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Friday, 27 December 2013

Improving Seven Dials Brighton

Outside central London, the city of Brighton and Hove has the most lucrative car parking market in the country. High parking charges, applicable seven days a week, and an efficient enforcement regime operated by the city council's private partners, generate a strong income stream. Spending that money - which is ring-fenced for transport improvements - causes more problems.

Today I drove down Dyke Road to Seven Dials and was greeted by a large enamel Council-sponsored sign (cost? £200? £500?) , clumsily placed and reading "Improving Seven Dials". You know there is a problem when they have to tell you that. [See now my Footnote]

Some protracted road works have just been wound up, leaving Seven Dials with a new roundabout to replace the old roundabout. The surrounding area has been titivated - old clutter removed, new clutter installed.

The area definitely looks better and the new very solid roundabout may be safer than the old mini- one. I hope so. Remove the clutter of "Improving Seven Dials" and the roundabout will also look better.

But what should be regarded as routine maintenance and improvement is always got-up by the Council as some kind of major achievement. It isn't. And for anyone to think that it is would simply show how low our expectations of local government have fallen.

Partly, the self-publicity of "Improving Seven Dials" is meant to trigger grateful voting at the next election. Brighton and Hove has no single majority party and they all vie for votes through bigging-up what are really minor works. The Greens think that if they say "Cyclists" often enough then the cyclists will vote for them, Labour says "buses" and the Tories say "cars". They will each try to milk the Seven Dials improvements for their own purposes.

My position is this: we are looking at ordinary work which councils should be doing, day in and day out, routinely, with no great fanfares and certainly no enamel signs. Maybe once a year they can publish a list of everything that's been done, with the costs.

I would have quoted the cost of the Seven Dials work but it doesn't come up on my Google searches. My guess is that whatever the figures they will show that we got not very much for a very great deal.

Footnote 28 April 2014: There are in fact FOUR signs, each attached to the blue arrow direction signs in an aesthetically clumsy way. This is good news for signmakers, not so good for tax payers. More importantly, there is this underlying problem that public services now feel they are entitled to spend public money on what is purely self-congratulation.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Jesus Was Born on the 25th June

The Australians have got it right. Jesus was born in mid-summer. It figures: the family had to stay in the stable rather than the Inn, but they didn't freeze to death. All those Renaissance paintings by people who presumably knew what they were doing make it out to be a pretty cosy place. The Infant Jesus is not kitted out for a snow storm.

To recognise the true facts, Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere should be celebrated on the 25th June. This would increase the chances that family get-togethers could be held without disruption by storms, floods, power cuts, snow, flu and all the other reasons why 25th December is a really dumb choice of date.

That said, for those who have a sentimental attachment to the idea of mid-winter reunions, there is always New Year - currently an orphaned celebration which does not rise much above fireworks and drunkenness.

Celebrations on a beefed-up 31st December and  the new 25th June would also solve the recurring dilemmas of those who have to decide such things as, Do we spend this year with His lot or Her lot? Or shall we resign ourselves to spending many hours camped on a motorway along with all the others who have caved into pressure and decided that there is nothing for it but to attempt to travel to both His and Hers?

(I remember one year attempting to drive from Heathrow to Her lot in Plymouth in a Volkswagen Beetle and a developing snowstorm. Eventually, when the road could no longer be seen, we ditched the car and hitched a lift with the last shepherd out watching his flocks disappear under the snow. We discovered that we were in an area where friends had rented a holiday cottage so ended up in warm beds - we just knocked on the door and Lo! there was room in the Inn.

But that was enough to convince her Lot - when we dug our way into a telephone box the next morning to inform them that we had not died in the blizzard - that we had simply not tried hard enough to perform our Duties.)

Think about it. 25th June. It'a No Brainer. Just get over any Issues you might have with the fact that the Australians got there first.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

From Baths to Showers: 1947 - 2013

A British person who moves to Australia and stays there will probably develop an Australian accent. They don't will it or notice it happening. It's an unintended change occurring below the level of conscious awareness. Most linguistic change is like that.

My day does not really start until I have had my Morning Shower. I look forward to it, enjoy it and afterwards am ready to face the world. But I doubt I had a shower before the age of 11, when going to grammar school involved cold showers after games and swimming lessons, experiences which persuaded only would-be Spartans that showers are a Must Have daily experience

In my first three homes, taking me to the age of 14, there was a bath in the bathroom, supplied with hot water. There wasn't a shower attachment. You had a bath once a week and the proof that you had had it was a scum line - a tidemark - marking the high point reached by the water. You used soap and in my case the soap would have been Lux and sometimes Pears. As a very young child, my mother enhanced the bath experience by allowing me to kick and splash at the end, an indulgence still permitted to small children everywhere.

Having your hair washed and, later, washing your hair, was a separate experience. You did it over the sink, often for convenience the kitchen sink, and it involved using saucepans to pour water. Since they were filled from two taps, there was always a problem in getting the temperature right - not too hot, not too cold. I can't name the shampoos. Maybe they were soaps.

I guess that much of the time we smelt of stale sweat. And we had dandruff.

In my fourth home, taking me to age 18, there was no bathroom and no hot water. Having a bath involved boiling hot water in a gas-fired contraption (word for it, the copper?), releasing it into a galvanised bath placed on the kitchen floor and adding cold water from the tap to get the temperature right. Afterwards, you had to empty the bathwater saucepan by saucepan into the kitchen sink. This was not a formula for encouraging personal hygiene.

I don't know when I replaced taking a bath with taking a shower. But somehow it happened. Probably in my thirties or forties. Nowadays, only an ailment - sciatica, for example - will plunge me into a bath. And as a result of showering, a hair wash is a daily affair. Not much hair to wash now, it's true, but of course no dandruff.

I am sure that most British people of my age have gone through this change from bath to shower. It's a change of interest to the social historian and the historian of private hygiene. But we don't know much about it because we didn't notice it when it was happening to us.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Sash Windows. Some Things Should Be Uninvented.

I am living in temporary accommodation - we will come to that another time - and today I thought I would open a window. Eventually I did, but it was a sash window and it drew blood before yielding to force.

I recalled an incident fifty years ago. I had gone into lodgings on the Iffley Road or the Botley Road or some other Oxford road where students lodged in approved lodgings - houses where there was a Resident Landlord or worse Landlady to police your behaviour. My landlord was an elderly widower in a widowered Victorian terrace house.

My room smelt. I forced open the window and placed my hands on the sill to look out at my View. At which point the rotten rope holding up the sash window broke and the window descended with the speed of a guillotine onto my fingers. I was reduced to calling for help from my fellow lodger, David Thomas, fortunately in his room and who rescued me, exerting the considerable force necessary to lift the guillotine from my hands.

I moved out shortly afterwards.

If sash windows fit their casings then they exclude the draughts but are impossible to open. If they are easy to open, then they rattle and the draughts whistle through them. Though Estate Agents are enthralled by them as a Feature, it requires specialist (i.e, expensive) carpenters to keep them even half functional. They are a nightmare.

I think they are a uniquely British institution - though I have a memory of reading somewhere that they can be found in Madeira, a legacy of the short lived British colonisation of that island.

They are something which should be uninvented.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Death Wish of Marks and Spencer

I was reminded of the Menus you are offered in failing Indian restaurants: a choice of 365 dishes inspiring only the thought, How do I avoid making a choice which hasn't been selected for 364 days? Nowadays, the shorter a restaurant's Menu the more likely I am to enter. I think other people are doing the same - it's one of the reasons Thai restaurants have displaced Chinese for cheap eating out.

I was in Marks and Spencer. For reasons which need not detain us but which may become another Blog, I was replacing all my underwear, tee shirts and shirts. It was a big M and S, but the display racks were wedged close together with goods descending to floor level. At one point I did actually kneel to hunt for what I needed. Of course, many of M & S customers are beyond kneeling which is probably why kneeling worked.

I am pretty sure that, once you allow for different sizes, there are 365 choices of socks, 365 of shirts and 365 of underwear. They must employ the Pentagon to do Stock Control. Or not - since the choice is so large, only a few examples of each variety are on display and could easily be exhausted by a single shopper.

The main aim behind these crowded displays of minor variants seems to be to disguise the fact that M & S is no longer the place to go if you want 100% cotton or 100% wool. Instead of proclaiming the quality of their products, M & S distracts you with labels boasting that their things have been treated with  so-called Technologies which will protect you from smelly feet ( an M & S obsession) or from "bobbling" tee-shirts. I don't want Technologies from some Fantasy laboratory; I want cotton or wool.

Products are "Cotton rich" or "Wool rich" or "Easy Care". In the case of men's underpants, "Easy Care" means nylon. Any health professional will tell you that nylon underpants - like nylon shirts - are a 100% No - No. But M & S isn't listening: they are selling Boxers which are majority nylon. Well, it used to be called "Brinylon" in the days of Crimplene, but it's now called "polyamides".

There is lots of other nonsense: it's all made in China or Turkey, the clue to which is that it is labelled "Italian-inspired" or "Savile Row-inspired". It's all bollocks. It's the worst Spin Doctor crap.

How could M & S save itself? It may not - it could go to the wall just like those Indian restaurants which refuse to change. The U-turn would have to be dramatic: the range of choices reduced by at least 50% and probably more. The floor-level racks would have to go: someone should look at how a chain store like Karstadt handles the display problem, using table-top displays with storage of duplicate stock beneath.

And some honesty would have to be shown: this side of the aisle for 100% cotton, the other side of the aisle for 50 - 50 cotton and whatever is the successor euphemism to Brinylon.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Death by a Thousand Air Fresheners: English Seaside Hotels

For reasons which I may well Blog about later, I recently had to spend a week exiled in English seaside hotels - in Worthing as it happens but it could have been anywhere along the English coastline. So I won't name the establishments from which I generated this picture.

Off-season holiday hotels are never going to be much fun, but these hotels just stank. It was the same stink.

I looked around a bit. These are hotels which may have been renovated at some point in the past fifty years, but it's hard to tell when. Violent orange and black nylon carpet suggests the 1960s or 1970s, but dead floral carpet is hard to date. There are no easy to clean surfaces to be found anywhere in these hotels - especially not in the bathrooms - and much textured wallpaper and heavy curtain designed to make cleaning impossible.

Cleaning is impossible so the rooms, the corridors, the staircases are sprayed and have been sprayed on a daily basis for decades. Originally, the enemies would have been cigarette smoke and guests in sweaty nylon shirts. Now the cigarette smokers have gone but the nylon shirts are still worn by staff on work experience in the restaurant. The shirts may once have been white but it's far from certain.

Decades of spraying vaguely or wildly with air fresheners must be the cause of the Smell. If it had a colour it would be Pink or Grey and if it had a texture it would be Goo or Sludge. Pink Goo or Grey Sludge. I  imagine it congealed under the floorboards, seeping out and clinging to your clothes as you walk the corridors trying not to breathe too deeply.

The solution is probably Demolition. Total Refurbishment might work but only if directed by refurbishers obsessed with ventilation, smooth surfaces, natural materials. In turn, the owners of these decomposing hotels would have to sign up to a No Air Fresheners Ever  Code of Conduct.