Summerhill Square – the birthplace of the Rocket

I live in a part of Newcastle upon Tyne that people who have lived here all their lives know nothing about, it is a place called Summerhill Square. It is a place where Mo Mowlam lived and Robert Stephenson invented the Rocket locomotive in an attic a few doors away.

Summerhill Square was a place where the wealthy chose to go to get away from the industry and smelting plants of the Quayside in Newcastle, its slightly up the hill and quieter. It was an escape from the Industrial Revolution that was facing them.

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The houses are genteel Georgian Mansions and the community have taken over the Bowling pavilion where WG Grace played bowls when he retired from cricket.

A conservation area since the 1980s, this entire square was under threat of demolition from the likes of T.Dan Smith in the 1960s in his bid to turn Newcastle into “The Brasilia of the North” – his legacy is everywhere to be seen, in every Barratt Home and bare patch of earth, he is there, because on that earth once stood a fine home.

Thankfully those policies of the 60s are no longer around and we have managed to retain the character of our Square and most of the surrounding area.

If you are ever in Newcastle upon Tyne make sure to visit Summerhill Square.

Paper

When I met a client in London last week, I noticed he walked into the meeting with an iPad and nothing else, it made me feel a bit old fashioned with my notebook and pen.

That morning I had popped into Muji and bought myself 2 journals, don’t ask why, I’m just addicted to buying them.

So, in the meeting I asked my client if he ever used paper notebooks and he said he no longer did. Pulling out one of the journals, I said, “Oh well thats a shame because I was going to give you one of these”. His face lit up and he said “Actually, that was a lie, I do use notebooks to jot things down.”

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I read an old article in the Independent about increasing sales of stationery. The article is concerned with letter writing but I believe the sales of journals and other types of stationery are also booming. John Lewis are reporting a near doubling of sales year on year, the link to the Independent article is below:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sales-boom-for-pens-and-paper-points-to-snail-mail-revival-2299745.html

Journals and Notebooks

I have been buying paper diaries and notebooks since the late 1970s. In the old days, the choices were limited, you could either go and buy cheap notebooks from Woolworths or spend a small fortune on leather-bound products from the likes of Smythson of Bond Street.

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In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of the Filofax. The Filofax was the nearest thing we had seen to an all encompassing organiser and everybody wanted one despite the Yuppie stigma that was attached to it. I bought one but could never really get to grips with it as anything other than a very bulky diary. The ring binder was a pain in such a small book, you never really knew what to do with last year’s pages and the addresses quickly filled up unevenly – S was full, WXYZ was empty.

In the 1990s we started to see creative solutions appearing such as leather bound journals made in Indian workshops. They weren’t organisers, just books, usually with plain paper. Paperchase were producing writing books designed by people who clearly didn’t understand the needs of a writer. They had somehow missed the point when they created A4 sized, bound, hardback writing books that weighed 5kg. In their mind’s eye when people wanted to write they always did it sitting at a desk (probably the polished mahogany type of desk) with a quill and an inkwell.

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When I look at Moleskine products now, I realise that they changed everything. Suddenly we had a portable notebook that was simple and functional. It addressed the needs of most people by giving them what they wanted – paper in whatever style you wanted and a small space to store receipts and other bits of paper. The quality of the paper was good, it looked appropriate in an office or on holiday. Since then, other stationery manufacturers have risen up inspired by the success of Moleskine. Yes, yes, I know that the marketing blurb about Bruce Chatwin etc is bordering on total guff but you do have to give them some respect for having created a great product.

When the Moleskine products were re-marketed and became widely available, there was great doubt regarding the future of writing by hand on paper. The tsunami of the internet age threatened to wash away paper products like flotsam. As technology takes on a calmer and more predictable development path, paper products have re-emerged stronger, more inventive and working hard for their money. They are also more affordable now than I can ever remember them being.

Today’s essential tools usually involve a phone, a small computer and the ever trusty notebook.

The future of paper in the digital age

Yesterday walking around the shops with my friend Robbie, we walked past an O2 mobile phone shop and in the window we saw a Samsung Galaxy tablet computer. I told him it was amazing because it comes with a stylus that you can write on it with. I then went on to explain how the stylus is better than the one on the iPad because it has a finer point.

As we were walking away from the shop I realised how ridiculous I sounded and said “of course you could just go and buy a notebook and pen to do the same thing” – we laughed.

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When I write, there is something that lights up in my brain when a pen in my hand touches paper, the freehand spirals and doodles that appear are made during the periods when one part of my brain needs a break and the other part takes over. There is something primal about it that is never there when I am tapping on a keyboard or struggling with a piece of rubber on a glass screen.

When I send a one sentence text or email to a friend, it feels cheap, there is little thought that has gone into it. It feels cheap because it is cheap, it is throwaway comments and sentiments in a fast moving environment. Writing a letter to somebody requires time to be spent thinking about the composition, it is like a meditation on yourself and on your thoughts about the person you are writing to. It involves emotion and a certain amount of openness. It gives both parties an opportunity to sit and reflect.

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In my opinion, paper has a place in modern society. Perhaps it’s days are limited in business where corporations strive for the paperless office but in our personal lives it is making a comeback. We would probably all be healthier in body and mind if we all learned to slow down a bit and turn off our screens.

To me, paper has become symbolic of a wider need to go back to our roots.

Rediscovering John Steinbeck

As a teenager in the early 80s I read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck as did a lot of other kids growing up in Britain. It was one of those books that was around a lot in those days.

I found myself talking about Of Mice and Men with a friend in a pub recently and my friend and I got onto the subject of John Steinbeck.

He has read a lot of books by the author and is a bit of an authority on the subject. On the way home I popped into Waterstones and bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, a beautifully presented Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Reading this book made me realise how easy it is to go through life and miss important parts of your education. This book is essential reading and has an uncanny resonance with what is happening across the United States and the wider world today. The story of the Joad family and their struggle to merely exist, is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s when it was first published.

John Steinbeck was accused of expressing sympathies with Socialist and even Communist causes after the publication of the book in 1939, clearly his accusers had not read the story. Steinbeck’s responses to the dilemma of the Joads are borne entirely out of humanity rather than any sympathies for political causes. In that era of economic depression, social change and looming conflict in Europe, huge swathes of the American population were effectively driven from their land and led lives of travelling itinerant workers on fruit farms, they lived in unspeakable poverty and were discriminated against at every turn, while the America created by the media chose to present itself as a land of wealth and opportunity.

I remember seeing the picture below at a photographic exhibition in London, it must have been in 1988. The photograph puzzled me because she is American, poor and destitute – 3 words that didn’t fit together in my imagination

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Steinbeck helped me re-imagine America.

Return of a King - William Dalrymple's latest book

William Dalrymple opens up, and makes accessible, an entire section of history that is the stuff of legends and poetry. The first British invasion of Afghanistan was an adventure that the British Empire walked into with an astonishing arrogance fuelled by their belief that they were somehow invincible.

The book tells the story of Shah Shuja, his exile from Afghanistan and the subsequent British attempts to restore him to the throne occupied by his rival Dost Muhammed. The British motivation for this was the perceived threat from Russia and the need to have a regime in power that was friendly to British interests. Afghanistan became central as a buffer to protect India from the clutches of the Franco-Russian alliance and so began The Great Game.

What is fascinating about this book are the parallels with modern history, the characters in the book (who do not attract sympathy) and the setting as a time of immense upheavals and power struggle in North India and Afghanistan.

The actions of the British are by turns horrific and maddening; and as the tragedy unfolds you can’t help but shout out at the blunders committed by the people who should have known better. The acts of the Afghans, despite the fact that they are an occupied country, are duplicitous and full of human folly but the book gives an insight into the tribal nature of a fragmented nation glued together by a commercial relationship with a king.

This book is only available in hardback or ebook, I bought a paper copy for £25 but it was the best £25 I have spent in years.

Dalrymple’s latest book – Return of a King

The best camera is the one you have with you

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“The best camera is the one you have with you”

This is what somebody said when I asked the question – “What is the best camera?”

There is something liberating about the idea that nothing else really exists apart from the things you choose to have with you, they are the best and most useful at that moment in time. This is a thought that captures the spirit of adventure, travel and freedom.

I know nothing about cameras, I am always more interested in what is on the other side of them.

From a camera, I want a device that works in the simplest possible way with the best possible results….point and shoot.

With this in mind, before the digital age my best camera was a Canon Canonet, a simple and small, 35mm camera that took the picture when I pressed the button. After this came the digital age and I struggled for years with pocket sized cameras, I would press the button and a second would elapse before the camera whirred itself awake and took the picture. The picture was invariably an over-exposed blur. During this time in the late 1990s, early 2000s, it really felt like we had gone backwards.

Then I discovered digital SLR cameras, my wife bought me a Nikon D40 for my birthday. That was the best camera I had ever owned, it took beautiful, crystal clear, flash free pictures at lightning shutter speeds. I was in heaven but I go back to the saying “the best camera is the one you have with you”.

As much as I loved the Nikon, it was too big to carry around as everyday kit. If you are going to work, you can’t walk around with a camera that big. Everywhere I went, depending on the setting, I either looked like a wedding photographer or a tourist. At parties, people would be intimidated by the guy with the big camera, it all felt a bit contrived.

So I set out on a quest to find a camera with SLR quality and the size of a cigarette packet. I wanted to carry it with me everywhere I went. I found the compromise in the Olympus PEN, it is simple to use, takes great pictures, beautiful to look at and with a pancake lens it fits into my pocket.
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The People of the Abyss – Jack London in London 1900

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I am ashamed to say that I had not even heard of this book until about a month ago when my friend Robbie told me about it. It is a free e-book on iTunes or as a downloadable PDF via Google.

In the first years of the 20th century, The American, Jack London, came to London with the intention of spending time in the East End. His polite Edwardian literary friends were bemused by his mission, they said it was dangerous and tried to talk him out of it but Jack London persisted.

His first observation was that nobody knew anything about that part of London and Jack writes about being puzzled by a people who had discovered the furthest reaches of the world for the white man and yet knew nothing about a place that could be reached in a Hansom cab.

With the help of a brave cab driver, Jack London ventured out into the wilds of Whitechapel to meet a policeman who would house him in one of his rooms. He took on an alias as a stranded American sailor who had been abandoned by his ship at Tilbury Docks.

What started off as an exercise to research a piece of writing, turned into a horror story of poverty, alcoholism and workhouses. Jack London describes entire families of 6 to 8 people living in rooms that were 10ft by 10ft. He describes the eternal quest for food and how hungry people would eat the bones discarded in the street by restaurants. The workhouse is described as a place of such inhumanity that homelessness and sleeping in doorways is seen as a better alternative. The Salvation Army comes in for special attention and are seen by Jack London as parasites preying on the destitute to further their own religious agenda.

A particularly cruel practice of the time was the law whereby the homeless could rest anywhere but the moment they fell asleep they would be woken up by a policeman and moved on. Suffering from the cold, hunger and fatigue these people would then be expected to venture out in the day and find work.

The People of the Abyss is a brilliant piece of journalism. It has socialist, even communist, undertones. However set into the context of the book I would argue that Jack London’s views are driven by humanity rather than any political dogma.

I discovered that George Orwell was inspired by this book and emulated Jack London by travelling amongst the lowest stratas of society for the same reasons – Orwell’s book “Down and Out in Paris and London” was the product of this. Orwell’s descriptions of the “Proles” in 1984 also hark back to the People of the Abyss.

When it was published in 1902 this book caused a diplomatic incident between America and Great Britain.

It is startling to discover that in 1902, hundreds of thousands of people in London were treated worse than animals at a time when Britain was a country at the zenith of it’s Imperial might, overseeing dominions so far and wide that the sun never set on it’s Empire. However, this may also go some way towards explaining why the ordinary folk of this country were so eager to colonise the furthest reaches of the planet.

For the people of Britain, this is an important book because it explains the problem that institutions such as the Welfare State and the National Health Service were later designed to address. Today those institutions are under attack so it is worth reminding ourselves of a world without a safety net.

Bleu de Chauffe

Here is a question for you, this is a bag from a company called Bleu de Chauffe based in France. This bag is 389 Euros which seems expensive but is it really? When you consider that this is handmade in France and signed by the Artisan who made it.

The leather on this bag is so sturdy that I have never seen anything like it in a shop, it promises to wear well and age gracefully. In reality I probably never need to buy another bag again and neither does my niece or nephew who will one day inherit it.

When you consider all of that, is 389 Euros still expensive?

In my opinion, the craftsmen of Europe such as the leatherworkers of Rouen, are brave souls who are creating beautiful objects using centuries old techniques and traditions in the face of cheap goods flooding the markets from China.

We talk about the economy and pulling ourselves out of this depression, these artisans are the ones who are on the front line and they can do it with our support.

http://www.bleu-de-chauffe.com

Bleu de Chauffe

All Souls, London W1

I walk past this Church next to BBC Broadcasting House every week. At night it is lit up and looks stunning.

The church was designed by John Nash, favourite architect of King George IV, to provide an eye-catching monument where the newly laid-out Regent Street, linking Piccadilly with the new Regent’s Park, takes an awkward abrupt bend to align with the pre-existing Portland Place, providing a visible hinge where the street plan swings abruptly west. Its circular peripteral portico, capped with a smaller peripteral tower, in turn capped with an anomalous slender cone, giving the appearance of a 20th century three-stage space rocket suggesting he may have envisaged the structure as a futurist vehicle for transporting all souls to heaven, is of an enriched Ionic order that substitutes winged cherub’s heads for the usual rosettes on the abacus, possibly symbolically representing divine offspring of the Olympian god, Hermes / Roman god, Mercury, as the means of propulsion; the prominent portico is attached to the reticent main church by the width of a single intercolumniation. BBC Broadcasting House (1932) reflects Nash’s portico with its quadrant-curved corner. The church was consecrated in 1824 by the Bishop of London.

The church is built of Bath stone and the unique spire is made of seventeen concave sides encircled by a peripteros of Corinthian columns, making two separate sections. The capitals are Ionic in design and made from Coade stone. All Souls is noted for being the last surviving church by John Nash. The building was completed in December 1823 at a final cost of £18,323-10s-5d.

Nash’s design did not meet with universal praise. A reviewer for The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 2 August 1828, said:

“ To our eye, the church itself, apart from the tower, (for such it almost is) is perhaps, one of the most miserable structures in the metropolis,—in its starved proportions more resembling a manufactory, or warehouse, than the impressive character of a church exterior; an effect to which the Londoner is not an entire stranger. Here, too, we are inclined to ascribe much of the ridicule, which the whole church has received, to its puny proportions and scantiness of decoration, which are far from being assisted by any stupendousness in their details, the first impression of which might probably have fixed the attention of the spectator. Indeed, the whole style of the tower and steeple appears peculiarly ill adapted for so small a scale as has here been attempted.”

All Souls, London W1