Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The United Kingdom might be a very different place tomorrow if Scotland votes yes in their referendum, from which I've been so absorbed in following that I've delayed in putting up stuff on here. But there is another kind of event in the next few days, this one taking place in London: Open House London, where people get to see the nooks and crannies of buildings in London which they'd not otherwise get to view.
Last year, we tried to get into Battersea Power Station, only to see the place turn away any more visitors to turn people away after enormous queues (40,000 people passed through the building over that weekend). So instead, that weekend exactly nearly a year ago, I went to a more local place: The Castle Climbing Centre, that strange-looking mini-Battersea Power Station near Clissold Park.
I remember The CCC (oh dear, acronyms always sound terrible) from when I was a kid. Before it got converted into a climbing centre, it was a pumping station for the local East and West Reservoirs, and by extension the Metropolitan Water Board. Designed by British engineer and architect William Chadwell Mylne to look like an aristocratic Scottish castle, I always pictured in my wild youthful imagination that it was a kind of Dracula-esque place, full of mysterious and weird going-ons. I finally got to see it as a teenager back in the mid-90s, when – as I recall – it was a museum displaying all the pumping gear, aided by lots of descriptions of their function. But only a tiny part then was open to the public, and I wasn't in there for long.
Taking advantage of its cavernous vault-like chambers, It was then converted into a climbing centre, which is what it remains today.

Visiting as a 'tourist' for the Open House London weekend was a strange experience, as I finally got to see in thorough detail the castle that I had always observed through my life, but never much been in. The climbers had stern looks as they ascended walls interspersed with grooves and niches, enabling the placing of a foot, while all the time accompanied by a safety lead hook.

The main space in the centre has been partially divided by an upper floor area which accommodates a cafe, but which overlooks both parts to make an enormous whole one. 
It's the nooks and crannies of this fascinating building, though, that really made the visit worldwide. Bringing back the Dracula theme, Herzog could have filed his version of Nosferatu here. We got to see a whole new floor being developed, which few others would see. Littered with debris on the floor, the area-in-progress had already constructed the multi-coloured climbing walls, and by now are probably already in use:

Then there was the tour of those prominent minarets, so integral to the artistic and aesthetic design of the building. Looking up, you can see them stretching upwards into the distance, ending in a view of a wooden floor of sorts, but will part of it left tantalisingly ajar. Like the hidden chamber in the main Egyptian pyramid, who knows what lies beyond it?

Then there's the immediate exterior of the building, a kind of utopia garden area with all kinds of conservation, planting, and green-related projects going on. It's here that you can really admire the scale of the building (and realise for comparison just how massive Battersea Power Station must be in comparison), right down to its distinctive Art Deco-esque engravings.

Indeed, just taking it in makes you realise what an enormous tragedy it is that its 'Big Brother', Battersea Power Station (well OK, the two are not related in any function, but I always think of them as being similar in design) has been left to fester for the last few decades. It would be an absolute tragedy if the building was allowed to collapse completely in deference to vast cash from foreign investors. An architectural landmark with its own distinctive place in London's history of iconic buildings would have been allowed to be raised to the ground.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Apologies for lack of posts lately; I've been trekking around Norway for the last few weeks. My visit included six plane flights with a constant backdrop of 24 hour sun (I saw no darkness for the entire two weeks).

It started with the town of Bjørke, where I attended the indiepop fest IndieFjord (run by a friend of mine) without about 200 other people (forget Reading or Glastonbury, this is where the real festivals are at these days).
Bjørke is one of those postcard-perfect Norwegian towns, with a fjord running through at exactly the perfect temperature to swim in. 


Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, Bjørke feels pretty heavenly, backed up by some perfect weather.

Church in Bjørke
The festival itself, meanwhile, was in what looked a community hall, as well as at impromptu concerts on someones lawn.

The festival hall
Dennis & The Pony's playing outside someone's house as part of IndieFjord
Bjørke's nearest big metropolis is Ålesund, a sea port with some distinctive architecture which was partially obscured by the fog and rain when we were there (the usual story abroad).

At the top of the hill (where this was taken), there was one of those strange museums that you get in cities like this, charting the history of Ålesund. It includes a boat that you can go in, which was once manned by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, as he chartered (along with others) the waters of the Arctic Circle for months on end. It must have got cramped in there.

Inside the boat
What we were all apprehensive and excited about at this point was our destination next: venturing right near the North Pole while checking out the wind-swept archipelago of Svalbard, one of the most remote places in Europe and the most northernly extreme of the continent. Not only that, but its principal town, Longyearbyen - located on the main island, Spitsbergen - in which we stayed (on the outskirts), is the most northernly-located town on the planet, according to most measures.
Getting your head around Svalbard takes a while. Flying over the archipelago feels like flying over the Moon or Mars; not a single tree on the entire archipelago, a place equal to the size of Iceland or Denmark. Instead, the viewer sees a bleak landscape of mountains, ice, and rivers. Longyearbyen itself, meanwhile, is an industrial-looking town in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains, with jagged architecture and a port surrounded by rows and rows of jumbled scrap metal, which resemble something from The Terminator.

Upon arrival at the airport, you're given a map of the town, with distinct colours indicating where its safe to walk without the fear of being attacked by polar bears. Anywhere outside the town, and you need to be accompanied by an official guide with a gun (though a bunch of guys in a local bar insisted that they went out camping in the countryside on their own anyway) - including hiking in the hills above the town (and over a small glacier), from which I took the picture above.

Svalbard has a complicated legal history as a kind of no-man's land, a demilitarised zone over which Norway has ultimate sovereignty, but from which Svalbard has an agreement of autonomy exacerbated by being outside the EEA and free from VAT. I had to show my passport at Oslo Airport, even though it was an internal flight (a good three hours long, such is its remoteness), whereas you could just go ahead and fly elsewhere inside the country. It feels less Norwegian and more like a genuinely stateless territory. 

Used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard attracted a coal mining industry in the early 20th century. Norway's sovereignty was established in 1920, despite the continued presence of Russian mining towns such as Barentsburg (see below) and Ny Alesund (now deserted). During that time, Longyearbyen expanded, and the place became the location of the Global Seed Vault - a vault so secure, and with walls so thick, that when the next nuclear apocalypse happens, the only thing left will be Keith Richards (still playing guitar with a cigarette in his mouth), cockroaches, and the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard.

What Svalbard must be like in the winter, with a 24-hour darkness and constant exposure to the Northern Lights, must be a sight to behold. The Rough Guide to Norway labelled winter in Svalbard as "unconsionably dark". Yet our tour guide on the boat trip demurred, opining that he enjoyed the "beautiful lights" of the winter.

Longyearbyen itself is a strange, bizarrely cosmopolitan place, due to the fact that anyone can live there, as long as they can work (the third most populous nationality after Norwegians and Russians is...wait for it...Thai people). Svalbard's unique history involves the presence of the still-populated Russian mining town Barentsburg, which I managed to visit on a boat trip. Populated by 600 Russian souls, and in tandem with the Russian mining company Arktikugol (Arctic Coal), Barentsburg feels like the town at the end of the world that time forgot, what with its images of statues of Lenin, Marx and Engles facing the mountains behind the lake, and a lack of advertising anywhere (instead replaced by Soviet Union-style propaganda).

There's also the most Northernly-located brewery in the world here, where I downed some vodka next to a giant polar bear and a Soviet-style telephone. What an amazing place.

But it's the majesty of the glaciers which are really impressive in Svalbard, as you can see from the pictures below. Watching them from the boat was an awe-inspiring experience, especially as large chunks of ice fell from them to the sea.

Listening to the epic symphonies of early Sigur Ros, and the modern classical compositions of Richard Skelton on the boat as soundtrack, I was especially drawn to tracks such as the below by the latter, whose melancholic, slow-burning drift summed up the widescreen, awe-inspiring visions of nature in front of me.

There's something about Skelton's music that is so evocative of nature and the countryside. His music gets more and more under your skin with every listen. With 'Noon Hill Wood' (on Landings), he's conjured up visions of the mountains in Lake District, where I go in August. The below is 'Of The Sea', from the album Verse of Birds.

Finally, we got the plane to Tromsø, the largest city in Artic Circle Norway. Arriving back in a big city felt odd after the extraordinary, isolated experience of Svalbard. But it's a beautiful city at night, with a lively seaport centre, and bars such as the magnificently-named Bastard Bar. Walking around the city at "night" (the 24-hour sun made such concepts feel redundant) felt relaxing after the austere visual nature of Svalbard; it was nice to see trees again.

Tromso from the bay

I was particularly drawn to Tromsø's distinctive architecture, with its beautiful looking old wooden houses dating from as far back as the 17th century.

Tromsø also has some great museums, including the Polar Museum, and this strange place (the Polaria Museum), full of interactive exhibits, on the waterfront. It looks from the outside like a pack of cards collapsing.

Polaria Museum
A walk through the mountains outside Tromso gave us a panoramic view of the city, spread out like a shining jewel in the distance over both sides of the river:

Longyearbyen airport
As the mist rolled in from the surrounding mountains, we reflected on what an amazing journey it had been. One day I'll return.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

So I'm putting on a gig night next weekend, as usual in conjunction with was going to be last November, at our former home of the Half Moon Herne Hill, but...well...the area flooded. That includes the Half Moon itself, whose insides were gutted, the venue rendered unusable, at great disappointment to us (at Pennyblackmusic).At present, it appears that the reconstruction effort will likely take years....and years....and years. It was fun having nights there.
So we've moved to The Lexington on Pentonville Road - and what an anniversary shebang it promises to be!

Pennyblackmusic Presents...15 Years of Pennyblackmusic, 10 Years of Pennyblackmusic Live
The Lexington
96-98 Pentonville Road
N1 9JB
Saturday 31st May 2014 / 8pm
First Act 8:30pm
Nearest Underground: Angel
Buses: 30, 73, 205, 214
£5 in advance from here / £6 on door

Morton Valence (acoustic)

Go to the Pennyblackmusic website for a description of the bands (there's also descriptions on the WeGotTickets page)

I’ve noticed more and more ‘trendy’ people creeping into Stamford Hill, where I’m from, lately. Presumably they were priced out of Shoreditch; then out of Dalston; and then, inevitably, out of Stoke Newington. I thought they might bypass Stamford Hill entirely and leapfrog to Tottenham, but that hasn’t really happened.
Tottenham still feels almost a world away from Stoke Newington Church Street, or even the High Street. There are few trendy coffee shops (I mean independent ones like The Haberdashery or LazySocial), or shops such as Olive Loves Alfie. There’s not even really any bookshops. There are not in visible evidence lots of white middle-class families, to the degree that you see in Clissold Park. I know that some trendy hipster types are there in Tottenham, but you don’t see them in the way you do in Hackney.
But it’s likely to change. The pressures of lack of new housing can only point to Tottenham (and Walthamstow). There’s nowhere else for people to go in that part of London who have been priced out of Hackney (both renting and buying). I’m certain that Tottenham will become a very different place in ten years time.
As for Stamford Hill, it never really changes. It remains an anachronism, maybe due to its vast Orthodox Ashkenazic Jewish population. There are off-beat clubs such as The Others and Mascara Bar, but it still doesn’t feel any different to when I grew up there. The Egg Stores are still there (albeit upgraded), still with that retro 70s font. The buildings on Stamford Hill Broadway still look like they could do with a lick of paint, with an awful amount of peeling walls – the same that you get all over London. Yet these are buildings that could cost an unbelievable amount of money now.
My parent’s house, meanwhile, a nice Victorian on a street with a row of them, would now fetch somewhere in the region of £800,000-£900,000 (hell, it won’t be long before it’s a million), despite the fact that it cost barely £25,000 when they bought it around 1977 in pre-gentrification Hackney, an area virtually ignored at the time by the big estate agents.
That says a lot about where London is going, in fact. London’s housing bubble, the dearth of any decent new housing, and successive government’s inability to build any new housing – all problems stemming from Thatcher’s policy of selling council housing in the 80s, and thus depleting the national housing stock - has meant that mediocre buildings in areas previously considered less than salubrious are now going for absurd amounts of money. This has been exacerbated by a lack of rights of tenants, enforced more in certain other northern European countries, which has effectively allowed landlords here to get away with mediocre housing at inflated prices.
Like a plane crash survivor living off his last water and food provisions when stranded miles from anywhere, property has become so valuable that as a result desperate buyers in the capital will compromise on any sub-standard property. And it’ll only get worse, as mortgages reach absurd levels.
Add to that many central London locations now effectively a ghost town - with valuable housing bought by rich Arabs, Russians, and Singaporeans, who barely live in them, instead accruing money from the value of the property - and you have a recipe for an almighty housing crash. Less than ten years after the economic downturn, and watching what happened to Spain and Ireland’s economies after their own housing bubbles (not to mention London’s own housing bubble in the 2000s), you would think the Government would not be encouraging this madness to continue by pumping in money into Help to Buy schemes that will only prolong an unsustainable boom.

Haven’t we learnt anything from 2007-8?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Top photo:; bottom:
I managed to catch the new Spike Jonze film Her recently, which stars Joaquin Phoenix. Set in a hyper-stylised LA about 11 years from now, it concerns his character, Theodore Twombly, falling in love with (wait for it) the operating system of his computer, who has 'artificial intelligence'. As far-fetched as this sounds, it should be pointed out that in Jonze's vision of the future, operating systems have voices, which interact with their users. Furthermore, in Her, the operating system, called 'Samantha', is voiced by the sultry tones of Scarlet Johansson, as opposed to, for example, the creepy voice of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (more on that later).
The idea of humans falling in love with computer 'personalities' is not as far-fetched as it seems. In Japan, there have been cases of young men falling in love with female computers. However, in Her, what's important is that Johansson's operating system 'character' is so advanced that she has something approaching 'emotions', and interacts pretty much as a human would with Phoenix's character.

This brings to mind the aforementioned HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the ship computer of the U.S. spacecraft Discovery One, who famously 'malfunctions' in 2001 en route to Jupiter and attempts to kill the entire crew. 'He' – if we can ascribe a gender to HAL – succeeds in doing so, except for Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), who manages to shut HAL 9000 down. In an extraordinary sequence – one in a film of many – we see Bowman 'disembowel' the various connections of HAL while HAL pleads to Bowman in his monotone voice not to do so. “Please, Dave, stop - my mind is going...” HAL repeats, before his voice is a reduced to a robotic baritone as a result of regressing to his earliest programmed memory, whereupon he sings the song “Daisy Bell”, the first thing that was programmed into him:

“Daisy, Daisy
Give me your answer, do
I'm half crazy
All for the love of you.”

The computer then disconnected, a pre-recorded message is automatically played, which reveals to Bowman the real purpose of the journey to Jupiter, relating to those ubiquitous black monoliths. But I digress.

Out of the two films, Kubrick's robot feels far more convincing than 'Samantha'; HAL's deadpan monotone voice, even while he is being destroyed by Bowman, conveys artificial intelligence much more persuasively than 'Samantha', who in Her veers too close to implausible, hysterical real emotions to be really convincing (at least for this viewer).

What's interesting watching Her, though, is in the way it captures how a near-future society will be even more technology-obsessed than we are now. In the film, Twombly has his emails read aloud to him from his smart phone (via headphones) while he takes public transport; he can choose to delete them by simply stating the word 'delete' (surely something that's bound to be reality sooner or later). Meanwhile, his use of 'Samantha' is as a substitution for real love, and technology features all through the film (indeed, the whole thing looks like an advert for a tech firm, with its sun-kissed, sepia-stained vision of California that brings to mind something from the Instagram app).
In this, the film captures the way that technology is encroaching on our lives in ever more closer ways. When I get the bus around London, it's almost impossible now to not hear someone bellowing into their mobiles at full volume (something that the Underground is blissfully free from due to a lack of signal most of the time). It's as if we've collectively forgotten about the comfort of other members of the public, and retreated instead into our own atomised bubble. This is in contrast to the early 90s (before mass use of mobile phones), when taking the bus was a serene, enjoyable experience. The invention of smart phones has meant that more and more people on public transport effectively blot out the world around them. I'm not exempting myself from this – I usually play music apps on my mobile, and am guilty of checking emails on the bus when I don't need to. But then, I do the former in order to drown out the sound of other people talking on their phones. It does feel sometimes as if technology has made us more and more impersonal from each other. And that extends too to the fact that it's very difficult to walk into a shop or cafe now without being bombarded by music at frequently loud decibels. It's almost as if we've become afraid of silence and reflection.
The fact that technology can very rarely be a better substitution than corporeal interaction with other people face-to-face is captured in Her's slightly corny, if endearing, ending, after 'Samantha' has left Twombly (as a result of 'her' being due to be 'upgraded', as I recall); he responds by visiting his ex, Amy (who has also had a relationship with her OS, and subsequently also been 'dumped'). The two sit on the roof of the apartment building that they share, suggesting that they may get back together. Human contact has been restored, somehow.