Day 397: Calypso’s Isle

01.02.10:

When they say slow boat, they mean it! It was 11am before we reached port in Girne in the northern half of Cyprus. Northern half? What, like in St. Martin/Sint Maarten? Well, kind of, but in a much less hilarious fashion…

Warning – history lesson alert!!

You can skip this bit if you like…

Back in the mists of time, Cyprus was ruled by a succession of all the usual suspects in the area – Assyria, then Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and eventually the Byzantines… that was up until Richard The Lionheart turned up like a great big flowery nonce and gave the island to his ‘friend’ Guy de Lusignan. That was good for Cyprus for a while, having a ‘guy’ in charge who was good with colours helped with the aesthetics no end and before long, Cyprus was enjoying a golden age. That golden age was damaged by the meddling of the Venetians and then completely blown out of the water in 1570 by an invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a bunch of ne’er-do-wells and didn’t really care for their new possession, which languished in a state of entropy until BRR-PAP-PAAAAAH!! The British returned to the island in the late 1800s to get the place ship-shape, Bristol fashion and more than a little camp once again.

Anyway, after 300 years of not liking the Turks much, the original inhabitants now decided they were all Greek (this was news to anyone who had bothered reading a history book). This led to the concept of ‘enosis’, which is the reunification of the island with Greece. The fact that the place had only been (kinda) Greek for a few years under Alexander (who was a Macedonian) and then had been ruled from Egypt by the Ptolemaic Dynasty (the one that ended with Queen Cleopatra, pop-pickers!) didn’t seem to phase them – you know what people are like when they get a foolish idea in their heads… and something to moan about.

A victim complex is something that’s a bit alien to me, being white, British and middle-class, sorry I know that sounds terrifyingly blunt, but there you go, at least I’m honest about it. I supposed I get a bit miffed that America steals all our best ideas and makes loads of money out of them and I wish Everton would win a few more football matches, but if I started portraying myself as some sort of victim, I would (quite rightly) be shouted down by people who have far bigger grievances than I. However, it seemed to the ‘Turkish’ Cypriots that playing the victim card had done the ‘Greek’ Cypriots well and so they played it themselves. Although when the Turkey army invaded in 1974, they may have played it a bit too well.

In situations like this, I draw a cartoon in my head of women and children in trenches throwing bombs at each other, the caption being “No- WE’RE more persecuted!”

But once you start down this road, where does it end? That’s right! IN A ROADBLOCK! One slapped down in the middle of Belfast, Jerusalem or Cyprus, it doesn’t matter – in a situation in which both sides see themselves as the victims, neither will be interested in seizing the moral high-ground, nor organising a big music festival and getting stoned together.

So here we have a divided island. One half of which is an independent state and a member of the EU and the other half is controlled by Turkey, and single-handedly thwarts their own ambitions to join the EU at every turn. This is one of the last (and daftest) conflict-zones in the world and that’s possibly why Banksy Moon, the graffiti artist from Bristol who is currently Secretary General of the UN, is here at the moment attempting to thrash out a deal which will ensure sovereignty and peace for a re-unified island. It’s a nice dream – let’s call it Cynosis, the reunification of Cyprus with itself.

In the meantime, though, to cross from one side of the capital city Lefkosia (Nicosia to us Anglophones) you need to get your passport stamped. Seriously. Imagine a roadblock running the length of Hanover Street in Liverpool and you needing to bring your passport along in case you want to walk from the Cavern to the Jac. It’s that silly. But that’s exactly what I did when entering the ‘European side’ of the city with Sylvan, the French musician guy from yesterday.

Having said all that, it was nice to feel I was back in the EU, and I guess another passport stamp isn’t going to hurt. I went to a cash machine and got out some real money for a change and then blew it all on an outrageously expensive pint of beer. Wow, Cyprus is expensive. Beautiful, but expensive.

The city walls of Nicosia are amazing – a perfect circle surrounding the old town, how they pulled it off, got it so precise, blows my mind. And walking about, you really do get a sense of ancient history that is sadly missing from other capital cities. Sylvan had bigger fish to fry, so we said our farewells and I headed off to meet with Zafer, my CouchSurf contact for the evening.

He met me on the Turkish side of the ‘border’, being a Turkish citizen he’s not allowed in the south of the city. If he’s desperate to go to the Nicosia branch of Debenhams, he must first fly back to Turkey, then apply for a visa to Greece, fly to Greece, apply for a visa for Cyprus and fly back to Cyprus, you know – the country where he lives.

Madness, sheer madness.

Zafer was a really interesting guy, a Christian Turk of mixed Turk/Armenian heritage… and you thought the Armenians and Turks hated each other! There must have been some proper West Side Story going on there with his grandparents – ah, the power of love. Zafer has travelled all over the Middle East and while I envied his Turkish passport for allowing him to travel to all these places without having to wait weeks for approval, he envied my British passport more. I suggested we swap, but I doubted we could pull it off (although I have to say I’ve seen a good few ginger Turks…!)

After a traditional Turkish dinner, we headed out to Girne to see if anything was happening in town, but the answer was a resounding no. Out of season and a Monday night? Forget about it! But that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, Girne waterfront is really quite picturesque and hell with it – I couldn’t afford the beer anyway.

The best bit? Not only did I find a kebab shop called Kebabistan (love it!), I also managed to find the perfect kebab – not in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (although they were really good) Iraq or Turkey… they’re in Cyprus. Adbul would be proud.

Day 450: The Incident

26.03.10:

I had real trouble dragging myself out of bed this morning. I asked Fred to wake me up, which she did, but what I should have asked is for Fred to wake me up by throwing a bucket of cold water over my head. I got to the bank to pay in the money for the Afghan visa at 9.30am, meeting Atabeck there and (stupidly) thinking that paying $30 into a bank would be an easy process. Ha! No. It took the best part of an hour. Seriously. I had to go to three different desks (on different floors no less!) and fill out paperwork at all three of them. It’s quicker to book a seven-stop Round The World ticket at STA Travel. I know, I’ve done it.

We now had our backs against the wall – if I wanted to get off to Kyrgyzstan this evening, I needed to get to the Kyrgyzstan embassy before 11:30 and it was 11am before I left the Afghan embassy, having finally paid for the visa. The last thing I needed was to be involved in a traffic accident – but what happened was off-the-charts bizarre.

We were stopped at traffic lights in Atabeck’s car when the car in front of us REVERSED into our front bumper. The collision, such that it was, was at about 1mph so the damage was minimal (if not non-existent), but the passenger of the car in front jumped out and started kicking off that it was Atabeck’s fault. Yeah, that’s -right you jumped-up jackass – your silly wife reverses into a STATIONARY car and it’s the other car’s fault for being there. Right…

If I had been Atabeck, I would have just told them to get lost and gone on my way, but if they reported the incident to the police, we would have spent the whole day at the police station filling out (I can only imagine!) mountains of paperwork. So we pulled over and they argued the toss. I was looking at my watch – 11:23am. We weren’t going to make it. The guy (who, it may be noted, carried a passing resemblance to a certain George W Bush) wanted compensation for his dozy wife’s inability to tell the difference between first and reverse.

At this point, I was seriously contemplating doing a John Goodman on his stupid wife’s stupid car, but Atabeck, understanding the misery that getting the police involved would cause, gave the stupid thieving creep $5 and sent him on his way.

The consequence of all this was that we didn’t get to the Kyrgyzstan embassy in time for the morning session. We could try again this afternoon, but it was tremendously unlikely to yield any results.

The dominos started to fall. There is a cruise ship that leaves from southern India for the Maldives on April 21st. If I can get my Turkmenistan visa in double-quick time (somehow) I could be out of Tashkent next Friday with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan under my belt. From there I can hit Tehran, grab visas for India and Pakistan and then head south like my rear is on fire and maybe, maybe arrive in Cochin, India at 3am on the morning of the 21st. It would be tighter than a mouse’s ear but I could have done it. Thanks to George W Bush and his hysterical wife, a 10-1 outsider has taken a tumble and turned into to a 100-1 miracle.

I would have to get my Kyrgyzstan visa on Monday. It looks like I’ve got myself a weekend in Tashkent. Bummer. Oh well, I’m sure there is lots to do in the most charmless capital city this side of Canberra. Tashkent was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in the 1960s and so every single building here is made of – you guessed it – reinforced concrete. Lovely. By lovely I mean horrible. The apartment blocks that are dotted around the city are the worst form of brutalist functionalism (right down to the concrete staircases which have no lights and are open to the elements), the big hotels are Las-Vegas-in-the-1970s tack and the state buildings are those concrete-innards-rendered-in-shiny-tiles that looked crap when first conceived and still look crap today. The roads are massive concrete boulevards (so the Soviets could roll their tanks down them, presumably) and the metro is a carbon copy of the Baku metro, right down to the 1970s carriages, impossible-to-spot signage and the heavy police presence.

But all that was to come – Atabeck and I still had work to do. After grabbing a bowl of Plov (the Uzbek national dish and my nominated collective noun for Uzbeks) for lunch, we headed over to the Turkmenistan embassy to hand my application form in. It took HOURS, but eventually Atabeck succeeded in getting it in. In the meantime I had picked up my Afghan visa only to discover that they had incorrectly set my date of entry as TODAY and the visa expired next Friday. Aside from the fact that there was NO WAY I would make it to Afghanistan before next Friday (I have to go through Turkmenistan), they had wasted one of the last three free pages of my passport with a useless visa. They offered to amend it, but it would take – arrrrrrrgh! – another day.

Frustrated but keeping calm, I met up again with Atabeck and we headed back to the Kyrgyzstan embassy for another crack at the whip. Again I had to pay in my hard-earned cash (all $112 of it –eek-) to a bank and this time I managed to pay it in before the bank closed, but the guy at the embassy was not having any of it – I’d have to come back first thing Monday morning. I had just lost two good travelling days that I wouldn’t be getting back. What a pain.

So one last thing to do and that was to pick up Al’s replacement from DHL. Guaranteed in three days? Ha! Not in Uzbekistan. It was being held up in customs, come back on Monday. The fates had conspired to keep me here for the weekend and who am I to argue with fate?

Atabeck gave me a lift back to Fred’s gaff and after thanking him profusely I managed to grab forty winks before heading out to meet Fred and her mates at a restaurant on the other side of town. There I met Tristan from France, Baha from Tashkent and Nurbek and Shamshod from the Fergana Valley.

Great company, good food and awesomely cheap booze meant that I ate and drank far too much and ended up with Baha in a club called Salvador Dali’s arguing with another French guy about African politics. Awesome.

Days 941-942: It’s Not Your Fault

30.07.11-31.07.11:

Just enjoyed an awesome weekend volunteering for the Melbourne Open House festival. Seventy-five buildings around the city had their doors flung open to the general public… and you know I’ve got a thing for large erections.  It was great stuff (there was over 100,000 visits in just two days) and has also given me the opportunity to write yet another blog entry about architecture! YIPPEE!!

I am firmly of the opinion that some kind of secret meeting took place in 1958.  Present at this meeting were representatives of every single architecture firm in the world.  Under hoods and bearing blood-dipped swords, they swore a dark oath in the flickering candlelight: to never design anything beautiful, anywhere in the world, ever again.

Some of those present at that first meeting have since died, but the legacy of their macabre pact lives on in the hearts and minds of architecture students all over the world.  I see it as a kind of Hippocratic Oath but for architects.  And evil.

If, after reading this blog you care to point me towards a building that is OBJECTIVELY beautiful (like Audrey Hepburn, yeah?) that has been designed in the last fifty years, then I will happily eat my hat.  You’ve got 200 countries, thousands of cities and hundreds of thousands of buildings to chose from… but, lets face it: you can’t, nobody can, because such buildings do not exist.  Travelling through literally hundreds of cities in my lifetime has done NOTHING to amend that opinion.

So what are we left with?  Well, as I always say, KNOW YOUR ENEMY (that’s why I’m more than happy to watch bad films), so Rocco and I went to a talk this week from some of Australia’s Top Modern Architects, designers whose nightmarish creations would feature on the Melbourne Open House Weekend, just so the organisers can’t be accused of refusing to take submissions from the special school.

I was taking notes.  The nonsense word ‘vista’ was said 42 times.  The word ‘green’ was bandied about like building a massive construction involving tons of concrete and steel, man-hours, cranes, machinery, energy, diggers, drainage, pneumatics, electrical cables, pipes, glass and heating THAT IS DESIGNED TO ONLY LAST 30 YEARS is somehow ‘green’.  It’s not.  See St. Paul’s Cathedral?  THAT’S MORE ‘GREEN’, okay?  Been there for 350 years, see?  The bloody PYRAMIDS are more ‘green’!!!

There were murmurs about ‘rationalisation of space’, ‘textured lighting’, ‘juxtapositioning’, ‘initiating a conversation’ and other words that are at best meaningless, and at worst pointless.  The event was like a Monty Python sketch, only not one of the funny ones.

And how many times did the word ‘beauty’ pop up?  Go on, guess.  Maybe five times?  Nah.  Not once.

You can go on thinking that the point of a building is to do something functional and therefore any intrinsic beauty is somehow decadent and bourgeois, but then you’d be a dick and I will have you in a fight.  If you want to fill up a planet with massive formless monstrosities of interchangeable cultureless cack, why does it have to be this one?

But horrific garbage like Federation Squareisn’t even the worst bit.  If you really want to piss me off, why not take a beautiful heritage building and literally attach a malformed shed to the side of it? 

You know, an edifice that would make McDonalds seem upmarket.  A lock-up that Del-Boy might use to keep his Sinclair C5s.  Maybe you could throw some bright primary colours on it (subtlety and intricacy being concepts of yesteryear) and, hey, why not fling some lopsided shapes willy-nilly on the wall, just for giggles?  Three examples: Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, John Rylands Gothic Library, Manchester and (we had the bloody architect giving a presentation about it!) The Melbourne Grammar School.

Who allows this multi-million dollar vandalism to happen?  Who sanctions this carnage?  Who allows our most treasured cultural possessions to be terrorised in this way?  And WHO THE HELL THINKS IT LOOKS GOOD?!?!!

Do I go too far in these rants?  Have I crossed the line of polite conversation?  Would you be giving me looks and kicking me under the table if I argued this sort of thing at a dinner party?  Would you throw a pint of beer over my head if I said it in the pub?  Or do you have the teeniest bit of sympathy for my point of view?  I’m not asking you to stand in front of your most detested building and scream ‘F**K OFF!’ at it all day (as I sometimes fantasise about), all I want is to live in a world where the unbelievable shiteness of modern architecture is as commonly and vocally acknowledged as the general awfulness of your average Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Why are we so cowed, brow-beaten, thwarted into submission over this stuff?  Why are we so terrified to acknowledge that the emperor has no frickin’ clothes on?  If you think modern buildings are universally ugly, just say so, studies have shown it will make you up to 41% happier and up to 93% more sexy.

The places I visited on Melbourne’s Open House Weekend blew me away, lifted my spirits, made me squeeze Mandy’s hand a little harder, put a song in my heart and a spring in my step.  But not one of the buildings I embraced on my tour of the city was built after 1958. 

You might think I take all this a little too seriously, I’m sure you could imagine me in a suit of armour, clutching a lance and riding a horse at full tilt towards Manchester’s Beetham Tower, but I refuse to believe that I’m the only one who has noticed how culturally impoverished our modern constructions are when we ALL KNOW we could do so much better.  SO. MUCH. BETTER.

There’s a common film trope in which the main character has a bit of a breakdown and finally addresses the problem that’s been bothering him (and you) for the last 90 minutes.  The expensive-wine-in-the-plastic-cup scene in Sideways, Cameron kicking his dad’s Ferrari, the bit were Rob Lowe locks himself in the bathroom in St. Elmo’s Fire (what a dreadful film)…  It’s called an ‘Anagoretic Moment’.

Well here’s this post’s Anagoretic Moment…

Days 949-962: 10 Things I Hate About U(K) – Part 1

07.08.11-20.08.11:

Occasionally I get messages from malcontents who find themselves offended by negative comments I’ve made about their country on this blog. It goes without saying that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but I wouldn’t want you thinking that I’m blinded by some misplaced sense of patriotism into believing that the UK is the be-all-and-end-all. It’s not. My League of Nations list is (as I admit in the pre-amble) tremendously subjective, and the fact that England comes out on top has more to do with my family and friends than it does any sense of rabid nationalism.

With that in mind, and with last week’s riots leaving a bad taste in our mouths, I thought I’d take this opportunity to give the UK a damn good dressing down.

Before I start, let me just say that the UK has many, many things going for it. However, I stand by my opinion that the British just don’t seem to get how good they have it when compared with the vast majority of other countries on the planet.

Sure, Newsweek can select Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland as the “best” countries in the world… but when it comes to literature, art and good old fashioned rock n’ roll, us little Englanders, Scotchers, Welshers and Northern Irelanders kick their arses from here to Timbuktu.

Having said that, if we could just iron out a few little niggles, the UK could be a much, much better place…

1. Public Transport

Considering we are dealing with the country that invented the steam engine, you’d think we’d have half a clue how to run an halfway decent public transportation service. But we don’t.

I would say that as far as the worst public transport service in the world is concerned, I’d have to tie the UK with the US. In short, it’s a frikkin’ embarrassment. Hell, at least in Guinea public transport is cheap. Unlike the London Underground, the trams in Manchester and what’s left of the Liverpool rail network which cost a small fortune. But that’s nothing compared with intercity travel, something that should be cheap and easy, considering most big British cities are located within walking distance (if you’re walking a marathon) from each other.

British intercity trains are horrifically overpriced – 260 quid for a return to London from Liverpool (a two-hour journey) – they rarely run on time, are often overcrowded, the toilets have a nasty tendency to fly open mid wee (and the “door-close” button is conveniently located out of reach of the toilet itself), the staff are notoriously rude and unhelpful, the companies running the trains are cowboys with a monopoly (laughing all the way to the bank no doubt) and the unprofitable part of the railway network – the maintenance of the track – is paid for by us gibbering idiots, yup: the taxpayer. Madness, utter madness.

That’s not to say the coach network provides much of an alternative.  With the exception of the no-frills Megabus (which does a decent job of WYSIWYG), most of the country’s intercity coaches are operated by a monopoly called National Express. No competition (there are no other national coach companies and the trains are too expensive for 83% of the British population to afford) means that they can deliver a piss-poor service, charge over the odds and get away with it – something they’ve been getting away with for years. When I say that only Greyhound USA is worse, that’s hardly a compliment. It once took Mand and I ELEVEN HOURS to get back from London to Liverpool on a National Express bus.

I think we could have done it faster on horseback.

The fact that it’s cheaper for five people to buy a car, tax it, insure it, fill it with petrol and drive to London and back than to take the train is testament to how bloody awful the situation is. Your car could be stolen and burnt out upon completion of the journey and you’d still be better off than the five who spent over 1000 quid between them on the train.

But driving would mean driving down Britain’s god-awful motorways. Not that the motorways are poorly maintained, I’d argue that they’re not, it’s just that motorways in the UK are more like lorryways with an occasional car problem. Thanks to the short-sighted, piss-poor and quite frankly corrupt policy decisions of the Conservative government in the early 60s, our motorways, also paid for by the taxpayer, are long flat concrete bitches of the massive haulage companies that are no doubt using their mountains of gold coins as an indoor ski slope.

The British Haulage Industry's Winter Holiday
Literally.

Ever heard of a chap called Ernest Marples? You should have. He ruined your life. Most people blame Dr Beeching for the utterly incomprehensible cannibalisation of the British railway system in the 1960s, but it was dickwit-in-chief Ernest Marples who was the puppetmaster. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Beeching had been appointed to his post as head of British Railways by Marples. Marples was not just a government minister; he also owned a construction company, Marples-Ridgway, whose main concern was constructing roads. They contributed to several motorway projects during the 1950s and 1960s and also constructed the Hammersmith flyover in London. When it was pointed out that being transport minister as well as a road builder might be construed as a conflict of interest, he agreed and divested himself of his shares in Marples-Ridgway. However, this was to his wife, with a clause to buy back the shares at the sale price when he ceased to be a minister: something not disclosed at the time.

Oh really?  So let me get this straight: guy owns ROAD BUILDING company, gets job as government TRANSPORT minister, avoids accusations of conflict of interest by giving his shares to his wife, takes back his shares once he’s personally destroyed TWO-THIRDS of the British Rail Network (the only viable competition to HIS F—KING ROADS) and ensured his road-building company’s position on the gravy train for life. Now give me another wheelbarrow full of taxpayer’s money, my wife needs a new fur coat.

Ernest Marples
Ernest Marples: A Thief and a Liar.

What a irredeemable bastard. Then again, you vote right-wing, you deserve everything you get: which will (invariably) mean the interests of wealthy individuals, companies and corporations trump your petty little needs every time. I can’t be the only one who notices that… Anyway, so here we are, fifty years on, our trains cost more than what most of us earn in a week, our coaches are several shades of god-awful and our motorways are gridlocked (since the freight that used to happily travel along the railways can’t travel on non-existent lines, apparently).

Oh, did I mention that even though there are very few surviving branch lines, the tax-payer STILL has to pay for the maintenance of the THOUSANDS of now unused bridges, tunnels and viaducts that criss-cross the nation?  If a single loose brick falls onto the windscreen of a car passing underneath, it’s the great British public who will pay the damages. So we have a situation were we are paying to maintain infrastructure that we have pretty much NO WAY of getting ANY money back from whatsoever! Brilliant!!

Plus, thanks to Marples, North-East Liverpool has no railway anymore – in fact, there are over FORTY closed railway stations in Liverpool: the highest number of any first-world city in the world.  This means that in some of the most deprived area of Liverpool it’s next to impossible to get to work… unless you walk (in the rain), cycle (in the rain) or get the bus filled with screaming, gobbing, swearing, fighting schoolchildren as… oh yeah, we have no school buses(!). I don’t have to paint a picture of how unpleasant these 8.30am buses are, I’m sure you’ve got a good idea and it probably doesn’t involve Moonlight Sonata and caviar on the Orient Express.

Ninety years ago, Liverpool had a better, faster, more integrated and (bizarrely) GREENER public transport system than it has today. The same can probably be said for most cities in the UK. Progress anyone?!

A little suggestion: how about a new rule that companies are responsible for paying for bus and train passes so their employees to get to work? It would see a constant, reliable income for Public Transportation systems (even if the employees choose to drive instead) and discourage companies from employing people who would need to make a three-hour commute every day – you know, local jobs for local people? Smart.

Oh, and while you’re at it, re-nationalise the bloody railways. Even America — land of gullible poltroons who believe that corporations are their friends and that the government they elect is their enemy — has a nationalised rail service. Get with the program, you dithering Limey knuckleheads.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to that rotten bastard Marples:

“In the early 70s … he tried to fight off a revaluation of his assets which would undoubtedly cost him dear … So Marples decided he had to go and hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through his Liechtenstein company … there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the night ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions … He claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years’ overdue tax … The Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. By then most of them were safely in Monaco and Liechtenstein.” (Richard Stott, ‘Dogs and Lampposts’, Metro Publishing, 2002, pages 166 – 171)

No doubt he was twirling his evil little moustache all the way.

2. The Architecture (since 1958)

I’ve written at length about the bum-scroff that passes for architecture around the world these days, but it really does boggle my mind and break my heart that Great Britain, the same country that spent a good 1000 years cooking up some of the most delicious buildings in the world should see fit to throw all that glorious heritage away and follow the nightmarish visions of that bastard crackpot Swiss pied piper of all things bleak, totalitarian and downright ugly – Le Corbusier, a man I have about as much respect for as Hitler. Which is to say, none.

Le Corbusier
A madman, yesterday.

So damn the renaissance, the neo-gothic and the art-nouveau, there’s a new kid in town – a cool kid that’s made of Asbestos and Legionnaire’s Disease, smells of piss and looks like a nuclear fallout shelter – a nuclear fallout shelter built in a hurry after they have already dropped the bomb. It came in over budget, the roof is leaking, the windows don’t open, the people inside are being slowly cooked alive, the lift is broken, the solidified mashed potato that constitutes the interior walls is crumbling away and to top it all the damn thing is just so goddamn ugly it makes Susan Boyle look like the Venus de Milo.

Susan Boyle
If Susan Boyle was a building, she’d be every building built since 1958

I wish I was describing one single god-awful edifice, maybe tucked away in the Outer Hebrideswhere nobody will ever see it, it wouldn’t be so bad. But I’m talking about every building designed and built everywhere since 1958. Hell, you might think they’re beautiful, but then you’re presumably from Mars, were born without eyes and have wet dreams about Susan Boyle.

Hand in hand with the horror of our modern arseifaces, we have to give equal condemnation to the town planners … they should be flogged, covered in jam and fed to the wasps. Not content with scarring the very fabric of our historic towns and cities with the totalitarian horrors of the Mancunian Way, the Bullring and Leeds city centre Hotwheels circuit (not to mention the shameful demolition of the Euston Arch), they are also responsible for the god-awful shopping centres, the screwball thinking that towerblocks are a good idea, the car-centric concrete jungles of the 1960s and the disgraceful cloning of our towns… wouldn’t it be nice if every high street looked exactly the same eh? NO. NO IT WOULDN’T YOU CROWD OF MASSIVE RETARDS.

British Street
Attack of the Clones.

These vandals – this dark conspiracy of big business, lazy architects, megalomaniacal town planners and corrupt politicians – have irreparably scarred the once-beautiful cityscapes that previously graced our green and pleasant land.  You can get a whiff of what once was if you stroll around Belgravia, Rodney Street or The Royal Crescent – and get a sense of what could be if you visit the magnificently restored St. Pancras Station, but at the end of the day, it seems that The Powers The Be have better things to spend your money on – wars, probably.

Before 1958, we would build warehouses that are so good-looking they are now UNESCO world heritage sites, we would build power stations so iconic that they would go on to grace the cover of a Pink Floyd album, we built extractor towers so fabulous that they barely look out of place on a street of prestige buildings. Now, however… urgh…  I don’t want to go on with this, you get the picture.  It makes me too miserable.

3. The Depression

Talking of being miserable, crikey we Englishers are a miserable bunch, aren’t we? Sometimes it seems like we’re only happy when we’re having a jolly good moan.

Victor Meldrew
Moaning is fun, kids!

But there’s a major downside to this affliction (other than being teased by the rest of the world)… real depression is often overlooked and sadness is often misdiagnosed as something you can only cure with drugs.  Hence the somewhat depressing (that’s probably not the right word) number of Brits on anti-depressants.

Ecstasy Gurning
…and sometimes Ecstasy.

The general malaise that hangs over the good ship UK is something that has bothered me for a while, and there are two things that I think would help: a ban on building stuff out of bloody concrete (I’m serious) and a concerted effort by our politicians to end their idiotic bluster about competing economically against China(!) and instead push for laws, reforms and acts of parliament specially tailored to the explicit aim of ‘improving the happiness of the nation.’

You know what has been proven to improve the general happiness of any given nation? A small and shrinking gap between rich and poor.  Since 1997, the rich/poor divide in the UK has grown exponentially… as has our general misery. This is no coincidence.

It looks like if we want to improve the general contentment of our electorate, it would be wise to whack up the tax rate on the super-rich and yes, fine, let them leave the country if they must… but add a twist:

1) Whoa whoa whoa!!  You’re not taking that UK passport with you!  Put. It. Down.  Step away from the passport, you traitorous dog.

2) If you’ve left us for another continent and then decide you want to work in the EU in the future, you must apply for a working visa, like every other alien.

3)  The support from British Embassies (paid for by John Q. Taxpayer) will be withdrawn. Good luck getting out of that Congolese jail, ya tyrant billionaire!

Ahhhh, I feel happier already.

4. The Schools

There’s a mad system in this weird little country I visited while trotting around the world and I’d like to share it with you.

In order to get your kid into a good school – thereby setting him or her with the best possible chance in life – you have to pick a football team. Yeah, that’s right, a football team. Even if you can’t stand football! You then have to attend every single match that team plays for a year. If you’ve pretended to be a really big fan and not looked too bored or criticise the owner of the club (who may or may not be a known facilitator of paedophilic activity), little Johnny will be allowed to go to this school.

Fail in this charade, and little Johnny goes to the shitty comprehensive five miles away and proceeds to get his head flushed down the toilet every day for the following five years, since little Johnny is either fat, gay, ginger or clever… all capital crimes, according to the law of the playground.

The schools in question, one should point out, are not paid for by the football teams and they’re not private either. These are publicly-funded schools, paid for by the tax-payer. What’s even more ridiculous is that these schools are under no obligation to employ any teachers that don’t support the correct football team, something that’s quite a whacked-out arbitrary requirement… and one that would be deeply illegal in any civilised country.

Accrington Stanley Fan
Accrington Stanley Fans Need Not Apply.

But then the UK is obviously not that civilised, since, yes, that is the ‘weird little country’ to which I referred. Just replace “football team” with “religion” and “match” for “service” and “owner” for, well… “owner”. How it is a good idea to separate our children into tribes based on what Bronze Age creation myth their parents (through an accident of birth) find themselves subscribed??

I’d love to be a gay teenager going to a Catholic school: it would make my day to hear how un-natural I was, that I’d be burning in hell once I died and that the bullies are right to bully me (I need fixin’!). I’d love to have no teacher I could confide in because I’m 14 years old and pregnant and thinking of having an abortion. I’d totally love it if I was told, in SCHOOL, that Aids was bad… but not as bad as condoms.

Although these real-world dilemmas are rendered moot by the horrors that play themselves out on the streets of Northern Ireland every night. Enforced segregation in ANY OTHER WALK OF LIFE is ILLEGAL – WITH GOOD REASON, with the exception of our schools. Take a deep breath and analyse those words… with the exception of our schools. Yes, a school in the UK has the right to deny me a job even as a caretaker if I don’t partake the ‘right’ religion.

Change “religion” for “skin colour” and you MIGHT JUST SEE why this system is so utterly abhorrent. Make no mistake about it: it is Apartheid. Apartheid blessed by the system, paid for by John Q. Taxpayer and legally free to discriminate in a way that not even the BNP is allowed to discriminate. Against children.

Martin Luther King
“I have a dream in which apartheid is illegal… except in schools!”

This post is entitled “Ten Things I Hate About U(K)”, but the cruel, inhumane, idiotic, openly discriminatory nature of the British School System alone could be “Things” 1 to  10.

5. Chav Culture (Innit)

From a country that exported its language and culture all over the world (not always forcibly!), chavs are nothing short of an abhorrent stain on the fabric of British society. I mean, what’s the use of a chav? At least troublemakers like the punks, mods and rockers had good music. These chavs dress like morons, talk like morons, act like morons… and embarrass the hell out of the 99% of the British population that are decidedly chav-nots.

To the uninitiated, a chav is a young British citizen who dresses in hooded tracksuits, wears a Burberry cap and sports tacky gold jewellery from catalogue shops that wouldn’t look out of place on a pantomime dame. Dressing like a clown is a rite of passage for all young people, but I can’t help but feel like all the good ideas (bike leathers, zoot suits, mohawks) have been done. So here we are: an entire generation that’s run out of ideas and is (understandably) bored with their lot. It’s amazing what utter bobbins can pass for being ‘cool’ in any given generation.

Chav
A Chav, yesterday.

This boredom manifests itself in myriad ways – causing a nuisance outside the corner shop, hocking up and gobbing on the pavement, listening to repetitive generic crap on their iPhones (and forcing everyone else in a 3 mile radius listen to it too) and just being generally anti-social spoddy little toe-rags.

But I’m not just knocking the young here – chavic behaviour have been around since I was a kid. My real problem is with chav culture. That bolshie, anti-education thinking which brags its stupidity and attempts to make a virtue of ignorance. I can’t stand it. Being a dickhead is one thing, but being proud of being a dickhead is just… pathetic. And what has chav culture contributed to society? I really can’t think of a single positive, except perhaps to give us chav-nots something to make fun of.

But I would much rather it be the case that what we do make fun of is not so chinge-worthy for the rest of us.  When I was younger I remember watching Jerry Springer and thinking “Ha! That’s hilarious! Stupid Yanks”. I will discuss how patently NOT stupid the Americans are later (when I talk about the British Film “Industry”), but at the time it did seem like that kind of trailer trash television was a peculiar cultural facet of our cousins on the other side of the pond. Of course, since the advent of Jeremy Kyle, we know that not to be the case.

And when chavs go abroad on holiday, their ‘culture’ ends up representing Britain to the world… and it’s not a pretty sight. When you’re talking to a foreigner or you’re a stranger in a strange land, you wind up representing your country by default.

The last thing any country needs are a bunch of boozed-up England shirt-wearing troublemakers running rampage through the streets. Chav culture ends up tarring all us Brits as dribbling guttersnipes who dress like Floridian retirees, are barely comprehensible, are usually drunk on Bacardi Breezers, have a tendency to fight in the streets, indulge in casual racism and are full of snarls and nastiness.

What a terrible advert for my otherwise green and pleasant land. It’s like every personality trait I find repulsive and irritating rolled into one massive ugly fungal infection – a fungal infection that’s running around telling everyone it’s British.

I would rather be stereotyped as a blustering buffoon in a bowler hat, a sexually repressed misanthrope always moaning about the weather or a uptight Fawlty hitting my car with a branch. When your only boast in life is that you could have been good at something, anything… but chose not to be, you’re not going to get any sympathy from me. Society might fail you… but don’t fail yourself.

Talking of Scroobius:

DING DONG! Reasons 6-10 are delayed due to leaves on the line. Gimme a couple of days…

Day M242: Gotham City

Sat 26.05.12:

Gangsters. I hate them. I hate their pathetic lust for money, their shocking insensitivity to the misery of others, their child-like desire for trinkets and weaponry. But I especially hate their taste – yes I may sound like a rambling old lord bemoaning the trashy habits of the nouveau riche, but sod it: these people are not just morally bankrupt, but creatively bankrupt as well. The kind of goons who would erect a tasteless golden statue of themselves as though it’s not going to be melted down the minute they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ve done so much to ruin for others. The kind of goons that buy cars that look like glorified roller-skates, spend more on sound-systems than looking after their kids, hang out with women more plastic than Barbie and wear shirts louder than Krakatau.

One of the reasons I want drugs legalised is to strangle the main income stream of these lowdown lowbrow lowlifes, but in some cases the damage has already been done. Las Vegas, that trashy Blackpoolzilla of the desert, founded by gangsters who had their goodtastebuds removed at birth, with its shitty bastardised versions of some of the greatest buildings in the world, the air-conned epitome of what the daily exploitation of human greed and a shoddy grasp of statistics can buy. If Las Vegas’ effect on the world was restricted to that wretched hell-on-Earth where dithery old fogeys go to waste the money they’ve wasted a lifetime working for, I honestly wouldn’t give a fat flying crap. But unfortunately for humanity, Las Vegas, the world epicentre of gold-plated kitsch and a lifestyle that only cretins could possibly find aspirational, has spread its pernicious tendrils from Macau to Melbourne to Manila.

Yes I know that Las Vegas is now run by Disney and Halliburton (probably), but the form of modern casinos originates in the grotesque pipe-dreams of gangsters. Look at Tony Montana’s gay nightclub of a house, the gold chains and cheap shell suits of Tony Soprano’s goons or the hang-glider-like collars of Fredo Corleone. What these (admittedly fictional, but art does imitate life) people think is attractive, beautiful or necessary should never, NEVER, be allowed to sully the landscape of Hoggart’s Farm, never mind the skyline of a great city like Singapore.

I WISH this was Photoshop. But it's not. It's real.

Yup. It’s a Sands Casino/Hotel/THING.

Three ugly-as-f— domino-shaped towers. With a surfboard plonked on top of them that’s supposed – get this – to look like a SHIP. Oh my giddy aunt. Is this a joke? Because, seriously, if it is, it’s about as amusing as cancer.

But should I be surprised that some moron thought this was a good idea? Should I be gobsmacked that some spawn-of-Satan architect designed it? Should I be shocked that the morons in the government gave it the green light? Should I be bewildered that men toiled for thousands of man-hours with a budget that could have pulled an African country out of the shite to build something akin to a fanciful folly of a fat spoiled rich kid, what happens when Homer’s brother puts him in charge of design, the architectural equivalent of an episode of that nightmarish MTV show My Super Sweet 16?

Dear God, MAKE IT GO AWAY

FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, IT’S THREE TOWERS WITH A SURFBOARD DUMPED ON TOP!! LORD, GIMME STRENGTH.

No. No, I’m not surprised. And I’m sure there are people willing to sacrifice all dignity, any shred of perceived integrity, manners or decency by saying ‘well I think it looks nice’. If that’s your opinion, you seriously don’t deserve opinions. Or, for that matter, oxygen. Put the crayon down and please stop designing buildings or I’ll have to put you on the naughty step.

It’s crass, it’s tacky, it’s pathetic, it’s moronic, but most of all… it’s just f—ing ugly.

Ugly like a British soap opera. Ugly like a civil war. Ugly like a car accident. Ugly like a divorce. Ugly like a heroin overdose. Ugly like the lecture hall of a 60s polytechnic. Ugly like disease. Ugly like a the mind of a gangster.

But is this a huge shock to me? That in the 21st century people are still willing to build such monumental crap? No. No it’s not.

I’ll tell you what was a shock to me. THIS:

Ahh... That's better

Often in my travels, often to defenders of modern architecture, concrete and “clean straight lines”, I have thrown down The Graham Hughes Modern Architecture Challenge. It is simply this: name me one building, anywhere in the world, built (not restored) in the last fifty years that is beautiful?

And nobody, NOBODY has ever come up with an answer. A single one! ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!! Seriously! A single building built by any of the 7,000,000,000 souls on the good ship Earth. NOT ONE!

Well butter my balls and call me Bongo. It’s taken three and a half years, 197 countries, 18 territories and 250,000 miles but I think I may have found it.

I give you ParkView Square, Singapore:

YES.

What’s this? Well-wrought statues adorning the courtyard? Dali, Beethoven and Churchill immortalised in bronze? Why the hell not eh?

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo

Chinese motifs on the façade? Awesome. Let’s go inside.

My friends observe! This is what beautiful looks like.

Oh sweet bliss. Hand-made brass frescos, art-deco styling, the highest wine-rack in the world – one that comes with ‘wine angels’, barmaids who don a harness and bungee and float up like fairies to get your bottle of plonk?

And this is an OFFICE BUILDING? Are you kidding? No?!

Atlas Shoved.

Okay, okay, Graham – we get it, it’s a very nice building, but why are you so excited about all this?

Because ParkView Square, known affectionately as ‘Gotham City’ by the locals, was built FROM SCRATCH less than ten years ago.

You see, I don’t care that the internal structure of ParkView Square is made of concrete in the same way I don’t care that Scarlett Johansson’s internal structure is made of blood and guts. The Liverpool Liver Building and the Liverpool Gothic Cathedral also have concrete rattling around in their bones, but you’d never know unless you cut them open – and that’s the point.

Of course, mealy-mouthed modern architects will talk this place down in the same way that literary critics will dismiss Lord of the Rings (the third best selling book ON THE PLANET – fact!), but that’s to be expected isn’t it? However, from where I’m standing, all I can see is a building that inspires joy and wonder, a soaring monument to human endeavour and ingenuity.

I walked through this building every day on the way from the Bugis train station to Kuni’s place, and each time I noticed something new; a detail I had missed, a facet I had overlooked, something that put a smile on my face. Like a what the chaps at Weta did for the Roxy cinema in Wellington but on a truly epic scale, the Chinese owners and New York architects (who, I feel, are in desperate need of some serious high-fivin’) of ParkView Square deserve nothing but respect for showing the world what I’ve been banging on about in all of my many rants about modern architecture: THERE IS NO GOOD REASON THAT MODERN BUILDINGS HAVE TO LOOK UGLY.

Beetham Tower, Manchester: Europe's Tallest Eyesore
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Holyrood, Edinburgh: Europe's Ugliest Building
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Federation Square, Melbourne: Ugliest Building in the Southern Hemisphere
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Mirador Building, Madrid. Now seriously, WHAT THE FUCK??
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.

We have to put up with ugliness every day of our lives: bombs going off, child murders, internecine strife, car accidents, war, famine, disease, EastEnders… must we ALSO live in a world whose buildings are dictated by the obscene fetishes and peccadilloes of architects and politicians? Gibbering morons happy to dress like this:

Politicians. I Hate Them.
Yeah, see what you've done there, going for the 'serial killer in the rain' look, right?

This is the world of gangsters, bling, marketing, lies, and cocaine. This is what happens when people with no taste or decency are permitted to build things. These are the diseased brainspunk of our parent’s generation and it’s high time we ripped down this garbage and built something beautiful in its place. Give me the neo-Gothic, give me the Baroque, the Romanic, the Spanish Mission, the Country Cottage, the Florentine, the Art-Nouveau, the Tudor villa, give me Gotham City… just, for heaven’s sake, give me something that looks BEAUTIFUL!!

One damn fine Scottish sexpot
That'll do.

Today, Kuni, Christoph and I went for a mooch around town. At the end of a long hot day, Christoph and I ended up in the famous Long Bar of The Inimitable Raffles Hotel. Peanut shells cover the floor and automatic fans waft cool air gently down onto the patrons. It’s a whopping $26 (£13) for a Singapore Sling, but when in Rome…

Graham Hughes vs Singapore Sling
WHERE Else Should One Partake Of The Singapore Sling But At The Raffles Hotel