Saturday, 26 November 2011

Adnamsville - A Heritage Tale

I once read a visionary novel set in a future England which, having been taken over by the Chinese, had become a gigantic, themed holiday resort. All those cultural quirks deemed (by the Chinese) to be quintessentially English were nurtured so that visitors would get an ‘authentic’ experience. There was even a dispensation which allowed the proscribed English language to be used - in limited situations. I am reminded of this story when I travel around the country and see the road-signs for heritage trails, historic towns, country parks, National Trust sites, English Heritage sites, wildlife parks, industrial museums, steam railways, gardens, nature trails, forest walks and plain, old-fashioned commercial theme parks.

Last weekend I pitched up at a premier English-themed experience – the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk. It once was a significant port but the build-up of a shingle bar across the harbour entrance put paid to that. For years it slumbered as a small fishing community until it was discovered by well-to-do Londoners sometime after they acquired motor-cars and a penchant for weekend retreats. Nowadays the wily fisher-folk of Southwold (and the surrounding villages) make their living by catering for the nostalgic fantasies of city-folk. They have distilled the essence of seaside resort and bottled it for consumption by customers whose expectations they understand all too well.

The transformation of the town is not a unique phenomenon but the business model is interesting in that the main perpetrator is the local brewer, Adnams, whose beer is excellent and whose grasp of concept branding is masterly. Many towns in England used to have breweries located in their centres but most have sold the land for profit and moved to industrial parks. Among those who remain is Adnams, which owns all the pubs in town and has a very strong grip on the Southwold ‘look’ – all stripped-down interiors in stone-washed pastel colours. Its pubs have been meticulously de-localised and their gastronomic offerings graded from simple and cheap to over-complicated and London-priced.

Impressive as it is, there are one or two flaws in the business model: while Adnams’ employees are all trained to be nice to the tourists, the same cannot be said for some of the other locals. One of them, complaining that I had parked on the road in front of his house, argued that as a local ratepayer he had preference over visitors – by which logic he would have trouble parking outside his own borough (should he ever care to leave his personal Utopia). Another resident advised me not to buy newspapers in the new Tesco shop for fear of destroying the trade of local independents – most of which closed promptly at five o’clock on Saturday and remained closed until Monday morning having learned little from the brewery’s commercial success.

But perhaps curmudgeonly behaviour towards tourists is all part of the charm of the English theme? If so, let’s hope that the Chinese, when they do take over, will appreciate such irony. At the end of 2010, a survey concluded that China had spent £30 billion on creating 2,500 theme parks of its own. Compared with that sort of investment I expect they will be able to acquire Adnamsville for a snip. It’s a tidy asset which comes complete with unique branding, traditional ale, a cast of colourful local ‘characters’ and a loyal customer base. In short, it’s a nice little earner just the way it is.  

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Postmodern Experience

If I had to choose where to spend the last day of my life I might (depending on my mood at the time) opt for the Victoria & Albert Museum. It contains such a bountiful stash of the artefacts that mankind has contrived to clutter its life with that I could spend my last hours in contemplation of all the artistry, imagination, ingenuity and craftsmanship that have been dedicated to the enhancement of our material comfort. And I would lunch lavishly in the richly ornamented cafe where I would try to reconcile all this extravagance with the teaching from Ecclesiastes that adorns the frieze: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour”.
The V&A is currently hosting the exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 and if, like me, you thought that Postmodernism was all about 1980’s ‘pastiche’ buildings with dodgy decorative features and poorly-executed detailing I can report that those are just a few of the more visible products of the movement. Postmodernism was, more generally, a revolt, by designers, against the prevailing trend of the time - Modernism. Designers started to question the validity of the Modernist design principle – the constant refinement of form to follow function – and to break free from its constraints. Robert Venturi, an architect at the vanguard of the movement, railed against this tyranny, advocating that design should instead prioritise “messy vitality over obvious unity”.
The movement gathered pace quickly and went on to touch most of our lives as it spilled over into popular music (post-punk and new wave), graphics (magazines, posters and record covers), consumer products (furniture and home-wares) and even film (Blade Runner). Sometimes it worked brilliantly, grabbing our attention and startling us into fresh viewpoints: check your record collection for those sleeves from Factory Records. Other times it served novelty at the expense of purpose: check your cupboard for that dribbling teapot in the shape of a Mayan temple.
Designers have always plundered the past for ideas but Postmodernism’s determined adoption of bricolage (or pick ‘n mix) became one of its distinctive hallmarks. The rejection of conventional ideas of ‘taste’ in favour of an apparently random combination of styles and materials flew in the face of accepted norms. The intention, again to quote Venturi, was to include “both/and rather than either/or”. The results of this experimentation were certainly provocative.
I manoeuvred my way around a gaggle of eager, note-taking students and reflected that they had been born at just the time when Postmodernism, according to this exhibition, expired leaving its flotsam and jetsam scattered over their cultural landscape. What would they make of its legacy as they pursued their own design careers? They were currently fascinated by an uncomfortable-looking chair made of transparent acrylic encasing imitation red roses. “Are they real?” said one. “Lush” wowed another.
Around the next corner I came across a product of the offshoot Adhocist movement: a chair made from whatever materials had come to hand. It reminded me of a TV programme I sometimes see at the gym - Scrapyard Challenge - in which teams of blokes with blokish names compete to design and make mechanical devices using only what is available in the yard. I bet they don’t realise they are part of an international design movement.
With time to spare I progressed quickly through the shop (where I heard a man say to his wife “It’s only more clutter for the house”) and made my way to a gallery showing late 20th century design. It was there that I fell in love: the object of my infatuation was a Pye Cambridge radio, model 1108, vintage 1966, designed by Robin Day, in very fine condition for her age and a perfect example of form following function.
Later that day: ebay is full of old radios but there is only one model 1108 – and that was sold back in July.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Who Chose This?

I am partial to contemporary Scandinavian jazz and, whenever I get the chance, will encourage others to listen to it. I have learnt that it’s not a good idea to trap someone in a chair and play them your choice of CD but it is sometimes possible to get a positive response from a little fortuitously-timed background music. I was building on one such success when I persuaded a trio of friends to come with me to a live gig by a Norwegian trumpeter. I was sure they would love the cool, lingering tones, the finely judged chordal progressions and the soaring harmony of the melodies that distinguish his style.

Unfortunately the artist had undergone a musical transformation since I had last heard him play and his new style was quite different. Improvisational, raw and un-melodic, it was a good example of what I call ‘difficult’ jazz: music which only the most knowledgeable and devoted aficionado would appreciate. To our ears the random structure of the compositions was harsh and generally irritating – and we couldn’t even talk through it because it was so loud. It was a disappointing experience for us all and I suspect that any future recommendations of mine will be treated with suspicion. These days I am often to be found solo at jazz gigs, picking my way through its diversity, with only my own disappointments to deal with.

I am also partial to French red wine which, like jazz, comes in many varieties and repays commitment and a degree of familiarity. And again, like jazz, it can be unpredictable in company. Too often a supposedly grand bottle, introduced ceremoniously at the dinner table, has turned out to contain nothing like the nectar promised by its reputation. Too often have I had to make apologies along the lines of “it must be past its best!”

Some of you may have been lucky in your formative years; perhaps you shared that first bottle of well-cellared, fine-vintage claret in convivial company when you were just old enough to appreciate it; or you may have heard  Miles Davies’ ‘Kind of Blue’ when you were at the prime impressionable age. In either case you would need no further encouragement to delve deeper. But, should you come to these things later in life, you will have to clear away a lot of brushwood and ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ before you find the hidden treasure. I am still thrashing through the undergrowth and kissing frogs.

Just lately we invited some old friends around for Sunday lunch. With the food all prepared and the table laid, I turned my attention to the remaining tasks of choosing some background music and selecting a few bottles of red wine – forgetting all I had previously learned about making recommendations to others. I rummaged through hundreds of CDs without coming to any firm conclusion and studied the labels on a dozen bottles of red wine several times over. I had resorted to opening and sampling them by the time our guests were at the door.

But I managed to come up with a Plan B: I deftly tuned-in to a jazz radio station on the internet which absolved me of all responsibility for the playlist. As for the wine, I served what our generous guests had brought, leaving them to take the praise (or otherwise) for its excellence. The lunch party swung along nicely and, for several days afterwards, I busied myself with some solo research - drinking up the opened bottles while working through some dusty old CDs.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Master Plan

I went to see an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of a company called Building Design Partnership. I admire the fact that the founder, an architect, deliberately set out to avoid celebrity by not using either his own name or the word ‘architect’. Instead he established a collective of specialists to design and deliver large-scale buildings. The strategy was unusual but it worked and the commissions began to flow in. Over time they grew in scale so that the work is now international and includes not only individual buildings but also complete environments such as airports, campuses, green housing estates and city regeneration projects.

Their achievements are impressive, as is the exhibition where examples of projects are represented by intricately crafted models, professional photos and beautifully rendered drawings. In the presentation everything looks at its best: even the scaled-down people who inhabit the models and drawings look cool and their little cars, lightly distributed around the tree-lined, uncongested roads, seem trendy.  Everything is perfectly ordered, clean and functional: architecture has been re-named ‘building design’ and large, complex projects ‘master-planning’.

That same evening I went to a meeting at the Town Hall to hear the police Superintendant report on his progress towards keeping on top of things in our city centre. He spent a lot of time describing how he had structured his force – as if it had only recently occurred to him that it needed a structure. I found this disconcerting until I realised that he is continually discarding previous structures that have either failed or outlived their effectiveness in a fluctuating, dynamic situation.

The city has many stakeholders and their interests often conflict. That evening there was much discussion, for example, about that part of the night-time economy which generates income from the sale of alcohol (and other drugs) and, to the disturbance of many residents, results in noise and disorder in the streets into the early hours. This is one of the issues that keep the Superintendant and his force very busy.

His load would be considerably lightened if a little master-planning could be applied to this state of affairs. If all the late-night drinking places were in zone A and all the residents lived in zone B he would need fewer cops to sort out the problems between them. Actually it would simplify many peoples’ jobs if such a logistic heaven were to become reality but, alas, it is too late. The city didn’t have a conceptual master plan and no amount of retrospective planning will ever compensate for that.

But all is not lost; there are schemes abroad to build new cities from scratch – the Master Planners’ dream-come-true.  If they ever build one conveniently situated for me I would like to live in it for a while - just to see if they got it right and, of course, to check out how long it takes for all the model people and cars to get jumbled up.