough, Wellington or Whitby. Events stream into our eyes and ears live, as they happen, from Kiev to Coventry in real time. We are bombarded with media from every conceivable source at whatever time we choose to give our attention to it.

Like minded individuals can communicate in real time almost anywhere on earth. Mobile technology connects Monopoly lovers, Jane Eyre fans, baking enthusiasts and movie buffs instantly. It puts political activists in touch across vast expanses of land and sea to co-operate and converse in ways unimaginable at any other point in human history. In many ways this is truly wonderful; in others, truly horrific as we watch so-called Islamic State beam images of beheadings around the world in seconds.

Truly, the world has changed. Human labour, once strong and organised locally, can be sourced anywhere on earth. Demand too many rights or too good a set of working conditions for manufacturing? Fine, the company relocates to the developing world which, far from keeping the West out, now encourages it in to make products cheaply which it sells back at a profit to the consumers who aren’t paid enough to produce it in the first place.

Corporations, now, have larger economic global impact than entire countries. Think of a few:

WalMart is bigger than Norway ($421 billion against £414 billion)
Chevron is bigger than the Czech Republic ( $196b against $192b)
GE is bigger than New Zealand ($151b against $140b)
Berkshire Hathaway is bigger than Hungary ($136b against $138b)
Microsoft is bigger than Croatia ($62b against $60b)

Think about this. Corporations have more economic clout than entire nations. And nations have so much to worry about – health, education, infrastructure, welfare, housing. The corporations? They have one singular aim: profit. Cheaper labour? No problem. Relocate. Paid paternity leave? Not a problem elsewhere. Countries, acting individually, simply can’t compete with the demands and aims of corporations who can choose to place their custom elsewhere. And witness the humiliating example of George Osborne accepting an offer from Starbucks to discuss their tax bill.

Acting together, the nations of Europe have protected the rights of their workers to paid maternity and paternity leave; established the principles of a minimum wage; reduced travel and mobile communications costs; established the right to work in the country of your choice pursuing your career; removed barriers to trade, to movement; have protected every EU inhabitant from exploitative economic practices. The death penalty is something for Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia and China; gay rights are protected; the notions of black right, women’s rights, gay rights are fast becoming a European standard of universal human rights.

Politically, the world is different, too. No longer does an Iron Curtain stretch from the Baltic to the Aegean, and in this transformation – scarcely believable in 1975 – the nations of the former Eastern Bloc have undergone a transformation all of their own: but democracy has not become embedded by accident. For countries who wish to access the single market, the free movement and protections of the EU must change their own laws and practices as nations in so many ways – from company law to agriculture, from energy policy to financial regulation, from consumer protection to the environment, from anti-corruption to education, from justice and human rights to taxation. This kind of co-operation is not diktat for the sake of it; it has been an active instrument in bringing corrupt, destitute, undeveloped and decaying countries into the modern world. Crumbling roads and filthy orphanages in the former East are now modern hospitals and smooth highways. Exploited workers now have protections, strict rules reduce corruption. Conflict, economic strife, environmental vandalism are over and freedom of communication, ideas, philosophies, scientific research and technological development are now hallmarks of all EU nations, and their aspiring members. Eastern Europe has become central Europe and the ‘east’ is now Belarus and Ukraine – a long way, indeed, from being mainstream European countries in the way Slovenia, Poland and Slovakia are.

And if we look at the candidate countries for EU membership – Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, among others – countries which twenty years ago were tearing themselves apart with civil war and ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rape – now, thanks to the acquis, the convergence of common ideals of public life, social stability, environmental policy and so much else, are now striving to become vibrant young democracies who will take their place alongside Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and so many others in a union that, while far from perfect, is surely better than the Ceaucescus of old and the Belarus of the present?

And what of the threats to us all as a race? Climate change, resource conflict, mass migration and energy security are issues that are truly transnational in the twenty-first century. Pulling out and banning migration to Britain is not going to prevent many millions of people being displaced across the world, draining resources and causing widespread economic and public service instability as thousands trek to fortress Europe for safety and sanctuary. It will not stop the planet warming, will not stop the oceans and the Arctic being drilled for oil, will not stop emissions that will choke our forests and cities, dry our oceans and rivers, and cause yet more thousands to migrate to countries with water, food, and jobs. We can best address this by working together, bringing people into our communities to work in our public services, care for us when we are old and economically a burden on our state and require migrant workers to pay taxes to fund our social care in old age. But also, together, we can exert ever more influence on the corporations which care not for climate change, population displacement and the rights of workers. Together, as a transnational union of peoples with a common ideal, we can stand up for the planet when other entities would not.

Britain fought itself to bankruptcy to prevent the eclipse of democracy in the second world war. The ideals it fought to preserve are now enshrined in the agreed rights, standards, practices of European democracies from the Black Sea to the Baltic. This is something to be so proud of. There is no doubt that Britain can survive outside the European Union. The world will not end with Brexit on June 23rd, we will continue to trade, visit and co-operate with the remaining 27 European Union member states. But what a missed opportunity – to walk away from one of the most spectacular achievements in diplomatic history, one of the greatest guarantors of workers’ rights the world has ever known, an economic bloc which can fight our corner in the profit-centred age of the mega corporation, a union which prioritises a green, sustainable future for our energy and resource needs, that thinks to the future rather than to the political weathervane of the present.

Walking away will not hurt us unduly. But working together, we can achieve so much more. Make our future more secure. Act now to make our planet a better place for our grandchildren. Britain has always, on balance, been a positive influence on the world, and entire nations have been positively influenced by what we do and how we do it: political democracy, fair trade, respect for individual rights. Remaining within the European Union does not end on 23rd June; rather, it is a challenge and opportunity to all of Britain to make this great country part of an even greater continent, to secure a future for 500 million people that is free from the plague, war, hatred, exploitation, conflict, violence and disharmony that was Europe’s history: until we came together after the second world war to ensure that the past really was the past, and that the future would truly be a better world than that which went before.

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In praise of… Charlie Hebdo

001_1ST_IA_NAT_()_NWS_20150108.pdfSudden and violent death shocks us all, and as we watch the events from Paris unfold on our televisions, mobile phones, tablets and computers, there is an immediate sense of horror and incomprehension for most of us. That journalists, whose job it is to offer reportage, commentary, and to challenge what we are told by powerful interests of government, finance, religion, industry, business and power, are silenced in such a mortal way is sickening.

To those of us who are ever more cynical of these interests, we often find that Have I Got News for You and Private Eye do a better job of challenging the Government’s interpretation of the world than our Official Opposition. That journalists – expressing and publishing their thoughts in a legal and democratic way – should be attacked with weapons of war, and yet their arguments left standing tall, is barbarism. The terrorists offered no response to what Charlie Hebdo said – merely a cowardly and nihilistic attempt to stop the repetition of the message, rather than refute it.

In this, their singular aim for which they shed so much blood, the terrorists have failed.

So how do we respond to these events? The immediate impact of the circumstances may shock us, initially. Families will grieve and justice must be done. But no threat to the freedom of thought can go unchallenged in a more global sense. The terrorists, in succeeding in covering our press and news media with the carnage of the events themselves, mask exactly what they fear being discussed: the cartoons, the satire, the challenge to their own view of our shared world which they find so terrifying themselves.

So the only response I see is publish. Publish everything; completely, and repeatedly. Show the world the cartoons, the drawings, the satire and the scrutiny that left the terrorists no answer but the Kalashnikov, no rejoinder but force of arms. Bring into the mainstream the issues that the terrorists wanted hidden from view; debate the arguments to which the gunmen themselves had no answer.

No number of bullets can stop the printing of the press, as Charlie Hebdo proved moments ago when they announced a million copies of their next edition. No bullets can stop the power of social media to make a point. Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated that they are a powerful tool for ordinary people in the last 24 hours. You and I, spectators, thankfully, in these awful events, are empowered to make our thoughts and voices seen and heard across the world with the click of a mouse.

We can stand up, as the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo bravely did, to the guns of cowards who would rather shoot us at our desks than have us Tweet that picture again. For when the terrorists sought to silence their critics, they brought the focus of the free-thinking world upon what Charlie Hebdo said, and, via our real-time media technology, in a few short hours, did what Charlie Hebdo worked for months to achieve: brought their message, their satire, their images and their questions to a world audience.

The sheer volume of sympathy, support and shock – embodied in the hashtag Je suis Charlie – from ordinary people is remarkable, but when the grieving subsides, the response must surely begin. The legacy of the staff of Charlie Hebdo can be the very thing the terrorists attempted to stop.

So Tweet the pictures; Re-Tweet, Share, Like, Comment; debate and discuss, publish and persuade. In doing so, we can say, in a loud and a clear voice, that no terrorist will ever destroy the freedom of the human mind.

In praise of… Strictly Come Dancing

Autumn seems to bring a varied selection of ‘talent’ shows onto our screens; Tumble, Splash, Somewhere’s Got Talent, X-Factor, Strictly, Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef, Professional Masterchef, Professional Celebrity Masterchef… you get the picture.

 

I’m mildly against several of these shows, as they’re rarely about talent and more about simple ratings, making human drama out of the participants, a few quid off the merchandising, and then repeat again next year. Some, however, are rather more about talent, and as a musician and musical theatre person, I’m particularly fond of Strictly Come Dancing, recently returned to our screens minus Sir Bruce Forsyth.

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I’ve always felt – as a musician, first and foremost – that X-Factor has always been, and is even more now, an overtly cynical exercise in the manipulation of young, often naive and talentless, individuals as well as the general public. The audition process is unashamedly exploitative and voyeuristic, bordering on cruel, were not the participants equally narcissistic and hungry for their 30 seconds of attention. 

The show begins from the starting lie that “you can make it big if you believe in yourself” and carries on, promoting the ridiculous, unstable, occasionally vulnerable and (usually) un-talented. The irony that the eventual winner will be dropped as soon as the Christmas sales tail off appears not to faze the contestants one little bit. The unrelenting focus on the contestants’ personal lives and irrelevant grannies/siblings/pets dying of whatever disease or other only shows how thin the actual material content of the show is.

Never let it be said that Strictly doesn’t like a bit of media attention either. But what’s really rather enjoyable about this show is that the celebrities – who are paid to be there – start from the basis that they pretty much don’t know what they’re doing. They start knowing that they are NOT the world’s greatest dancer waiting to be discovered, a talent that has been limited to the teenage bedroom since they discovered iTunes. And so, for the dancers, we see a progression, week on week. We see those montages of them in the gym, falling over, screwing up their steps, and trying to get hands, faces and feet doing the right thing and the right time, trying to master musical rhythms and concepts such as syncopation, polymeters and rubato at them in a way which is done with live musicians, not a backing track.

And then, their performance is given real critical analysis by judges who have between them decades of experience in the business, who know, precisely, what they are talking about, who can give technical and artistic criticism, down to the placement of the hands, the shape of the foot, the line of the movement as well as the artistic storytelling involved in any artform. 

Ben Cohen tackles a difficult pass from the judges

Ben Cohen tackles a difficult pass from the judges

What a contrast to the bland, shallow comments of all the X-Factor judges I’ve ever seen, who offer nothing that will help each hapless contestant improve their performance; the singers pelt out a high note that sounds like a giraffe being castrated and get rapturous applause for their efforts. They sing classic, big, powerful songs without the slightest regard for the story that they are telling, the word painting or the artistic content of what they’re singing about, and do it without humanity or musicality. 

And yet the public love it. 

The exploitative nature of X-Factor is nowhere better demonstrated in that quiet January end to the career that began a few short weeks before. 

With Strictly, we see achievement – the development of knowledge of the steps, experience in the movement and the skill of the dance, which lead, in combination, to expertise. And so the celebrities actually do get better, and we see that hard work, application and artistry do pay off. None of the Strictly celebrities are ‘discovered’; Judy Murray will go back to tennis and Gregg Wallace will go back to Masterchef when the competition is over. It’s carried out not to ‘find’ (and milk) a ‘talent’ for the party season but to entertain; the only thing the winner gets is a shiny trophy. 

Louis Smith with the Glitterball Trophy

Louis Smith with the Glitterball Trophy

And, of course, the sheer satisfaction and pride at having become better at something. Every so often, the public reward inability – John Sergeant gracefully withdrawing as his performances threatened victory, no matter than the judges scored him ever lower. Although we love the ability, sometimes personality shines through as well, though not to the cynical extent that we see on other shows, with the contestants’ various private lives splurged across double-page spreads in the red tops.

 

And then, there’s the sheer fun of the whole thing, the camp, exaggerated costumes, tans; Sir Bruce, unable to read the jokes from the autocue and we love him all the more for this endearing, unintentionally-funny comedy of presenter-slapstick. The puns, at the expense of the judges, all the more enjoyed by their predictability. The judges themselves, experts in their field, but not afraid to take their share of the verbal custard-pie from contestants or presenters – or each other. This is entertainment as an artform, a superb piece of innocent, camp, innuendo-ridden fun which is firmly in its place on the BBC on a Saturday night. 

The simply wonderful Harry Judd

The simply wonderful Harry Judd

So that’s why I love Strictly; the business of people learning skills, combining their own talent with others in a live setting to wow, thrill and entertain us with a combination of movement, stories, music and visual spectacle. It’s entertainment built on the sweat, talent and effort of the participants; not a cynical, tawdry little indulgence of some wannabe pop star who can often barely sing, never mind perform. Strictly is real showbiz, underneath the camp exterior: for, below the sequins, the fake tan, the lights and the glitter, there is perspiration, determination, collaboration, musicality, technique, and, every so often, artistry. And that’s what drives the Strictly audiences wild; that’s why emotions are so accentuated, success so wildly celebrated, and exits from the show so sorely felt. The show relies on the dancers, the singers, the band, the lighting operators, and the backstage dressers, wardrobe and make up all working together to produce the show that makes it onto the floor.

 

So bravo, Strictly. Keep dancing.

In praise of… The Great British Bake-Off

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The Great British Bake-Off

A few nights ago, my Facebook feed lit up like the candles on a birthday cake, with the warmth, excitement and amusement that now traditionally greets the beginning of each new series of The Great British Bake Off. So popular is the show that the BBC has moved it from BBC2 to BBC1. And quite extraordinarily, it’s not celebrity chefs, world-famous kitchens and Michelin stars that are proving popular, but some rather ordinary people making cakes, pies, biscuits and scones.

The format of the show is tried and tested: contestants endeavour to do their best in their chosen field – in this case, baking – and their efforts are judged by a panel of experts while we observe the processes of sifting, proving and knocking back, interspersed with some genial nuggets of personal information about the Bakers and occasionally a little science or history lesson related to cakes, buns, pies or breads. Our hosts offer commentary and continuity that is laced with a mild degree of gentle pre-watershed smut and innuendo, simultaneously amusing the adults while sailing blissfully over the heads of the younger members of the audience. Or, perhaps, they are appealing to the impish child in every one of us – in me, certainly.

What sets the GBBO apart from other shows in this field – say X-Factor, or Britain’s Got Talent – is the charming lack of exploitation, voyeurism or cynicism in selecting the Bakers. They really are very good at what they do; the worst of them is only ‘bad’ in comparison to talented colleagues, in stark contrast to the tuneless, feckless, talentless individuals that are regularly paraded in front of rubbernecking audiences by the commercial channels. In the Bake Off, we see some very dedicated people doing what they love, and doing it very well (making the odd panicked moment when a Baker realised she has mistaken salt for sugar an episode of real drama, as opposed to scripted voyeurism). And we see them seeking not fame, fortune, groupies and sponsorship deals (though many are so inspired by the process as to change career), but for the challenge of improving themselves, the love of what they do and the pleasure they gain from other people’s delight in consuming their endeavours. The Bakers’ knowledge of their craft, their skill in combining their ingredients and their experience in knowing when to stop kneading, when to remove from the oven and how to get that icing at just the right consistency produces the golden egg of expertise, and seeing this craftsmanship in action, pushed even further by the competitive aspect of the show, is a real and comforting pleasure to watch.

For the real value in the Bake Off is its celebration of very modest, human activities which we all now have machines and robots do on our behalf. Mr Kipling hasn’t baked a cake for decades, but his eponymous factories, packing plants and distribution systems place several hundred thousand identical apple pies on our plates every year. With our elevenses, we consume the product of an industrial scale profit-making corporation. With the Bake Off, we see the human hand and heart combine to take the raw flour, eggs, sugar and butter and produce little moments of pleasure that enhance our otherwise work-filled, busy lives.

And the Bakers are not engaged in a functional thing, like washing clothes or fetching products from supermarkets or websites. Their effort, attention and intentions are small ways in which they improve their quality of life and the quality of life for those around them. They live beyond a repetitious cycle of work, eat, sleep, repeat and craft exquisite, ephemeral moments of delight that produce memories and sensations which continue to make one smile many years after the fact. The Bakers show us that time spent pursuing our own passions, not for the goal of paying the mortgage or the hire-purchase, but for enjoying the opportunities to create enjoyment around us in small but lasting ways, is to have a high quality of life indeed. To be privy to the Bakers’ work via the BBC is a privilege; to be reminded of how we might want to make time for our own passions, our own moments of enjoyment and delight, the way the Bakers do, seems to me a valuable lesson for life, and one more thing that we might be grateful to the BBC for.

In praise of… printed books

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Printed books tell stories that e-readers can’t even begin to

As many of us return to work following our two weeks in the sun, we will doubtless have consumed our fair share of thrillers, romances, mysteries, bodice-rippers and other page-turners. For a growing number of holiday readers, the e-book is gaining in popularity; for those who enjoy a paddle or a splash in between chapters, Kobo will be releasing a waterproof e-reader on 1 October which will, allegedly, allow the piscine bookworm half an hour’s reading in up to one metre of water, as long as one remembers to shut the device port cover. Another reason, indeed, to forego the humble airport paperback for the Kindle, iPad, Nook or Hudl?

Research blustily trumpeted by the Daily Mail indeed suggested that this was indeed a case of the paperback is dead; vive le paperback electronique. Historic declines in the sales of the humble page-turner, coupled with the closure of specialist bookshops, the rapid increase in downloading and the difficulties faced by industry heavyweights such as Waterstone might lead one to think that the process of pulping wood and compressing it into sheets for the purposes of entertaining gently poaching Brits on the Costa del Sol was well on the way to a one-way ticket to a Swiss clinic. But, just as the ascent of Spotify has failed to kill off vinyl (never mind the humble CD), paper books will evolve and live to fight another day, and quite probably another few centuries as well.

There’s a certain aesthetic pleasure in reading a book – a paper one, that is. There’s the feeling of it as an object; rather than it being electrons on a microchip (or whatever), it’s a thing; you can hold each one, see how thick it is, feel the weight of it, smell the paper, see how it’s been treated over the years, see if the pages are thumbed, the spine cracked, corners softened, folded or marked.

And from the weight, you can feel how long it might take you to read it; and as you read it, physically see and feel the progress as the weight shifts from right to left, and your journey through the narrative (fictional or otherwise) takes on visual aspect, like seeing the end of a path or the summit of a hill while walking in nature as opposed to counting down kilometres on a treadmill.

And as with all things, there is a visual delight – I think – in seeing my books on their shelves, whether it’s my alphabetically arranged collection of Rough Guides and Lonely Planets or the mismatched patchwork of everything from A Tale of Two Cities to Dracula to Around the World In Eighty Days. And seeing the books there, day after day, the spines reminding me of the content that has influenced me, from the histories to political diaries to the works of Richard Dawkins or Eric Hobsbawm.

Even the position of the different bookshelves; some near the window, spines slightly faded by sunlight, or those tucked in corner by the sofa, rather dustier as they’re less attended to. They take on a little history, too – Selected Poems by Robert Frost and Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney are texts I’ve returned to again and again since I was 16, and from the point where I wrote my own name in them in 1996, there are physical marks there which plot a little path through my life as well as through the pages, from greasy teenage thumbprints on the set works for A-level, to the coffee, red wine and occasional whiskey-stains as I’ve returned to them; occasional penciled scribbles and sometimes a crease in the spine as I’ve uncovered a previously unread poem that has come to me new, perhaps years later.

And in contrast there’s the Rough Guide to the Czech & Slovak Republics which is a more utilitarian memento, perhaps – the maps were well used, much scribbled on, routes marked, hotels crossed through when we found they were closed, great restaurants covered in lurid green highlighter and some sections so well-thumbed and re-read that the pages needed to be stuck in again with tape. I know for a fact that the entire book received a soaking in some kind of Pilsner or another during one particularly fuzzy night in a cellar bar in Bratislava, when we thought the locals were ever so civilised for drinking quarter pints of water after each giant stein of beer; we found out later that it was a particularly rough, clear plum brandy that certainly perked one up between pints, though none of the party remember how we got back to the hotel. Those rippled pages, crinkly with being preserved in beer, take on history, memory and experience in the way that an e-reader never would, or, indeed, could cope with.

I think physical books are themselves a part of their own stories; e-readers of course tell stories of their own, but in a different way. Books age with time, yellow with years and crease gently with each re-reading and thumbing-through for a much-loved quotation, or description. They are of their time, and their aging becomes a part of the book’s part in my own life, from the ones I’ve had since my A-level poetry papers on Robert Frost, to the shiny new hardbacks that still audibly wheeze and crack when they’re opened.

In praise of… Brighton

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Brighton’s media is all too aware of the mood of the city’s inhabitants

Longer-term correspondents will remember that several years ago, I departed my much-loved adopted home of Nottingham in an attempt to advance my career by moving to the city of Brighton. Never having been there before, and, indeed, resigning one job and accepting another before I had set foot in the place, I wondered, in the cold light of a murky morning in the Midlands, whether this had indeed been a wise decision. Letters of resignation sent and new contract signed, I decided that I might as well head off and investigate this place.

The sum of Brighton’s parts is not, on paper, a desperately notable inventory. A skyline of concrete hotels of one shade of mediocrity or another is not an auspicious start, and the architectural misadventures of the Odeon, the Conference Centre and the Marina will foster as fond a memory as acne for many. But Brighton is not a place remembered just for its physicality, such as we think of Bath, Edinburgh, or Lincoln. In the nearly two years in which I was privileged enough to experience it, I learned that Brighton was as much a state of mind amid the concrete, rather than the product of the grander visions that the nineteenth century bequeathed her.

And this faded grandeur – although not so faded in the case of the Hapsburg Yellow villas that guard the westward approaches to Hove – is the playground of a city which has the hint of the illicit, the shady, the slightly hidden in the winding narrowness of the Lanes, where the stench of the sea, salt and secrecy hangs on the mist which guards the modesty of the people who throng the passageways and alleyways of old Brighton. For the city which lays claim to inventing the concept of the ‘dirty weekend’ is somewhere where people seem less inhibited than the rest of Britain; a feeling of excess, exaggeration and excitement hangs in the air, strong as the stench of dark rum that wafts from the pubs which once watered sailors on shore, conducting some such nefarious business or another; and it can almost be heard above the soundtrack of squawking seagulls (many bigger than the handbag dogs so beloved of the denizens of North Laine), Bolero-esque swirling teacups and the exquisite oddness of a busker playing Lady Gaga on a saw.

The city in summertime glows and shines, the light reflecting off the sapphire coast and bouncing from the villas lining the front, as the city basks in its triumvirate of camp: the Pier, the Pavilion, and Pride. There’s an electric attitude of ‘anything goes’, and no-one seems to mind who or what or why or where or how. So as the unicyclists propel themselves along the promenade powered only by the wind catching the opened umbrella, as the miniscule art galleries of Continental Kemptown open up late in the afternoon, and as the crowd of ever-battier people rummage through the Tardis of junk that is Snooper’s, it’s a wonder and a joy to wander the streets and see so many people simply being.

In praise of… Watson Fothergill

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Fothergill’s office premised, relocated after the construction of Victoria Railway Station, currently opposite Nottingham Arts Theatre in George Street, off Hockley

Regular readers will be familiar with my deep affection for my adopted hometown of the City of Nottingham, which I’ve been roaming around, with a few short years away, since the twentieth century. In that time, I’ve learned a little about her proud past, the many things that she has given to the world (of which more in a future post), and I’ve grown fond of her as a place where I feel at home.
A sense of place can be a difficult thing to create; for many years I worked in the travel industry, and despite some of the exciting and interesting places I visited, one notable consequence of globalisation is the slow melding of different city centres into one internationalised and branded unit; golden arches polluting the squares of Bruges, Budapest, Nice, and Haarlem in all their garish greasiness.

Nottingham is no exception to this growing corporatisation of public space, and the flash and buzz of transnational neon pollutes our Old Market Square every bit as much as any other regional English city. But Nottingham has several arrows in her quiver to fight back with, and one of the most striking of those is the work of local architect Watson Fothergill. Fothergill’s contribution to Nottingham’s visual identity and sense of place remains standing today, as his red-brick buildings adorned with mythological statues, geometric patterns of coloured brickwork and nods to Germanic timbering and castle-like turrets stand out obstinately amid the anonymous glass-and-concrete ephemera which have grown up around these gems of the town.

Fothergill was a Mansfield lad, who trained around the country before returning to Nottingham to establish his own practice in Clinton Street in 1864. Two years later, at the age of 35, he designed the wonderful Albert Hall in Nottingham, next to St Barnabas Cathedral, itself designed by Pugin, one of Fothergill’s architectural heroes. This striking and individual building stood for thirty years before succumbing to fire in 1906. Yet thankfully, other examples of Fothergill’s work remain standing, mainly in the city, but also in surrounding towns. The style, bordering on eccentric, shows a detail and individuality which sets his work apart from later developments, which have tended towards the bland, unimaginative and functionalist structures which fail to distinguish themselves whether they’re in Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield or Liverpool. As ‘redevelopment’ has surged like a tsunami through our cities, the visual identity, the geographic and individualised sense of place has been threatened with a destruction which bombs alone could never achieve.

Yet Fothergill’s unique and charming structures, from his former office in George Street to the imposing and grandiose former Head Office of the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Bank on Thurland Street, remain as proud physical markers of a distinct Nottingham style, a visual identity for the city which remains pleasingly devoid of one shade of fast food or another. Their detail, as diverse as it is delightful to the eye, marks them out as a moment of sheer pleasure in any visit to the city. His office itself (pictured below), sandwiched between a soulless 1990s apartment block and a ramshackle hairdressers, was the result of his enforced move from Clinton Street when the railway extended as far as Nottingham Victoria – sadly, that lovely station has itself been razed in favour of a lifeless, airless, behemoth shopping centre and apartment complex which now blights Nottingham’s skyline.

Fothergill’s work encompassed commercial commissions and churches as well as private domestic dwellings. He was, we know, an avid diarist, but many of his personal and professional papers were lost after his death in 1928. His legacy is his work, his contribution to Nottingham’s visual and physical identity during a time of great prosperity as the city flourished as part of the industrial revolution and beyond; her lace mills, often now fashionable apartments in the Lace Market district, and the neoclassical Council House stand alongside Fothergill’s buildings as part of the city’s aesthetic which remains all its own, standing proud and well-loved by the locals and well remarked upon by visitors.

When travel all over the world is possible today in mere hours, finding one’s sense of place can be a discombobulating thing. So, like the Ampelmann in Berlin, the golden stone of Jerusalem and the Metropolitan signs of Paris, the work of Watson Fothergill in Nottingham helps give the city a feeling all its own; a permanence and presence that sets out Nottingham as a city one can recognise and know, and gives your correspondent confirmation that, wherever his travels take him, he knows when he has come home.

In praise of… Antwerp Railway Station

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Antwerp Railway Station

Regular readers will be aware of my love for both travelling by train and the odd little country of Belgium. For several years, it was my pleasure to combine the two with trips to Bruges, Ghent and Brussels by Eurostar, with the extension ticket labelled ‘any Belgian station’ which allowed me to change at Brussels to the Belgian national network. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that I visited the city of Antwerp for the first time, managing a youth choir’s concert tour there in the early summer. At the time, I lived in west London and the journey from my Piccadilly line tube to Antwerp railway station began at around 7am, to be in Belgium just after lunch.

Belgium – of which more in a future post – is a country densely packed with variety, history, culture and surprises. The fact that it survives to this day, despite being trampled over in two world wars and riven by a cultural divide as entrenched as anything in Europe is a surprise in itself; the name of the city of Antwerp is more likely, too, to conjure up images of shipping containers rather than some of the delights that the rest of the world is most unaware of.

Arriving in Antwerp, for the first time then, was a special pleasure. Not only did I have the joy of travelling via Eurostar (a most civilised and relaxed mode of travel), but on arrival at Antwerp, I was greeted with a most lovely surprise.

For Antwerp’s railway station is not some post-war, concrete and steel temple of functionality but a sumptuous extravagance of cathedralesque opulence. Not that one would know it from arrival: there are three levels below ground, and there’s plenty of concrete and steel here. But the escalators deposit unsuspecting travellers into a domed atrium with arching ceilings, fluted and rippling stonework, gilted clock fronts, and an elaborate iron-and-glass roof. The grandeur of the building takes the visitor by surprise; but this is no de-consecrated church or civic building re-utilised. It’s a train station.

And here’s the beauty of it; an almost imperial grandeur like the preposterous railway termini of the Raj, or the great monolithic Soviet metro stations of the former Eastern Bloc, takes one by surprise. For despite being the hub of the European Union, Belgium is a modest nation. Yet its buildings, art, music and the conviviality of its people are among the most agreeable in Europe.

And this is one of the joys of the beautiful, the indulgent, the enjoyable for-the-sake-of-it elements of human endeavour. Railway stations are predominantly functional things – think of Birmingham New Street, Leicester, Derby, or any one of a huge number of other noisy, angular, grey and anonymous buildings that nevertheless fulfil the intentions of their designers. Yet Antwerp, this industrial, bombed, commercial city, boasts a railway station that makes the weary traveller look upwards to the sunlit roof, marvel at the stonework, listen to the chime of the ornate clock, and pause for a moment on a tiresome journey and appreciate that even in the most functional of human activities – building a travel terminus – there can be beauty, skill, craftsmanship and enjoyment for no other reason than to improve the quality of our experience just a little bit on our journey from A to B.

This unexpected enjoyment, this inessential cultivation of imagination and technique, this indulgence in the uniquely human understanding of aesthetic beauty, takes travel from a bothersome necessity to a rich experience of cultural variety and discovery. And this sense of place, this excitement of a location, manifests itself in many ways – the Belgian version of How do you solve a problem like Maria? held a flash mob there; later in the week that I was there, my touring choir sang Mozart’s Ave verum corpus under the 44-metre high dome, and, if not quite stopping the trains three levels below ground, at least managed to stop hundreds of rushing commuters who took a few moments to stop, stand still and enjoy three aspects of human achievement: the music of Mozart, the singers’ performance of it, and the marvel of the building that it resonated it. In a small way, I hope their lives were made a little better by that experience on their commute home.

In praise of… Ian Thorpe

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Ian Thorpe

I’ve written briefly on another site about the Olympic champion’s decision to come out, following years of speculation and outright nosiness about his private life. Thorpe’s candid and humble interview with Michael Parkinson (sensitively and humanely conducted) was impressive, not least as it came alongside a warts-and-all discussion of his battles with depression, alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide. Given that the starting point of the interview was an injury that potentially means Thorpe will never swim again, to bare quite so much of the private in this way struck me as very brave – not in a sensationalist, ‘I’m gay’ way, but in a way which seemed to be confronting a great number of personal demons together for the first time.

One of Thorpe’s worries is that people will doubt his integrity; he lied repeatedly and at length about his sexuality, to the point that his parents were ‘shocked’ when he told them, and close social friends were ‘surprised’. Watching some interviews from recent years, and knowing what we do now, it’s clear from Thorpe’s body language and contorted responses to the straightforward (no pun intended) question ‘are you gay’ that he was clearly concealing something. But as Thorpe explained, he was asked about his sexuality when he was just 16, when he wasn’t entirely sure of the answer. And when he denied it – through fear of stigmatization, being excluded from sponsorship deals, or a simple wish to keep his love life private – the lie had to be maintained. And so this supremely gifted athlete denied part of his personality, denied himself a relationship with another human being, and hid from any romantic joy that such a relationship might have brought.

To those of us who’ve been out for years, or came out as we grew up in the classroom, this may seem strange. But still, being gay is different. Coming out is a process, not an event, that carries on as we move through new workplaces and social circles. The very fact of our minority status means that we have to declare something about ourselves that can be, if we try hard enough, supressed and concealed. As deviants from the norm, we’re all coming out all the time. And many choose to quietly select gender-neutral pronouns, substitute ‘partner’ for boyfriend; we don’t need to come out about our skin colour, our ethnicity, gender (though this perhaps deserves more exploration), age or things like physical disability. Coming out is often done by other people, too: you’re told – as Thorpe put it, ‘accused’ – of being gay, perhaps before we understand fully ourselves whether we are, and what that means.

But what Thorpe has done is shown that – as Kylie tells us – it’s never too late to change your mind, and be open. The greatest swimmer the world has ever known – a man of profound physical talents, medal winning potential, who’s also blessed with good looks and no small amount of charm – has shown that he is as human as every other one of us. By lancing the boil of speculation and laying to rest the gossip and innuendo, he removes a huge amount of the pressure that he’s built up over himself. No longer the studied lie, no longer the avoiding looking at a handsome man, no longer wondering what might happen, no more fearing what others might think.

And now he has a chance at what he says he wants – a partner, possibly a family. And in his existing family and circle of friends, no more isolation, no more uncertainty, no more guarded language. Time to put that energy into positive things, to throw down the chains of self-inflicted secrecy and to live his life as who is really is. Perhaps many others will watch that interview and identify with it; perhaps they, too, will take the step of opening up this side of themselves. Our sexuality shapes who we spend our lives with; who we make happy and who will make us happy in return. The reaction to Thorpe’s interview on Twitter was wonderful: ‘Life’s much brighter outside the closet, @IanThorpe. Welcome to being you.’