Valentine’s Day. My girl, Mandy, is on the other side of the world and every day I waste on this island is another day that I’m not spending with her at the end of all this.
Mehrdad is a living legend though, he came with me to Ocean World, a nearby port full of Richie riches, on the off-chance, but nothing. There were only a handful of boats in port and most of them were not going anywhere – if they were, it was up to Turks and Caicos, not on my schedule.
With the global depression, the recent murder of an Australian skipper on Antigua and the general strike and riots in Guadeloupe (which may be spreading to Martinique) this is NOT a good time to be hitching around the Caribbean.
Another problem is that Americans are not allowed to go to Cuba. Under the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act’, they face a massive fine or even a jail sentence if they spend a single dime in Fidel Castro’s back garden. The fact that the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago doesn’t seem to faze the US government into perhaps repealing this rather batty rule. The upshot of which is that the number of people sailing to Cuba and the number of cargo ships going to Cuba is slimmer than a Caribbean cookbook…
1) Fry chicken
2) Add a metric ton of boiled rice (optional)
So, a bit crumpled by the lack of options, I decided to head back to Santo Domingo to try my luck. I rang Ken, another couchsurfer (have I mentioned how much I LOVE www.couchingsurfing.com?!) who had offered me a stay down there. He said that I could come down, but politely pointed out that it was Valentine’s Day and that he might like to spend the evening with his girlfriend rather than a brash, scouse chap who hadn’t changed his underwear for three weeks.
So I decided to hightail it down to Santo Domingo first thing the next morning. With nothing else to do, I persuaded Mehrdad to show me how to make Sushi. We went to the supermarket, I spent an outrageous amount on ingredients and yes, the only Iranian Sushi Chef in the Caribbean taught me how to make Sushi! It was brilliant! Wish he would teach a few more people around these parts, I’m starting to see fried chickens in my sleep.
Mehrdad and I spent the evening chewing the fat over the stuff I love to bang on about – politics, religion, cosmology, architecture, travel – he’s a really sweet guy and one that is as annoyed as anyone in the West about the fact that a bunch of narrow-minded yahoos hijacked his country back in 1979. One day he’ll get to Canada and once he’s got his Canadian passport, he’ll be able to fulfil his dream of travelling the world.
What a lot of people don’t realise, and maybe what The Odyssey will go to show (if I ever get off this damn island!) is that if you were born in the UK, you have THE GOLDEN TICKET. A British Passport. You can go to EVERY NATION on Earth. The vast, vast majority of the people on the planet can’t. Most of them can’t afford to travel to the next village, but even if they could, they couldn’t travel as freely as we can.
We can live and work ANYWHERE in the EU, we have special rights in the 50-odd nations of the Commonwealth, we can visit every single country in the Americas (with the exception of Suriname) WITHOUT a visa.
And what do we do with this gift we’ve been given, a gift that a good five billion people would kill for? We go to Ibiza!
Jesus wept. And don’t give me that stuff about not having the money – couch-surf with the locals, eat street food, travel on public transport. You can live on less than $10 a day. In Vietnam, you can get utterly legless for that much (can’t you Stan?!)…so stop making excuses – this stuff is no fun when you retire because your back will hurt too much.
The world is out there, it’s not a scary place and you have an open invitation. Go see it before you die, it’s great.
And that goes for all of you – Yank, Aussie, Kiwi, Canuck, our European friends and the good people of Japan. And hurry up about it, you’re not getting any younger.
Here’s the vid of my adventures in the Dominican Republic:
Spent the day travelling up through Georgia pressing northwards towards Virginia. As we travelled, my mind turned to three things; Architecture, Americans, and Greyhound buses.
I HATE GREYHOUND BUSES. The entire company seems to be made up of the most inept, unhelpful, disrespectful, useless bunch of po-faced morons on the planet. The seven plagues of Egypt wouldn’t be enough to wish on these cretins, these people-hating, slothful, discourteous rotters with about as much idea about customer service as a cockroach has about food hygiene.
I just wanted to get that off my chest.
Now it’s no great secret that British people like to make out like Americans are stupid. I always bristle when I hear some pompous Brit going on about how stupid the Yanks are, especially in the face of the pond-life that populate the Jeremy Kyle Show, the omnipresent chav culture that seems to so enthral modern youth and the triumph of the moron celebrity, whose every inaction is lapped up by a ravenous magazine-buying public more interested in where Kerry Katona buys her beans (!), than what’s actually going on in the world. In short, British people can be idiots too. We just don’t make films about the fact. Most of the Americans I have met over the last few weeks have been some of the smartest, most articulate, worldly and friendly people I have ever encountered.
[Having said that, when I was in Fort Lauderdale, I did meet a girl from Athens, Georgia (ring any bells?) who hadn’t heard of REM. Seriously. I almost fell off my chair. That’s like me saying The Beatles? Who?]
But for the main part, most of the Americans that I met are as appalled as we are that the most powerful country in the world was run for eight years by a man who couldn’t win a battle of wits against a pretzel. But now that the face of America is a hip fresh-faced gunslinger from Chicago – I mean, he’s one of only five Presidents that are officially cool (the others being Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt & JFK) – I reckon that an overhaul of our condescending attitude towards Americans is long overdue.
So on we drove through South and then North Carolina… looking out the window, all I saw were boxes. All along the freeway – box after box after box. The names changed, but the boxes remained the same. Best Buy, Pets Mart, Starbucks, Arby’s, Home Depot, CVS Pharmacy, Wendy’s, Pre-Owned Sales, IKEA, Rentacar, HT Fitness, Multiplex Movie Theatre, Late Nite Comedy, 1-800-Lawsuit, Budweiser, Denny’s, Pizza Hut, Waffle House, Taco Bell, Wing Shack, Subway – all in warehouses and sheds. There was a Pentecostal church in a warehouse. A funeral directors in a metal shed. Now, if I was the wonderful wizard that conjured up the entire universe one wet Sunday afternoon, I would be quite offended if my flock turned up to extol me in a box. I would smite them good and proper. And after they had been smote, I would teach them how to build BUILDINGS again, because we seem to have forgotten.
Is this the future then? A concrete highway flanked by concrete boxes staffed by unenthusiastic teens and owned by faceless Cayman tax-dodgers? Functional, not beautiful, no chance of escape… no individuality, no personality, no innovation, no alarms and no surprises. How sad.
How very… how should I put this America…? How very communist of you.
And here we are in 2009 and I put it to you, good readers of The Odyssey Blog, that we, the human race, have not built anything worth keeping for over fifty years.
Was the World Trade Centre worth keeping? No – obviously not. They’re designing a brand new tower that looks nothing like the old ones. If it had been the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower or the Statue of Liberty that had been destroyed, they would have rebuilt the whole damn thing from scratch according to the original blueprints.
The same goes for The Eiffel Tower, St Pauls Cathedral, The Brandenburg Gate and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They are worth keeping, and keep them we will. The Pompidou Centre? Holyrood? Centre Point? The South Bank? Federation Square? The Arndale Centre? The Guggenheim? That bloody Beetham tower thing in Manchester? You fly a couple of jets into those monumental eyesores, and they ain’t ever coming back.
The only reason why people would no doubt try and save the Sydney Opera House is because it’s been cynically deployed by the Tourist Board of Australia to draw attention away from the wholesale destruction of the historic centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth et al. to make way for prosaic American-style nastiness – shiny stone render, glass and glitz. Its intrinsic worth as an Opera House is less than zero – inside is just a big concrete mess with the acoustics of a cave.
And then there are the usual lame excuses…
“Product of its time”
“The view is amazing”
“It’s very spacious”
Mussolini was a product of his time, it didn’t stop a mob of angry Italians hanging him from a lamp post. The view from the top of a 500ft high pile of turd would be amazing. It would still be an unfeasibly large turd. You know what’s even more spacious? A motorway. Go play.
I hate this copy and paste architecture – buildings created by the lazy hacks at the behest of greedy corporations. It’s ruining the world, homogenising it and turning our cities into a series of bland, soulless edifices that mock the rich and diverse history and culture of our planet. I hate these shopping warehouses, these feeding sheds. I’m not travelling around the world to marvel at how wonderfully similar everything looks.
So I’m going to make a stand. I’m going to try to not spend any more money in these concrete monstrosities, these breezeblock towers of Dis, I’m sick of them. If you’re constructed out of grey solidified sludge and you haven’t even got the decency to at least pretend you are made of something more worthy, I’ve got nothing to say to you. Go away. I don’t want you in my sketch.
I arrived at some ungodly hour, which I thought was actually quite appropriate. I slung my bag into the Pop Inn Hostel (with crazy guy Cesar running the joint, I warmly recommend it – it’s right by the train station too), and hit the streets – I had to step foot in Vatican City tonight.
And so, I found myself walking through Rome with my heart on a string, dear god, please help me. I’m so very tired of doing the right thing…
It was past midnight when I got to Popesville and there I found that the entire Piazza di San Pietro was cordoned off. No public access tonight, young Hughes, you atheist dog. Oh well, might as well see if there’s a back entrance (I would expect that of the papacy, wouldn’t you?). So I set off for my first (and possibly last) lap of an entire nation – a nation with its own flag (yellow), bank (corrupt), leader, and even its own army (kinda), although when I did manage to find a Swiss Guard to have a natter with, his costume made me wonder if he was a proper bodyguard for Zeus’s god’s shiny-coated representative on Earth, or had just come back from a spectacularly unsuccessful fancy dress party.
Anyway, he wouldn’t let me in – not even one foot! Private property, apparently. Ah well, the Piazza opens at 7am and my train leaves at 7.20am – bags of time. Mr. Willy-hat hasn’t seen the last of this little ginger wanderer.
But as I had already started, I thought that I might as well complete a lap around the place and OH MY GOD it’s a bloody fortress! Seriously, round the back are like, fifty-foot walls (from which boiling tar was no doubt thrown in times past) – although, forgive me for saying this (if you’re a forgiver!) but it all smacked of insecurity to me…
If my best mate was the chap what had the power to conjure up an entire universe (all 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000+ galaxies of the bugger!) out of THIN AIR, I wouldn’t be hiding in a fortress like some kind of balloonless Bowser, I’d be sunning it up on a beach in Thailand, laying in a hammock drinking coconut milk, safe in the knowledge that no lightning, tsunami or assassin’s bullet would ever come anywhere near me BECAUSE IT WAS MY MATE WOT MADE THE UNIVERSE!
But that’s just me – you can probably guess that I’m not one for pan-dimensional super-beings from beyond the stars. All seems a bit… well, you know… silly. I’m especially unimpressed by the ones who sit there picking their nose while the disease-ridden, flying hypodermic needles they invented (fancy that!) kill millions from malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and elephantitis and other horrific diseases I couldn’t hope to spell unaided.
Incidentally, did anyone see the pope stuffing a message to his god in the wailing wall this week? I couldn’t help but imagine a kid stuffing his letter to Santa in the letterbox…
I walked and I walked – around the Vatican City (I’ve never strolled around an entire city before, never mind a nation!) and down through the streets around the Pantheon and to the Coliseum. I didn’t want to sleep. The night was fresh, the streets were empty – save for the rumble of the occasional car on the cobblestones. A city unspoilt – a city where I saw no multi-storey carparks, no 1960’s concrete shopping malls, no heartbreaking highrises, no disgusting office towers set to depress, no beautiful buildings left to rot, no revolting hotels made of grey solidified slop…
The curse of the latter twentieth C may be hiding out on the outskirts, but here, tonight, in the centre of Rome, all I saw was stone and wood and clay – and the beautiful epic decay of centuries, as the pillars of stone and sun-baked bricks slowly eroded their way back to the nature from whence they came.
Something that concrete can never do – age gracefully.
Not Britain then. Not Liverpool, London, Leeds, Manchester or Brum. The one place on Earth seemingly unbewitched by the twentieth century nightmare of concrete, glass and asbestos. Of that rat Le Corbusier’s fascist conceit – machines for dying in.
A place immune. A clone town this is not. So how did this make me feel? Elated I guess, that such a place exists and that the cretinous children of Le Courbastarder haven’t got around to ruining it yet, but also saddened – that such a place exists is proof (if any more proof where needed) that such a place can exist.
But no, it’s all 30-year lifespans, Vegas-style, for the rest of humanity, like I’ve already pointed out – we didn’t rebuild the twin towers – disposable buildings for a disposable land-filled age.
So what are we leaving our grandchildren, eh? What wonders? What sights? What art? What BEAUTY? NADA. A handful of good tunes, some good books, some decent films, some cool television shows – but nothing permanent. Nothing to say LOOK KIDS – WE WERE HERE; only what is downloadable. The entire output of a generation, squeezable onto a 2.5″ hard drive.
The Queen, on the turn of the millennium, lighting a torch with BRITISH GAS emblazed on the side in a costly DOME designed to last less than a decade.
Forget that, I say! When 99 became 00, I was at the pyramids trying to connect our glorious part (OUR past! We killed all the Neanderthals! We’re the only race of humans left on this planet!) to some kind of glorious future. But now, ten years on, all I can see is a future that will be all but forgotten in just a few centuries time. The great age of nothin’ doin’, the second coming of bread and circuses.
Sorry, we were all too busy watching soap operas…………
And what are we building in England now to show the grandkids? A big white horse!
To paraphrase top designer Scott Jones, that’s something a child would think of…
We really need to get a grip. Buildings are the most public of artforms, the reason people fly thousands of miles across the globe to Rome to Giza to Agra to Machu Picchu. But even in our daily lives, we HAVE to look at the damn things, whether we wish to or not, they barge their way into our daily life without asking. It should be against the law for them to depress the hell out of us.
The least we should expect is that (if we listen carefully) they don’t sound like two women comparing bargains. Well, I got my glass curtain from TX Maxx – guess how much, go on guess…
Rome, you are beautiful, you will always occupy a special place in my heart, but I’ve been walking for over three hours and it’s getting light. The Coliseum towers over me, mocking my disposition towards modernity. Look what we cobbled together, Graham, WITH OUR BARE HANDS – before pneumatics, before electricity, before JCBs, before AutoCAD, before 3D printers… Two THOUSAND years ago, Graham, LOOK!!
Hahahahaha! Go on – beat THAT!
Bet you can’t.
We can, but we choose not to. Like Dash purposefully running slow in the school race.
We could be Incredible, but we choose to be pedestrian. How sad.
I turned my back on the stadium, half broken but still breathtaking. This is a battle I fear I’ll fight all my life, but don’t worry – it’s not all hot air. The masterplan is kicking in – and my little black book Development Hell is safe in the hands of my girl in Australia. I’ve still got a long way to go this year, but that’s nothing to the roads I plan to travel this decade.
I got back and checked the GPS to see if the border hop to the Vatican had been successful – no, I couldn’t claim it, I really couldn’t – the barrier was DEAD ON the border. Showed my walking route around the walls quite well though. I’d have to go back in the morning (well, three hours time) and do it properly.
6:40am: Back to the Vat in record time – I ran around St Peter’s Square (it’s not square, but I don’t know what else to call it) and then back into the taxi and onto
Travel broadens the mind. Or so they say. I’m always a little sceptical about what they say, I would proffer that it is education that broadens the mind. When you go somewhere new, you are thrown into a situation in which you have no choice but to learn a bunch of stuff you never knew before – words of a different language, perhaps, the plan of a new city or metro system or the history of the ungainly edifice for which you just shelled out €10 for the guided tour. Your brain, inactive for the past few turgid months of daily grind and talent show television, is suddenly bulging with new and exciting stuff – which your mind must naturally broaden itself to encompass.
So being a rather well-travelled chap, it is with an immense chagrin that I find myself being accused of being closed or narrow-minded. In short, if you want to insult me, that’s just about the only way you’re going to do it. Being ridiculed for being a gingerspekkyfoureyes just ain’t going to cut the mustard.
I’m objectionable, I’m opinionated, I’m sceptical of everything, yes; but I am certainly not closed-minded.
The reason I actually bother taking offense at this callous slur is that it is always – and I mean ALWAYS – uttered by somebody whose opinion on some trivial matter I don’t happen to agree with. Let me make this quite clear – the ongoing questioning and evidence gathering concerning one’s beliefs is the very definition of open mindedness, not getting ratty with anyone who dares breathe negativity on your pet theory about x, y, or if you’re feeling fruity, z.
If you are right and I am wrong, show me the evidence and I will willingly defer to your better judgement. If there is no evidence forthcoming, I am under no legal obligation to accept ‘because I say so’ as an argument.
“Claims that are made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”
I have never been in a discussion with anyone that has provoked me to turn to violence or demand that my detractors ‘better leave’. If you have, you’ve just lost your argument. Well done.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, because last night we were round at Mito’s friend’s house and after a few drinks the topic of conversation moved on to history and politics, two subjects in which I’m fairly well informed (I have a degree from Manchester University to prove it).
My cordial and irreverent protestation against this statement:
“The British assassinated Ghandi”
Was not only met with the old I-thought-you-were-cool school of emotional blackmail (damnit, if only I agreed with absolutely everyone about everything, then I’d be so cool) but some serious I-think-it’s-time-you-left scorn and damnation.
Bu-wur-eh? For the record, Gandhi was killed after the British left India. By an Indian. Nathuram Godse, the assassin, openly admitted doing it in court. I suppose he could have been bribed to do it by disgruntled Brits, but what on Earth would have been the point? Revenge? And why not do it years earlier when Gandhi’s death might have – you know – made a difference…?
Maybe it didn’t help that I tried to argue (using the same logic) that The Simpsons murdered Marilyn Monroe and it was the penguins of Antarctica that masterminded the death of River Phoenix.
Sorry, but I have little time for conspiracy theories.
Look, KFC don’t send rejected chicken burgers to labs for testing, you don’t know anyone who woke up in a bath of ice sans their kidney’s, Diana died mainly because she wasn’t wearing a safety belt, Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, 9/11 was not masterminded by the government (even using the terms ‘master’ and ‘mind’ to connect in any way shape or form to the Bush administration is just seven different shades of absurd), Man DID land on the moon (6 times!), homeopathy is a load of hooey, nobody can predict your future or read your mind or communicate with the dead, UFOs don’t exist and neither do ghosts, gods, goblins, orcs, unicorns, hobbits, poltergeists, elves or magic munchkin men, Elvis died on the toilet, the Pyramids were not built by aliens and the Titanic hit an frikkin’ iceberg. Okay?!
Anyone who disagrees with me, I think it’s time you left… your troubles behind, sat down and had a nice cup of tea so we can discuss the matter. Conspiracy theories are not cute, nor are they harmless – they can have catastrophic consequences when too many people start taking them seriously – see The Holocaust for the most damning example.
In the meantime, keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. To cut a long story short, my boat ain’t leaving today.
I think my boat is going to leave today, but I still don’t know. At the moment I am sitting outside Café Sophia using Mito’s laptop and I’ve got nothing better to do, so I thought I would entertain you with my thoughts on the British Film Industry, or as I prefer to call it, the British Film Insanity.
Hollywood depresses the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the films they make, and a week doesn’t pass by without them releasing at least one movie that is worth watching. My favourite films – Star Wars, Sullivan’s Travels, His Girl Friday, The African Queen, The Apartment, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future (I could go on all day) have all been produced by the Dream Factory in over there in La-La Land. No problem with that!
The reason Hollywood depresses the hell out of me is because some of their top grossing franchises of all time – Titanic, James Bond, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter could have been produced in Britain or Ireland from whence they came.
But they weren’t.
And that’s not to mention films involving Dracula (vampires), Frankenstein (monsters), War of the Worlds (aliens) and any Shakespeare adaptation you care to mention. That’s some back catalogue of unbelievably brilliant ideas.
Stephen Fry once told the allegory of a group of oil-prospectors who find a vast ocean of black gold under Britain. They go to all the top British businessmen and beg for the money to buy some drills. The businessmen refuse – too risky, they say. The oil-prospectors approach the government. They also refuse. What if the drills break? What if some don’t work?
Frustrated, the prospectors go to see the Americans, who, seeing the improbably vast amount of untapped wealth under Blighty, are more than happy to pay for the drills, gobble up all the profits and sell our own oil back to us at a healthy profit. Sound familiar?
The sad thing is that we are our own worst enemies. I was once chatting with a bloke from BBC Films and asking why every film they make has to be dreary, depressing, peopled by trout-faced mingers, obsessed with poverty to the point of perversion… with the average Brit going to the cinema once a YEAR, why don’t we just shovel a heap of fivers into a burning well? It would cost less and entertain more people. The guy from the BBC shrugged. The problem is that 99% of the film scripts we receive are dreary, depressing, peopled by trout-faced mingers and obsessed with poverty to the point of perversion.
But hang on – what about vampires, monsters, aliens? What about boy wizards, master detectives, magic rings, epic quests and secret agents? Where has our rich vain of storytelling gone? Why does America continue to tap our top natural resource (great ideas) while we stand around with our head in a bucket of poo wondering why everything looks so brown?
In short, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US??
Why are we fixated on making films that nobody watches? Why do we make films that appeal to a fraction of 1% of the population? Why do we think of cinema as ‘art’ when everyone with a brain understands that they are first and foremost entertainment? Why do we have to be so goddamn pretentious? And what the hell is with all the cockney gangster films?
I once attended a film pitch event in Newcastle. There were six of us aspiring filmmakers hand-picked from around the UK to come and try and win over a panel of so-called experts. Only myself and one other guy (who was pitching a horror film) suggested our films would play to a ‘multiplex’ audience. By that, we meant it would pull in the demographic of people who actually bother to go to the cinema, 15 to 35 year old males and their girlfriends.
The other four pitches stated, straight up, that they were seeking the ‘arthouse’ demographic. Well keep looking you fools, you’ll never find them. There are only a handful of arthouse cinemas in the country. Liverpool, for instance, has one arthouse cinema between almost half a million people, and that’s far too busy playing profitable stuff like Harry Potter to give a rat’s hoot about your two-hour drearathon about a battered wife on a council estate in Salford who dies in the end.
A waste of time, effort and money. They should emboss those words in Latin under the logo. Welcome to the British Film Insanity.
I just want to strap these morons to a chair and force them Clockwork-Orange style to watch Sullivan’s Travels. Maybe that would make them understand. But then, we are the only country in the world that actually takes soap operas seriously (and we think Americans are dumb? Get a grip, Blighty!)… so I guess that says a lot about the sad demise of our sense of adventure.
We make one half-decent film a year. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Talk about a vagrant sitting on a throne of gold. If you want to make a film in the UK, you need to go beg various television companies (anyone else see the error there?) for funding, and when you get it (it’ll be a modest amount, believe me!), you have to keep all of your 47 different executive producers happy. Will they take a punt on sci-fi? No. Horror? Unlikely. Fantasy? See sci-fi. Action? Not on your nelly. Sorry, the only movies we have the power to make are period dramas, rom-coms and cockney gangster films.
How utterly depressing.
We give our best stories away for a song and another country’s already incredibly wealthy economy is the only one benefitting. We no longer produce our own cars, ships, trains, coal or steel; what have we got left to sell to the world?
Our genius. Our ideas. Design, Music, Art, Movies… STORIES. Britain and Ireland are, without doubt, the most inventive and creative countries in the history of the world. And that’s not all – Hitchcock, Scott, Lean… the greatest directors of all time, the greatest actors, the best writers…
As the Drover says, at the end of the day all you have is your story. It’s the only thing that nobody can take from you.
I beg to differ. Hollywood has been pilfering our stories for over a hundred years. And all we can do is sit, watch and pay them for the privilege of telling our stories back to us. Madness.
Speaking of which, I’m off to watch JJ Abram’s 100% American Star Trek, which is as it should be. Night night.
A Few Hours Later…
I got a call from Mito halfway through Star Trek. It was an old cinema and had thankfully stopped for an interval.
My boat won’t be leaving until MONDAY.
To put a sense of scale on this disaster, in less time than I have been stuck withering away on this isle, I managed to visit every single country in Europe. I was fairly confident that I could complete my quest by the end of the year, but that is now cloud cuckoo land. When I arrived here, the Cape Verde police took everything from me – my camera, my GPS, my passport, my wallet.
It’s now clear that they also took any chance I had of completing The Odyssey Expedition in a year.
Yesterday, I waxed lyrical about the (lack of) British film industry, and now while I’m stuck in Cape Verde, I’d like to draw your attention to a series of parallels with the unbelievably arrogant and idiotic world of architecture.
Luddites With iPods
In a recent survey carried about for the BBC’s excellent ‘Restoration’ series, they asked bods in the street whether they preferred old or modern architecture. The overwhelming response was, predictably, the old stuff. This is not because we are a bunch of crazy luddites who can’t see a good thing when we see one, if the question had been ‘do you prefer iPods or cassette walkmans?’, the response would have been firmly on the side of the clever, shiny and new. The reason why so many people love and are willing to fight to preserve old buildings is because they are simply better – better in every conceivable way: more artistic, more expressive, more interesting, more organic, more local, more elegant, more beautiful, more entertaining and even (yes!) more functional.
But then we have a rather odd situation in which the majority view demographic is not represented in any shape or form when it comes to architects. They are all seemly culled from the small proportion of, let’s be frank, weirdos, who think that symmetry is a bad thing and concrete is a good thing.
These architects, no matter how hard they work, how hard they strive for the novel, the innovative and the unique, are only ever going to appease that small percentage of their audience (their mums, presumably) who see whatever new devilry is thrown up on the side of the road and think it good and groovy. Everybody else is going to shrug and tut and have a few hit-points of happiness knocked off their score because they are forced to look at this pitiful junk, this urban mish-mash, this ode to the opposite of beauty: and they have to look at it day in and day out.
Ivory Tower syndrome or what? The same wrong-headed disease that afflicts the minds of British Film-Makers; that of the strange but seemingly overwhelming desire to play to an empty house. A showman telling his audience what they want rather than asking them. Did Shakespeare play to empty houses? No. He understood the power of a crackin’ story and a few laughs along the way. He was the Spielberg of his time – give the audience what they want. You want high drama? You got it! You want fart gags? Here they are!
We’re Being Lied To
Are we really that demanding? Are we really that hard to please? I don’t believe we are. We are now living in the golden age of American television – Lost, House, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, The Wire, Deadwood, Weeds, 24, Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica to name a few. The planets have aligned; technology is cheaper, DVD has seen consumer power finally win out over advertising slots and some of the best Hollywood players and writers now lend their hand to the small screen. It’s not a lost art to play to a full house – the Americans produce hundreds of hours of first-class entertainment every month, and we in Europe can only stare in awe at their accomplishments.
But Graham, what’s this got to do with architecture?
The connection is this: the technology for building stuff is cheaper than ever before, the world is richer than ever before and the desire to build is undiminished. But unlike American television, the audience, the people who have to live and breathe the nasty tiresome edifices (that spring up overnight like weeds) are being ignored. Put it this way: the monumental stack of junk that is the Beetham Tower in Manchester would have never been built by public subscription.
It’s one thing being ugly as hell, it’s quite another to be as ugly as hell and force an entire city to look at your ugliness EVERY DAY.
In a democratic chance to vote for the favourite design to become the ‘Fourth Grace’ in Liverpool, the worst design – a f—ing glass cloud – came last. Of course it did, it was bloody awful. And yet what got the nod from the city council? Yup, the glass cloud. Thank god Liverpool city council weren’t competent enough to see it through.
And the worst thing is that they think we’re the idiots here. Like a Victorian School Master, they think we just don’t know what is good for us. When we complain we’re told we sound like Prince Charles – which is such a pathetic cop-out only somebody as horrifically cocksure and arrogant as a modern architect would dare say it. If we complain about a lousy meal, does the restaurant owner say we sound like Michael Winner? When pundits criticise music or films, do the musicians or artists resort to such childish ad hominem attacks?
No – they know better: they know that constructive criticism is – well, constructive. If the restaurateur doesn’t improve their service or their menu in the face of criticism, his restaurant will close down. But the problem with modern architecture is that you don’t have to please the majority, or even a sizeable audience – you only have to please the career politician who grants you the planning permission.
Yeah, politicians are known for their good taste, aren’t they…?
Architects seem unwilling or unable to their arrogant heads around the fact that for the vast majority an unrendered concrete wall will never look good, that huge glass and steel structures serve nothing more than to bake the poor individuals trapped inside, that a building made to look like a ship or a sail or a gerkin or a breakfast table or a BIG GLASS CLOUD is something a child would dream up. A sad child. A child with no friends and who probably smells like the bogs.
How about we build buildings that look like buildings eh? Aesthetically pleasing buildings at that. Buildings of stone and wood and clay. Buildings that make you want to reach out and touch them, not double as a urinal.
How about we build with local materials, using local firms who consult (and actually listen to) local people before stamping their vision indelibly on the landscape?
And how about we make it so that every place in the whole world DOESN’T look exactly the same as everywhere else?
What I don’t get is that the ‘modern’ era of architecture has been around now for over 60 years, whereas that last truly great hoorah of great architecture – Art Nouveau lasted about 20. When are we going to move on? When are we going to give up concrete as a cheap and nasty bad lot and inject some art, some design, some passion back into what we build?
Why is architecture the only artform dictated to by cost-effectiveness and faceless bureaucrats? Where has all the joy gone?
It’s not like we can’t build amazing things anymore, the massive restoration projects in Germany such as Dresden Cathedral prove that. We have to stop making excuses for these architects. They haven’t done their job properly for over half a century and I’m sick of hearing mealy-mouthed excuses about cut-backs and quantity surveyors and local councillors… they existed one hundred years ago and we made great things despite them.
I am SICK of being dictated to by these architectural fascist who are so far removed from reality it makes my head spin.
I think it’s time for us to start a new architectural movement. One that bypasses the strange and out-of-touch whims of these modern architects. One that, like the neo-classic or the neo-gothic takes it’s inspiration from the past, you know – the stuff that the vast majority of the population like to see (and pay money to see, does Milton Keynes get many tourists? I think not…).
The wonderful thing is that we can do it ourselves. But Graham, don’t you need someone to design this stuff?
No. We just need somebody to build it.
You see, all this wonderful stuff has already been designed.
The blueprints are free, out of copyright and available for all to see and make use of in the great libraries of the world.
The buildings that were never built. Those that were built but destroyed by the Nazis that ran our city councils in the 1960s. Countless design competition runners-up. Pipe-dreams of splendour for which the technology was not yet there to build. Well, it is now.
It is high time for a revival of the Classical, the Gothic, the Georgian, the Victorian, the Edwardian, Art Nouveau…
A revival of style.
A revival of taste.
A revival of quality.
And we’ve got all the bloody blueprints we need FOR FREE! Inside and out. All we need to do is hook them up to the electric and we’re done.
In the style of the pre-Raphaelites, I would call this movement the pre-Corbusians, but I don’t really want to use that horrible man’s name, so lets just call ourselves the Retrovisionists and go for it.
Christopher Wren once said that he was building for eternity. Modern architects build stuff with a projected 30 year life span. How sad is that? The songs of a bunch of spotty teenagers called the Sex Pistols will have more longevity than any of the libraries, churches, hospitals, town halls or exhibition centres that we build today. As the tower blocks, office towers and shopping malls of the 1960s and 70s crumble all around us, we have the opportunity to build cities not around the car or around shopping malls or stark office towers…
Imagine cities that are built around the buildings. What a wonderful place that would be.
So I’m still here in horrible Cape Verde. My boat SHOULD be leaving tomorrow, but to be honest I’m not holding my breath. Today, I whiled away my time at Café Sofia, met some lovely interesting people, played a game of chess (and won!) hung out with Mito’s friend Nilsa and ended up at 3am in a hotel room with a whole bunch of American Peace Corps types getting so drunk on the local grog (YES IT’S CALLED GROG!!) that when I awoke the next day I was surprised I could still see.
In keeping with my last two blogs, I thought I would use this opportunity to bleat on mercilessly about a subject close to my heart. So today you (lucky lucky blighter) are going to hear my thoughts on technology and the way the establishment just DON’T GET IT and never will – it’s like trying to get your mum to operate the timer record on a VCR.
A wise man one said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and I have to say I agree. When a very different bloke, also called Arthur, found himself stuck on a planet with life forms who were barely out of their Iron Age, he would have liked to show them how to make video recorders, televisions, telephones, digital watches, but quickly realised he didn’t even know how to make a sundial, let alone anything even mildly complicated, electronic or mechanical. As such, he just spends his days making sandwiches. That’s all your average Joe (myself included) would be able to distil from thousands of years of human innovation and invention.
But then, how the hell do you go about building an iPod? A digital camera? A Nintendo Wii? A mobile phone? Where on Earth would you even start? But being a bunch of technophiles (you’re online aren’t you?) we’re quite happy to let the scientists and engineers do their thing and furnish our lives with all this amazingly groovy stuff without ever having to pop our heads under the hood and find out how the damn things work.
But individuals are quite different from institutions. We’re metaphorically zipping about the place on space age jet skis whereas the powers that be are huge lumbering oil containers that take half a day just to turn around. New technology scares the willies out of them. From the church’s fifteen-century-long suppression of pretty much anything new, to the horror and embarrassment one feels watching a politician using some new-fangled technology (can you imagine Gordon Brown trying to get his head around Halo 3? I shudder at the thought); there is a certain strata of our society who, rather than embracing new technology and using it to its full potential, go out of their way to try and stop it. Which is as dumb as sticking your finger in the dyke. I’ve got a better idea: run screaming if you want to, but once the town is flooded why not make the most of it and go fishing?
Oh, and by the way, concrete was invented by the Romans (for sticking stones together) so it is in no way a ‘new technology’.
Here is my own (from memory, so correct me if necessary) history of various King Cnut’s and their attempts to turn back the irrepressible tide of technology:
1870s: Novelists lament the invention of the telephone, claiming it signals the end of the written word.
1890s: Theatre promoters unite against the advent of cinema, fearing that nobody will visit the theatre anymore. 2008: highest number of theatre admissions since records began.
1900s: Introduction of records prompts music hall promoters to sue claiming that ‘nobody will go and watch live music ever again’. 2008: highest number of people watching live music since records began.
1910s: Introduction of radio prompts record makers to sue claiming that ‘nobody will buy records anymore’. Er, yeah.
1928: Jazz Singer is first ‘talkie’ movie – several movie producers dismiss sound as a ‘gimmick’ and a ‘flash in the pan’. Their companies collapse.
1944: First computer, Colossus, built in England to crack Nazi codes. British government keeps the technology secret, fearing that if their enemies get hold of it they will develop codes that are utterly unbreakable. IBM and Microsoft tremendously grateful.
1960s: Numerous off-shore radio stations set up in response to the BBC’s refusal to play Rock n’ Roll and the government’s refusal to grant commercial licenses.
1960s: Numerous purveyors of porn go to jail under the obscene publications act. Government firmly believes that if porn gets into the hands of the common man, anarchy will ensue. Thirty years later, the internet will well and truly put that fanciful notion to bed.
1967: BBC finally wakes up and introduces Radio 1. Off-shore radio stations close down.
1970: In an effort to distract attention from a rather unsuccessful war in Vietnam, President Nixon introduces the ‘War on Drugs’ to counter the treat of these new-fangled drug thingyamajigs. Governments worldwide firmly believe that if drugs get into the hands of the common man, anarchy will ensue. Forty years (and TRILLIONS of dollars later) this ‘war’ is nowhere near being won and drugs are more readily available than ever before.
1978: Movie makers sue VHS on the grounds that people will tape movies off the telly and never visit the cinema again. 2008: Highest number of cinema admissions since the war.
1980s: Betamax fails because Sony refuse to allow their tapes to be used to distribute porn. VHS have no such scruples and an inferior medium dominates the home entertainment market for a whopping twenty years.
1980s: Music labels get their knickers in a twist over cassette tapes allowing people to record songs off the radio. They get the DJ to chatter inanely over the beginning and end of each song in an effort to prevent this. Record sales unaffected; soon after, Band Aid becomes best selling single of all time.
1980: Musicians sue the makers of synthesizer keyboards, claiming it will put classical musicians out of a job.
1982: Musicians and Radio Execs lament the introduction of MTV, saying that it will kill the Radio (Star). 2009 sees more radio stations and more listeners than ever before in the history of the world. Radio GaGa indeed.
1990: Tim Burgess-Lee develops the World-Wide Web and gives it away for free. The internet changes the world forever.
1999: Music labels, led by Metallica(!) attempt to prevent Napster and other websites from allowing users to download music. They also do crazy stuff like forcing the BBC to run their streaming radio services at a very low bitrate to prevent ‘piracy’. The fact that the future of music is downloadable, is completely lost on all the major record labels.
2001: Sony, inventor of the Walkman and owner of a quarter of the world’s records, fail utterly to comprehend the importance or power of the internet and digital downloadable music. Apple, a camp San Fran computer outfit who have never had anything to do with music before, manage to steal a march and introduce the iPod and iTunes. The rest is history – what’s Sony’s MP3 player called again?
2008: Prince gives new album away for free in The Daily Mail, then plays a series of sell-out gigs in the O2 arena and makes millions more than he would have done from selling the (rather naff) CD. Clever boy!!
2009: Music labels demand their music videos be taken down off YouTube, presumably because they think nobody will buy downloads anymore if they can watch a low-quality version of the track attached to a video. Some smarter labels put a link to buy the song underneath instead.
2009: A video of trout-faced voice-of-an-angel Susan Boyle (Britain’s Got Talent contestant) surfaces on YouTube and is watched by over 100,000,000 people worldwide. I tentatively suggest that it won’t harm her record sales.
There is a great article by Dr. Ben Goldacre here which fits quite neatly into this argument.
So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Simply this: you can make A LOT more money by embracing new technology and using it to its maximum potential than you ever will running about the courtrooms of the world whining like a bunch of old fogies. So bring on the new, the downloadable, the bootlegs, the file sharing sites. Give me BitTorrent, furnish me with episodes of Lost on YouTube, allow me to use a 10 second clip of an REM song on my website, let me sing the words Goodbye Ruby Tuesday without forcing a ‘cease and desist’ order down my throat.
I am part of what’s known as the entertainment in-group. I love music. I love movies. I love television. I will push and blog and watch and listen. I own hundreds of CDs, I go to the cinema or a live gig at least once a week, I go to more festivals than many music journalists and spend a much higher proportion of my income on this stuff than your average forty year old woman with too many cats.
I will – for free – sing the praises of The Sopranos from the rooftops. Yes, I downloaded it, but from my enthusiasm for all things Tony, four people I know have bought all seven box sets of the damn thing. Over the last six months on the road I’ve introduced more people to Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire than Radio One ever did. Yes, I watched the whole of the last series of Lost on YouTube and illegally downloaded the new Franz Ferdinand album, but damn-it, I have travelled the world imploring others to break through Lost’s difficult third series and enter the wonderful Halcyon world of seasons four and five and who else reading this has paid to see Franz Ferdinand play live in four different countries? Eh?
Christ, they should be paying me!! A cultural ambassador? You better believe it baby.
The out-group exists. They don’t download stuff. They don’t know how to use utorrent or break the activation code on expensive software: so the industry thinks they are not costing them anything. Nothing is being ‘stolen’. I beg to differ – the people whose entire CD collection consists of the Titanic soundtrack, those whose only experience of television drama is the Emmerdale-Corrie-Eastenders Vortex and have only been to the cinema once in the last ten years (and that was to watch Mamma Mia!); THEY are the ones who are costing the entertainment industry billions, because they chose to spend their money on other stuff. Get it?
It’s not their fault – you need to show them the riches, then they’ll no longer live with being poor. Exposure is worth the free-loaders. I wish these corporations would stop criminalising their biggest fans, use their advertising budget more wisely and stop wasting money on lawyers. If they just left us to it and embraced the new they’d get their rewards in the end.
Well, as predicted, the Micau didn’t leave. Christ, they must be running out of excuses now. Maybe a black cat crossed the path of the captain today, or the boatswain shot an albatross or maybe the chief engineer has grown an improbable pair of boobies? Christ knows!
Today, I discovered a hidden delight, courtesy of the lovely American girl Callie. Her boyfriend runs a great little café a little out from the city centre, which is FULL of English-language books (how I’ve missed them!). I WISH I had known about this place a month ago, it would have saved me hours of tedium stuck in Café Sophia. Callie’s boyfriend, Frazer, is a wonderful chap – he speaks with a deep, deep RP British accent that I would have liked to have bottled and taken with me.
Last night, before he left, Colin generously gave me his copy of the excellent, excellent book ‘Real England’ by Paul Kingsnorth. I can NOT recommend it enough. I stayed up all night reading it from cover to cover. It’s written by a bloke about my age, someone who is dead against the likes of the BNP and all that childish nonsense, but who is concerned with the state-sponsored homogenisation of everyday life creeping over our green and pleasant land like HG Wells’ red vegetation of Mars.
In short, we are more interested in preserving the culture of others that we are of preserving our own – to our eternal shame.
If you’ve been following my blogs since the start, you’ll know that one of my biggest bugbears is the triumph of the faceless, corporate blandification of our planet. I keep banging on about this horrible globalised architecture and commodities I find cropping up everywhere, not because I’m some crazed old fuddy-duddy who just likes to cock a snook at modern life, but because it matters. It matters to our collective wellbeing. We are not automatons, not Vulcans, not a bunch of joyless, emotionless Borgs, desperate to fulfil our days as the gimp of stone-faced economists.
We are losing all the stuff that makes us who we are. Our pubs are being taken over my vacuous chain gangs, our post offices are on their last legs, local councils of the 1960s conspired to destroy the historic centres of every single town and replace them with DISGUSTING concrete shopping malls, while the national government ripped out two-thirds of our railways. BT did a cracking job of removing all the Gilbert-Scott phoneboxes in the 1980s, the much-loved Routemaster bus has been replaced by the much lambasted bendy-buses, the countryside is being bought up by the rich as nothing more than a weekend getaway, leaving much of the rural way of life nothing more than a vacant set of houses clustered around an empty pub.
The triumph of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s has been to destroy the traditional high street for the sake of convenience. They are also squeezing the few remaining farmers tighter and tighter. When a British supermarket announces a 2-for-1 offer, it is the farmers or producers that foot the bill, NOT the supermarket. Meanwhile, when the words ‘town hall’, ‘library’ or ‘church’ used to mean the grandest building in the area, although you don’t have to be a professor of art history to realise that since we started crawling through the desert of the municipal bland fifty years ago, they now refer to the mealiest, more cost-effective clumps of Vogon-delighting concrete imaginable.
I am not the only one who despairs at the viral-like spread of these ratholes they call ‘bars’ in the UK – not quite a pub and not quite a nightclub, but somewhere in between where you can be guaranteed that there is nowhere to sit, the music is too loud to chat, you have to wear uncomfortable shoes to get in and there’s no air conditioning, or windows, or dance floor, just a moronic DJ giving shout-outs to whatever teenage mongs ask for them – everything callously planned by suits in marketing meetings to ensure that you (the witless consumer) consume as much overpriced alcohol as possible – hence the standing, not talking procedure, while you while away your time (and more, importantly, your cash) in a ubiquitous, hellish, sweaty wood and chrome capsule of mediocrity. They treat us like cattle and we pay them for the privilege.
To my eternal shame, I did not realise until I read ‘Real England’ that the Paradise Project (in my home town of Liverpool) annexed an entire third of our city centre on behalf of the third richest man in the UK. Nobody said anything about it. In short, they are not our streets anymore. Paradise is now owned by a bloke – a private individual. The council have given him the freehold of the STREETS – not just the buildings – for the next 250 years. Which means, that a large chunk of our city centre is now private property patrolled by private security guards. Great! I guess that’s somebody else’s vision of paradise, because it certainly isn’t mine.
And what happens when people stand up have a go at the directionless direction we are headed? We are told that we are ‘against change’. Like change is the be-all and end-all. Like things have to be different in the future no matter what, no matter that a good idea (sewers, chess, football) is a GOOD IDEA – timeless. Pitched roofs are a good idea, they have been for thousands of years, until the modernists turned up, declared that things must be changed and introduced flat roofs to some of the wettest countries in the world. A stupid, stupid concept that has resulted in thousands of buildings all over the UK having roofs that leak. And they always will. If you want a flat roof, come live in Cape Verde. It only rains for three days a year.
Yes, there is such a thing as progress and I’m not against that, but change for the sake of change is just dumb. Why must every generation believe it is the first to invent everything – sex, drugs, rock n’ roll? We need to learn from the past and steal all the best bits, not just ignore it on the grounds that we’re the cleverest cleverclogs that ever walked the Earth. We need to wean ourselves off this utter ridiculous obsession with wealth and convenience. We should not be busting a gut to ensure that Tesco’s shareholders can buy themselves yet another holiday home in the Algarve, we should be busting a gut to ensure we are happy, our family is happy, our friends are happy and our communities (remember them?) are happy. We should be supporting our shop keepers, our local producers, our local pubs and cinemas. We should but we don’t. The only things we’re keeping happy at the moment are the vast corporations – the Nikes, De Beers, Apples and Wal-Marts of this world. They don’t need to be kept happy, they do not have a heart and they will never experience a long dark, tea-time of the soul.
Over 10,000,000 people in England take anti-depressants. We are not a bunch of Sunny Jims. Why not? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, aren’t we? We can buy all the DVDs, MP3s, PS3s we want, and then some. We can all watch ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ on a Saturday night, drink a cold beer and be sure that we will not catch Cholera from the water supply. There are no starving people, we are exceedingly healthy, there is no war and the crime rate is very low. It doesn’t seem to add up does it? Shouldn’t Wealth = Happiness? Isn’t that what we’re always told? Won’t all our troubles be over once we win the lottery?
The old motto of the United States (before they decided that this ‘God’ fella was trustworthy (ha!) – but that’s another story) was Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness. A brilliant motto from a more civilised time. Isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what really matters? To be healthy, free and content? Apparently not, our governments (left or right, it doesn’t matter) emphatically do not compete on the world stage to have the happiest country in the world, but they do compete to be the richest. That, in practical terms, means squeezing every last penny out of every last ‘consumer’ (that’s us, baby!) and keeping us buried under mountains of debt buying crap we do not actually want or need.
Life is desperately, desperately short and there is much to do. The question is this – on your deathbed, do you want to lie there remembering the things you did or the stuff you bought?
Our government wants it to be the latter, it’s better for the economy. But it’s this obsession with squeezing every last penny out of everything, of those disgusting words – cost effectiveness – that is destroying the very things that make England English – our pubs, our small businesses, our market towns, our canals, railways, our real ale, our apples and our pears. The crazy thing is – when you sit back and look at it – they’re the things that make us happy. And we’re letting them go to the dogs by supporting vast sheds of closely monitored totalitarianism like Bluewater and The Triffid Centre. This is not progress. This is NOT progress.
It’s time to take a stand. I implore you – pick up a copy of Real England. Go down the road and buy your stuff from your local shops. Support your local pubs. It’s not hard! Purchase your fruit and veg that is grown and produced nearby, not stuff that is frozen and shipped halfway across the world. Get involved in your local community. Support it.
Because if we don’t we face the future depicted in Demolition Man – a bland, corporate Disneyland version of the world in which there is no joy, nothing unique, no chance for individual excellence, no chance of escape.
One of the more remarkable things about my journey thus far is that I haven’t had a day off sick. Flu of the Swine, Bird or Man variety don’t seem to have made inroads and I managed to get through the entirety of West Africa with not even a dicky tummy.
But I am ill. It’s a bit like home sickness, but that’s not what it is. It’s a unrequited pining, a deep-down feeling of grief at the loss of something intangible… the loss of something that possibly never existed, but that now teases us with its remnants… the loss of beauty: the exquisite, the gorgeous, the splendid, the magnificent.
In short, I’ve got a rather bad case of what Brett Anderson called ‘the English Disease’ – I seem to belong to a world that’s gone. Not that I want to belong to the past. I’m a history graduate – and I’m under no delusion that the world of yesteryear was anything approaching a rosy place. But then I’m not much fussed by the world that is either; I therefore find myself trapped in-between. Perhaps that’s what stimulates my melancholy, my ‘illness’.
Everything I see that’s been made in the last 50 years is all surface, no feeling. Immense carbuncles built with the express purpose not to last, not to inspire, not to enrich our lives or make us happy. It’s just built to hold people prisoner for a bit and then knock down after 30 years.
I’m really feeling it here in Libreville: an immensely unattractive city filled with visions of concrete grandeur torn straight out of the Bovril-stained copybook of a 1960s town planner.
So I find myself stuck in-between two worlds, the one that is and the one that was; and find myself remarkably uncomfortable in both. I don’t like walking down a road when nobody can give me any idea of where it goes.
How did we get into this position? Why did cost-effectiveness not matter so much to The Egyptians, The Greeks, The Romans, The Architects of the Renaissance, The Georgians, The Victorians, The Edwardians? They had bills to pay, mouths to feed, greedy individuals to placate, the latest gadgets and trinkets to buy; how did they manage it?
They may have used slaves, but don’t we now have JCBs and hydraulic cranes? Don’t we have the technology to carve the capital of a Corinthian Column using a computer and a laser? Are we not the bunch who put a man on the moon? Aren’t we? Or was that some other Earth?
I’m willing to accept that my view of the past will invariably airbrush out the crap in the way that Hollywood’s Golden Age makes no mention of Son of Kong or any of the other utterly dire and pointless tat that the studio system spewed out in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But still, we were left with Casablanca, Sullivan’s Travels, His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Double Indemnity, North by Northwest and plenty of other cracking films along the way. We took the rough with the smooth. Now (in terms of architecture, fine art and classical music) we take the rough with the quite simply dire.
Our parent’s generation will go down in history as the first to build nothing particularly worthwhile for their grandchildren – apart from the internet, a few good pop songs, TV shows and movies – digital streams of 1s and 0s, nothing physical, nothing that you can stretch out and touch. I would go one further and say they did more harm than good – allowing the ripping out of our city centres, the death of the railways, the purging of grammar schools and being the merry custodians of the long, drawn out death-rattle of all that was once considered fine art.
Why does this bother me so much? A lot of my friends have asked. The simple answer is I don’t know. Maybe it is something to do with my childhood. I grew up in beautiful leafy suburbia – a world (at least in my mind) populated with fountains, pagodas, gazebos, bluebells, magic hares and secret gardens, ivy covered walls, mysterious toadstools, hedge mazes, the fairy falls, lily pads on the lake, sirens on the shore and cut grass dreams of midsummer.
Of course, none of these things exist in West Derby, Liverpool. But there is something in my memes that pines for them – and I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe it’s the English Disease. Maybe it’s something else. The one thing – the only thing – that unites all religions, even atheism, is the idea of a garden as paradise, heaven.
Then, conversely, isn’t concrete and steel a vision of hell? Tolkien certainly thought so, and it’s all I can do to acquiesce to the master’s vision of The Fourth Age. I think he’s right and I don’t want to move on from that – the natural world is the closest I’m ever going to get to heaven, and I’m yet to meet a tree I didn’t like. But can a tree sell you stuff you don’t need? Can a lake persuade you to buy all the optional extras? Can a meadow buy a house, spend a couple of weeks doing it up and then sell it for twice the price?
Sadly not. But I think I like them more for that very reason.
A quirk of geography birthed me in Liverpool – a great city, once was greater, but things move on (I hear things don’t get shipped around the world any more) – did I dream of a time when, after months or even years at sea, my forefathers would descend on the Dock Road and demand one simple yet often respoke mantra: ENTERTAIN ME.
Whether it be through music, or a show, a bevy of whores or a potfull of scouse… ENTERTAIN ME. I’m on both sides of this coin – I am a seeker of entertainment and one willing to entertain. From day one it was Graham who would disrupt the lesson with his crappy jokes and running commentary on the teacher’s BO. I commanded legendary house parties in my youth, a Ginger Gatsby reaching out over the Mersey, desperate to impress the girl I could never have. I ran around university like a loon in the days when all was a terrific wheeze and nothing could possibly hurt us. Then I branded myself a filmmaker and did my best to gather the meagre funds I would require to make the next Bad Taste or Reservoir Dogs. They wouldn’t let me. I dealt with small minds. I got my break last year thanks to Lonely Planet and here I am, now, in Africa, giving something for your eyes and brains to do other than muse on the latest events from the Big Brother House.
I want to entertain, but in turn I demand to be entertained, and the more I travel the more my eyes glaze with the homogeneity of it all. How many times do you have to see the same concrete office block before the Tyler Durdan that lies in wait in all our souls SCREAMS at you to blow the f**ker up and build something better (dare I say magnificent?) in its place. I could do it; I have the vision, I just need people to trust me. Maybe I should start hitting myself.
Then I get the apologists. The same crowd that could, with a straight face, defend the stolen generations, the holocaust and Star Wars Episode I…
Why do you hate modern art so much Graham?
Oh, it’s cos I is a Luddite. I just do what The Daily Mail commandeth.
Not because most of it I could do myself (and better); not because it’s just not beautiful. Not because it’s ugly, workaday, dowdy, pedestrian and (frequently) revolting. Not for exactly the same reasons I wouldn’t want to sleep with Susan Boyle.
No, it’s because I’m a creature of the past, I’m a hopping mad royalist in love with Prince Charles and I wouldn’t know a great bit of design if it slapped me in the face with a wet haddock.
You sarcastic bastard, Graham. Well it may not be beautiful, but at least it’s remarkable.
Phish. Anybody can achieve something remarkable – go into a school and murder a bunch of children, that would be pretty remarkable. Or drive the wrong way down the M6, or throw yourself off the top of Preston Bus Station. All quite remarkable feats – at least it makes you think, eh? Bullsh*t. Most of us regard Emmerdale Farm, Strictly Come Dancing and Big Brother as remarkable, so our tastes in such matters are not to be trusted. It’s all too easy.
Michelangelo, Beethoven, Gaudi, Handel, da Vinci, Mozart, Wren… did they set out to make stuff to make the chattering classes chat some more? When did they wear a revealing dress at a premiere or post a sex vid on the YouPorn?
Oh shut up Graham you facetious sod. They didn’t have paparazzi back then. Or the internet.
So what? Even if they did, it wouldn’t have been what drove them; they were driven by one thing: beauty. And they all made it their lifetime’s work to render that beauty in music, on paper, on canvas or in stone and lock it down in time, freeze that moment of excellence, of genius, of wonder… until the end of the world.
And let’s take a quick look down the sorry list of people who did stuff solely to be remarkable – Herostratus, Caligula, Nero, Napoleon, Jack the Ripper, Hitler, Mark Chapman – get the picture?
Every piece of old art, sculpture, music and architecture is now a treasure, because if we rip down the beautiful old Sailor’s Home, what we replace it with (Debenhams) will be a revolting cost-effective monstrosity made of glass and concrete. If we take down a landscape by Constable, what goes up in its place? A malformed scribble wrought by some revolting little tyke whose sole function on Earth is to make tat for Charles Saatchi so he can have a wonderful time selling it to PT Barham’s fools for outrageous sums of money. The sad thing is – there is no reason why old stuff can’t be replaceable. There are great artists, composers, sculptors and architects out there, but they are being ignored and ridiculed as dinosaurs.
Can I just be the one to point out that Ancient Egyptian design and art lasted for over THREE THOUSAND YEARS?
Sorry to capitalise, but sometimes to have to shout to be heard. I don’t believe that there is anything in this world that can never be reproduced. Our generation has the tools, the talent and the potential to build the Black Taj, put together a dome twice as big as St. Pauls, construct an Eiffel Tower a mile high and, if our fancy allowed, make the Statue of Liberty walk.
There are still geniuses out there. They just lack one thing – patronage. The stupid rich are far more interested in buying themselves a bigger yacht and purchasing million dollar diamonds to shove on the finger of their latest stick insect. Seriously, when did you last see a statue or a fountain ‘Erected by Public Subscription’?
But all is not lost.
We have something beyond the comprehension of the cretins that have sought to create this shapeless ocean of cost-effectiveness. We have the internet. What you are using now is opposite of cost-effectiveness, I am not being paid to write this and you didn’t have to pay to read it (although you can donate to WaterAid if you like!).
Yes, the internet – the bane of advertisers, of moviemen and TV producers. Even after fifteen years, they still don’t know what it is or how it works. But we do.
They are used to telling us stuff. That’s not what the internet is for. The internet is a conversation. It is the first time in history that those in charge have to shut up and listen; not just wait for you to stop talking because they think they’ve got something more interesting to say.
A brave new world awaits. And we have the power to make it a beautiful one.
I firmly believe that behind every great man, there are a bunch of people telling him he’s an idiot. Conversely, behind every idiot, there are a bunch of people telling him he’s a great man. I call this the George Lucas Syndrome. If anyone cares to peruse the archives, you’ll find a story that took place in a Californian screening room in 1976 – the screening of the rough cut of Star Wars, what was to turn out to be the greatest film in the world (unless you’re joyless toad with no soul, or a girl).
However, given the lack of special effects (ILM were too busy lounging around smoking dope to actually get any done in time) and shoddy dialogue, everybody at the screening said it was a big pile of steaming monkey droppings. Except for one man – Steven Spielberg. Now, in the usual story, it was Spielberg who gave Lucas the confidence he needed to finish the movie.
It was the $9,000,000 contract with Twentieth Century Fox that gave Lucas the confidence to finish the movie. Or maybe it was something else – maybe it was the burning desire to prove them all wrong. This beardy-weirdy 28-year-old had a plan, a vision that he knew would put all the nay-sayers to shame. But the people calling him an idiot made him re-shoot scenes, get the damn special effects in order and – when the film came out – prepare for the worst. They made him justify what he had done.
Now flash-forward a good couple of decades. It’s 1998 and in a screening room in Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas, now the richest, most powerful individual in Hollywood, is showing a rough cut of his new film. A film that everyone in the screening room has been waiting for, for over fifteen years. A wet fish of a film called The Phantom Menace. To everyone’s huge disappointment, it’s a crock of reprocessed felch. But does anyone tell Lucas this? Do they hell. Now the tables are turned – everyone applauds the film. I like to think that one person stood up and said WHY ON EARTH would anyone want to see Darth Vadar as a whiny little sprog? WHY WOULD ANYBODY be interested in a story that revolves around broken spaceship and boring space monks killing boring robots? AND WHAT is with that Jive-Talking Frog?
Ygads Lucas, you’ve lost it – we should have guessed after Return to Oz and Howard The Duck, but man, you need somebody to tell you you’re wrong, otherwise next three films you make (including one bloody awful Indy movie) will be just as bad.
But I somehow doubt anyone had the balls. And anyway, unlike Star Wars – which was a make-or-break affair for Lucas, The Phantom Menace was guaranteed to make a stack of cash at the box office whatever nonsense he conjured up.
Lucas had surrounded himself with people telling him he was a great man. And thus a once great man – the mind behind Darth Vadar and Indiana Jones – had become an idiot.
This theory is nothing new – anyone who watches the excellent television show ‘House’ (and if you don’t, you’re an idiot too) will know that Dr. House follows the Socratic method. He picks three people who will challenge him at every stage of the game. There’s even an episode in which he fires a guy for agreeing with him too often, even when he’s right.
What the hell has this got to do with Africa, Graham?, I hear you ask. Well, it’s this: Pretty much every single African leader surrounds himself with sycophantic lollygaggers who would not dare question a single thing El Presidente wants to do. When there is vocal opposition (most notably in the case of Morgan Tsvangirai), they are usually imprisoned, beaten or shot dead on the beach. The only reason I see that Tsvangirai is still alive is that Zimbabwe does not have a beach. Which means that Africa, by default, is run by a bunch of idiots.
But let’s not just have a pop at Africa – look at America, more specifically, the United States of America. Now Obama’s in charge, yeah, okay, no problem; but when it was Bush… my word, what a twonk. But is there an anti-president? Is there a guy who stands up every week to take the President down a peg or two? A guy who forces the President to justify his actions, play by the rules, stick to his manifesto commitments? Is there hell.
The Americans need to get it through their skulls that they do not elect a President every four years; they elect a King. An absolutist monarch who does not have to justify his actions. A King that has total control of the Army, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. And who takes over if the King dies? His mate.
Ha! How wonderfully democratic.
Okay Graham, I’ll go with you on the Army and the Executive, but surely there is separation of powers in the US, enshrined in that clunking great toilet roll called The Constitution? I don’t think so. The President can veto any decisions made by Congress. This gives one man the utterly undemocratic ability to stifle any bill that over 600 Congressmen have wasted their time fighting over for months. Now the Queen of Great Britain has the same power, I know, but when was it last used… mmm, yes, I remember… The Scottish Militia Act of 1708, if memory serves me (I was quite young at the time, you understand). A good seventy years before the American Constitution was even dreamt up.
As for the Judiciary, El Presidente gets to CHOOSE THE SUPREME COURT! My word, what? I mean, seriously, WHAT? Okay, so one of the old doffers has to die before El Presidente gets to pick a new one, but crikey, that sounds about as democratic as allowing the President to use the BIGGEST ARMY IN THE WORLD to invade a country for SIX WEEKS before he has to ask permission off anyone but himself.
Oh, hang on. He can, can’t he? Gulp.
While I’m at it, what the hell is with The US Senate? Two votes per state, never mind the population or economic output? So California, the sixth biggest economy in the world, 37.7 million people, deserves the same voting power as the three people and the goat that live in Wyoming? Do me a quaver.
Yes I know there is no perfect system of democracy (and why would anyone want that? Referenda are the most undemocratic of devices – whichever side spends the most on advertising invariably wins), but some systems are better than others. I like Dr. House’s way of doing things. I like the British House of Parliament – there’s nothing better than watching Neil Kinnock cock a snook at Maggie Thatcher, William Hague knock the wind out of Tony Blair’s bluster or David Cameron smiling and waving as the great Labour bus trundles unwittingly towards the precipice.
Okay, the leadership of the UK is sometimes taken over by the current leader’s mate (or in the case of Gordon Brown, the leader’s worst enemy), but at least we can do the old backstab and chuck the leader out on their ear if they upset enough people (Thatcher, lest not forget, never lost an election). But El Presidente doesn’t have to worry about that – his position is secure for the next four years no matter what stunts he pulls or how low his approval rating drops (George W. Bush I’m looking at you).
In short, Star Wars Episode One was unforgivably awful and the US Constitution is a crock of rotten bananas, which needs to be torn up and re-written from scratch.
I want somebody to stand up EVERY DAY and call George Lucas, African Leaders and the President of the United States blithering idiots: make them justify their decisions, force them to change their minds if need be or give them the white hot passion they need to prove us wrong – you can’t be a great man – or woman – without it.
Oh, do shut up Graham you sanctimonious troglodyte.