Monday, 19 November 2018

Basildon: impoverished utopia

This documentary about Basildon (New Town Utopia, produced and directed by Christopher Ian Smith) was remarkable for encapsulating a few key years in British social history, with the following key dates:

1948      Foundation of new town of Basildon
1980      The Housing Act under Margaret Thatcher provides council tenants with the “right to buy”.
1974      arrival of the railway (Basildon) – the line was already there when Basildon was founded, but it took more than 25 years for a station to be built. 

The documentary is punctuated by rather patronising comments from Lewis Silkin, planning minister under Atlee, on the vision of Basildon – a very top-down view, guaranteed to alienate the residents. That attitude is mercifully no longer with us. Other indicators of Basildon’s development would be the politics of the town. In 1974 Basildon was a safe Labour seat, then switched to the Tories in 1979, and remained Tory to 1997. Since 2010 it has been Conservative again.

The contrasts highlighted by this documentary include
-          From a town with its own industry, a town where there was no need to travel anywhere else, to a commuter town for London. The railway must have changed the whole composition of the town.
-          From a town based around social provision of amenities, at little or no cost, to a town where you ignored what was already there and bought your own version of theatre, gym, whatever; from a social community to a consumer society (at least, that’s the claim of this film).

In passing, you couldn’t help noticing:
-          An almost complete lack of ethnic minorities in the documentary. Most of the people interviewed were old and white, and most of them male.
-          The documentary is almost entirely based around musicians and painters. Although their view is interesting, it’s only one view; there is no attempt to create a rounded view of Basildon.

So, what are we to make of Basildon from this documentary?The Guardian called it “unapologetically upbeat”; I wouldn’t go so far as that.  Is it a tragic memorial to top-down planning? Is is a memorial to the generation who successfully moved out of London to live in what must have seemed a green paradise? A time capsule of 1960s urban design, most likely, with its one “significant” building, Brooke House, Grade II listed, trying to be vaguely Corbusian but lacking the courage of its convictions.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

How to spend a lot of money renting a bicycle

These days, it is typical to find two or three competing bicycle rental systems in major cities. Frankfurt was no exception, and I chose one called, fashionably and all lower-case, "nextbike" since there were some of their bikes outside the hotel where I was staying. I found myself caught up in a nightmare.

The system for using nextbike is complicated. First you download an app - this is fine, and collects your details. Then you enter the number of the bicycle into the app. The system gives you a four-digit pin number, which you enter on the bike to unlock it. Off you go, to your destination. What could go wrong? Well, in around five bike hires, I made at least three errors, and I was charged over 60 Euros. First, I rented a bike but I didn't understand that the bike was now available. Because of a flaky wifi connection in the street, I wasn't sure that I had successfully rented a bike. I tried repeating the process but I was told the bike was no longer available. I didn't realise it was because I had already hired it. I used another bike, only to discover two days later I was still paying for the first bike I had never taken.

Next, I discovered that bikes could only be left in a designated docking station. These are not like those in London or other cities; there is no physical mechanism to dock the bike. The only indication of an official docking station seems to be the presence of other nextbike bicycles. However, it seems that users leave their bikes all over the city, and I inadvertently returned a bike at a place that was not an official docking station - this costs an additional 20 Euros "handling charge".

More confusing still, if a bicycle is left outside a docking station, it is shown on the official online map of bike locations. This map is not very detailed and so it is easy to spend several minutes trying to find exactly where a bike has been left (or where there is an official docking station). The photo above shows where one bike had been left. I walked past it three times without noticing.

Another problem is that the bikes have both a "return" and a "park" capability. I thought, wrongly, that the latter meant you could park the bicycle temporarily while you are using it. So when one night I cycled to a restaurant by the river. It was dark and I didn't fancy trying to find a docking station along the riverside where there were no streetlights. So I used the "park" function of the bicycle, to park it while you are renting. When I returned to the bicycle, I had been charged a further 20 Euros for returning the bike in the wrong location (although I had not returned the bicycle).

All in all, the Frankfurt bicycles cost me more than using taxis. The maps are poor, it is difficult to find the docking stations, and the rules are confusing. It's  pretty much the worst bicycle system I have ever used (and I've used bike hire in many cities). My recommendations to nextbike are:

  1. Review the signage and the UI. For example, keying the pin number you are given doesn't work. It wasn't clear that you first press any key on the keypad to wake it up, and the system only starts recording your pin number with the next key you press. I had to phone customer support for three of the eight rentals, and each time I don't think it was my mistake. 
  2. Make the maps clearer. If you can't find the docking station, it's not surprising you will leave the bike in the wrong place.Don't show bike locations that are not official on the map. Users cannot easily find the bikes at these locations. 
  3. Maintain the bikes. Of the eight bikes I rented, three of them had tyres that were almost flat. 
  4. Answer your emails. When I phoned customer service about fees after emailing them, they stated "we get a lot of emails and it takes us days to get through them. Why not just phone us?" Well, if the company gives an email address, you kind of expect them to read the emails ...

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Tranquility of Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a city of myths – and  I don’t mean the Little Mermaid. No, the myth of Copenhagen is what is repeated in guidebooks everywhere. What do they tell you? Copenhagen is
  •  Hygge
  • Tranquil
  • Calm
  • A city of bicycles

The only statement of those above with any truth is the bicycles. There are indeed a lot of bicycles in Copenhagen. But the rest is a flagrant myth. There is a frantic feel about Copenhagen that is exacerbated by, perhaps primarily caused by, the endless traffic.

Here is a article by someone who should know better, Colin Amery, from the book Great Cities in History:

Despite the cliched song there is indeed something wonderful about Denmark’s model capital. It is the human scale, the presence of the sea, the Nordic light and the civilized way that the traffic is kept in its place, that all make Copenhagen such an agreeable city.
“Copenhagen and Nordic Neoclassicism”, in Great Cities in History

Nothing could be further from the truth. The centre of Copenhagen is bisected by the unfortunately named Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, a six-lane highway right alongside the Tivoli Gardens. The walk from the Central Station to the SMK Art Gallery is alongside four or six lanes of traffic for its entire length.

Tranquility and calmness are nowhere to be seen. Rather strangely, the frantic aspect of the traffic seems to affect other aspects of the city as well. Although the food in Copenhagen can be wonderul, there is a frantic feel to some of the stylish restaurants that is rather uncomfortable. One restaurant where we ate had 12 serving staff for 70 diners. At one point in the meal I dropped my napkin, and before I had time to pick it up, it was replaced for me by an earnest waiter. That was the restaurant where we finally started eating at 9:30 in the evening, a Sunday evening, the first time that evening there was a table free.

My complaint is not that the city was frantic – most large cities are frantic – but at the pervasiveness of the myth of tranquility. Perhaps travel writers simply repeat the phrases of earlier writers; otherwise, why would they call a city tranquil when it is not? Why call a city good for walking when it is not? In some of the major public spaces, Copenhagen rivals Washington and Paris for having monumental buildings and roads that condemn the poor pedestrian to insignificance.

You would hope the architects would be on the side of the pedestrians. Yet even the Danish Architectural Centre (DAC) which has just moved into a new and very stylish building is in thrall to the car. A dual carriageway runs through the middle of the building, which is built on stilts over the road, and someone in the design team had the foolish idea of making the traffic visible from inside the building.

The bicycles in Copenhagen are widespread I believe since they are the only realistic way of getting from A to B in a reasonable time. It’s too far to walk to many places in Copenhagen, and buses get stuck in the traffic. I consider myself a hardy cyclist – I cycle regularly in London, and I’ve cycled in Boston and Washington. But I didn’t dare get on a bike in Copenhagen – it looked too alarming to me. Not only the traffic, but the bikes came at me from all directions. 

Truth and allegations in history

A review by Nick Lloyd of recent military history books (TLS, August 10 2018), contains the following remarkable statement.

Inevitably the much-derided peace of 1919 at the Treaty of Versailles (with its allegedly punitive treatment of Germany) hangs over the final years of the war like a black cloud.

Since when was the treatment of Germany “allegedly” punitive? I thought that was one of the reasonable certainties of history, the kind of “fact” that everyone agreed on. Of course, facts in history cannot have the same certainty as facts in science, but in both science and the humanities, there is a common agreement over many issues. When an academic (Lloyd is reader in military history at Shrivenham) questions a commonly accepted statement, the reader expects some kind of explanation for not accepting the consensual position - but none is given in the ensuing review. 

 Given that Germany was not invited to the negotiations over the treaty, and had to pay the equivalent of £284bn at present-day prices, I think it can be assumed there was an element of punishment about the treaty. The disagreement among figures at the time was whether it was too lenient.

Henry James gets the order of chapters wrong

It turns out that for over fifty years after publication of Henry James The Ambassadors, the order of chapters 28 and 29 was the wrong way round. This error was not noticed even by James himself. The error was spotted by Robert Young (as noted in the TLS). 

Does it matter? It might not be surprising that the author did not check his own work for one of the many printings of his books. But how could a widely studied novel not have such an oversight detected? Perhaps it suggests something about the way we read James, or perhaps more specifically the way we approach James' late works. After all, James is "The Master", and masters don't make mistakes. 

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Can Tolstoy explain Anna Karenina?

Writers are notorious for not being able to communicate adequately a justification of their writings. As a reader, you read a great novel, and you look for some explanation of the reading experience. So, once I had finished reading Anna Karenina, I looked for some external description of the power of the novel. Of course, I did not expect a full explanation from Tolstoy explaining how he managed to create such an overwhelming reading experience, but nonetheless, given the title of his treatise What is Art?, it is tempting to think he might be able to describe why that novel was so powerful.

The key theme of What is Art? is the infection theory:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art … Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
Of course, Anna Karenina comprises many separate stories interwoven, and as a reader I will have a response to each of them. As a reader I respond to good or bad characters as they are presented to me. But there does remain, after reading a vast novel such as Karenina, the perhaps foolish feeling of a single work; and if it is a single work, does it create in this reader a single over-riding impression? Perhaps the impression I have is that of Konstantin Levin, by no means perfect, but struggling to make some kind of meaning from his life. That “impression” is indeed a feeling, perhaps, as Tolstoy says, similar to the boy recounting an experience with a wolf, even if the experience never took place:
a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own light-heartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art.
Does is convince? Yes. Is that a sufficient explanation of Anna Karenina? Certainly not, since that novel contains far more than evoking a feeling. Nonetheless, as a justification for creative writing, I think it is a good start. It isn't even necessary for you to have experienced the wolf to be successful in communicating the feeling of an encounter with it. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Are there good and bad metaphors?

George Lakoff is famous (according to Wikipedia) for the “conceptual metaphor theory”, which is that people are influenced by the metaphors they use.

Intrigued by this claim, I read the short book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by Lakoff and co-author Mark Johnson.  Sure enough, by the end of the book, the authors demonstrate (to their satisfaction, if not to mine) that if you choose the wrong metaphor, then who knows what might happen. “Drastic metaphorical differences can result in marital conflict”, state the authors, a claim I never expected to encounter in a book about linguistics. If Adam thinks marriage a haven, but Eve thinks marriage is a journey, then problems lie ahead. No doubt there will be disagreements, but not, I think, because their metaphors have landed them in different places.

How did metaphors become a yardstick (nice metaphor, that) of the good life? In terms of argument, the book proceeds as follows: it’s what I call the “slyly introduced hammer blow”. If you want to say something controversial, don’t say it upfront, but dress up your argument in the most persuasive terms that nobody could disagree with. Then repeat the process two or three times until, when the reader is lulled into acceptance of your drift, you insert something highly contentious. Don’t say it is contentious; simply state it follows logically, as night follows day.

Hence, Metaphors We Live By begins by saying much of human discourse uses metaphor – I can’t deny that. The metaphors we use can often be grouped, and Lakoff and Johnsen capitalise the names of these groups,  a charming gesture. Thus, we have groups such as

TIME IS MONEY, e.g. “I’ve invested a lot of time in her.”

TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, e.g. “Do you have much time left?”

 The argument proceeds without controversy, in easily understood steps such as these, until suddenly signs of metaphors are linked to morality.  For some strange reason, Lakoff and Johnson object to metaphors that do not fit into one of their metaphor groups. Hence the seemingly inoffensive phrase “the foot of the mountain”, which is condemned outright:

“Examples like the foot of the mountain are idiosyncratic, unsystematic, and isolated. They do not interact with other metaphors, play no particularly interesting role in our conceptual system, and hence are not metaphors that we live by.”

Where did this argument come from?  Commentators have been complaining for years about “stale” use of language, and “dead” metaphors, but they are not usually trained linguists.  For Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphors we use have to be those that “enter into our everyday lives” – otherwise they are dubious.

The claims about the moral value of choosing the right metaphor are only fully stated in the book’s final chapter, when the authors become positively lyrical. I bet you had no idea that by adopting the correct use of metaphor, as described by Lakoff and Johnson, your life will be less “impoverished”.

I completely agree that in a conversation, “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common.” But to say that the well-known “conduit” principle, which states that ideas are objects, linguistic expressions are containers, and communication is sending, is “pathetic” or even “evil” seems to be overstating the case.  “When a society lives by the Conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products”.

How then should we use metaphor? That isn’t so clearly described, but there is a reference in Chapter 30 to “appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives”, in other words, that provide “self-understanding”. If self-understanding is possible through metaphor, why not then claim that metaphor enables “ritual”, “aesthetic experience”, and “politics”- and the authors have a section dedicated to each of these topics. Why politics, for example? Because “a metaphor in a political or an economic system, by virtue of what it hides, can lead to human degradation.” Lakoff & Johnsen quote the metaphor “Labor is a resource” and point out the labor could be “meaningful” or “dehumanized”. This seems to be an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that words in a language determine the way we think. It recalls the famous Roman proverb quoted by Marx in Capital, “Pecunia non olet”, meaning that cash – coins and, today, notes -  carry no associations from the possibly illegal and devious things they might have been involved with in an earlier transaction. For Lakoff, metaphors seem to be like coins, in that coins do not carry associations of the situations in which they have been transacted, but some moralists believe that they should. For Lakoff, the simple phrase “labor is a resource” is deeply suspicious: “the blind acceptance of the metaphor can hide degrading realities”, since phrases such as these are often used in a context where labour is seen as a cheap, undervalued resource.  Yet Lakoff himself earlier in the book has no difficulties with TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE.

Next time I use a metaphor, I’ll think carefully about how it can enter my everyday life.