Archive for October, 2006
“In the rise of the electronic era, community can be decoupled from geography. Until you have experienced this don’t dismiss it. This network is very real in lives of millions of people.”
I woke at 5.30 this morning with yesterday’s news swilling round my head. Just goes to show it’s not a good idea to check email before bedtime but I couldn’t ignore this one from Ray. “I caught a glimpse of the E News over someone’s shoulder on the plane: they’re having another go at the furniture story with a pic and a half page. Climate change is a small single column.”
Sure enough, the online article shows a picture of three council chairs – the good, the bad and even worse, the one about to support the civic bottom. Even more depressing, there are readers still rabbiting on about this enormous waste of money. Have they nothing better to do with their time? Stupidly, I add my own comment with a prissy reminder of the climate change debate that was diverted as a result of these bloody chairs. So what does that say about me?
I guess it all serves to illustrate the point made by Robert Sharp in his blog yesterday. Quoting Parkinson’s Law he suggests that the time spent on any item of committee discussion will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved. ( Parkinson’s Law is a compendium of satirical essays by C. Northcote Parkinson which is now on my Santa list). By extension I think it seems the same ‘law of triviality’ applies to stories in our local press. [but of course that wasn't really Robert's point, see his comment below].
I was surprised (and, ok, dead chuffed) to have my council ‘report’, Hot air stifles climate change debate picked up by Robert as an illustration of his earlier blog about the impact of ‘citizen journalism’. This was my first personal experience of the way blogs can be passed through communities either because they share similar clusters of attitudes or because they need amunition to disagree with them. It is both exhiliarating and slightly scary – there are some decidedly odd buggers out there! And would you believe it, they don’t all agree with me?
But the great thing about bloggers is their amazing diversity. There may be a lot of crap out there but there are millions more saying something new and interesting. In contrast, the conventional media often seems divorced from real life and lacking a sense of adventure (feeding off celebrities is not adventure). How can Edinburgh support such unimaginative newspapers? Check today’s headlines (any day you like) in the Scotsman and Evening News – they hardly ever reflect the city that I live in. It is very difficult to match this tabloid vision of a city riding to hell across potholed roads (pursued by traffic wardens) and the European capital that regularly wins awards for quality of life. (Ewan Aitken, Council Leader, lists a long string of awards in his report to the council – including, heart-warmingly, news of a young teacher, Susan Ward, who won Outstanding Teacher of the Year award for her work at Juniper Green Primary – she was nominated after a colleague walked into her social and personal development class to find the kids dancing to James Brown’s I feel good).
You would be hard put to find a feel good factor in most of the Scottish Press. Better to buy The List for evidence that the country actually has talent and the ability to enjoy life.
And keep blogging. Today I looked up an old report I wrote eight years ago about a conference funded by Scottish Enterprise to encourage the country’s ‘movers and shakers’ to imagine what Scotland will be like in 2025. Under the guidance of Joe Coates, a slightly formidable US ‘futurist’, we were encouraged to see how information technology could transform human relationships.
“In the rise of the electronic era, community can be decoupled from georgraphy. Until you have experienced this don’t dismiss it. This network is very real in lives of millions of people.”
Joe wasn’t wrong. But there is an interesting twist to his prediction that mobile phones and internet would create a new global community decoupled from geography. That is happening. But blogging is increasingly important as a way of connecting and informing people who live and work in the same town.
October 31st, 2006
Today I went to a full meeting of City of Edinburgh Council. Sitting in the public gallery is a bit like having a seat in a box at the theatre, it feels quite grand but you see and hear only part of what is happening on stage.
I was there with Doris and Celina who are paired with two City Councillors in the shadowing scheme I am helping to organise to encourage ethnic minority representation in local and national politics. It was their first time in the Council Chambers and I don’t think I have been at a council meeting since I was a trainee reporter on the Spalding Guardian in the flat fens of Lincolnshire a long, long time ago.
Some things have changed. Councillors now have wireless microphones on their desks but by some fault of the loud speaker system we can hear the points made by Tories and Lib Dems while the Labour group are muffled and distorted. Some things are much the same. It didn’t take Celina, Doris and me long to spot that there are too many suits on the benches. Celina counts three women on the Labour benches, I spot two among the Tories and we crane over the balcony to count four Lib Dems. There is only one bald and be-suited SNP. (Interestingly, out of 16 in the public gallery, 8 are women).
But I have to say that it is the two Lib Dem women who account for most of the hot air during the morning debate. The meeting rattles through some fairly important stuff about poverty,(un)affordable housing and the need to appoint a new Director of children and families. Then the meeting spends 25 minutes debating whether to replace or restore the old Davenport desks and chairs. Finally one Labour councillor protests at this waste of time when there is still a motion on climate change to debate, not to mention the capital city’s alcohol problem.
Still they drone on, and it is another five minutes before they vote 27 (Lib Dem and Tory ‘Davenport coalition’ plus the SNP baldy) to 29 (Labour) to replace the old heavy mahogany with something that can be easily shifted and stacked when it is not in use.
Result: climate change debate is stifled by hot air.
It is only now that I am wondering whether that might just have been a cunning plan on the part of those apparently sentimental Lib Dem ladies arguing for the importance of symbolism and tradition. Meanwhile, a truly important policy which could affect future generations (and would have been presented by the Labour councillor in charge of environmental affairs, another woman by the way), slips quietly and unreported on to the statute books. Could this possibly be a smart manoeuvre by the party seeking to gain power in next year’s elections?
October 26th, 2006
This is an extract from a Postcard case study written last year – this year’s riots in Budapest give a new twist to the tale.
Old Soviet heroes rust in peace in a statue park on the green edge of Budapest but in the heart of this city, capitalist business is booming. Hungarian trade is fast catching up with the rest of Europe. British tourists increased by a record 97% in the first few months of 2005 and they don’t come or go empty handed. Last year’s tourists tend to return as this year’s traders and they are learning that Hungarians can strike a hard bargain. Europe’s biggest Tesco hypermarket (run by astute Yorkshireman Paul Kennedy) stocks an astonishing 90% of local produce. Unlike a lot of the UK, Magyars seem to know the difference between good salami and a plastic sausage.
The equally entrepreneurial Mayor, Gábor Demzsky, has opened up public realm to stylish effect since his election in 1990. Café culture thrives on the pedestrianised shopping streets and squares where you can hear birds sing and musicians play among the global chain stores and local restaurants. (Not quite the view of Wikipedia but then I don’t recognise their city centre description from our visit there last year).
We were lucky to meet someone in the know in one of those cafes. Over tea and cake he gave us intriguing insight into the Westernisation of an old communist economy. It isn’t all good news. Corruption may take longer to shift than the old soviet statues. But there is something else Edinburgh could learn from Budapest where the combined legacies of Austro-Hungarian and Soviet empires provide an efficient and fully integrated transport system to speed shoppers, tourists and businessmen and women on their way. Trams, trolleys, buses and trains connect all parts of the city every two to three minutes by day. At night the service slows to no more than 8-minute intervals. Which means you can get to the centre from less picturesque parts within 20 minutes — and even the grimmest Soviet concrete tower blocks are surrounded by fresh fruit and veg stalls on the ground floor. Edinburgh master planners take note.
This is an edited version of the ‘Postcard case study’ published in The City Talks for Edinburgh City Centre Management Company in 2005.
October 23rd, 2006
Autumn tree tops, brown reeds reflected in the water, trams running over the bridge: my view of Helsinki from the hotel room. I am warming to a place where you can buy birch twigs in the market to thrash yourself to a healthy pink in the sauna. “Be sure to jump in the sea afterwards” said Olaf.
I am sitting in the internet room at the Scandic Continental, when I really should be heading out into the city to ride the trams, exploring all the places that were closed yesterday. First stop the Design Museum where I fear my four year old Nokia will merit a place in the display of mobile phones past. Or maybe the Museum of Contemporary Art promising an exhibition analysing our relationship with the landscape which should be interesting in a country which seems so self-consciously stylish. Even Helsinki airport is good to look at.
But first I am treating myself to a quick record of a few days in an extraordinary city full of trees and pedestrian spaces,where you can hop on trams, trains and buses with the same ticket. Helsinki has around 500,000 people which makes it roughly the size of Edinburgh but from my brief exploration it seems we could learn a great deal from studying how they manage their daily life.
Each city has its own character. After a week in Prague our first evening in Helsinki was a bit of a let down. Ten degrees colder outside and prices in the restaurants many notches higher. From an apartment with creaking wooden floors in the bohemian streets of the Czech capital to a bland air conditioned room in a streamlined hotel you could find anywhere in the world.
Ray digs into the guide to find solace in sightseeing. The guide book is clearly written for someone else. “Helsinki is a dish full of eye candy.” Yuk. But even bad writing can’t completely put us off looking for the church in the rock where there are free concerts every Sunday. Free is a nice word when we are starting to count the Euros (on Friday night in Prague two drinks cost the equivalent of one pound, here that is multiplied by ten).
And we would have paid plenty more than that for the experience in Temppeliaukio, a wonderful space blasted into the rock that most of Helsinki seems to be built on. A circular space roofed with copper wire creates an extraordinary acoustic so that the organ sounds would blast you off your seat while the soprano sends shivers down your spine.
There is a moment when a new place makes its mark on me and the organ recital on a cold October night in a granite circle in the heart of Helsinki was that moment.
October 17th, 2006
I am a suspected terrorist. My rucksack contains potentially explosive materials. I may look small and inoffensive but it is a cunning disguise contrived to deceive and beguile and it fails every time. In other words I am about to board a plane and I am carrying a make-up bag with a random selection of slightly grubby cosmetics.
Oh the shame of having my Chanel mascara confiscated at the security check! “I know” says the young woman quite sympathetically, as she drops the black and gold tube into a bin, “it is annoying”.
Annoying! That tube cost me £20. I fume and bluster all the way to Schipol. And what makes it worse is that I know I am being petty. But petty regulations bring out the barely suppressed adolescent in me. I am suffering a sudden flashback to my teenage years when I kicked against the mindless tyranny of pointless school rules.
OK, so my anger should be directed against the fanatics who ( we are told) would seek to squeeze part of a bomb into a mascara tube or a bottle of shampoo. And it is true, I would rather be body searched than blown up in mid air.
But I do not think it irrational to be angry at government regulations which seek to remind us how lucky we are they are looking after us. When they have made the world more dangerous by their actions. It is particularly hard to stomach this kind of double speak in the week after our Defence Secretary John Reid lectured Muslim leaders, warning them to look out for potential terrorists among their young people. He made a virtue of such hypocrisy speaking to the Labour Party Conference.
“It’s not Muslims versus the rest of us,” he said. “It’s evil terrorists on one side against all civilised people on the other.”
Check out John Reid’s voting record on www.theyworkforyou.com (very strongly for ID cards, foundation hospitals, tuition fees, anti-terrorist laws and very strongly for the Iraq war)
What John Reid doesn’t acknowledge is that Blair and Bush have conspired to make suspect terrorists of us all. Petty it may be, but when we are frisked at security we must accept that we are now all guilty until proved innocent.
With that in mind, I am off to pack my bag for a flight to Prague tomorrow. At least they won’t need to worry about my mascara.
October 7th, 2006