Master of Photography, Sky Arts – a review.

Four seasons in and still no film in the camera

If you have not seen Master of Photography on Sky Arts, it’s a sort of MasterChef for photographers. The key difference being, with MasterChef, the contestants generally improve over time. Here, if anything, the photographers get more and more hopeless over the course of eight programmes. And if there are any entertainingly bad ones, they are – unfortunately – usually the first to leave.

Judges on Sky Arts life-changing Photography competition - Master of Photography

The familiar ‘judged-off’ format has worked for chefs, bakers, potters, ice-skaters, loungers-around houses, water colourists, sexy shaggers on islands, and dancers. It somehow it refuses to work for photography, despite a huge budget, many famous names and a realistic simulation of the professional snapper’s roster of international assignments.

What happens in each episode is that 12 promising amateur photographers are given a brief by the judges. The brief is always clear. For example: “This week we want you to go into the ancient Bialowieza Forest, Poland and capture a defining image of a mossy log.”

Ten of the 12 contestants then set out early, spend all day wandering around the woods with a £50,000 Leica camera and lens – supplied by the show’s sponsor – and come back six hours later with one reasonably adept photograph of a log. One contestant digs a hole in the ground to get a better up-angle and goes on to win the round by virtue of being that tiny bit more interesting than the rest.

And then there are the radicals. And there are always two. These mavericks completely reject the brief, and head into the woods to find their own very special interpretation of ‘mossy log’. Six hours later, one emerges with a picture of an elderly woman in a fur coat with a Gucci handbag and a pink poodle; the other has produced an image of her own pubes on a plastic dinner plate.

“How does this fulfil the brief?” ask all three judges, their vast fees from Sky Arts beginning to seem less than adequate.

“I wanted to pursue my own interpretation,” the contestant replies.

“You interpret a mossy log in a forest as slightly out of focus fanny hairs on a plate?” one Judge probes.

Each week, one of the two ‘mavericks’ is booted off (the other one must wait until the next edition). And since we are now in series four, any contestant choosing to be the maverick straightaway comes across as wilfully self-destructive.

Sky Arts “Master of Photography” Trailer from Leica Camera on Vimeo.

Another thing that happens, with a similar clockwork regularity, is the ritual snubbing of the guest expert. In one edition the contestants are sent out with a brief to capture the ‘chaos’ of the profoundly sensible Hamburg rush hour. The talented, kindly professional, a resident of the city, Siegfried Hansen, was on hand to offer advice in picking and processing the best photograph from the thousands taken.

“I would suggest using this one here, it is a beautiful evocation, the railway station is still dark, the sleepy commuters mass onto a seemingly endless platform, and in the distance the first light is giving just enough definition to the factory, where they must go…” says the keen-eyed mentor to an unconvinced apprentice shutterbug.

“I think I’m going to use this one, of a pigeon eating a sticking plaster,” replies the daring young photographer.

There are no David Brent-like glances to camera at such moments. And this show desperately needs some laughs.

The rare moments of humour you do get in Master of Photography tend to stem from the contestants’ astonishing naiveté. Out on the streets of Porto, let us imagine, a contestant finds a man walking to work. The current assignment is titled: ‘River Reflections’.

“Can I come into your house and shoot you having sex with your wife?” asks the bright-eyed young photographer.

“No,” says the man.

“Please, sir, it is important to me.”

“F(bleep) off.”

“Okay. Thanks anyway…. Mmmph. Now I feel like giving up.”

Oliviero Toscani

Second from left. Oliviero Toscani

By contrast, the jury is as tough and weathered as an old war camera. It is made up of Oliviero Toscani (who has a plenty of brass showing) and two others – usually very impressive industry experts who never manage to last more than one series. All seem bewildered by the choice of work they are called upon to judge.

Remember, there is an impressive prize of €100,000 at stake (Why, you could buy almost two Leica’s with that!) and yet the contestants – all young, hip, and from every cool corner of Europe – seem perpetually downbeat. Perhaps this generation is not as motivated by money as the heads at Sky imagined?

Whatever, it is the jury who must keep this boulder rolling.

“This is trite, a cliché, I’ve seen this a thousand times, so boring,” grumps Toscani, contractually the mean judge, as a young Austrian presents an image of the Eiffel Tower at sunset.

So far, none of the contestants has had the courage to reply, “Are you talking about my photograph, or the format of this show?”

The format is – four series in – still the problem, and changing the judges is not the fix.

It could, however, be that there are simply not enough types of photography. And that the discarded photographs are not discussed.

The many images that didn’t make it – the dross – are almost certainly more interesting for a TV audience than the nice, formal, competent images the contestants push forward. The audience, after all, is as opinionated as the jury.

Each contestant takes hundreds of shots, but the show focuses on only ‘the one’. You see this one image being snapped in the first half of the show, then judged in the second. There is, therefore, no ‘reveal’, no equivalent of the cake coming out of the oven, or the live performance of the dance routine rehearsed all week.

And then there are only glimpses of the post-production. In the digital era, this is an art in itself, often the greater part of the story of the image and the part of the process where the photographer really learns to ‘see’.

Or perhaps the real problem is the sponsor?

We never see a film camera, never any large format work, use of plates, older classic cameras, or famously difficult cameras that require tricky techniques. The audience is never going to get a Polaroid round, since Polaroid are not the sponsor. There will never be a round where the contestants must build pinhole cameras.

If you were indeed a Master of Photography, you would know about these things.

Imagine a round where the contestants are given 100 euros and told to buy a camera from a flea market, before taking 24 black and white shots of that same market. Imagine this digital generation trying processing the film in a darkroom. Imagine, indeed, this show pushing the envelope. It would require the sponsor’s products to be left out of the picture.

What is wrong with BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day?

What is Thought for the Day? Or better still, why is Thought for the Day?

Archbishops prepare to enter parliament in 2017

A very early example of an Occupy movement

Every morning at 07:48, BBC Radio 4’s hard news show
the Today programme pauses for thought. It’s always a religious thought and usually thunk-up by a vicar. It lasts for three minutes.

Unlike every other item on the Today programme, the thought goes unchallenged. It’s expressed without a balancing counterview. Nobody, not Lord Beelzebub, not even Nigel Lawson, is allowed on to bark back.

As mentioned, it’s mostly vicars who get to express a thought. Sometimes it goes a bit Simon Israel, other mornings it’s quite Faisal Islam. But four days out of five it’s completely Terry Christian.

Today presenter John Humphrys said recently: “It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all.”

He went on, putting this open question to his Today colleagues: “When you’re presenting it, how many times have you said to yourself, ‘Dear God, we’ve got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice, and the world could be a better place if…’.”

The biggest offence, as far as John ‘Good-Morning’ Humphrys is concerned, is that Thought for the Day is, “deeply, deeply boring.”

Truly, Madly, Vicarly

Being fair, you might admit roughly one in twenty of them are deeply, deeply interesting. Or a bit moving. Or nicely profound in some way that makes listeners think. But most are little more than a dull, anodyne drone and not even as cosily soporific as the shipping forecast.

Why put religion in a hard news programme? Would you interrupt a school nativity play to announce the FTSE 100 share index is currently down 0.1%? Bad example. That would be brilliant.

Religion, especially our State Religion, still seems to have a free pass into many of the nations institutions. The nation that produced Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin can’t quite transform into something truly secular.

The United Kingdom is just that, a kingdom, a monarchy. We have gay rights, we accept other faiths. We have a secular feel. But officially we are subjects not citizens. Kings and Queens don’t ordain themselves. God does that. And She does it through an official state religion.

Our parliament opens each day with Christian prayers.

We have Muslim, Jewish, Sikh MP’s who swear loyalty to the King or Queen – figures officially acting on behalf of a Christian god. Being King, as Monty Python knew all too well, means you are born higher than everyone else.

That means born higher in the same way white supremacists are born higher than whoever they currently want to feel higher than. It’s an odd belief both racist idiots and our our democratically elected leaders can uphold.

Our monarch is also our pope, being the head of the church. He or she wears a nice sparkly hat, full of gems taken from parts of the world we once brutalised and plundered, with our state church’s – and therefore God’s – full endorsement.

Those jolly, down-to-earth vicars of Thought for the Day are part of, and apologists for, all these dubious, conflicted institutions and all the many horrors they wrought.

Then and now. How Britain still sees Africa?

The pageantry might distract us, but the contradictions are ingrained. Our bishops sit in parliament, un-elected, and on our behalf they get to vote on e.g. the Climate Change Bill, knowing their holy book states that God will soon consume the world with fire.

If you believed that, would you bother pondering the melting ice?

The daily appearance of vicars on state-run news media may seem like an inoffensive charm offensive, but it’s a form of soft power more deserving groups don’t get to exert. The Green Party, the RLNI, those Net Neutrality people, Prof. Brian Cox – no other lobby group is gifted three uninterrupted minutes to talk to the nation every day.

Society should remind this vicary collective that, even though lately they’ve changed their image to one of mild Richard Coles-type innocence, for centuries they wielded a ruthless power here and around the world. The church was also the ‘beard of capitalism’, as Jonathan Meades once put it. It met ‘the natives’ with smiles and gifts, before later introducing everyone to the nice European prospector chaps.

Wherever they appear, but especially on a news programme, someone should be allowed to at the very least counter what they say, hold them to account. My personal vote would be for Doug Stanhope.

The vicar stays in the picture

There’s even more to this odd relationship.

The UK is the only country in the world, besides Iran, where schools can refuse to teach a child if his/her parents follow the wrong supreme being. Tolerance, supposedly, is what the UK is famous for. That and bad teeth. And diabetes. But our progressiveness is so often double-edged. How easy is it to imagine, say, the UK’s first Jedi Academy? And how much easier to imagine that new institution refuse its first Hindu kid?

Thought for the Day, like many of our quaint, familiar state traditions, is equally dark and unnerving up close. It’s sinister because it’s a fixture. It’s in the charter. It is decreed that thou shalt listen to vicars. The editor of Today can’t read a copy of the vicar’s script in advance and decide it’s bollocks.

“Call him and tell him; say Chinese steel tariffs are not a bit like Jesus,’ said no Today editor ever, ‘tell him we’ll fill his three minutes with the Ski Sunday theme music, cos frankly that’s exactly what people need at that time of a morning.”

When a magazine wants to distance itself from content that it doesn’t officially endorse, they slap the word Advertorial or Paid Content across the top. More commonly, you might see the disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect etc…”

If Today is going to cut away from an item about, say, the James Webb Space Telescope for three minutes of unchallenged Jesus, at the very least they should preface it with some equivalent dissociation.

Old Man Humphrys should be compelled to say, ‘…And now, from the organisation that for 1800 plus years suppressed the use of scientific method, evidence-based observation and year-round access to pancakes, it’s Thought for the Day…

Thinky vicars, stinky knickers

It’s not even the case that most vicars use the time to expound any thought-provoking theology. It’s as if they grasp how unwarranted their privilege is and demur from any doctrine.

Mostly the message is so vague and watered-down, it fails even on it’s own weak terms. Bewildered, we’re often the ones having to work out where and what the titular thought actually was.

Weak Tea

Vicars of all religions long ago fell into a standard pattern – and isn’t that the definition of religion? – of comparing yesterday’s main news item with some analogous passage from their holy book. They think this is a special trick only they can do.

With about 5000 years’ worth of domestic drama and detailed state history to pick from, finding a bit of the bible that’s vaguely like the PM’s visit to a war zone is not hard. Finding parallels shows no great gift. You could easily do the same thing using Lord of the Rings as your text, or Coronation Street.

“..In this war-torn part of the world, people must come together in love and unity, just as they did in Weatherfield, after The Rovers burned down.”

On top of all that there’s the sheer banality and fragility of those analogies. The fact that Jesus had nothing practical to say specifically about TATA Steel won’t stop a vicar doggedly teasing something out.

Say something useful or keep quiet

One vicar recently launched into a thought seemingly about knife crime – there had been a spate of stabbings in London – only to fill the remaining two and a half minutes with a report on attending a knife-use evening class, one involving the slicing of vegetables, presented by a chef. (Apparently, it’s down and forward, not back and forth.)

Vicars do not need or deserve airtime

A week earlier, a vicar raved about upcoming Commonwealth Day celebrations. He announced that, though Britain had a ‘painful past’ and had ill-treated lots of faraway people and places, the UK had forgiven itself. Like the abuser speaking on behalf of his victim, he thought all those African nations should just cheer up now and enjoy the idea of our friendship.

The same vicar – he’s a regular – came back on to tell us he’d watched the entire Mad Men boxset on DVD. He claimed to be fascinated by the Don Draper character. He then tried to make an irony-free point about how advertising presents a nice, happy world which is essentially a big lie created by devious men.

This mess of watery pottage – or pot of watery message – needs a counterview to get it out of its lazy rut.

Even the piously religious must find it dull to listen to it because it’s 98% anaemic drivel. The UK Humanist movement had an idea for a secular replacement called Thought for the Commute. It’s a nice idea but then, why not just let the news be news?

Can I get an Amen?

Let’s not hate Vicars unduly. Or Parsons. Or even Rectors – no matter how devoutly they might go about their rectal duties. Vicars do have a role to play in society and it’s mostly this: to be a friend to everyone. No matter how low and alone you feel, you should be able to count on the idea that the vicar will talk nicely to you.

They should be a buffer against individual despair. They should not be given airtime.

Thus ends the sermon.

P.S. after publishing this article, I realised the National Secular Society totally own this campaign and have been in constant contact with the BBC Trust for the past ten years.

P.P.S. You can now enjoy this essay done as a podcast

Part one

Part two


The Company that Outsourced Itself to Death

A short story about bad ideas, based on 10 years and a variety of work places.

At the company that outsourced itself to death, it had been time to make one of those rare but important international phone calls. It was a desk phone type of call, the kind you want to make in private, preferably in a conference room.

The problem was this, ‘telephony’ was outsourced four years ago.

The company was by then paying £25 per phone per month, yet none of those phones seemed to work. As it was nearing the end of that particular outsourced contract, no one could be bothered making a fuss about the service level agreement.

Did those desk phones ever work? someone asked.

dark glass is the suspcious beard of the office building

dark glass is the ‘suspicious beard’ of office building design

If they did, they were impossible to understand and no one ever learned how to use them. The lights flashed constantly with backed up voicemails no one could retrieve.

‘Hope none of those are important,’ someone always said. Others always laughed, a sort of dead-inside laugh. A laugh that said: of course some of those were important.

‘I’ll just use my own mobile,’ people always ended up thinking. Except with those important international calls you don’t want to do that. So that call always got postponed.

It used to be that you could just call in on Terry in Ops. Terry and his team used to sort that stuff out, until his side of the business was outsourced. The guy that oversaw all that, Pete, saved the company thousands. Then Pete left.

Our funky windows set us apart from the rest

Our funky windows set us apart from the rest

We would have brought all this stuff with the phones up with Pete were he still with us. Every company has a Pete. Or rather, every company used to.

Now even the food is outsourced. Any army marches on its stomach, and Race-to-the-Bottom Catering certainly understand that. They have the contract for our canteen and all our vending machines.

Do you remember when it was Sally’s retirement day. Everyone loved Sally and we all wanted to bring in that cocktail making guy we’d read about. Sally certainly loves cocktails!

Only RTB Catering said it was all there in their contract that no food or drink was allowed to be made on company premises, except by them.

So we had their Argentinian Sauvignon Plonk and vacuum-packed nibbles. There were red paper tablecloths and everything. What an atmosphere!

I'm the office block equivalent of a beaten wife

I’m the office block equivalent of a beaten wife

The lack of variety, imagination, and indeed nutrition, RTB offer hits morale every lunchtime. Why did we ever go with them? staffers ask. Think it was Pete’s idea. Or that guy that came after Pete.

The company that outsourced itself to death got more bad news last week. Bottleneck Tech Ltd, the firm that covered the outsourced back end of the company website went bust! It happens.

This was something we all argued about, back in the day. ‘We should keep that stuff in-house, just in case..’ Terry in Ops warned us.

Just in case what? ‘Just in case they go bust!’ But just look at the money we could save by outsourcing it! We could fire all those dreary unwashed guys in the web dev team.

Leave your soul in reception

Leave your soul in reception

So now the company that outsourced itself to death needs to find another web company. There are plenty of them out there. Only now they’re asking ten times what we used to pay Bottleneck.

They say its because their engineers need to unravel the last five years’ worth of mysterious bolt-ons, shoddy work-arounds and borrowed code.

The new firm, Squid-Lickers (quirky name, true, but cut-throat people…beware!) said it’s such a monumental headache they’re not even sure they want the contract. So we’ve had to offer them even more.

Let’s all go to the RTB canteen, buy one of their dull, pre-packed, half-filled sandwiches and mull this over, someone suggested.

Hey! What about the Head of Comms’ idea about getting that blue chip consultancy firm in? Audit the crap out of the whole business. Get a bright, fresh perspective!

I demand your respect, this is a serious place of work.

I demand your respect, this is a serious place of work.

It was a lot of money and a big gamble, but since none of us had any faith in our own perception of things, or wanted to learn anything the hard way, we got in this firm of firebrand Alpha males called Ker-Ching! Inc.

They gave us a new company logo and a big, thick ‘style guide’ no one here can understand.

They used the word synergy in ways good grammar shouldn’t allow. They wore expensive clothes that somehow made us all anxious.

As we suspected, it turned out we’d been doing everything wrong. Ker-Ching! Inc. told us sticking to their style guide would ensure the world saw us differently.

Unfortunately half the Marketing guys resigned over Ker-Ching! Inc.’s assertion that our approach to ‘paid media’ belonged in the same bin as the shake’n’vac ad. They accused our guys of ‘channeling the ghost of Victor Kiam.’

Can a building feel loneliness? This one can and it's weeping.

Can a building feel loneliness? This one can and it’s weeping.

Ker-Ching! Inc. are going to find us a company to do all our social media. Bad news for the team that used to do that. And the thing is, staff turnover is already pretty high, especially now we sold off and moved out of our quirky old red-brick Victorian building and into this shared, rented glass tower built on reclaimed toxic brown-belt.It’s not that people don’t like the space, it’s just the outsourced car parking company has us by the collective wrinkly sack. Ker-Ching! Inc. and Purple Pants (creators of heat-seeking Social Media!) always make excuses when we invite them over.

It’s almost like they can smell death.

Adendum to 6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

Following my earlier post, which explored the idea of Manchester having some civic-minded awnings about the place, I did a little (very little) research and found images of awnings in the Chorlton area of Manchester (on a fantastic site called Chorlton History).

This is proof that in 1913 at least someone was magnanimous enough to offer pedestrians and window-shoppers some cover. Civilised that is.

Chorlton in 1913 (from Chorlton History / Andrew Simpson)

Chorlton in 1913 (from Chorlton History / Andrew Simpson)

Now fast-forward 100 years. The totally re-built Manchester centre had a chance to be this considerate, to learn from these historic examples, but chose instead to offer no sort of cover to people on foot at all. If it rains the city invites you to hide in a coffee shop.

And check out this for mean spirited…

What’s left of those Chorlton awnings seems to miss the point entirely. You can’t wander freely from one shopfront to the next here. These awnings are for patrons only!

Mean spirited awnings

Mean-spirited awnings in Chorlton

Several Reasons to Like (the Idea of) the Driverless Car

When I first read about driverless cars I dismissed the idea as just another gimmick from the hard-up, planet-wrecking, machismo-fueled, turbo-charged turd-makers we call the motor industry.

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

Another hunk of metal sold to us as a lifestyle choice and an extension of our personalities, I thought. Another way to crush the humans. An exciting new range of grey, blue and black people containers that force everyone to cede power to a computer, which then couriers you along the rush hour motorway at 6 mph, saving you the bother raising your weary head.

They don’t even want you to hold on to the wheel and pretend. They want to remove what small vestiges of joy are left to someone travelling on four wheels.

And anyway, we already have driverless cars. They are called trains.

So I thought.

Later, however, I was persuaded by one or two people who’d thought quite deeply about this technology to not be so glib.

If your instant reaction to this whole concept was but I rather like driving, well that was mine too. Except I don’t.

Driving is a joyless, anxious chore. When I drive I don’t feel like James Bond, I feel like an idiot participating in a terrible conspiracy, often at very low speed.

My dream car, the machine I admired from childhood, I now look at as a sort of abomination. Driving is a 70s dream. We have to let it go.

My motoring dream from childhood.

My motoring dream from childhood.

Driving can be a joy, but so can a playing computer game. A year or two from now you might get to decide which you would rather be doing as you commute down the M11.


Think about how our mostly rubbish towns and cities became so utterly tiresome and rubbish. It’s almost entirely because we gave cars top priority.

Cars need access, cars need options, cars need car parks and ring roads and one-way systems and traffic lights and signage and more lanes and more barriers.

The Cones of Despair welcome you to Crap Town Anywhere

Behold the Orange Cones of Despair / welcome to Crap Town Anywhere

Knock this down and modernise was the mantra, build another bypass. Inner and outer ring roads became like fortress walls and moats, blocking people from their public spaces.

What happened to our beautiful river front? Mr 70s decided it should be a dual carriageway.

Crap Signage

Crap Signage

Petrol Heads everywhere seem to hate the idea of Driverless Cars. And I think it’s because the average suburban Clarksonoid is so incensed that I decided to listen a little closer to this argument.

About 2000 people a year are killed on our (UK) roads. It used to be a lot higher. Those deaths are almost never due to mechanical failure. It’s almost always human error.

I imagine if that dropped to say 20 a year because there was no human error.

Imagine ‘the city’ being able to talk to every car and every car being able to talk to the city. Imagine how the city could guide the flow of traffic to maximum effect, avoiding the local annual silly hat parade or the route of a charity three-fifths marathon (they have those, right?).

The city and your car would know exactly where the nearest available parking space was, then let someone else know the minute you had vacated it. (How much of your life have you spent prowling for a space?)

Imagine all the electric vans making silent deliveries while the city sleeps, so that they are not part of the rush-hour dash.

Imagine the white-van-man has nothing to do on his way to work but stare out of the cab window…well no, don’t imagine that.

White van man

‘Show us your traffic cones, gorgeous!’ – the White Van Man

Imagine the city knows you and your car, where you commonly go, what time, and how long you tend to stay there before returning. Tap into that info and it sounds like you have the perfect basis for a car-pooling app, or a hitch-hiking revival.

But perhaps hitch-hiking with an eBay-style ratings system…

Megadeath1998 is 100% a nice passenger and needs a lift to Ashby de la Zouch… …You go there now and then. Can you take him along? He will chip in £5 for petrol via paypal. Don’t forget to leave positive feedback.

Imagine children allowed to play in the street again.

Imagine approaching the multi-storey car park, except now you get to climb out at the entrance to the cinema while your car goes up those 11 tedious floors.

Imagine driving to the pub but being driven home.

Imagine all the signage and clutter they could remove from your town or city because driverless cars obey the rules and know where they are going.

This might all seem a long way off right now and a little far fetched, but technologies like this have a habit of starting life as impractical, too costly and inferior to the current system. But as we’ve seen so often they can quickly overtaking everything.

Digital Cameras were once too expensive and not good enough. So were mobile phones. Then suddenly they overtook, like some angry silicon-based Clarkson on his way to sale at Halfords.

Things that might be consigned to history? Electronic motorway signage.

Things that might be consigned to history?

Technologies like this also have a habit of dismantling  a lot of old familiar infrastructure, and permanently. Look at this picture and image what that might mean. And the Government is already preparing the way.

6 Things That Would Vastly Improve Manchester

Manchester getting a bit exuberant

No jokes about dropping the atom bomb. We don’t want the fallout here in Cheshire.

We do want Manchester to be better though, but our nearest big City doesn’t have much pull. We need to confront a truth that we aren’t very good at cities these days.

No British city ever gets in those lists of the most livable. We don’t even get one in at the bottom.

To me that’s like never getting even a bronze in the whole history of the Olympics. We have poor air quality, expensive and unreliable public transport, clogged roads, characterless chain-stored-to-death centres (and then same again on the edge of town), uber car-centric infrastructure, and nowhere to hang out where you don’t feel some pressure to spend money.

1. Get Your Portici On.  

Awnings – they are perfect for a city with rain issues. Mancunians are sick of being reminded, especially by Londoners, that this city gets a lot of weather. This city seems to live in denial about being the first place Atlantic cloud systems dump their loads.

Manchester is such a [relatively] young city. You’d have thought the vast cotton industry wealth would have been ample to cover (literally) some city centre innovations to keep people dry and central when the sky is weeping.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

A typical street in Bologna with porticoes.

There are examples to look at all over Europe, but check out Bologna. The whole city centre is lined with streets like these (24 miles-worth in fact), where people can walk under the cover of porticoes.

They can do business, hang out, shop etc. while staying out of either the scorching sun or the rain. And a bonus for city-dwellers is everyone living on the first floor and upwards gets an extra 15×20 feet of living space.

In Bologna that might be used for an extra long family dinner table and a shrine to Padre Pio. In Manchester that could mean room for an even bigger telly and a little indoor pot farm.

2. Canals as Cycle Routes.

Cycling by them, not in them. Again, hardly a secret in Europe as all canals lead to Rome, or the city centre. Except the ones in Manchester which weirdly get less cycle-able the nearer you get to the middle. It’s almost as if they want to keep cyclists out.

Bridgewater Canal

Bridgewater Canal

Take a canal ride from Sale to Stretford, for example, and you get a ten foot wide surfaced path, with honking geese, joggers, spring flowers and cheery old folk on longboats living off camping-stove bacon and tinned beer.

Continue on past Trafford Park and the same stretch of canal (see above) suddenly turns into a foot-wide strip of mud, with occasional moody-looking dopers to weave around.

The final stretch into the city centre is often simply blocked.

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Bridgewater Canal for cyclists

Manchester’s canals could combine the poetry of a gritty Northern heritage with a little Dutch-style romance, if only these routes were spruced up, optimised, made a feature of and embraced as a green and free way to commute.

3. The City Square. Piccadilly Gardens.

I can’t think of a worse city square that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. It’s the only square in the world that would actually be cheered up by the arrival of a column of Chinese tanks.

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Piccadilly Gardens: The Beating Heart of Manchester

Not that its the job of architecture to be perpetually cheery, but it is the job of a city square to not be depressing. The job of the square is that of communal meeting space; it should be agreeable, it should require you to spend no money.

Trying to find something positive to say about Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion, I suppose you could stage a convincing open air production of George Orwell’s 1984 here. I’m sure it was meant to be slightly arty statement but mostly something that blocked views of the bus station. [A better idea might have been to build an attractive looking bus station, like Preston.]

concrete pavilion by Tadao Ando

Concrete Pavilion by Tadao Ando and a plastic toilet

Tadao himself more or less admitted his concrete wall was all wrong for this space, but it’s not his fault it’s there. He didn’t commission it.

The trick with ‘doing a Brutalism’ – if you’re determined to have some – is to be utterly defiant and bold. The main problem with the pavilion is it’s the most small and timid example Brutalism you could possibly find, outside of a Lego convention.

The encroachment of One Piccadilly Gardens onto the square I can not fathom. It’s an office block. 25% of the UK’s office space is empty. So why build more? On a city square?

I suspect Britain’s massively corrupt construction industry combined with Britain’s massively corruptible city councils came together here in a towering show of what’s possible with the right level of dim-witted, spineless opportunism, bent and secretive procurement processes and some shameless land-grabbing greed.

One Piccadilly Gardens

One Piccadilly Gardens

A lot of cities would love a big open space like this. Put some plinths up. Dozens of them. Take the cue from Trafalgar Square and run with it. Get rid of the grim grey wall. Put up a big glass awning.

4. A Greater Manchester Travel Card.

A one-day travel card, designed to let you explore your region, from Ramsbottom to Macclesfield, Wilmslow to Saddleworth. Why on earth not? The Toronto TTC day pass is a good example to follow. They actively encourage you to give the ticket to someone else when your done with it. Friendly Canadians.

5. Goodbye to Balconies.

Since the mid Blair-years, Britain has gone utterly bonkers spec-building ‘Luxury Apartments’. Nowhere more so than central Manchester. These are tiny one and two bed flats, smaller than the legally allowed smallness of last century’s Glasgow tenements.

Most of them were so flimsily-built you could, of an evening, sit down and listen to your neighbours blinking. These flats can accommodate two people, they can accommodate the stuff two people might own, but they could not accommodate both.

The rusting balconies of Manchester

The rusting balconies of Manchester

What sold everyone on the idea of the balcony? I believe the clever spec-builders had twigged that the British – after decades of Spanish package holidays, presumably – equated a balcony with summer sun, good times and luxury.

One of Manchester's crap balconies (temporarily dry)

One of Manchester’s crap balconies (temporarily dry)

Manchester has gone balcony-building mad. They seemed to think building them would force the sun to come out. It didn’t. Nowadays we see leaking luxury apartments and balconies covered in rust.

6. Not so Central Park.

Manchester really needs to wrestle Pomona Docks away from Peel Holdings. Peel have been allowed to rule this part of the world for too long. They are not democratic. They don’t care about community. They are tax-dodging money grubbers who are happy to push elected leaders around. They want to turn this important bit of green space into (guess what?) yet more (yawn) luxury flats.

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Pomona Docks, closest thing Manchester has to a city park

Manchester needs to keep this land as a water-fronted park and a place of natural wonders. Go see the wild bits slap bang in the centre of Munich if you need an example. Was is not needed is a park city councillors, town hall accountants and other assorted dullards think of parks. We don’t need formal rose beds and a statue of the King.

Push the boundaries of what a park can be. Look at what Paris did with Parc de la Villette in the 80s. What would an avant-garde Mancunian park-designer do in 2014?

[The above picture is one of a series and comes from an excellent study of the Pomona Docks area by Skyliner. Every thinking Mancunian and urban explorer should take a look at it.]

Boris Johnson, King of the Cornflake People, Mayor of your City

The Tories don’t like nuance. For a start it’s too nuanced. They like to put a finger in the air and then let you have their certain conclusions. The mild mannered expert, the academic, emailing a hefty, nuanced report is just a wishy-washy bothersome waste of time.

And we know what time is.

It’s obvious to say, but the Tories do like money. They trust things that make money. Just as they are confused by and distrustful of things that don’t.

The NHS, old people, the unemployed, art galleries, forests, foreigners, spare bedrooms, academics writing hefty reports or trying to preserving wildlife, or cyclists – to people like Boris Johnson, these things are all deeply suspicious.

When Boris talked openly about lovely old greed, and the natural order, and the Good Samaritan being necessarily a wealthy man (ergo even Jesus Christ likes greed), and the tax-avoiding true-Brit Margret Thatcher  being an inspiration, and people with high IQ’s being the natural engine behind economic success in London, it’s difficult to know which of his dim-witted delusions to think about first.

Just equating money-making with high a IQ, brainy equals rich, is profoundly simplistic. As is equating people to cornflakes that rise or fall in the packet.

Boris overlooked all those clever cornflakes, the people with high IQs who are not interested in money or self aggrandisement. There are far more High IQ Cornflakes who object to greed and an idea of a happiness index linked to the economy, just as there are plenty of low IQ Conflakes who make piles of money. You only have to look at Michael O’Leary or Simon Cowell to know that.

Johnson’s ideas about people and cornflakes and IQ’s and greed are hopelessly deluded, and on so many levels, but the most unforgivable thing is that as the Mayor of a major city, he hasn’t looked at the plentiful and nuanced data readily available on how cities work best.

Cities that at least chase an idea of equality (rents, road usage, planning permission, shared spaces, sports and arts venues) are happiest.

The happiest cities in the world (they publish lists every year) are the ones that work well for all citizens. Not just the ones with high IQs or lots of money.

No British city ever get’s onto these lists, by the way. Not even at the bottom. If you think of these lists as a sort of ‘rich list’ (just to help the Tories grasp this concept) then London, and every other British city, is miserably poor.

Again, you see Boris’s confusion about things that don’t (at a glance) make money in his attitude to those terribly bothersome dead cyclists.

When a handful of cyclists are killed each month in his city, under his watch, it’s most commonly a lorry or construction vehicle that’s done the squashing.

Boris looks at this situation and thinks this: lorries are important, they are the machines of industry, busy making money. Cyclist should respect that and be more careful to make way.

The nuance any mayor could and should have picked up on by now is that cycling makes money for the city.

Besides all the benefits to health, and the consequent effect of individual productivity, there’s the huge reduction in wear and tear on city infrastructure. Cleverer Mayors than Boris (there are many) have engaged with this idea. Their cities are on that list I mentioned above.

When a lorry kills a cyclist, let’s say a doctor or a news reader, this is confusing to Boris too. Despite being a cyclist himself, he see’s cyclists mainly as poor people who can’t afford the train.

But lorries are no respecter of income. Doctors and News Readers and nice bright high IQ Cornflakes get squashed by lorries just as often as people in other social classes.

In the nuanced scheme of things, a smart mayor might have concluded that it might be more cost effective for the Lorry – let’s imagine it was off to deliver sugar sachets to a tax-avoiding coffee shop chain – to stay off the road and let the Doctor arrive safely at work to help keep hundreds of Londoners healthy.

Of course the biggest delusion of all that Boris is helping to perpetuate is this idea of clever people being rich, and vice versa.


Let’s paint a picture. There’s a man living in a shack by the sea. He catches a fish each day and eats it while watching the sun go down. He’s fictional so we can describe him as being happy with his life. Far more content than say multimillionaire George Osborne.

His life may be simple but he’s not interested handouts. He’s against a ‘something for nothing’ culture. Not like people who inherit millions from their Dads. No, but he is interested in carefully judging the least amount of work-related stress he can put in for an acceptable, livable return.

For return, read life. He’s doing the intelligent thing of putting in just enough effort to be happy and free.

The Tory view of the world is that the poor and lower-middle income earners are all proto-rich. They could all be wealthy, they just haven’t applied themselves yet. If these people just pulled their fingers out and worked much, much harder, they’d have Air Miles and Range Rovers and be a huge help to the economy.

It’s hard to see the world through someone else’s eyes, but most of us – let’s stick a Tory-like finger in the air and say categorically it’s 60% of us – have no desire to spend a single moment working any harder than we absolutely have to in order to be happy.

And it’s not because we’re feckless. It’s not because we hate the idea of owning a yacht. It’s because we want to have a good life.

We want time with friends and family. We want to sleep in. We want simple things that take time, like reading books, redecorating the spare bedroom, listening to music, walking in nature, kicking a ball around the park and unhurriedly eating a bowl of cornflakes.

Where would you rather live?

Was amused to see this advert (below) while passing through Salford’s MediaCityUK the other day. I snapped a photo on my phone in order to show you what £135,000 gets you these days.

Underneath the Salford flat image is a picture of what a Swedish prison cell looks like, just for comparison. Is it just me or do you get a lot more square feet in jail?

I would imagine you get superior laundry facilities when banged up in Sweden too and, without doubt, the food will be better.

Flat of Prison Cell sdf

Jan Gehl – What happens when an architect marries a psychologist?

Jan Gerl thinks about urban living quite a lot. He has transformed Copenhagen into one of the most livable cities in the world.

No British city ever gets placed on one of those ‘livable’ lists. Seems like it’s not in the British psyche to believe in anything better than adequate.

(side factoid: Denmark is about as densely populated as the UK, yet a house in Denmark has about 2/3 more floor space than an average house in the UK.)

Other bits of the world are catching up with Jan Gehl’s ideas.

If you’ve seen a congested,cluttered junction transformed into a tranquil, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly meeting place, with all signposts and barriers removed, then some of Jan’s ideas were probably being adopted.

His big idea is this: cities should work for everyone, not just those behind the wheel of a car.

Another idea is that the success of an urban centre isn’t purely about how good the shopping is. That’s how we tend to judge a town centre in the UK,  but Jan thinks it should be judged on how appealing it is to people who have no intention of spending money.

Imagine if the success of UK towns and cities was measured in happiness, or the number of outdoor chess games going on, the number of people sat reading, and not purely the number of profitable retail units.

Think on Mary Portas.

‘Eat that!’ yells a vilified Netto

New vast Tescos at Trafford, Manchester

Depressing, moi?

Which? Magazine (my Dad subscribes) has a feature this month called Best and Worst Supermarkets.

Forget what supermarkets do to undermine communities, this survey was purely about what they are like to shop in.

The survey placed the mighty Tesco at the very bottom of the list. ‘Eat that!’ yells a vilified Netto.

The survey looked at pricing, the freshness of fresh produce and the great British afterthought, customer service.

Participants found shopping in Tesco ‘unpleasant’ and that stores tended to have ‘surly staff’.

Quote: Tesco is also considered the supermarket which cares the least about its customers and is least trustworthy.

‘It’s too keen on profits and not keen enough on service,’ one member told Which?.

Only 27% of members felt that Tesco is helping to ease the strain on their food budget. No other store in the Which? survey was as poorly-rated in this respect.