Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Radio Floor

Image taken from the Flickr photostream of Sveeta Bogomolova and used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Exciting news! Care of Wooden Floors is being adapted for the radio. It will be Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 for two weeks, starting (I'm told) 30 January 6 February 30 January*. Naturally I'm delighted by this - it's a rare pleasure, in fact something like a dream come true, to have your work adapted for another medium and performed, and I can't wait to hear how it turns out. COWF - being largely the interior monologue of a man alone in a flat - has often seemed to me to be well suited to radio adaptation. So, please do tune in, or listen on iPlayer if you're unable to catch the scheduled broadcasts.

* UPDATE, 21 December 11: The broadcast will in fact start 30 January 2012, as originally stated, not 6 February - it changed, then it changed back. Sorry for any confusion and inconvenience. The story about the parental Christmas cards will be saved for the memoirs.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Letter I Never Sent

Last week I took part in Letters You Never Sent III: Letters to Corporations at Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch. We were asked to write to a corporation. Rather than complain about malfeasance or praise a product, I wanted to think of the most corporation-y corporation I could, one which I felt entirely neutral about. And when I tried to think of a generic, corporation-y corporation, I found one name lodged in my mind - and the fact it was lodged there was interesting to me.

To: Hutchison Whampoa
Hutchison House,
10 Harcourt Road,
Hong Kong

Dear Hutchison Whampoa,

Why you? Why write to you? It's the name, I think. In this country, I'm afraid to say, most people won't have heard of you. Even if they use the mobile phone network or pharmacy chain you own here, they will mostly believe they are customers of companies called 3 or Superdrug, not a corporation called Hutchison Whampoa. But that name, it works a kind of magic – it did for me, anyway. I can't remember when or where I first heard it, but I've always remembered it. Hutchison Whampoa. It's the perfect name for a corporation. There's the Hutchison. That's a name you can trust. Solid, Anglo-Saxon, Familiar. And then there's the Whampoa. Whampoa! What a beautiful word. Faraway, even exotic, but with confident, declarative edge. I assumed it was a person, the business partner to Mr Hutchison – that's a great strength of your name, it suggests an alliance between east and west, global scope, a Eurasian colossus. However Wikipedia tells me it's the archaic English transliteration of Huangpu, the dock area of the city of Guangzhou, a gateway for European trade to China from the 18th Century. All the better. That transnational, cyberpunky edge is given a romantic historical anchor.

Yes, Wikipedia – sorry about that. As I say, you're an enigma, Hutchison Whampoa. I knew your name, but that doesn't reveal anything about what you do. That's the other great strength of the name – it's abstract, it doesn't point the mind in any particular direction, you could be be doing anything anywhere. Everywhere, in fact. That mobile phone company you own – you don't own the phones themselves. You own an infrastructure or transmitting masts, but even that's not the most important part of the business – you own a section of electromagnetic spectrum, a slice of bandwidth, a portion of the air itself. The masts are just a way of modulating your ethereal empire, making it accessible, packaging morsels of it for sale. Owning part of the air – that's ubiquity, that's proper corporate reach. And you own a chain of cut-price perfume shops, too: owning the air, the technology to broadcast across it and the means to scent it. That's comprehensive service.

Maybe you should buy a kite factory, and cover that atmospheric niche too. Maybe you already own one – is there anything you don't do? You say you have five core businesses – I like that, core businesses, one day you must tell me about all your less important flesh and pith businesses. Five core businesses, then. There's ports and related services – nice to see you're still keeping your hand in. And there's retail; telecoms; property and hotels; and my favourite, energy, infrastructure, investments and others. Are you sure that last one is just one business, because it sounds like at least three. “And others.” So modest, Hutchison Whampoa.

I hope you're not sensitive about your size – you're a $42 billion dollar corporation, have a bit of confidence. Don't infer any criticism. I like the polymathic generosity of your endeavours. It feels properly corporate – the sum of many efforts. Forgive my intrusion. Can you forgive? I am sure you can forget. Corporations are good at forgetting, and unseeing, and not being seen, and moving on. You are not your holdings. You own, you operate, you merge and demerge. It's tempting to think of you as the apex of a pyramid, but you're less substantial and more far-reaching than that. You are a grand transaction, one that has been in process for centuries, a current, a trade wind. Even surrounded by you, we don't see you. I thought you might like to be noticed, Hutchison Whampoa, this once.

Cordially, etc.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Photo by me. This post sat in drafts for ages, which is why it's a bit behind the times.

When Paternoster Row, adjacent to St Paul's Cathedral in the city of London, was destroyed by fire during the Blitz, 6 million books were consumed by the flames. For centuries, the area was the centre of London's bookselling and publishing trades - before Fleet Street, before the Charing Cross Road, before Bloomsbury. Robinson Crusoe was published there [1]. Its destruction was the terminus of that part of the site's history; the area was rebuilt as Paternoster Square, which was first a modernist office complex, and since the 1990s has been a deadly historicist Carolingian showpiece. It is home to the London Stock Exchange, now targeted by our local representatives of the Occupy movement. Unable to camp in the square outside the stock exchange - this so-called public space is privately owned, and was promptly sealed off by the police - the Occupiers have set up in St Paul's churchyard, prompting a continuing crisis at the cathedral and much public debate, which I won't recap here.

The one incursion the Occupiers have been able to make into the Paternoster complex is to stick posters and other ephemera on the pillars of its external colonnade - as shown in the photo above. I have fairly mixed feelings about the occupiers[2], so took the opportunity one evening a week or two ago to go down to the site and look around for myself. I found an orderly, friendly and essentially unobstructive protest. But I was most charmed by the informal poster-pillars, which immediately reminded me of the area's publishing history - nearby, the Occupiers have also set up a "library", and those book-covered tables seemed another connection to that past.

Recently I was at the Architectural Association, attending Thrilling Wonder Stories 3, a conference of speculation. There, Kevin Slavin gave a fascinting talking about the rise of "algo-trading" - the use of algorithms to trade stocks. You can't just buy or sell a million shares of something without undesirable market effects, so algorithms are used to break up that one big trade into many small, seemingly random trades. More algorithms are used to try and detect those programmes. So much trading on stock exchanges is now automated, and that in turn is changing where trading occurs. Microseconds can make the difference between profit and loss, so the banks of computers running these automated trades are increasingly locating themselves around switch hubs, the "telephone exchanges" of the internet. This reduces the lightspeed travel time of their commands to the market - and also moves them away from traditional financial districts. Increasing auomation, and the migration of this automation, means fewer and fewer actual people working on Wall Street and in the City - and thus Slavin compares the Occupiers to hermit crabs, taking over an abandoned shell after its previous inhabitant moved on.

What I think is most striking about the Occupation is the reoccupation of public space in the city with visible ideas. Of course the powers that preside over the City have ideas, they have an ideology. But it serves their purposes to not really advertise those ideas, so that we almost forget that they have ideology at all, and believe that they are mere innocents, "entrepreneurs" frolicking wealth-creatively in a benign state of nature, a fragile state at that, one which must not be disturbed for fear that they might just take off like deer. The City is a very strange place indeed, and has been for decades. For most Londoners, the ones who don't work there, it's just a kind of lacuna, mostly only regarded from a distance. And the City I think favours this semi-visible status, which is why it has happily driven other uses (such as the publishing industry) from its bounds, and would like to do unto Smithfield as it did unto Spitalfields. Its penetration by visible dissent isn't threatening to it as an obstruction or as a way of stopping its work - the Occupation really doesn't obstruct anything significant. The threat is connected to the possibility that is might have to explain or justify itself. We might have to think about what is done there, and how it is done. Which is, in a democratic society, a generous public service by the Occupiers.

[1] These facts from the Encyclopedia of London.
[2] Which aren't important. There has been much griping from the Do Nothings about Occupy, I don't intend to join in.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Make Room! Make Room!

My piece on the hellish "rodent universes" of John Calhoun is now online at Cabinet magazine. Researching overcrowding, Calhoun built elaborate "utopias" for rats and mice, in which they enjoyed unlimited resources and freedom from disease or predation - but limited space. Once population density passed a certain point, the mouse heaven always became mouse hell, rife with violence, rape and asocial freakery. This research formed a cornerstone of the overpopulation and anti-urban doom-mongering of the 1970s - and informed fictions from Stand on Zanzibar to Soylent Green.

Here's Calhoun in one of his universes, via Wikimedia:

Monday, 15 August 2011

Shutter Island

Image from photoshoplooter.

The post-8/11 city hoves into view; it galvanises, if you will, its metal carapace dull in the late summer sunshine. In response to the riots of last week (only last week?), the government's "chief planner" has asked councils to consider easing planning regulations for metal shop shutters. Pause for a moment to reflect on what British "planning", a term that used to entail a degree of thinking ahead, has been reduced to: a measure so reactive it serves as an update to the old saying "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted".

Reactive and, it seems to me, futile. One of the most arresting images of the looting that accompanied the riots was of metal shutters being yanked off shopfronts by dedicated teams of youths*, a sort of "unboxing ceremony" for those perhaps unable to derive regular doses of fulfilment from consumer technology. Of course shopkeepers have a right to not have their goods stolen, but this alteration does nothing to reduce the risk of future riots. It is little more than security theatre - allowing shopkeepers to make a feel-good purchase that will help them sleep a little easier without doing much to aid them in the event of resumed rioting.

For the neoliberals in government, it must be ideologically appealing to respond to the riots with an act of deregulation, however minor. For the rest of us, it is significant that this intervention takes place in the space between the things that are for sale and the people who want to buy or steal those things. This space is called the street - it should have other functions as well, but one of the most depressing aspects of the recent unrest was how it rammed (ramraided?) home the fact that consuming is increasingly the only thing that can be done in a street, even during a riot. This domination by commerce, and the dwindling of public space that goes with it, must be seen as one of the key causes of the riots.

Anyway, here come the shutters. My hunch is that this alteration to the rules will have most impact outside the great cities, in small towns and villages where the mob looms large only via the Mail and the Express. In most of central London, the night-time streetscape is already heavily metallised, so it's hard to see what difference will be made in those areas that actually experienced riots. The shutters are such an established aspect of East London's streets that they have prompted their own subgenre of street art. The king of the shutter artists is Ben Eine, whose giant colourful capital letters adorn scores of after-hours shopfronts in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. They're very likeable, bright and pleasant, undeniably an improvement on unadorned (or rather tag-spattered) steel, but also deeply safe. Their jolly colours and the Smarties-cap collectability of the letters give them an infantile edge; there's something sedative about them, the aestheticisation of a hardened landscape, a harbinger of hipsterisation.

Eine's shopfront graffiti is so safe, in fact, it comes with a government endorsement - a Conservative government endorsement, no less. A year ago David Cameron presented President Obama with one of Eine's paintings as a gift. The name of the painting, spelled out in those cheery vintage shuttercaps, was "Twentyfirst Century City". The steel shutter thus emerges as the perfect symbol of the Cameronian cityscape, open for business and closed for everything else. Even then, the symbol must be carefully tuned; we wouldn't want to be too edgy. "Twentyfirst Century City" was the most appropriate text Eine could find in his studio at short notice - rejected paintings included "Monsters" and "Delinquents", which would have sent quite the wrong message.

Update: I completely missed this post with some views on shutters, which has some interesting points of view on the subject, particularly in the comments. Via Sam Jacob's Twitter feed.

* Precisely the sort of coordinated effort that has in recent days been condemned as "mindless".

Friday, 12 August 2011

Space out

My New Statesman review of "Out of This World" at the British Library, which I mentioned earlier, is now online.

Here's an idea for a science-fiction story. Humanity suffers a recurring bout of cultural amnesia. Bearers of the flame must restate the same ideas, and refute the same myths, every ten or 20 years. But, twist! This isn't some distant future but our own time. Such is the cultural Groundhog Day that afflicts science fiction. The genre contains much serious literature, and much serious literature should be considered part of the genre. The ghetto walls may be weaker than ever but the case still has to be made over and over again.

Read the rest.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riot Thoughts

Rough, off-the-cuff, not an expert, not an eyewitness, just a Londoner, just thinking what I've been thinking.

1. "This is criminality, pure and simple" - D Cameron. Theresa May said something very similar. Criminality, maybe, but not very simple. Criminals are not the sole source of criminality. It can be manufactured in wholesale quantities by the state and applied to sections of the population who might not actually be directly involved in criminal activities. I think most of us who live in the centre of London are aware of large groups of young people who exist in a semi-criminalised state - they are essentially close to being illegal for who they are, simply because of their age, their background, how they dress, where they live and how they carry themselves, before any crime or "antisocial behaviour" is actually perpetrated. These young people face almost unimaginable restrictions on their freedom of movement. They are policed by displacement, being moved on. The fabric of the city is increasingly built to deter and exclude them - "mosquito" sonic alarms drive them out of shops and they are unwelcome in shopping centres and privatised public space like Spitalfields. ASBOs operated spatially, banning people from certain areas. Perhaps as a consequence of this displacement and exclusion, they have become ferociously territorial, and their movement is further confined by gang allegiances and nasty little "postcode wars". (Something I've touched on before: 1, 2, 3)

2. Yesterday the containment efforts failed. At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere.

3. It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. The visible breakdown of the rule of law frightened me because I benefit from the rule of law. So do most people. But this group who wanted to rip it down, who were boasting of their desire to fight with the police, who were setting fires and snatching phones - this group clearly has a different conception of what that rule means, and (whatever "community leaders " and our political class might claim) it isn't a tiny nucleus of habitual criminals.

4. People marvelled at the stupidity of people setting fire to their own neighbourhoods. And because this behaviour cannot be simply comprehended it is called "mindless", and the rioters are called "animals". Attacking your own neighbourhood by fire and attacking your own neighbours as animals are cousin impulses, in my opinion.

5. We have done our best to make these people, our neighbours, the angry ones, go away. Now more efforts will be made to get them back in their zones, and move those zones further out into the periphery, but we're only storing up more trouble for the future. After three nights of fire, and one frightening night of chaos, people are screaming for punitive policing, which can be understood. But once the situation is back under control, punitive policing is only going to store up more trouble for the future, too. How to break the cycle? I don't know. But I know that the solution will be expensive, it will take time, and it will be hard to reduce to a slogan as simple as "bring back the birch". Difficult and complicated it may be, but we are going to have to do it eventually.

6. Those who are calling for the army to be sent in have taken leave of their senses. Unless we really are going to solidify this failure, to carve it into stone, and exclude the angry ones from the citizenship altogether, to declare them to be something more than criminals: our enemies, the enemies of the state. I don't want to live in a city in a state where that happens.

7. Fortitude now; later, along with everything else that will follow these events, let's have some curiosity, a spirit of inquiry, of exploration. Something terrible has happened in our city (and may yet continue to happen). It's damnable, deplorable, heartbreaking. But it is also extraordinary, unusual, bizarre. Slamming the door on it without studying and understanding it is a dangerous and short-term tactic. Allowing yourself to feel nothing but anger, and doing nothing but lashing out ... isn't that a little mindless? It would be nice, and useful, if we could ask London "why" without already having an answer in mind.

8. Stay safe out there.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Aliens! Fetishists! Situationists! Psychopathic mice!

There's a bumper crop of stuff by me floating around in August, on a pleasingly wide array of subjects.

In this week's New Statesman (edition of 8 August) I review "Out of This World", the British Library's survey of science fiction ephemera - an exhibition well worth catching before it finishes on 25 September.

On the chunkier side, there are a hat trick of longer, thinkier essays approaching the newsstands. I'm in the first issue of new journal Transgressive Culture, published by Glyphi, reviewing Jonny Trunk's Dressing for Pleasure (FUEL), a compilation of classic fetish magazine AtomAge. I first reviewed Dressing for Pleasure last year for Icon - this is a much more in-depth look at the book, attempting to place it in a cultural context.

In issue 42 of American art quarterly Cabinet, there's an essay by me on the American ecologist John Calhoun. Calhoun was interested in the effects of overcrowding, a phenomenon he explored by building elaborate "utopias" for mice and rats. These "universes" were free of disease and predators and supplied with abundant food and water - all they lacked was space. Rodent populations inside the tanks boomed uncontrollably - and then collapsed into a vortex of rape, violence and social dysfunction. Enthusiastically taken up by the overpopulation doom-mongers of the 1960s and 1970s, Calhoun's research became the "proof" that crowded cities would mean disaster for mankind - but Calhoun's message is a little more complex than that.

More, better, utopias. Under/Current issue 06 has the theme "retro-future", a chance for me to talk about my favohttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifurite world-that-never-was, Constant's New Babylon. The trouble with utopias is that they tend to be striving, efficiency-minded places. New Babylon was a reaction against that - a paradise for slackers, a world-spanning megastructure geared to wandering, idling and socialising.

And finally - Icon 099 is now on sale, featuring eight pages by me on one of the most exciting design studios in London, BERG. A conversation with BERG is like hearing a friend tell you about a brilliant concept from a science-fiction novel they just read. Only they didn't just read it, they're trying to build it. And look, here's a prototype. They're an interesting bunch, to say the least.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Found satire

Accidental News of the World commentary, from Care of Wooden Floors, page 94:
Brooks ran in the gutters, seeking lower elevations.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


The Unknown Fields expedition just touched down in Kiev. I expect to be mostly offline for the next couple of weeks, so don't expect speedy responses to emails, but I'll tweet, add pictures to Flickr and perhaps even blog as and when I can. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Launch

The Unknown Fields expedition to Chernobyl and Baikonur - fulcrum of my promised book Toxic Tourism - is steadily clearing its no/no-go checks and trundling towards the launchpad. The official launch will be on Monday with a frankly blockbusting public forum at the AA on Bedford Square, London. The line-up is simply incredible, extending beyond the participants in the expedition to include everyone from artist Paul Duffield to UFO folklorist Mark Pilkington - plus poets, sound artists, filmmakers, it really promises to be a really fascinating day. (Liam Young, Unknown Fields co-mastermind with Kate Davies, is also the creator of Thrilling Wonder Stories, so he knows how to put on an amazing day-long event.)

I'm also in the line-up, introducing my work and talking a little about my intentions and aspirations for Toxic Tourism. To give you a taster, I will be dealing with the lure of forbidden places and wildernesses, why places like Chernobyl, Aral and Baikonur tug at the imagination, and the ultimate in getting away from it all: excursions into a posthuman, postapocalyptic world.

So, please come along.

The photo at the top of this post shows the AA's 2009 summer pavilion, and is from my Flickr photostream.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Flaw plan

Care of Wooden Floors is set in an apartment in an inter-war moderne block in an unnamed central-European city. During the writing of the book, I made a number of sketch plans of the apartment, the block and the surrounding streets as aids to memory or to work through specific narrative problems. Later, as I discussed the design of the book with Clare Smith, my editor at HarperPress, the idea arose that we could use one of these floor plans as an endpaper for the book in hardback.

I was enthusiastic. When I was a child, I had a weakness for fantasy novels - and gravitated towards those that had a map at the front. Tolkien must have started this tendency with his beautiful maps of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A map at the front of a fantasy book worked as a kind of blurb, a promise of the adventures to come - you just knew that the mountain-ringed forbidden city or the skull-shaped island fortress jutting from a wreck-garnished sea was going to crop up somewhere. It would be a hell of a tease if they didn't. Moreover, the map is part of the escapist promise of fantasy: that you are entering a fully realised world, one that extends beyond the bounds of the story, and that even if the stinging deserts and haunted swamps are barely alluded to, they they can exist more fully in your own imaginative rendering of the world. Nowadays, my map fix comes primarily for nonfiction books of history - Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, which I'm steadily gnawing my way through at the moment, has a fine selection throughout its 900 pages. The only work of non-fantasy literary fiction I can think of with a map at the front is Toby Litt's Deadkidsongs, although I think there must be others.

Care of Wooden Floors isn't a fantasy, but I liked the idea of a map as a tribute to those happy memories of childhood reading - and also as an expression of the rational interior-design ambitions of Oskar, the flat's owner. But I asked to re-draw the master sketch map for inclusion, to iron out some small inconsistencies in it here an there and to ensure that it was the most accurate possible rendition of the flat.

Almost immediately, I ran into problems. I already knew that the master floorplan didn't match up with my mental picture of the flat, and the way it was described in the book. That was why I wanted to redraw it. But attempts to iron out the difficulties simply created new problems. In effect, I could not draw a floorplan of the flat - it was an impossibility.

This doesn't mean that there's a mistake in the book, or that an impossible or impractical configuration of rooms is described. Although the flat is, over the course of 300 pages, described in some detail, it's not empirically described. The book isn't a blueprint. I didn't give measurements, proportions and orientations of every aspect of the building. A reader could sketch an entirely reasonable floorplan of the flat without having to resort to extra dimensions or folds in spacetime. But I'm fairly sure it wouldn't match up with mine.

What I was dealing with is three different versions of the same flat:

1. The flat as it exists in my imagination
2. The flat as described in the book
3. The flat as it might exist in the imagination of the reader.

Version 2 is based on version 1; version 3 is based on version 2. It made most sense to base a floorplan on version 2, to avoid "error". But when I looked at the result, a prominent detail failed to match my mental picture of Oskar's home. This detail is irrelevant to the plot or to anyone's understanding of the book; and it isn't described in the book, it is simply the result of reconciling two aspects of layout that might otherwise conflict. But it troubled me to commit to graph paper something that was "untrue". Fixing it threatened to raise more problems than it solved.

We decided not to include a floorplan. My own reservations were only part of this decision - it was also considered too dry a note to open on, and potentially distracting to a reader. I would much rather a reader builds up their own image of the flat from the words, rather than being guided down to exact details by a plan. But the episode has caused me to realise the protean nature of what I've written. Which is the "true" flat? All three versions are, in their way, but I have to confront the fact that my mental picture of the flat is now the least important of those versions, and the reader's version is the most important.

Thinking on about maps in fiction, I remembered (from reading Martin Amis' criticism, I think) that Nabokov drew maps of great books to illustrate his lectures on English literature. Here's Nabokov's map of Stephen and Bloom's routes around Dublin in Joyce's Ulysses:

Nabokov recommended that instructors draw up diagrams the setting of books to wring the maximum amount of sensual detail from them, as a route to fuller understanding of the author's intentions. It's only what is described that matters; writing is in part a matter of choosing what to describe and what not to describe. A detail that existed in my conception, but which is not described at all, cannot be said to matter at all. To suggest it in a floorplan when it doesn't exist in the text would sprain the imaginative sinews that any reader spins around the descriptive bones the author provides. That would hardly be fair or desirable.

(The hunt for Nabokov's Dublin map led me to this rather wonderful project, a detailed, annotated Google map of Dublin overlaid with a historic map.)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Cover for COWF

Care of Wooden Floors now has a cover:

I'm hugely pleased with this. It was designed by Jo Walker at HarperPress, and I was fortunate enough to be allowed along for part of the process, making up the lettering in Mr Smith's letterpress workshop.

Making up the type.

The type on a galley, about to be transferred to the press. All these years in magazine journalism we've talked about "galleys" meaning proofs that haven't yet been laid out, but this is a galley in the original sense - a metal tray for carrying type.

Making an impression from the type.

Spot the deliberate mistake. It's actually pretty hard to proofread when everything is upside-down and backwards.

Jo inspecting her handiwork. Thanks, Jo!

There's a full set of images up on my Flickr stream, and some videos were made of the process - hopefully those will be online soon too.

Monday, 13 June 2011

British Paradoxes

"London, where the streets are paved with gold, and the gardens with cement", leads a Guardian article on the loss of wildlife habitats resulting from people paving over their front gardens.
The biggest survey ever conducted of private space in the capital, taken by the London Wildlife Trust, shows it is getting greyer – threatening its reputation of being one of the world's greenest cities because of its extensive public parks and gardens.

The city is losing the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hyde Parks of greenery a year from its private, domestic gardens – about 3,000 ha (7,410 acres), says the report.

Lamentable. So what is to be done? Legislation, perhaps, or biodiversity conversation areas to go with the existing system of conservation areas? But what about the Briton's inalienable right to do whatever he pleases to his home? But of course we are in the fork of a defining British paradox. We have this generalised sense of a shared patrimony that must be protected, which we sum up as our "heritage". And yet we also have this pugnacious sense of private property and natural justice, of rights and entitlements. So the very person who might complain about the loss of butterfly habitats and deterioration of streetscape caused by his neighbour's concreting of his front garden might be apoplectic at rage if the council stopped him putting up a shed in his back garden. Both sides of this paradox are of course "common sense", and reason buckles under the distorting pressure of its internal contradictions.

Similarly, everyone wants a home with a garden - surveys repeatedly show that this is the national preference. If this is what people want, then it must be right, that's just common sense. And everyone wants total protection of the green belt, and indeed all undeveloped green space. Where are these homes going to go? So we end up with absurd, cramped brick boxes on ludicrous coasters of turf - an attempt to meet a typological requirement in defiance of all reason. We very obviously share many things - our cities, our countryside, our past. And yet we despise the idea of dealing with them in a communal manner.

These paradoxes - and there are dozens like them, on everything from the "nanny state" to the BBC - are the logical outcome of 30 years of government according to the vindictive petty jealousies of the Daily Mail. They are rooted in that poisonous discourse, in which it seems every politician talks to you, personally, as an individual - you are of course responsible, hard-working, ordinary - in order to warn you about the others, the ones who are taking advantage and ruining everything. It is a mean, small-minded pattern of thought, the politics of Gollum. It has stacked this country with lose-lose paradoxes and zero-sum games, and at times it feels as if these paradoxes are about to block out all light from above and hope of change. Like when a Labour leader stands up and - instead of announcing a national programme of housebuilding, which would allow thousands more to share in the benefits of a council home - announces that "hardworking, responsible" people (like you!) would be given preference for the existing tiny number of council homes, over the "shirkers" (you know, the others).

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Announcing "Toxic Tourism"

It's in The Bookseller, so at last I can start talking about the second book! Provisionally titled "Toxic Tourism", it will be an unconventional travel guide to three places in the former Soviet Union: the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Aral Sea. The publisher will be HarperPress, who of course is also publishing Care of Wooden Floors. Toxic Tourism will be out a few months after 2012.

This is under the umbrella of the Unknown Fields trip in July (which makes the Bookseller's use of the past tense a little puzzling). I'm hugely grateful to the AA's Liam Young, who put out a call for a writer to accompany the trip at the beginning of May, to Robin Harvie and Clare Smith at Harper Collins, and to my agent Antony Topping. So, exciting times afoot. I'll fill in some more details later.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Latest Hallucinations

I've been up to my neck in "proper writing" and neglecting the blog lately. So this is one of those somewhat unsatisfying "read me elsewhere" posts - made extra unsatisfying by the fact that a lot of this stuff isn't online.

One thing that is online is this review of a small show in Eindhoven called "The New Psychedelica". The show really scratches an itch for those of us who feel that art hasn't really plumbed to depths of weirdness offered by the digital world.

Also online is this review of Locals Only, a photographic record of California's 1970s skate culture, at men's style website Jock & Nerds.

The new issue of Icon has a long piece by me mulling what London's new crop of skyscrapers means for the city, in the company of sculptor, polymath and expert Londoner Richard Wentworth. There's also a much shorter piece by me about David Chipperfield's Hepworth Wakefield.

Print-only (for the time being) but free is The Clerkenwell Post, an attractive zine about all things Clerkenwell. It was produced by Icon's publisher and launched at Clerkenwell Design Week. If you're in the area copies can still be found - there's a piece in there by me about the Barbican.

Pretty soon there'll be a flurry of news about the novel, now a mere eight months away from publication. Only eight months! It seems like just six months ago it was fourteen months away from publication. But here's something: you can pre-order it on Amazon now.

Next week there will (I hope) be some news about the Secret Project which has been eating up a lot of my time behind the scenes.

And I will be doing more blogging soon.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Metropole and Fighting Traffic

Photograph taken from the Flickr stream of Martin Tomitsch and used under a Creative Commons licence.

A man boards a plane on his way to a conference and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself not at his intended destination but in a vast, unidentifiable city filled with unimaginable numbers of people. The traveller is an accomplished linguist, but he can't begin to make sense of the jabbering language spoken by the city's inhabitants. He can't even place it in a group of languages, or identify the script. Everywhere he is jostled by crowds and ignored or berated by taxi drivers or hotel staff.

This is the premise of Ferenc Karinthy's remarkable book Metropole, a classic in Hungary for 40 years and now translated into English by George Szirtes. "Nightmarish" is overused as a descriptive term in literature but Metropole has precisely the texture of a nightmare - it is stifling, desperate, lonely. The city presents Budai, the narrator, with a monolith of incomprehension and indifference. And, like a nightmare, the aftertaste of Metropole stays with you long after reading it - I have found myself thinking of it again and again, when fighting crowds on the Tube or trying to get down Oxford Street or attempting to make myself understood in a coffee shop.

Much of Metropole concerns itself with language, and Budai's agonising attempt to comprehend the scribbled, yapping mess written and spoken around him. The city would be hell for anyone, but it must be hell squared for a linguist. Budai must find a "way in" to the language, some corner of it that can be empirically understood by him without doubt, a loose thread to grab onto and pull. This inquiry is as much a decoding of the city as it is a decoding of the language. Budai identifies taxi cabs, metro stations, religious buildings and abattoirs; and he does this through architecture and design. All the time he is looking for a railway station which might be able to transport him to an airport, a frontier, a seaport, any place other than this city - spying station-like buildings he finds instead law courts and covered markets. The physical language of European cities is revealed to be simultaneously eloquent and limited.

Physical symbols - steps with yellow handrails leading underground mean a subway, a certain look of car is a taxi - are one lexicon within a city; social codes are another. Before Budai can achieve anything he has to discern social protocols such as when to queue and where to queue. He watches what other people are doing and does the same. Cities are all built on the side of a steep learning curve - they turn people into new people. New York is an exceptional example of this, a machine that takes immigrants and turns them into Americans. (Jonathan Raban's book Soft City is the unsurpassed description of these learning processes and the interaction between cities and our identity as individuals.) The city Budai is trapped in is rarely less than hostile, but without adaptation to its social codes it could be lethal.

To take an obvious example - when and where do you cross the street? An apparently simple question is in fact encrusted with acculturated with complex cultural considerations, a topic explored in detail in a very different book to Karinthy's, Fighting Traffic by Peter D Norton. Norton examines in scrupulous detail (the book is an expanded PHD thesis) the upheaval wrought by the automobile when it arrived on the streets of the American city.

"Cities treated the arrival of the automobile as they might any other emergency," Norton writes. Rather than being a seamless technological succession from one form of (horse-drawn) wheeled transport to another, the automobile blundered into a sophisticated street-level ecology. The death toll that resulted was a bona fide emergency for cities, and the way they reacted is fascinating. We know what happens in the end, of course: the automobile not only triumphs, but routs the pedestrian and the streetcar both in theory and in practise. They are not only practically driven out of a roadway that used to be shared, but their right to that space (which previously went without saying) was withdrawn. As late as 1926, there was nothing in law preventing pedestrians in Chicago from using any part of the street to do anything they wished, such as hold a conversation; the most restrictive interpretation of pedestrians' right was that cars had an equal right to the street. Try doing that today.

How did this come about? Norton examines the story from the perspective of the three main groups involved: anti-car groups, who at first had the whip hand in the debate; the police, who affected to be neutral but whose motives were in fact more complicated; and motorist groups. Part of the story unfolds at the level of public policy, as cities drafted legislation to counter the emergency and end the bloodshed, influenced by the various lobbies on either side of the debate. Given that the crisis was handled locally by scores of municipalities, there's considerable variation in response and the story twinkles with thousands of interesting facets and suggestions of how the aggregate course of history could have gone differently. A few lessons stick in the memory, though. First is that the hugely emotional, absolutist language that was used around health and safety - "surely XYZ is better than the death of a child!" - led to poor decision-making and poor outcomes for everyone. Secondly is that the police, far from being honest brokers, acted according to what was best for the police, rather than what was best for the city or it inhabitants. Segregated roadways were easier and cheaper to police than shared roadways, so the police pushed for segregation.

Still more interesting than the public policy side of the issue, and in the end more decisive, was its psychological side. New techniques for living in cities had to be explained to the public, with the different pressure groups all advertising their own interpretation of how public space should be used, dressed up in fine language about "justice", "freedom" and so on. "Success would require the best salesmanship techniques of 20th-century marketing," writes Norton. The future of public space was decided in memespace - by a battle of messages and ideas.

At first, the anti-car safety campaigners called the shots. Drivers were maniacs, "speed demons", privileged toy-owners killing children, intruders in the city. The onus was surely entirely on them to alter their behaviour to reduce the number of road fatalities. How did this message fail in the end?

Firstly, motoring groups gathered themselves under the banner of "freedom" - a potent idea anywhere, but especially in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Their conception of freedom was connected to the greater independence and mobility offered by the car, and we still see motoring groups clinging to that idea today when those returns have diminished considerably. Also, it was essential that motorists assert their own freedom over that of the pedestrian - if they could secure a concession of equal right to the roadway, then their motorised might and speed would secure the rest.

Secondly, they adopted the language of the safety campaigners - and even started to put on their own versions of the grisly tombstone-erecting ceremonies the safety campaigners used to attack the automobile, but with the message twisted to argue for segregation and pedestrian responsibility.

Thirdly, they invented something that transformed the language around the issue. They invented the jaywalker. Walking in the street at points other than crossings, was entirely normal behaviour, and rebranding this behaviour to turn it into a faux pas (or even a crime) was a masterstroke. A "jay" was a rube, a country bumpkin, someone who did not know the sophisticated social codes of the city. Car-owners, by contrast, were better-off, better educated and - here is the killer idea - better at using the city efficiently, sophisticates speeding from one point to another while jays stumbled around in the middle of the road. Standing in the street was transformed from the God-given right of the American urbanite (this was precisely the language used to defend it) into something only a hick would do.

Thus, through branding and advertising rather than legislation, motoring groups managed to make safety the pedestrian's responsibility rather than theirs, and presented themselves as the rightful users of the roadway. They took over the safety campaigns with this message and established in social convention what would later be reinforced by law.

Which explains how they secured the advantage - but not entirely how they turned that advantage into unquestioned supremacy. That was largely the fault of well-meaning safety campaigners. The road safety debate made much of the death of children, innocents, in contrast to the worldly and by implication corrupt motorists who knew more of life. But as the scales tilted to safety being the pedestrian's responsibility as well as the motorist's, the first efforts were made to educate children into the dangers of the road. Children use the street, but they do not drive. So they are exposed to years of messages about their, the pedestrian's, responisbility for safety before they learn to drive and hear anything about the motorist's responsibility. This imbalance has become a form of generational brainwashing - conditioning, anyway - that has turned the car's ownership of the street from a purely contingent social arrangement to a hegemonic natural right. Fighting Traffic is an indispensable work of scholarship, and transforms the reader's view of the city and its uses.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Theme Necropolis

This article originally appeared in Edge 221 (December 2010).

The sound of digging pervades Dungeon Keeper 2. Bullfrog's 1999 real-time strategy game involves the construction and operation of a dungeon and labyrinth in a gloomy underground world. There are always chambers to be excavated, minerals to be mined and exploratory tunnels to be dug in order to expand your area of play. The imps, tiny magical creatures that comprise your basic workforce, are continually scraping and picking away at the ground somewhere at your bidding. It's a pleasantly double-edged sound – industrious, but also subversive. You're eating away at the world around you, undermining, corroding, tunnelling like a colony of termites. And if your imps run out of orders and stop working – you'll see them sit against the wall and light up cigarettes – you might still hear digging. That would be the sound of one of your rival keepers chipping away at the rock in your direction, heading inexorably towards you.

Building and undermining at the same time – that's the centre of the appeal of Dungeon Keeper 2 (DK2). The player must design and construct a detailed and multi-functional underground world to perform a number of tasks, but also revel in destruction, murder, torture and slavery. Indeed, those are the tasks. This is a dungeon, after all. In other hands, DK2 could have been a recipe for dreary sadism. But Bullfrog put together a world that was all about beautiful, rich, detailed, absorbing, funny sadism.

A typical game begins with a single chamber: the Dungeon Heart. This, the core of your realm, is where your treasure is stored and is also the source of your health. If the gigantic pulsing muscle (you heard me) at the centre of this room is subjected to a sustained attack by your enemies, it will die, and if it dies, you die. So the dungeon must be built up around it: rings of defences, and facilities that will attract and sustain an army of happy, belligerent monsters. These start with a lair, which gives them somewhere to sleep, a hatchery, which provides chickens for them to eat, and a training room for them to hone their combat skills. Specialist structures like libraries, workshops and torture chambers attract specific kinds of monsters, although most of the creatures in DK2 are familiar Sword & Sorcery types. Later, swankier rooms include glamorous casinos and not-so-glamorous combat pits, which either make creatures happier by giving them R&R or make them better killers by sending them to A&E. Some of them also seem to enjoy recreation in the torture chamber, but we're not here to judge. And there's the digging – always with the digging. Chambers and tunnels must be excavated and gold must be found and mined. Pick, scrape, shovel, etcetera.

Laying out rooms and corridors, assigning functions to them, attracting employees and specialists … At this point, a particular strain may be identified in DK2's twisted DNA: it is obviously a descendant of Bullfrog's Theme Hospital, which was developed in parallel with the original Dungeon Keeper and released just months before it in 1997. So where are the patients? In Theme Hospital, the aim was to keep the members of the public who strayed into your world alive, and they mostly only died by accident. Mostly. In DK2, the roaming members of the public are tedious, bellowing heroes, representatives of the so-called forces of good, and if they find their way into your realm they need to be subjected to a deadly form of triage. Your troll-filled workshops can build traps, from simple passive defences like doors to the all-time classic: a rolling Indiana Jones-style boulder that can crush everything in its path. In between are all kinds of dangling skeletons and poison gas vents. Many happy hours can be spent ringing your lair with fiendish killing-chambers, hidden triggers and secret passages. Softened up by the traps, surviving heroes can be set upon by your creatures and beaten to within an inch of their life. Enemies are mostly just stunned if they lose a fight – while thus poleaxed, they can be dragged to a prison. There, they will either starve and rise as a skeleton to join your armies, or they can be dropped in a torture chamber, where they'll be tormented by whip-wielding dominatrices called Mistresses (a saucy element the game revels in) and become allies. Your own creatures can, when stunned, be dragged back to the lair to recover. If the imps are too late and the creature dies, they can be dragged to a graveyard and buried, later to rise as a vampire. It's Theme Necropolis.

The original Peter Molyneux-designed Dungeon Keeper had a similarly detailed internal ecology and other charms, but doesn't often come out of its box nowadays, while DK2 continues to be a treat. It's rare that a sequel can lose a talent like Molyneux and still exceed its ancestor, but Bullfrog's Colin Robinson managed it. DK2 is a vast graphical advance on the original, substituting fully 3D creatures for sprites and introducing a depth and richness to the interiors that is truly atmospheric. The player interacts with this gorgeous environment via a disembodied hand – a feature carried over from the original, which Molyneux was to re-use in Black & White (2001). The hand allows a much deeper tactile involvement in the game environment than a simple cursor. Not only can creatures and gold be picked up, encouraging slaps can be dispensed – including animals you first think are just decorative, like the chickens in the hatchery and the rats in the prison. DK2 is also far funnier than the original, with a jokey narration by Richard Ridings (see box) and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of in-game jokes and Easter eggs. Humour was a strand of Dungeon Keeper – it's at the malevolent heart of DK2. That might be its real advantage over the original game. Molyneux's original game was part of his career-long interest in bending and manipulating morality within games, from Populous (1989) to Fable (2005). 2001's Black & White, which made choosing between good and evil the central dilemma of an RTS game, could be considered the lost sequel to DK2. But what makes DK2 really refreshing is that it's less self-conscious about its immorality than its predecessor – it's just raucous good fun.

So what's the point? There must be more to life than lounging around in a luxurious underground fortress-casino surrounded by servants, treasure and leather-clad lovelies. Well, maybe. In the simple skirmish and multiplayer games, there are other keepers advancing towards you, and they must be defeated. But in the campaign game, it's the forces of humanity, moral rectitude, motherhood and apple pie that are trying to put a stop to your subterranean shenanigans. Those roving bands of heroes must be defended against while you bide your time and build forces strong enough to pursue them to their source and kill their lord so the Horned Demon can show up and claim that level's "portal gem". The keeper advances from land to land, undermining and doing battle with the resident heroes and collecting these gems. As each land is corrupted from beneath, it turns brown and withered on the campaign map - your progress is an advancing stain. All of this serves the ultimate aim of a final confrontation, in which the keeper burst forth onto the surface of an unsuspecting world ...

... Which never happens. Strangely, much of DK2 is just a set-up for a sequel, Dungeon Keeper 3, trailed within the game but cancelled early in 2000. Unless the franchise unexpectedly rises from its tomb, the keeper is condemned to toil within the bowels of the earth forever. It could be something from Milton or Dante. All that digging and undermining, only to find that you've just been getting deeper and deeper into the pit; perhaps a fitting fate for an evil overlord.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Playing in the Ruins

Bronx Floors, Gordon Matta-Clark

My New Statesman piece about Pioneers of the Downtown Scene at the Barbican, mentioned below, is now online. "The sense of decay and collapse pervades this show," I say. That's a good thing.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Playstation Requiem

A couple of weekends ago I bought a Playstation 3. This act brought to a close my long relationship with my Playstation 2, and I feel moved to mark its passing with a tribute. I have owned my PS2 for more than 10 years - it is, without doubt, the single most reliable piece of electronics I have ever had in my possession. It still works as well today as it did when I bought it in 2000 or 2001, and I can't remember it experiencing a single major fault. And that's in spite of the fact that it - or rather, the controller attached to it - has taken some serious button-mashing punishment. And it may yet have more days in the sun, as it still works perfectly and I'm not planning to get rid of it just yet.

But part of my sadness in disconnecting the PS2 came from an unexpected source. I found myself thinking about the console's menus. When I fired up the brand new machine, I was rewarded with a calm grey screen, across which something like a wisp of smoke was blowing, and a sound of stringed instruments, a little like an orchestra warming up. The menu graphics emerged around this wisp. Which was all very nice, but it lacked something. It lacked depth.

By contrast, the PS2's menus had depth. They were all depth, on the surface at least. Switch on a Playstation 2 and it would chime pleasingly, and once the corporate introductions were out of the way you would be ushered into the blackness of space. Standing between you and the inky void were arcane signs: the words "browser" and "system configuration" and a constellation of orbiting points of light, dancing around themselves in a ring. (See image above.)

There's no need to understand what any of that means. Consoles, unlike multi-purpose desktop computers, are mostly designed for supreme simplicity - they just work. You don't have to poke through menus and dialogue boxes to fire up a game or play a DVD or whatever, you just feed it into the disc drive at the front and it starts automatically. So, on the PS2 at least, there's seldom any need to "use" the default machine menu unless you're doing some fairly involved tinkering. It is mostly just a default space, a view of the system at rest. It's accompanied by a calming ambient soundscape - barely even close to music, just gentle whooshing, like waves against a beach heard from a distance. Rather than just a static screen that eventually switches to a screensaver, like on a desktop PC, this is an interface that is part screensaver - it has a function, but it also has no function but to be, and to show that all is well and in a state of readiness. When you do insert a disc, or select a menu option, one of the orbiting lights separates itself from the circle and drifts away, apparently receding into the blackness, an emissary into the machine.

It is a really beautiful piece of interface design, suggesting a depth of possibility - almost ulimited possibility - without simply bombarding the user with complexity. And it suggests rest without simply being static or hiding behind a screensaver. This kind of screen-based user interface now dominates our lives, on our phones, on TVs, on computers, on cashpoints, on Tube ticket machines, everywhere. For obvious reasons, the discussion of the design of these interfaces has focused on clarity and usability. The PS2 was an example of a highly developed interface where the usability has perfected itself into invisibility, leaving an open space that could be inhabited by something that was, in my opinion, beautiful.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Downtown Scene

News from the world of print. I am in this week's New Statesman, on sale from today, reviewing Pioneers of the Downtown Scene at the Barbican Art Gallery. I try to put this really very good exhibition in the context of New York's 1970s' near-death experiences, something I feel the curators could have done a bit better.

And of course I continue to infest Icon, although the magazine's online archiving process ground to a halt in summer last year and is now proving difficult to restart. In the current issue I write about Voyager 1 and review the New City Reader and Beyond magazine. In the issue out next week, you can find me profiling the designer Philippe Malouin and reviewing Civil Unrest.

I'm planning a separate post wrapping up all the news related to the book when one or two things about it solidify.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fox in the Yard

It's my birthday today, and I have the day off. I was off yesterday as well, so at 10.30 in the morning I was sitting in the living room drinking a cup of coffee. Looking out over the sunlight-filled courtyard of my building, I was amazed to see ... a fox. It was standing on the wall, looking straight at me; I ran to get my camera, and it was still there when I got back.

If you click on the photo to see it full size, you'll see the fox is looking right at the camera. It's a little eerie, but also a little magical.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Fox in the Shard

The Shard. Image taken from the Flickr stream of Michali_ and used under a Creative Commons licence.

This post contains a minor spoiler related to the book Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem - not enough to ruin anyone's enjoyment of it, I think, but still - you have been warned.

There is something magnificent, and melancholy, in the rumour that Southwark Council is scrambling to catch a fox that is somewhere on the 75th floor of the Shard, the Renzo Piano skyscraper currently under construction in London. It is, in fact, easy to attribute romantic, even heroic attributes to the (putative) animal. There's the dangerous charm of the fugitive, of course, still a potent presence in the British psyche as the bizarre Raoul Moat case demonstrates. And there's something else. The rise of the Shard is a PR endeavour as much as it is a feat of construction. "Shard" is an official name, not a popular nickname; it's right there on the jumpform rig. An image is going up at the same time as the building.

The fox - even as a rumour - is an unchoreographed intrusion into this careful brand-building. A rogue presence has installed itself in the highest reaches of the tower and insolently eludes the authorities. Higher than highest - the tower will only have 72 habitable floors, so if the animal really is on the "75th" floor, it is at the summit, the unbuilt point of the spike. Underdog, meet overfox. This wasn't part of the PR strategy.

So, true or not, the rumour suggests the first inklings of popular mythmaking around the new tower - the city accepting the building into its collective imagination. Phantasmic Mr Fox can be seen as a sliver of public affection for Shard. In that, it brings to mind the escaped tiger in Jonathan Lethem's 2009 novel Chronic City. Lethem's tiger continually evades the authorities; capable of demolishing whole buildings, its effects are excessive even for a big cat. Rumours, lies and conspiracy theories swirl around it - it is a symbol in a book filled with symbols. Chronic City's New York is a strange, troubled place, unnerved by its own gentrification and regeneration, marooned in introspection. The people feel they have lost something, that something is amiss, and their attention transfers to mysterious absences: the tiger and the buildings it conveniently clears out of the way, ready for regeneration; astronauts trapped aboard a space station with no hope of rescue; gigantic chasms carved by a monumental land artist called Laird Noteless (note: less); "war-free" editions of the newspaper.

Foxes have thrived in London in recent years - they and the super-rich seem to be the only things in the city that have no trouble finding new places to live. Their eerie calls can be heard earlier and earlier in the evening, and they appear bolder, less afraid around people. Of course it's please to think of a fox brazenly in residence in the nosebleed section of the aspiring spire, barking that three-part cry, a vulpine muezzin in the city's best minaret. The Shard is a magnificent building, and it's hugely exciting to see it rise; the fox's presence seems to say, yes, this belongs to us too. What a view it must have, if it's there. And even if it isn't there, someone has seen fit to imagine it there, and that's almost as good.

UPDATED 16:45 24 February: It was real, it was on the 72nd floor, and they caught it! You can read the story here at the Standard. Says the article: "It is thought to be the highest distance ever recorded to have been made by a fox." Carve that one into the annals of pest-control-at-height. And I like its defiant expression. It's seen things, man, things you wouldn't believe. It can go back, but it won't be the same.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sirens, soot and strikes

This was written for Edge magazine's "Time Extend" slot, which looks at the lasting influence of a classic computer game. It first appeared in Edge 215 (June 2010) and is reproduced here with permission. It expresses some of the thoughts contained in this old blog post in a more cogent and convincing way.

Eagles soar in smokeless skies and whales glide through the clean oceans. Herds of horses (or perhaps giraffes) are the only inhabitants of the lush plains and old-growth forests. The simulated world of SimCity 4 is a peaceful place before you set about building your city. Boring, though. What it needs is urban sprawl, ribbon development along blacktop highways, strip malls and Dopplering sirens, chimneys belching soot, budget crises and strikes. What it needs, really, is problems – problems that you, the mayor, can solve.

That’s the paradox at the heart of the appeal of SimCity 4. Much of the fun that comes from playing the 2003 apogee of the SimCity series of city design and management games is solving problems: relieving traffic on this avenue, removing the polluting industries from that business centre, restoring a depressed neighbourhood to prosperity. But these problems have to come from somewhere. Next to the game’s peaceful, constructive, problem-solving side, it also nurtures the darker, more complex pleasure that comes from problem-creation. The tension between these two sides of its personality is written deep into SimCity 4; as we’ll see, it’s a reflection of the real-life systems and people that led to the creation of the game in the first place.

Key to SimCity 4’s enduring popularity is the fact that it can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Effective management can be satisfying in itself, given the game’s devilish complexity compared to previous versions and its dozens of competing variables. When things are going well it can be pleasant enough to simply sit back and watch the contented populace streaming along your ample boulevards while skyscrapers sprout around them – again, something that reached its peak with the gorgeous, hugely detailed, entirely 3D-modelled graphics of SC4. But those are passive pleasures, to be enjoyed once a city has been built. First you must play the game – and its split personality means two different styles of play. You can plan ahead and build with care, tending to your city like a bonsai tree, guiding every stage of growth and clipping and tweaking until it looks just right. This approach is deeply absorbing and can eat up tens of hours of dedicated play; the quality of the graphics has always made a beautiful city a highly desirable end. But that can be a bit boring. Often, a player will just want their city to get big quickly. So indulge in SimCity 4’s kinky secret: the joy of unplanned sprawl. The city is developed hurriedly, with only the loosest plan in mind. Vast zones are laid out without much thought, in artless but easy-to-build grids, and with services added (maybe) as an afterthought. Obviously, this manner of play creates problems – but in SC4, that’s a good thing. Pretty soon, your city is a snarling deathmaze of smog, crime, poverty, dereliction and gridlock. Bliss. These problems must be fixed to keep Gotham growing, but they can be ‘fixed’ in the same haphazard way that the city was thrown up in the first place: quickly, cheaply and dirtily. Roads and train tracks can be punched through run-down inner cities without protest; new business districts can be founded on the outskirts without caring too much about the chaos this will ultimately cause on the roads. Each solution brings a batch of fresh problems.

This approach, with its swift returns and constant challenges, can be the most rewarding and most addictive way to play. Imagine that you lay out a residential district and it immediately develops into Snooty Corners, a rich neighbourhood full of attractive high-wealth houses and well-kept lawns. That part of the game map is pretty much done with – barring vandalism, there’s nothing more you need do to it, so it’s finished, dead, game over. But if it develops into Crystal-Methington, a crime-ridden hellhole full of empty lots and burned-out cars, well, game on, you’ll be revisiting there pretty soon. The appeal of creating a ‘perfect’ city may be what draws players to the game in the first place, but actually perfecting a city is a losing approach. When it’s done – admittedly after what could be tens of hours of play – what else is there to do? You can look at it, but that’s more like owning a fish tank than playing a game. Almost every game is a struggle towards completion and perfection: SimCity gives you the opportunity to reject that goal, and to revel indefinitely in play. Its creator, Will Wright, called it more toy than game. It’s a rare game that can be at its most fun when it’s played ‘badly’.

The reckless style of play can also, oddly, lead to the best results. Cities built as sprawls, full of improvised solutions and gimcrack workarounds, can be very attractive – certainly Maxis put as much aesthetic effort into the low-wealth commercial units and tenement blocks as it did into the pretty-pretty mansions and sparkling skyscrapers. But they’re also appealing, and fun to play, because they most closely resemble real cities. And it’s worth remembering that this high-speed slapdash improvisation is how most real cities grew, and are still growing.

Plus there’s a sheer atavistic thrill that comes from playing the game fast and loose, with all sorts of destruction and little thought of consequences. Your urgently needed relief road happens to pass straight through a small, comfortable middleclass neighbourhood? Pah, build it anyway. Sure, you could spend the money on a neat little bus system, but isn’t a glistening motorway just a bit more swanky? Similarly, a vast stadium complex is always going to be more appealing to the ambitious mayor in a hurry, even though a well-funded local library network could yield better results for a fraction of the cost. Huge engineering projects will always be more fun to put together, and more impressive onscreen, than microscopic local initiatives. A mayor should be building suspension bridges and airports – leave the rest to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

There are plenty of real-world examples of civic leaders’ weakness for expensive, grandiose white elephants. But one particular figure stands out: Robert Moses. Moses, an American planner and administrator, came closer to playing SimCity with a real city than anyone else in the free world. Never once holding elected office, he wielded unsurpassed power over the city of New York through mastery of its bureaucratic machinery, diabolical legal chicanery and an eerie knack for raising vast sums of money. Mayors, governors and even presidents were forced to let him have his way. He first used this power to build colossal parks and recreation beaches, making himself wildly popular, but his attention soon turned to highways. When Moses started his career in the 1920s, New York was just beginning to come to terms with automobile traffic. He shaped the way it responded, girdling the city in an elaborate web of freeways and neglecting public transport. These new superhighways often created as many problems as they solved, rapidly choking with cars. They drove suburban sprawl and were built with little regard for the residents who happened to be in the way. More than once, Moses demolished a thriving community to make way for a road, even though a perfectly good alternative route existed. When Moses was finally ousted in the 1960s, the city had an expensive freeway network, but was more jammed with traffic than ever. It was also teetering towards bankruptcy.

Moses did a lot, but he didn’t do his worst. He wanted to slice freeways right across Manhattan itself, through some of the most expensive and crowded urban land in the world. One of these plans, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, was only defeated after a desperate struggle by a small community group led by a writer called Jane Jacobs. In the course of the campaign Jacobs wrote a book, the Death And Life Of American Cities, which defended the dense, mixed neighbourhoods that Moses dismissed as slums and encouraged a view of the city as a complex organism which needed nurturing, not drastic surgery.

Death And Life became a classic, and is still widely read. Among those who were influenced by it was Wright. He built his city sim to resemble a living thing, with scores of interlinked processes and cycles interacting over time in a complex system that the player can adjust and mould – a vision palpably drawn from Jacobs’ work, and cultivated over time into the superbly complex and organic fourth game. Ultimately, then, Robert Moses could be seen as the wicked uncle of SimCity 4, indirectly inspiring it by causing Jacobs to mount her defence of city life. To enshrine Jacobs in a game, Moses had to go in there too – we can share his satisfaction in grand projects and wanton destruction. He’s the dark side of the Force, one half of the duality that makes SimCity 4 so seductive. Planning versus sprawl; micromanagement versus megaprojects; neighbourhoods and localism versus traffic, money and power. Those opposite poles keep the dynamo of SimCity spinning even after seven years; it is still rich and rewarding because it springs from the vital conflicts in our own world.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Learning What Surface Is

Le Corbusier's Weissenhof. This post is part of an effort to dispose of some longstanding draft posts that have been cluttering my Blogger dashboard.

Le Corbusier and other early modernists signposted the modernity of their buildings by photographing them with (then-)state-of-the-art automobiles in front. In the past 30 years that phenomenon has inverted, and for decades now modern buildings have been used to advertise cars. Is this evidence that car design is getting more conservative while architecture still maintained a reputation for high technology and high culture? Almost four years ago I interviewed Chris Bangle, then group design director for BMW, and asked him about the relationship between car design and building design; what he said didn't make it into the published transcript, but is pretty interesting. I came across it while doing a clear-out of old interview transcripts.
When we were doing the first cars in the 1920s, modernist architecture had already taken off. The first steel & glass skyscrapers were already done in the 1940s, and we were doing cars in the 1950s called Baroque [somethings] – so this whole baroque era which architecture had left behind a hundred years before, cars just discovered back then. We didn’t do cars which looked contemporary with a Mies van der Rohe building until let’s say the 1970s or 80s. If you look at the current 7 Series, it looks perfect against Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, which is about very classic surfaces but with very cantilevered forms – that’s were the current 7 Series is. They look perfect together. If you look at the Guggenheim from Bilbao and the C4, they look perfect together – there’s only six years between them. And now, I would say the Z4 is probably the first post-modernist car in the world today. Maybe the 5 Series E4. What will happen when cars become neo-deconstructivist? What will that be? Wow. At the same time the architectural world has switched to our technology - Frank Gehry can only do his buildings because he uses CATIA programs, which were the same programs which were developed for the car industry, and his approach to it is the same way we do cars.

However there are some real interesting differences. The scale difference alone meant that architecture never had to deal with surface before. The idea of a perfect surface for architecure is completely unknown, it doesn’t exist. I’ve had lots of talks with architects about this. It’s wonderful to talk about. You can show them a building and tell them the surface is terrible, and they [react]: “Huh? What surface?”. They don’t even see it because they’re concerned with scale and the impression of space. Cars are about surface. But slowly, slowly, architects are learning surface. I can feel quite proud now that we are having a reverse affect on architects. They will still lead because they are the social moulders of our culture, architects are. We are a component that reflects the culture, but they are the moulders of that culture. I think that’s an important distinction. We hold architects holy in that sense. But at the same time, every piece of architecture is perfect, whereas what we do is mass. And it will be interesting to see what happens when architecture becomes more and more responsive to the exigencies that cars have established and they finally learn what surface is.

Friday, 28 January 2011


Detail of a photograph from Britain's Lost Cities.

This post has been sitting in Drafts, half-finished, for some months, occasionally pricking me with guilt. The book in question has been out for ages. The post also suffers from a focus problem; ostensibly reviewing the book, I often broaden focus to talk about the heritage brigade (Jenkins, Scruton, Charles, etc) in general, and unpicking the two strands of thought in this rambling post was too horrible to contemplate.

"Encase your legs with nylons*, / Bestride your hills with pylons / O age without a soul" wrote John Betjeman in the poem Inexpensive Progress. It continues, in a later stanza: "And if there is some scenery, / Some unpretentious greenery, / Surviving anywhere, / It does not need protecting / For soon we'll be erecting / A Power Station there." Betjeman's arch sarcasm set the tone for a whole generation of sneering critics of modernisation, sending it down a path towards a prose style now hopelessly mired in cliche and I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Betjeman pastiche (much like their preferred manner of architecture). But Betjeman's view of architecture was a lot more sophisticated than the narrowly dogmatic approach taken by, say, Simon Jenkins or the Prince of Wales. He had opinions that would make Roger Scruton's head spin - for instance writing to Denys Lasdun to praise his design for the National Theatre on the South Bank, that particular bugbear of the trads.

Gavin Stamp is similarly sophisticated. He's among the most articulate and forceful critics of modernist redevelopment and advocates of conservation and traditional "townscape"; these positions are usually expressed through his permanently disappointed "Nooks and Corners" column in Private Eye. But Britain's Lost Cities, his blistering assault on the path of 20th-century British urbanism (now in paperback), is full of nuance and surprises. Stamp's praise for Festival Hall perhaps isn't all that much of a shock; it is now hard to find critics of it. But Stamp is generous to other unlikely buildings: Basil Spence's university library in Edinburgh and John Madin's central library in Birmingham to give just two examples. And he ranges far off the usual rhetorical template, blaming the 1930s as much as the 1960s, and patricians and developers as much as modernist central planners.

Blaming for what? For the destruction of British cities, of course - 20 of them, from London to Glasgow via less familiar places as Worcester and Exeter. Lost Cities is larded with photographs of these cities in their former glory, like the graduation photographs of murder victims that are shown on the news. It's a grim read and appeals strongly to that odd pleasure: tombside melancholy. To look at photographs of places we cannot, can never, see for real is to feel a prisoner in one's time, locked in the bow of a ship while loved ones are thrown off the stern. The photograph keeps grief fresher longer than any other form of image. This is because it was (and is) a vast advance in the technology of memory - and as such it is probably the photograph, not modernism or the Blitz, that gave us the building conservation movement. Without the camera, the heritage movement would never have risen to its present ascendance, and would have remained the fringe pursuit of antiquarianism. It is the product of essentially modern information technology**.

Back to the Lost Cities. I should make it clear that I have nothing against conservation of existing buildings in principle, as a matter of economy and ecology if nothing else. But Britain's Lost Cities isn't intended as a collection of curiosities, it's polemical; it has a point to make, and the point is to horrify us at this wanton destruction (in the hands of SAVE et al, destruction is nearly always "wanton", the two words have been shacked up together since the 1970s and look inseparable now) and to warn us to change our ways, shake our heads at the follies of the past, treat the older parts of towns and cities with renewed respect and treat the no-longer-new-but-not-quite-so-old bits that replaced them with fresh contempt. Central to this heritage-militancy is a national loss of nerve about the New. In the minds of the likes of Jenkins, the New was a modernist invention, but in fact centuries of British architects and city-builders had faith in the New over the Old. The Georgians swept away medieval cities and the Victorians swept away Georgian cities, and hundreds of good and tens of thousands of indifferent buildings were destroyed and places changed their character for better and worse long before the modernists appeared on the scene. The idea - often repeated by the Prince of Wales and others - that previous generations tended their cities bonsai-like, with nailclippers and tweezers, is a myth. And because there aren't photographs of those pre-existing eras, just unfamiliar paintings and drawings, we don't grieve all that much. And Stamp, to his credit, sees this, acknowledging in his introduction that the railways (for instance) were terrifically destructive.

(In other places, he's less sensitive. The laziest and ugliest line that gets trotted out by the heritage tendency and trad architects is that planners and modern architects "did more damage than the Luftwaffe", and variants on this slur do make an appearance; beyond the conflation of well-meaning public policy with area bombing inflicted by a hostile power, this line whitewashes the desperate state that British cities were in before the war. And they get annoyed when the vernacular tastes of the Nazis are brought into the frame.)

But what makes the losses of the 20th century too much for Stamp to bear is the guiding idea that what replaced the eradicated buildings was inferior. Not always - I've already cited where Stamp finds room in his heart for the modernists. But throughout the book the basic assumption that the replacement townscape was inferior is so deeply ingrained that it literally goes without saying. Stamp is a hugely valuable historian and critic, and a good writer, but Britain's Lost Cities sadly falls into line with a general effort to comprehensively malign post-War urban planning. This is to forget the nightmarish challenge that Britain's cities faced in the 20th century: the urgent need to modernise housing, offices, factories, hospitals, schools, everything in fact that the pre-War laissez-faire Big Society had neglected for decades. The militant heritage tendency has made a concerted effort to make modernisation a dirty word (a work that the Blair government colluded in, by applying it to neoliberal "reform" of public services). Since the 1940s some terrible mistakes have been made in British towns and cities, particularly in the name of traffic planning, but it seems at times as if the heritage tendency wants all British post-War planning, whether well-intentioned or dim-witted, to look like a kind of baffling tantrum. Its concerns, the social woes it sought to correct (with much success - the dramatic improvement in public health after the War is down to the council house as well as the NHS), the crises is sought to forestall - these are all to be forgotten. The supposed guardians of the British past really want a dramatic fit of amnesia.

And what are we conserving? The built stock of British cities cannot be completely separated from its use. In those marvellous pictures in Britian's Lost Cities, we see town-centre foundries, Don Cossack Temperance Hotels, socialist debating halls, small factories, family grocers. The visual apparatus, signs and ads, of those places makes for much of what is charming and lively about the street scene. Bringing back those buildings would not bring back those uses. The places that have been "saved" by the heritage movement - Covent Garden and Spitalfields, for instance - have been lost in other ways, taken over by chains and corporations and reduced to prissy, security-patrolled shopping plazas. Why do we no longer have microindustry, small independent shops, public-subscription reading rooms and debating halls? How can we foster those things, and should we? These are vital economic and social questions, and the heritage industry has no answer to them; it is only concerned with artificially preserving remains. And what should we do about server farms and distribution sheds? Pre-1939 townscape could not just carry on; even Pevsner saw that, pointing to the Alton Estate as the way of the future in his recently published "lost" book on visual planning. The idea, peddled by Leon Krier in particular, that modernist planning was a sudden disastrous abandonment of a secure evolutionary path is absurd. The severity of the modernisation programmes of the 1950s to 1970s was largely the result of the fact that they had been held back for decades by the forces of stasis masquerading as "gentle evolution".

So a polemical fixation on heritage alone does not help us understand and nurture the cityscape. Take, for instance, painted advertisements. Painted advertisements and signage on buildings is a crucial element of the lost streetscapes that Stamp mourns. There are repeated calls from the heritage movement to take more care to preserve those examples of painted advertisement that survive. But the reason these paintings are so old, and dwindling, is that advertising and signage were targeted by planners and conservationists in previous decades. If we changed planning law, we could probably restart the production of painted advertisements and incite a festive riot of new neon while we're at it. The ads would be for Toshiba and Viagra rather than Marconi and Beechams pills, for the unignorable economic and social reasons that I mentioned earlier, but they would be painted and perhaps subject to Royal Fine Arts Commission approval. That way, the dwindling supply of older adverts would be less of a pressing concern.

What I'm saying is this: The best way to ensure a steady supply of the Past is to continue to manufacture the Present and the Future. The wholesale rejection of the New has completely failed, giving us only amnesia and routine philistinism. In distrusting development we have, as a country, not stopped development but ceded our ability to shape it and even plan it. In the same month that Stamp accused me of "card-carrying neophilia", my then-boss, former Icon editor Justin McGuirk, was called a neophile by Roger Scruton - and Scruton, like Stamp, believed he was pointing out a character flaw rather than drawing attention to an admirable trait, a telling fact in itself. Commenting on the coincidence on Icon's Scene page, we wrote: "[We] wonderered how [we] could be neophiliacs when so many of the new buildings [we] see are crap." The most vital question in British urban policy is how to build, and what to build; get that right and the question of heritage will be far less important, because it will no longer be a question of preserving a dwindling supply of good buildings, the supply will be kept healthy. The heritage movement has performed many good deeds, preserving some superb buildings that might have been unnecessarily destroyed. But its only contribution to a broader debate about what cities should look like is to foster the attitude that if it's Old, it's Good, if it looks Old, it's Good, and if it has to be New, then it has to look Old. That is a dead end; it is aesthetic decadence, and the stance of a deeply unhealthy, perhaps dying, culture.

Stamp's book is a visual treat and a treasury of interest, though, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

* Betjeman has a curious kink about female beauty aids, and an even stranger suspicion of life becoming easier. From the famous Slough: "In labour-saving homes, with care / Their wives frizz out peroxide hair / And dry it in synthetic air / And paint their nails."

** SAVE Britain's Heritage grew out of an exhibition of photography.