Cor, this format’s a blast from the past, eh?

Matthew De Abaitua’s The Destructives is the third in the very loose trilogy that began with The Red Men and IF THEN. I loved The Red Men, and found IF THEN hard going (albeit somewhat intentionally. It was… a very sad book, and it conveyed that in all the ways one can.)

I think the third book is possibly my favourite of the three; it is not sad but it feels angry in a powerful, motivating way. It also made me laugh a lot, and like all of De Abaitua’s books, I loved the writing, the tangible feel of it. I read it in paperback meaning it had genuine dog-ears, which also meant I did not transcribe them for a very long while. And now, in a quiet moment, I have.

The book is much, much more than the sum of these quotations; it’s not hugely long but it’s big in all the good ways. You don’t need to read the previous two to read it, though The Red Men may be most similar and IF THEN will prove most illuminating about the Seizure itself.

Anyhow: some lines I underlined, sometimes for the writing, sometimes for the ideas contained. (And all the ideas I didn’t have space for: bloodrooms, more on Long Thoughts, more on emergence, more on ‘soshul’, just what weirdcore is.)

p.46: Theodore goes to visit a colleague.

Pook wore black-framed glasses, his dark hair was flat and neat, his muzzle and upper neck were invariably dark with the beginnings of a beard. He was younger than Theodore by two years, yet he was already a professor, due to this success of his long thought We Are Spent: Fifteen Reasons Why We Should Splice the Human Genome to Create New Consumers. The Moral Arguments Involved Will Surprise You.

p.52: Theodore explains the significant of a clock to Maconochie.

"The clock on the wall has roman numerals. The vases are tapered. It's a show home to evoke Pre-Seizure middle class codes concerning authenticity. Authenticity in the standard two categories: to evoke a usable past and to signify closeness to nature."

p.64: Theodore encounters an AR cat.

…the cat yawned, eyes closed, and the twitching of its ears resumed. But they did not loop. Not right away. The cat's data stream was ongoing, and it was a rich stream of data. For a quantified family, being able to slip on a sensesuit and experience what their cat had been up to that day was a selling point of the technology. The mother and daughter were hidden from him. But the cat – white whiskers, tiger-striping, green iris and sharp oval pupils – the cat was open source.

p.74: Thedore explains the past.

"The cat could be a user interface to guide us through the archive," suggested Theodore. Then, noticing their unfamiliarity with the Pre-Seizure term of user, he explained how people used to be thought of as users in regard to technology and not the other way around.

p.88: Theodore reminisces about Pre-Seizure advertising to women.

He loved the paradoxes of Pre-Seizure culture: on the one hand, building up an iconicity of self-control around images of thinness and athletic discipline, and on the other, unpicking that self-control to create necessary doubt and need. It must have been maddening to live through.

p.89: one such advert.

The two women – the one holding the mobile had blonde hair, her friend had brown hair – constituted a unit tagged as Caucasian Duo. The blonde, being the active one making the loop, was the leader. If there had been a third woman, Theodore knew from other artefacts of the period that it would have been her responsibility to be ethnically diverse.

p.164: the problems of branding.

"A small agency needs an aggressive name. I'm working on a short list: We Are Your Enemy, The Violators, Black Box."

"Lengthen your short list."

p.168: legacy "tech" culture.

"Repeat after me: 'We're all very excited to be working with you on this project.''"

"Excitement is the wrong word."

"It's part of the ritual. The Magnussons are old-fashioned tech entrepreneurs. We have to express excitement. Unless you have a preferred synonym. Would you prefer to be passionate about working on this project?"

p.174: types of silence available to the modern execuitve:

Patricia responded with Pretend Concern, one of the seven types of silence available to the modern executive. Procurement would have expected Pretend Annoyance or even Pretend Contempt in reaction to her own miserly pantomime.

p.184: without too many spoilers, an algorithm:

In the early 2020s, the small port of Newhaven had been acquired by an investment fund with an algorithm as a board member. Putting the algorithm on the board had been a publicity stunt, a way of advertising the fund's dedication to the algorithm as the mover and shaker of the age. But over time, the junior staff created a name for the algorithm, a birth certificate, a national insurance number, a university degree, a passport from the dark net, soshul dashed out by bot, and from that forged documentation, were able to reverse engineer a citizenship recognised by the broken government bureaucracy. The algorithm became a citizen.

p.191: a memory of one of Pook's lectures

Pook invariably started chuckling to himself at this juncture, taking the opportunity to make a joke he made every year during the seminar on Novio Magus: "The emergences sought to solve man's existential crisis by combining two questions underlying all soshul: am I going insane and if so, what should I wear?"

p.208: Dr. Easy and Theodore go to a pub.

Pubs were old-fashioned to normalise the consumption of alcohol. By surrounding drinkers with evidence that people had always drunk, the pub reassured its customers that their alcoholism was a timeless quirk.

p.217: Dr. Easy acquires a car.

"I did not steal it," said Dr. Easy. "I merely exploited the car's emotional simplicity. This model hankers after danger and adventure, and I promised it both."

p.292: on life and language on Europa.

The blue ice of the lakebed ruckled into a chasm. Through this fissure lay Oceanus, the largest ocean in the solar system. Largest, ocean, solar system – words were too human and too meagre. Off-Earth, language, like biological life, did not take. Only mathematics and emergence seemed native to strange moons, gas giants, and space.

p.319: Theodore is somewhat damaged by his exposure to weirdcore:

"I'm sorry that what you said doesn't upset me. Or offend me. I'm not indifferent to you. It's just…" he tapped at his scars again… "Everything you say makes sense but no one gives a shit."

p.364: Patricia's "executive armour" deploys:

Her armour was designed to contain angry shareholders and break-up employee uprisings: the fishers had knives, but Patricia had riot control.

p.378: Reckon is angry:

The lesson her father learned in the Seizure was that power will conceal its true intent for as long as possible so that its victims remain passive and even compliant in their own destruction. Rarely are we granted the mercy of a confrontation.

p.385: on artificial intelligences and kindness.

[Reckon] could not imagine an immortal species like the emergences knowing kindness. The emergences had the wiring for consciousness but they were immune to time. Love is made out of time; that is, love is experiential and our emotions the connection to that experience. It followed that if the emergences were immune to time, they were also immune to love.

It is a very good book.

I’m pretty sure that the best book I read last year was Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk.

It’s easy to say that now it’s won the Samuel Johnson award, and probably appeared on a pile of end of year lists. Well, good: sometimes popular things are popular for a reason. I am glad it has achieved such recognition.

A few times when I’ve explained the book to people, I enthuse: “It’s this wonderful, big book about grief, in which following the very sudden death of her father, a woman decides to train a goshawk.”

“Wow,” says the other half of the conversation, “that sounds incredible.”

“I mean,” I say, “worth pointing out she’s a very experienced and knowledgeable falconer.”

“Oh,” with a twinge of disappointment.

Disappointment! As if trying to train one of the larger, most unpredictable birds of prey wasn’t remarkable enough. (And, as the book proves in its study of TH White’s The Goshawk, what damage the untrained amateur can do). It turns out that it’s precisely because Macdonald knows her field so well that the book has turned out so well. It turns out there a few things expertise cannot always overcome; one is a living thing with a mind of its own, and the other is ineffable sadness.

I also usually caveat it when I recommend it. It’s a more difficult book than I think it may initially seem.

It’s about nature, red in tooth and claw; a bird of prey needs to be taken hunting, and Macdonald treats that topic with care, and thought, and there’s a lot of different angles to it. But the bird is going to hunt, and once it’s big enough, you can’t avoid that topic.

It’s about TH White, a man I knew little of when I began (other than that he wrote The Sword in the Stone) but gosh, it turns out he was not an easy man, and he did not have an easy life.

But mostly because it’s about grief, which is a tough and horrible topic, and the book is a remarkable treatment of that because of how little it explicitly talks about it. Rather, the grief runs through everything like a vein; it’s the why at the bottom of some sequences, the of course waiting for you at the end of a tough chapter. Macdonald is unflinching in a portrayal of herself several (about seven now) years ago, and if the book doesn’t bring the pain of any of your own grief to the surface again, then it still may bring the pain of compassion for someone you cannot help up. It’s a book written in the past tense, but the present tense within the book is heart-wrenching, and there’s nothing you can do.

It’s not all difficult, though. Macdonald is a marvellous writer – her experience in writing poetry shows through, not just in the beauty of her prose, but also its sparseness. Some of the passages I highlighted were simply for the language. Mabel – the goshawk – is this rich, wonderful character; not even a character, because she’s real, but she comes to life on every page, the changes in her as she grows minutely observable.

It’s a particularly lovely book about what living in Cambridge is like – living around the University, but also living in that cold town on the edge of the Fens that most students don’t see outside of, or see outside termtime.

And it’s a lovely book about the English countryside. Not just because it’s charming – it is, at times, but it’s also raw, and honest, and talks well about the history of land, and the strange magic buried in that writers such Robert Macfarlane also touch upon.

I’ve read it about twice this year – once, in a cottage in France, barely doing anything but turning pages, and then again, in tandem with my Mum as she read the copy I gave her for her birthday. It’s still a treat, and I still dive in, in part to be thrilled by the prose, but then inevitable to find some little inner truth that calms and settles me.

It’s hard to talk about, because it’s a book that’s inevitably hugely personal to the author, and I do not know them at all, but you have to engage with something when you read, and sometimes compassion overwhelms you. So: anything not directly quoted is opinion about people in text, and not people in the world. But regardless:

I can’t recommend it enough. Below, as usual, are the points I underlined in my copy.

Location 390:

I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explaining that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.

Location 397, on reading the falconry canon as a child:

Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school, for they were almost entirely written a long time ago by bluff, aristocratic sportsmen who dressed in tweed, shot Big Game in Africa, and had Strong Opinions.

Location 429, on encountering White’s The Goshawk as a child:

This was a book about falconry by a man who seemed to know nothing about it. He talked about the bird as if it were a monster and he wasn’t training it properly. I was bewildered. Grown-ups were experts. They wrote books to tell you about things you didn’t know; books on how to do things. Why would a grown-up write about not being able to do something?

Location 463 – Macdonald talks to a former U2 pilot, who revealed he read The Once And Future King during the boring parts of getting to altitude and back down again. The cadence of the prose:

…the solitude of the pilot in the spy-plane, seeing everything, touching nothing, reading The Once and Future King fifty thousand feet above the clouds – that makes my heart break, just a little, because of how lonely that is, and because of some things that have happened to me, and because T. H. White was one of the loneliest men alive.

Location 467, in which White describes his early plan for The Goshawk:

It ‘would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher’, he explained sadly, ‘who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird’.

Location 602

Independence – a state of being self-contained – is the only generosity, I thought, the only charity we can claim of a living creature. We must have nothing to do with another’s bones; that is our only right – to have nothing to do with them. The bone must be the axis of a globe of intrusion-proof glass. One could not say, watching a hawk: ‘I ought perhaps to do this for him.’ Therefore, not only is he safe from me, but I am safe from him.

Location 928

In the 1950s, in a small research station in Madingley a few miles north of where I lay, a scientist called Thorpe experimented on chaffinches to try to understand how they learned to sing. He reared young finches in total isolation in soundproofed cages, and listened, fascinated, to the rudimentary songs his broken birds produced. There was a short window of time, he found, in which the isolated chicks needed to hear the elaborate trills of adult song, and if that window was missed, they could never quite manage to produce it themselves. He tried exposing his isolated fledglings to looped tapes of the songs of other species: could they be persuaded to sing like tree pipits? It was a groundbreaking piece of research into developmental learning, but it was also a science soaked deep in Cold War anxieties. The questions Thorpe was asking were those of a post-war West obsessed with identity and frightened of brainwashing. How do you learn who you are? Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch? Where do you come from?

Location 1218

Nothing was wrong with the hawk. She wasn’t sick. She was a baby. She fell asleep because that’s what babies do. I wasn’t sick either. But I was orphaned and desperately suggestible, and I didn’t know what was happening to me.

Location 1489

Despite the eccentricity of a hawk on his fist, what White was doing was very much of his time. Long walks in the English countryside, often at night, were astonishingly popular in the 1930s. Rambling clubs published calendars of full moons, train companies laid on mystery trains to rural destinations, and when in 1932 the Southern Railway offered an excursion to a moonlit walk along the South Downs, expecting to sell forty or so tickets, one and a half thousand people turned up.

Location 1580, after Helen begins walking Mabel in Cambridge to get her used to people:

I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of a stranger urges confession, urges confidences, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday. ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant. But I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

Location 1614 – this is a cracking part. Macdonald discovers that lots of the 18th and 19th century literature around goshawks by and large describes them as irritable, difficult women (the female goshawk is larger than the male, and generally preferred for hawking). By now furious, she continues going back in time, and finds that earlier writers were much more sensitive to their hawks (and perhaps also their women):

…reading further back I find that in the seventeenth century goshawks weren’t vile at all. They were ‘sociable and familiar’, though by nature ‘altogether shye and fearfull’ wrote Simon Latham in 1615. They ‘take exception’ at ‘rough and harsh behaviour from the man’, but if treated with kindness and consideration, are ‘as loving and fond of her Keeper as any other Hawke whatsoever’. These hawks, too, were talked about as if they were women. They were things to win, to court, to love. But they were not hysterical monsters. They were real, contradictory, self-willed beings, ‘stately and brave’, but also ‘shye and fearfull’. If they behaved in ways that irritated the falconer it was because he had not treated them well, had not demonstrated ‘continuall loving and curteous behaviour towards them’. The falconer’s role, wrote Edmund Bert, was to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’. ‘I am her friend,’ he wrote of his goshawk, ‘and shee my playfellow.’

Location 1639 – Macdonald discovers that Mabel likes playing with her, tossing a ball of newspaper around the living room:

An obscure shame grips me. I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was, just as those Victorian falconers had, and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible. I wondered if it was because no one had ever played with them. The thought made me terribly sad.

Location 1866

My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.

Location 2091

Being a novice is safe. When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe any more. Being an expert opens you up to judgement.

Location 2156

It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.

Location 2395

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Location 3043

I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

Location 3124 – Macdonald goes to the doctor. I remember this train of thought well:

He says it will make things better. Which is ridiculous. How can this grey and mortified world be washed away by little dots and lines? Then I start to worry that the drugs will make me ill. Even more absurdly, I panic that they’ll stop me thinking clearly. That they’ll stop me flying Mabel. That whoever I’ll become under their chemical influence will be so strange and alien she won’t fly to me any more.

Location 3257

The American writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that falconry was a balancing act between wild and tame – not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer. That is why he considered it the perfect hobby. I am starting to see the balance is righting, now, and the distance between Mabel and me increasing. I see, too, that her world and my world are not the same, and some part of me is amazed that I ever thought they were.

Location 3322

From the top I can look down and see the whole of Cambridge. The light today is beguiling. The rooftops and spires seem within a hand’s grasp; a chess-set town glittering among bare trees, as if I could pick up the brute tower of the university library and move it six places north, set it down somewhere else.

Location 3697 – also, from a remarkable section, about the nature of what ‘England’ is. Even our nature – hawks, deer, squirrels – are all imports from other cultures, countries and times. The whole passage was too long to underline, so I just chose this:

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale.

I couldn’t put this down.

I’m a fan of Harrison’s writing, so I might be biased, but this enthralled me. Much of his work veers between Fantasy, SF, and magic realism. This is at most only a little of the latter: a hazy set of tales spread over a year, from the perspective of a man – “Mike” – moving to the north to leave a failing relationship, and finding solace on the side of rocks and in the company of climbers. Not a failing relationship, actually, so much as a dwindling one. Nothing stops or starts here: things just fade in and out.

There is a plot, for sure, told in fits and starts, but threading ever-forward. And yet the magic of the book is in the telling. In some ways, it’s very plain prose – and yet it unpacks in your head, like dense poetry. It’s told with a very narrow depth-of-field: some scenes, some people are perceived acutely; others just float by, either out of Mike’s focus or ignored, either unconsciously or not. And, every now and then, out of the mist, the text just leaps out. I underlined quite a bit; I’m not sure how much sense it’ll make out of context.

It probably helps that I read most of it on holiday in the Peak District, not far from many of the places the gang are. “We’re just here in my book,” I’d say, as we drove along, and I thought about Mike, and Normal, and Sankey, and Gaz, and Mick, falling off walls, sheltering from the rain, arseholing along in a Robin Reliant.

It’s special, for sure. I’m not a climber, but am outdoorsy enough to understand some of the perspective – and, when I lack it, to remember the vested men and women extended on Malham Cove, and imagine who Mike is talking about.

Very much recommended.

Locations: 160-162 – Robert Macfarlane has written the new introduction to this edition. It’s good:

Speaking to Rolling Stone about his novel Libra in 1988 – the year Harrison completed Climbers – Don DeLillo described fiction as an art-form capable of ‘rescuing history from its confusions . . . providing balance and rhythm . . . correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries’.

Locations: 274-275

David was a fireman, whose prematurely white hair gave him a kind but slightly overdressed look, like a professional snooker player.

Locations: 317-318

When they spoke to one another it was in a language full of ellipses, hints and abrupt changes of subject, in which the concrete things were items and prices.

Locations: 413-415

The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Locations: 416 – expressing something very elegantly that I know I’ve felt, usually on a boat.

‘It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.’

Locations: 774

March is the hinge. There is always the sense that the year might as easily slam shut on it as open.

Locations: 900-906

…jumped off with a thud and stared sulkily across at the abandoned explosives store with its fringe of rank weeds. ‘Looks like bloody Dr Who.’

Earth, 1997: everyone lives under the ground and wears identical clothes. Something appalling has been done to their sexuality and they walk round staring directly ahead of themselves. ‘Not much different to now.’ Every fifteen minutes a voice like the station announcer at Preston says something nobody can understand and they all walk off down a different corridor. Can the Doctor help them?

‘For fuck’s sake shut up,’ said Gaz, ‘and let’s go somewhere we can climb.’

Locations: 930-932

When you hear an old song again like that, one you have not thought about for years, there is a brief slippage of time, a shiver, as if something had cut down obliquely through your life and displaced each layer by its own depth along the fault line.

Locations: 951-954

…we went, as he put it, arseholing down the M6 with the radio turned up full: AC/DC, Kate Bush, Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ already a nostalgia number. How many times, coming back after a hard day like that, has there seemed to be something utterly significant in the curve of a cooling tower, or the way a field between two factories, reddened in the evening light, rises to meet the locks on a disused canal?

Locations: 1297-1300

One thick vertical bar crossed at three-quarters of its length by a thinner, shorter one, both enclosed in a parallelogram of shadow: a strange figure, the dark part the colour of earth and lichen, the bright parts green and gold. All morning the sun had been forcing it round to the north. It elongated itself to escape. Eventually it would go too far and break to pieces against the shelves of books, but not before the cat Rutherford had got down in it and wriggled with pleasure.

Locations: 1429-1432

The life that goes on in cafes is domestic but minimal. Alone in one you pour your tea, unwrap a knife from a paper serviette that says ‘Forte’ or ‘Thank you, we hope you will call again at Marie’s’; there is as much comfort as you like to create out of the rattle of crocks or the slump of the waitress’s shoulders, and no further claim on you as there would be at home.)

Locations: 1761-1766

On Sunday mornings the Railway Cafe at Grindleford is full of school teachers, up from the Midlands by Ford Fiesta to do climbs in the Hard Very Severe and low Extreme grades. They squeeze between the tables in the hot steamy air, shouting and talking and clattering their plates. The men, in their middle thirties, with longish hair and aggressive but neat beards, often teach maths or geography; some of them can play the guitar. They make thoughtful, steady climbers. Though they lack the imagination, the edge of nervous excitement, to be outstanding, they form the backbone of the sport. They occupy its middle ground. They decide its shape. If they have a fault it’s that they are too minutely concerned to use in the same way the same holds everyone else has used.

Locations: 2148

The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.

Locations: 2334-2337

All Sankey’s things – the chipped Baby Belling on the draining board; the bits of unmatched blue and fawn carpet; the one-bar fire, the transistor radio, the stereo with its handful of dog-eared albums from the early Seventies – had a used but uncooperative look. He had assembled them, and while he was still alive his personality had held them together; now they were distancing themselves from one another again like objects in a second-hand shop.

Locations: 2659-2660

‘You spend Christmas,’ I wrote, ‘surrounded by other people’s assessment of you’

Locations: 2851-2852

If you look straight down an Inter-City second-class carriage, the landscape on both sides of the train flies past in your peripheral vision like images in a split-screen film. You have only an instant in which to recognise an object before it becomes a blur.

Locations: 3286-3289

Without a word, he levered himself on to The Snivelling and climbed neatly and carefully, without slowing down or stopping, to the top of it. There, he waved his arms disconnectedly in relief. He let out a shout of triumph which made his face seem distorted and animal-like: I understood that Mick went climbing only to release this expression from himself. What it represented I had no idea. For a moment though I was awed, and almost as excited as he was.

Locations: 3322-3324

Mick’s stories about his job are mixed with sentimental memories of ‘the rescue’, preserved in – and intricated with – an even older level of material from his school days. He often seems to forget I wasn’t there when this childhood sediment was laid down. His tenses saw violently back and forth as he tries to unearth what he wants.

Locations: 3363-3364

You believe, as you make the first move, that you have already accepted the potential fall.

Locations: 3382-3383

I played ZZ Top, ‘Deguello’: my aggression seemed endless. The music fell obliquely across the rock, illuminating it like a new wavelength of light to reveal brand-new ways of climbing.

Locations: 3397-3398

Something seemed to lurch inside my knee, like a small animal trying to escape.

Locations: 3497 – I underlined this mainly because I couldn’t envisage it or make sense of it. And yet: I’m sure you do that. I’m just not nearly in as much control of my body as these men.

In a figure-four move, you try and sit on your own arm to extend your reach.

Locations: 3509-3511

Cavers, anyway, are proud of their parties, which are predicated on a greater despair than climbers can ever experience, the knowledge that you are going down into the ground the next day, where it is dark and cold and smells like a hole in the road; or on a greater joy, which is that you have come up again.

Locations: 3548-3549 – because it’s a smell I know very well.

He turned up ten minutes later, in a bruised Transit van belonging to his firm. Inside, it smelled of oil, Swarfega and old polypropylene rope.

Locations: 3594-3596 – Stox is talking about stock-car racing:

‘Ever been? One minute nothing’s happening. They’re just cruising round the pace lap. The next it’s like Apocalypse Now in a cinema full of hot dog stands. You can’t see for cinders and all you can smell is fried onions. Fucking awesome!’

Locations: 3664-3666

As if pigments could learn about what they represent, events understand themselves more accurately towards the end than the beginning, the freshly quarried boulders photographed at Millstone Edge have confirmed their outlines and no longer resemble melted lumps of sugar.

Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, has been perhaps my favourite book of the year so far. Not the best book I read, but definitely my favourite.

It’s about a young man attending art school in late 50s America, and discovering graphic design, through a particularly memorable course – Art 127, Introduction To Graphic Design, run by one Winter Sorbeck.

I liked it for many reasons, including Kidd’s deft use of language, its acidic humour, and a description of being drunk – and then hungover – that comes close to Lucky Jim‘s. But I think I liked it most because it reminded me of the values of art school that I’ve come – very much secondhand – to appreciate. Namely: the value of the crit.

More specifically: the value of disassembly – taking apart things you know and learning how to start from nothing. Taking apart a problem to find the only appropriate answer (though there may, in fact, be many). The value of being challenged to do difficult things, and honing skills. The value of physical skills – literal muscle control – in an era before the technological overhaul of design (and the value, as ever, of being able to draw. Even just trying to draw. It helps me a lot).

And, most notably, the value of criticising the Work as the Work.

In a crit, the work may be praised, it may be criticised, it may be torn into tiny pieces, fisked until there is nothing left of it. But it is only a criticism of the Work. It is not personal, and it only criticises the Worker in so much as it criticises their efforts and production on this work. It is a magic circle for being able to critically discuss a work.

As Sorbeck’s students find, it is difficult to learn how to be in a crit, difficult to learn how to respond to one, and difficult to learn how to give one. But it’s all valuable: it is focused on making the work better. There is a degree of building a thicker skin about work required – but also a degree of understanding the difference between criticism and complaining, criticism and anger.

I went to see Bauhaus: Art As Life at the Barbican last week, and The Cheese Monkey’s fictional version of the process of learning how to see was very relevant to my reading of that exhibition: seeing an institution begin to create the beginnings of what we now see in foundation art courses around the world. I was most glad to see the early output of the foundation years at the Bauhaus – some really exciting work made by artists learning how to see form, colour, material, and texture again. The Bauhaus reminded me of all the reason’s I enjoyed Kidd’s book.

I could have dog-eared most of the second half of the book – classroom scenes and narrative alike – but there were three quotations I did end up marking, so as usual, time to share them on the blog.

p. 79, in which the narrator meets Himillsy’s architect boyfriend:

He put out his hand.

“Garnett Grey.”

Yes, Garnett Grey was an Architect. Were a psychoanalyst to approach him from behind, tap his shoulder, and say “Humanity,” Garnett’d spin around, and respond, without hesitation, “Solvable.”

p. 106, in which Winter Sorbeck explains why the title of his course – Introduction To Graphic Design – has been retitle from the Introduction To Commercial Art that is listed in the course programme.

“…I’ve been put in charge of the store here, and I say it’s Introduction To Graphic Design. The difference is as crucial as it is enormous – as important as the difference between pre- and postwar America. Uncle Sam… is Commercial Art. The American flag is Graphic Design. Commerical Art trys to make you buy things. Graphic Design gives you ideas. One natters on and on, the other actually has something to say. They use the same tools – words, pictures, colors. The difference, as you’ll be seeing, and showing me, is how.”

p.177, Winter on design and power.

“Kiddies, Graphic Design, if you wield it effectively, is Power. Power to transmit ideas that can change everything. Power that can destroy an entire race or save a nation from despair. In this century, Germany chose to do the former with the swastika, and America opted for the latter with Mickey Mouse and Superman.”

It’s a lovely book. I had a lot of fun with it.

The beautiful cover, of cold cuts hanging from a bedstead

When I moved house recently, I managed to find my copy of Katharine Whitehorn‘s classic Cooking In A Bedsitter. Almost everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and asked for me to put more of it online, and so Easter Weekend seemed as good a time as any to dog-ear some pages.

Whitehorn’s book was first published in 1961, and targets the early twenty-somethings moving into small bedsits with the advent of first jobs; her goal is to point out that you can cook perfectly well – even rather entertainingly – with a single gas ring and no sink, but you’re not going to be cooking like mother – and you’re going to have to be a little bit creative.

What follows is a selection of simple, cost-conscious and clearly explained recipes for the first-time bedsitter cook. They are accompanied by Whitehorn’s barbed tongue and voice of expertise, although she barely lived in a bedsit, and didn’t really enjoy cooking, as this interview with Rachel Cooke from last year’s Observer details.

There are two sections to the book. The first, “Cooking To Stay Alive” is a crash course in cookery, storage, inventive use of space and savvy cooking. The second, “Cooking To Impress”, looks at how to cook for parties or groups or, most importantly of all, objects of affection. It’s here that Whitehorn’s pragmatism combines with a saucy barb and, frankly, makes me laugh very hard.

Anyhow, it was hard not to copy out the whole book, but I’ve tried to be reserved to give you an idea of what you’re missing. Do buy the book – it’s still in print, although without the delightful cover of the Penguin edition – if only for a slice of cultural history, when bedsits weren’t last resorts and we were still learning what to do with tinned food. Also, because it’s funny, as I hope you’ll see. I’ve tried to not quote the recipes as much as the text, if only to make it worth your while buying it.

p.13, introducing the notion of cooking in a bedsitter:

“it is a sad fact that the better the room itself and the house in which it is found, the worse the cooking problem tends to be. In a large squalid rooming house, where the landlord calls only to collect the rent and where the cleaning, if any, is done by an indifferent slut with no standards to maintained, adventurous cooking is perfectly possible… if you fill the whole house with the smell of burning onions you will be cursed but not evicted; and nothing will look much worse whatever you spill on it”.


“it is a common fallacy among the better class of landladies that one can exist entirely on tea, biscuits, and good books, without the need for food, beer, the wireless, or the companionship of the opposite sex”

“plenty of our troubles are of our own making. So many of us go into bedsitters, at least in the first instance, with the attitude of ‘me all alone in my little room with my little pan and my little spoon’ – and small pans, of course, make things ten times harder when you have only the one ring on which to cook everything you want to eat. Much better to think ‘me with my enormous appetite and my huge stewpan’.”

p.15, on learning to think like a bedsitter cook:

“The first thing a bedsitter cook must do is abandon the notion of ‘meat and two veg’, in favour of the idea of a simmering cauldron. Meat, yes; vegetables, certainly – thought it might be one or it might be four – but meat and vegetables deliberately chosen to be cooked together, so that the dish is all the better for one food sharing its flavours with another. And that brings us, inevitably, to the casserole.”

p.19, on arranging the room:

“You can save yourself a lot of trouble by deciding that one corner of the room is to be wholely given over to food. College girls who hide their cosmetics in their desks usually look as if they didn’t bother about their faces; by the same token, if you care about food, don’t hide it.”

p.20, explaining just what you really need to run a small kitchen:

“A good many cookery books start out by requiring a vast battery of equipment without which the simplest dish is doomed to failure. (I always burst into tears when I get to the bit about the little porcelain ramekins). But here it is not a question of the best possible tools, but the fewest… the right simple tools will stop you longing for the other, complicated ones.”

p.51, an early recipe illustrating just how simple some of the recipes are – and just how basic the ingredients:

Sausage and Smash

4 pork or beef sausages
a little fat
1 tin condensed vegetable soup

Fry sausages over medium flame 10 minutes; pour contents of tin into pan, and stir until heated, 3-4 minutes.

p.55, a recipe from the rather creative section on what you can do with bacon:

Dixie Casserole

2/3 rashers bacon
1 small tin sweetcorn
2 eggs (optional)
1 dessertspoon flour
1 cup milk or less

First hard-boil eggs if you are using them. Then fry bacon until crisp; pour off fat till about a tablespoon remains. Add flour, over gentle heat, till fat is absorbed. Add liquid from tin, gradually, and then milk until you have added one cup in all. Stir until it thickens; add corn, bacon, and halved hard-boiled eggs. Simmmer 10 minutes.

p.63, introducing the section on vegetables:

“If meat costs 3s. 6d. a pound we think it cheap; if vegetables cost 3s. 56d a pound, we think them dear. Moral: eat vegetables.”

p.79, introducing the section on Beef:

“Most cookery books begin with the portrait, in profile, of the Planned Cow. This amiable beast is covered with dotted lines, like a map; and the idea is to show the uninitiated where their piece of beef should come from. I am sorry to deny my readers this pretty sight. But the trouble with the Planned Cow is that it looks so totally unlike the nameless red hunks that actually appear on the butcher’s slab. It is really more use to know what it looks like when you buy it than to know what it looked like when it was somebody’s mother (or son).”

p.100, on curry:

“Curry finds itself in this section because it is useless to try to impress anyone with a curry nowadays unless you have spent several years out East and are prepared to talk about it, as well as cook, for hours on end. When it comes to really elaborate curries it is much better to be on the receiving end, and fortunately most people who live in bedsitters know at least one Indian or Pakistani who is delighted to make a curry for an admiring friend. moreover, they are apt to know their proportions only in terms of .01 grains of saffron per half sheep, so that they will often make enough curry for you and everyone on the staircase to feed off for a week.”

p.143, introducing “Cooking to Impress”:

“Impressing visitors can usually be done in two ways: the Lavish and the Casual. For you in your bedsitter the lavish is impossible… instead you must concentrate on the apparently effortless meal – the attitude of ‘just a little thing I seem to have cooking in this pot’… if your guests are not to see you looking flustered over your cooking, this in practice means they had better not see you cooking at all.”

p.145, outlining a few important things to do first:

“3. Get yourself looking nice. In a house you can disappear and finish dressing – in a bedsitter, no. Besides, you want your friends to think that dark-eyed look is all Soul, not just mascara; and they won’t, if they see you putting it on.”

p.147 – “Who Are You Trying To Impress?”. Visitors come in four categories:

“1. The troglodyte in the next bedsitter.
2. Couples, or mixed singles, who are accustomed to kitchen food and drawing-room standards. They have forgotten what it was like to cook in a bedsitter (if they ever knew), and it is your business not to remind them.
3. Your parents, or your parents’ spies – who are there to reassure themselves that you are eating adequately, get to bed early, know no vicious young men, and breath plenty of clean fresh air.
4. Delicious little parties à deux.”

p.148 – Cooking for a Man:

“Elementary rules: avoid all whimsy and complication in the food.”

and later on:

“Don’t apologize much if anything goes wrong; don’t flap, whatever happens, and NEVER ask ‘Is it all right?'”

Ah,” said a friend when I showed them that section; “that sounds a lot like sex.

Of course, the elementary techniques described do not always apply:

“There is one class of man for whom a quite different routine is needed: the richie who has up till now bought you expensive meals in smart places – often your only decent meal that week – and now, to your horror, wants to get to know you better in your own surrounds. You don’t want him to think that you can’t be bothered to cook for him, or can’t stand him around the place, or else he will naturally never ask you out again. But equally, neither the food nor the atmosphere must be so inviting that he decides to give up eating out altogether in favour of eating in. The dodge here is to reverse the normal procedure, and fuss up and down constantly… he will quickly conclude that your own surroundings hold little promise for him, and go back to taking you to Boulestin’s, or of course luring you back to his own lush flat. Well, at least he has to see to the food there.”

p.149 – Cooking for a Girl is somewhat different, Whitehorn explains:

“You, as a man, can get away with more roughness than a girl can. But if you are seriously luring the girl, you have a dilemma: you certainly don’t want to give her the idea that you are struggling to impress her, but of course she will be touched and appreciative of any sign that shows you have remembered who it is you are feeding. The right compromise is to imply that you set yourself rather high standards of food; but add, almost as an afterthought, something of purely feminie appeal, like sticky chocolates or her own special brand of Turkish cigarettes.”

p.173 – The final chapter, on “Drink And Parties”, was “contributed by a man” – specifically, Whitehorn’s husband, Gavin Lyall.

“It should be news to no one that red wine goes with red meat and most game; white wine with fish, veal, and the sweet courses. More to the point, perhaps, is that white wine goes with carpets; red wine only with floors you can wipe clean or don’t need to care about.”

p.175, on Parties:

“There are only two rules for parties: the carpet rule redoubled in spades, and don’t mix the drinks.”

p.177, on serving Spirits:

“Spirits cost money. Pubs reckon getting 32 measure from one bottle (so you can work out a rough idea of their gross profit), but I shouldn’t go giving your friends pub-sized measures if you want them to stay friends.”


“There is nothing against having beer for the men and gin for the women – if you can keep the men away from the gin.”

As I said earlier; it’s a wonderful book, and the recipes in it vary from useful, fast snacks to ingenious dishes that might well become staples in time. And it’s worth it just for Whitehorn’s wonderful, barbed tongue.

Regarding the Pain of Others is a long-form essay by Susan Sontag, examining the representation of suffering (and notably warfare) through the display of photographs. Published in 2003, in many ways, it is a follow up to some of the ideas examined in her earlier On Photography.

On Photography is one of my favourite books on the subject; it made a deep impact at university, and I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while. Regarding the Pain of Others is interesting if only because (as later illustrated) Sontag revisits some of her arguments in that set of essays and questions them again, even disagreeing with her younger self – something that I’ve rarely seen a critic do.

It’s a slim book – around 100 pages – but it’s written very densely, with long, unbroken sentences and many subordinate clauses. At times, it feels like the book as a whole could have done with its screws being tightened, but Sontag’s language is clear and efficient; it was hard to quote short passages simply due to the number of themes being rammed together in single constructions. It clearly also took me time to get into it – most of my dog-eared pages are in the latter half of the book, even though there’s almost as much I could quote from the first half.

A worthwhile read, anyhow; lots of thought about the current media landscape, especially in America, even if at times Sontag is somewhat pessimistic about Western society as a whole. Despite it not being the easiest – or clearest – book to read on the train to work, it had a lot to say that resonated, and it provided much-needed historical context for the media of today.

On to the quotations:

p.60, on the similarity of “shooting a subject” and “shooting a human being:

“War-making and picture-taking are congruent activities: ‘It is the same intelligence, whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second a meeter.’ wrote [Ernst] Jünger, ‘that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail.'”

p.67, on the contradictory nature of photography-as-reportage and photography-as-beautiful-artefact:

“The concern is that the images to be devised won’t be sufficiently upsetting: not concrete, not detailed enough. Pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune. But pity, far from being the natural twin of fear in the dramas of catastrophic misfortune, seems dilute – distracted – by fear, while fear (dread, terror) usually manages to swamp pity. Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità likes a challenging kind of beauty.”

p.70, on Sebastião Salgado’s portraits:

“It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of phootgraph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.”

p.76, on the familiarity of certain photographs as cultural artifacts:

“…photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories’, and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.”

p.79, on the nature of memory (and with an awkward opening line, to say the least):

“Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space – like a theatre – in which we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember. The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.”


“In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atroicities?”

p.100, on the danger of juxtaposing images of suffering:

“…the Sarajevans did want their plight to be recorded in photographs: victims are interested in the representation of their own sufferings. But they want the suffering to be seen as unique. In early 1994, the English photojournalist Paul Lowe, who had been living for more than a year in the besieged city, mounted an exhibit at a partly wrecked art gallery of the photographs he had been taking, along with photographs he’d taken a few years earlier in Somalia; the Sarajevans, though eager to see new pictures of the ongoing destruction of their city, were offended by the inclusion of the Somalia pictures. Lowe had thought the matter was a simple one. He was a professional photographer, and these were two bodies of work of which he was proud. For the Sarajevans, it was also simple. To set their sufferings alongside the sufferings of another people was to compare them (which hell was worse?), demoting Sarajevo’s martyrdom to a mere instance […] is intolerable to have one’s own sufferings twinned with anybody else’s.”

p.103, on the problem that photographs suggest that as a society, we should “never forget”:

“…history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

p.105, on the frustration of viewing images of suffering throughout the media:

“The frustration of not being able to do anything about what the images show may be translated into an accusation of the indecency of regarding such images, or the indecencies of the way such images are disseminated – flanked, as they may well be, by advertising for emollients, pain relievers and SUVs. If we could do something about what the images show, we might not care as much about these issues.”

p.108, on attempting to display photographs:

“Much of the current skepticism about the work of certain photographers of conscience seems to amount to little more than displeasure at the fact that photographs are circulated so diversely; that there is no way to guarantee reverential conditions in which to look at these pictures and be fully responsive to them. Indeed, apart from the settings where patriotic deference to leaders is exercised, there seems no way to guarantee contemplative or inhibiting space for anything noww.

Any way you look at it, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle is an unusual book.

It’s a book that invites the reader to envisage a world in which the concept of waste does not exist, and where re-use is preferred to recycling; in short, a world where products have a true life-cycle, rather than a passage from cradle-to-grave.

It’s an exciting book, if only because the physical artefact embodies its message:


Cradle to Cradle is not made out of paper, you see. It’s a format called Durabook. The Durabook is made of a kind of plastic, and is entirely waterproof. More interestingly, it’s entirely reusable – the ink can be easily removed to allow reprinting or notebook use, and the “paper” itself can be melted down and reused without giving off toxins. It’s a good environmental citizen, essentially: reusable, up-cyclable, and with no harmful byproducts. (It’s also surprisingly heavy for such a slim format).

I found it an interesting read. I found a lot of their later commentary on designing services probably the most interesting and relevant – a lot of discussion on refactoring products (which, by their nature, are designed for disposal) into services (wherein the product can be upcycled or removed from the equation, as it’s the service that matters). The Linc concept mobile phone is a good illustration of the thinking the book suggests.

At times, though, I found it depressing; a lot of the innovations pointed to are McDonough and Braungart’s own, and it would have been good to see more examples from people other than them. Similarly, at times the scale of the challenges described in the book seems colossal, and perhaps impossible.

But I think, taken with a pinch of salt, it’s an interesting read, and there’s some good meat within it. With that in mind, here’s what I marked out for myself as being interesting:

p.24, on Henry Ford’s innovations:

“In 1914, when the prevailing salary for factory workers was $2.34 a day, he hiked it to $5, pointing out that cars cannot buy cars. (He also reduced the hours of the workday from nine to eight). In one fell swoop, he actually created his own market, and raised the bar for the entire world of industry.”

I really enjoyed the section on Ford. They point out that a lot of Ford’s innovations really were more environmentally-friendly than the wasteful, inefficient factories that had preceded them. This doesn’t make it good, per se, but it’s worth bearing in mind. And I love “cars cannot buy cars”.

p.46, on the sentiments of the American Pastoral writers:

“[Aldo] Leopold anticipated some of the feelings of guilt that characterise much environmentalism today:
“When I submit these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping cut down the woods. When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain a marsh for cows to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil. When I go birding or hunting in my Ford, I am devastating an oil field, and re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber. Nay more: when I father more than two children I am creating an insatiable need for more printing presses, more cows, more coffee, more oil, to supply which more birds, more trees, and more flowers will either be killed or … evicted from their several environments.”

p.60, on the struggle between what Jane Jacobs described as commerce and the guardian:

“Any hybrid of these two syndromes Jacobs characterizes as so riddled with problems as to be ‘monstrous’. Money, the tool of commerce, will corrupt the guardian. Regulation, the tool of the guardian, will slow down commerce.”

p.61, on regulation being a signal of design failure:

“In a world where designs are unintelligent and destructive, regulations can reduce immediate deleterious effects. But ultmiately a regulation is a signal of design failure. In fact, it is what we call a license to harm: a permit issued by a government to an industry so that it may dispense sickness, destruction, and death at an ‘acceptable’ rate.”

p.66-67, on sacrifice and “eco-efficiency” as a way of trying to cut down on the bad things humans do:

“In very early societies, repentance, atonement, and sacrifice were typical reactions to complex systems, like nature, over which people felt they had little control. Societies around the world developed belief systems based on myth in which bad weather, famine, or disease meant one had displeased the gods, and sacrifices were a way to appease them…

But to be less bad is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the ‘be less bad’ approach: a failure of the imagination. From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species’ role in the world.

What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100 percent good?”

It takes them a while to get to that point (in a ~180 page book), but that’s the real kicking-off point for the more interesting arguments – by reframing the problem in a world that doesn’t have a concept of waste, what kind of answers emerge?

p.70, on rethinking the “entire concept of a book” (which is something the artefact of Cradle to Cradle itself does, as mentioned earlier):

“We might begin by considering whether paper itself is a proper vehicle for reading matter. Is it fitting to write our history on the skin of fish with the blood of bears, to echo writer Margaret Attwood?”

p.80, on “nature’s services”:

“Some people use the term nature’s services to refer to the processes by which, without human help, water and air are purified […] We don’t like this focus on services, since nature does not do any of these things just to serve people.”

True “services” have to intend to service a particular need – you can’t just apply the s-word to any available substrate or process.


“Western civilization in particular has been shaped by the belief that it is the right and duty of human beings to shape nature to better ends; as Francis Bacon put it, ‘Nature being known, it may be master’d, managed, and used in the services of human life.‘”

p.87, on new approaches to zoning:

“We agree that it is important to leave some natural places to thrive on their own, without undue human interference or habitation. But we also believe that industry can be so safe, effective, enriching, and intelligent that it need not be fenced off from other human activity. (This could stand the concept of zoning on its head; when manufacturing is no longer dangerous, commercial and residentail sites can exist alongside factories, to their mutual benefit and delight.)”

That would make Sim City interesting.

p.88; professor Kai Lee talks to members of the Yakima Indian Nation about the long-term plans for storing nuclear waste within their territory.

“The Yakima were surprised – even amused – at Kai’s concern of their descendants’ safety. ‘Don’t worry,’ they assured him. ‘We’ll tell them where it is.’ As Kai pointed out to us, ‘their conception of themselves and their place was not historical, as mine was, but eternal. This would always be their land. They would warn others not to mess with the wastes we’d left.

We are not leaving this land either, and we will begin to become native to it when we recognize this fact.”

This reminds of Tom Coates’ Native to a Web of Data – we will become native to the web when we recognise that the data structures we create and impose on it will stick around forever, and that we should design them as such.

p.102, on “deflowering” a new product:

“Opening a new product is a kind of metaphorical defloration: ‘This virgin product is mine, for the very first time. When I am finished with it (special, unique person that I am), everyone is. It is history.’ Industries design and plan according to this mind-set.”


“What would have happened, we sometimes wonder, if the Industrial Revolution had taken place in societies that emphasize the community over the individual, and where people believed not in a cradle-to-grave life cycle but in reincarnation?”

p.104, describing the two discrete metabolisms of the planet:

“Products can be composed either of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles, or of technical materials that stay in closed-loop technical cycles, in which they continually circulate as valuable nutrients for industry. In order for these two metabolisms to remain healthy, valuable, and successful, great care mus be taken to avoid contaminating one with the other.”

p.120: fittest vs fitting-est

“Popular wisdom holds that the fittest survive, the strongest, leanest, largest – perhaps meanest – whatever beats the competition. But in healthy, thriving natural systems it is actually the fitting-est who thrive. Fitting-est implies an energetic and material engagement with place, and an interdependent relationship to it.”

p.128, on misunderstanding Le Corbusier’s intent:

“Modern homes, buildings, and factories, even whole cities, are so closed off from natural energy flows that they are virtual steamships. It was Le Corbusier who said the house was a machine for living in, and he glorified steamships, along with airplanes, cars, and grain elevators. In point of fact, the buildings he designed had cross-ventilation and other people-friendly elements, but as his message was taken up by the modern movement, it evolved into a machinelike sameness of design.”

p.144, on people’s affinity for certain types of visual:

“According to visual preference surveys, most people see culturally distinctive communities as desirable environments in which to live. When they are shown fast-food restaurants or generic-looking buildings, they score the images very low. They prefer quaint New England streets to modern suburbs, even though they may live in developments that destroyed the Main Streets in their very own hometowns. When given the opportunity, people choose something other than that which they are typically offered in most one-size-fits-all designs: the strip, the subdivision, the mall. People want diversity because it brings them pleasure and delight. They want a world of [paraphrasing Charles De Gaulle] four hundred cheeses.”

p.154, on criteria for new product design:

“High on our own lists [of criteria] is fun: Is this product a pleasure, not only to use, but to discard? Once, in a conversation with Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, Bill observed that the elements we add to the basic business criteria of cost, performance, and aesthetics – ecological intelligence, justice, and fun – correspond to Thomas Jefferson’s ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Yes, Dell responded, but noted we had left out a most important consideration: bandwidth.”

p.172, on the aspects of marketing and selling eco-friendly products:

“A small but significant number o consumers chose to buy the lotion in a highly unattractive ‘eco’ package shelved next to the identical product in its regular package, but the number who chose the ‘eco’ package skyrocketed when it was placed next to an over-the-top ‘luxury’ package for the very same product. People like the idea of buying something that makes them feel special and smart, and they recoil from products that make them feel crass and unintelligent. These complex motivations give manufacturers power to use for good and for ill. We are wise to beware of our own motivations when choosing materials, and we also can look for materials whose ‘advertising’ matches their insides, again as indicative of a broader commitment to the issues that concern us.”

p.185, in a section on “preparing for the learning curve”:

“Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has captured this concept nicely in a way that can be useful to industry: ‘All biological structures (at all scales from genes to organs) maintain a capacity for massive redundancy – that is, for building more stuff or information than minimally needed to maintain an adaptation. The ‘extra’ material then becomes available for constructing evolutionary novelties because enough remains to perform the original, and still necessary, function’. Form follows evolution.”

And that’s all, really. I enjoyed it a lot – though I found its message difficult and overfacing at times, and the perspective perhaps a little smug, there was lots of good stuff in it and it provided food for thought. Thanks to Tom for letting me borrow it, and to Mike for the format this blogpost takes.

I acquired Reading the Everyday from work several years ago, and only recently got around to reading it, in part after Alex’s hugely enthusiastic feedback. It turned out to be a wonderful read. I’m not particularly well-versed in cultural studies, so much of the French work Moran refers to is somewhat new to me. It is, however, fascinating to see such a uniquely British study of the everyday; just as the French ideals of le quotidien are very much rooted in 50s France – and the Parisian suburbs especially – so Moran focuses on a Britain that developed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, through the booming newtowns into Thatcherism.

The book gets especially good as it moves out of criticism of theory and into more focused case-studies, on everything from bus-shelter advertising and queuing to the M25 and traffic lights. Anyhow, enough rambling. On with the quotations, from dog-eared pages, or (more often) just stuff I underlined. It’s been a while since I read a book with a pencil so vigorously in hand!


“It is hard to stand at a bus stop, as the single-occupant cars stream by, without feeling somehow denied full membership of society”


“Henri Lefebvre suggests that everyday life is increasingly made up of this ‘compulsive time’, a kind of limbo between work and leisure in which no explicit demands are made on us but we are still trapped by the necessity of waiting.”

p.47, on the final episode of The Office:

“It is about the forgetfulness of office life, the way that its impersonal procedures do not acknowledge the finite trajectory of individual lives, despite the leaving dos and retirement parties that lamely suggest otherwise.”

p,65, in a wonderful section all about the Westway:

“In truth, the Westway provokes conflicted emotions, commensurate with our cultural confusion about the relationship between the individual freedom of driving and the collective horror of traffic congestion.”

p.86, on how we read images from CCTV cameras:

“The telltale digits in the corner of the screen revealing the date and time convey not the reality of round-the-clock surveillance but the specific moment at which an extraordinary event happened or was about to happen.”

p.98, on motorways as an example of what Marc Augé called “non-places”:

“The importance of the road sign in the non-place, for Augé, is that it allows places to be cursorily acknowledged without actually being passed through or even formally identified.”

p.101, quoting Chris Petit’s commentary on his film “London Orbital”:

“[the M25 is] mainline boredom, a quest for transcendental boredom, a state that offers nothing except itself, resisting any promise of breakthrough or story. The road becomes a tunnelled landscape, a perfect kind of amnesia.”

and later in that page, on Iain Sinclair’s book of the same name:

“Sinclair notes that in the nineteenth century, the area now occupied by the M25 housed mental hospitals and sanatoriums, and represented the safe distance to which Victorians would remove contaminated parts of the city.”

p.108, in a section on service stations:

“When they first opened, young people would drive to the service stations at high speeds to play pinball, drink coffee and eat ice cream, as a more alluring alternative to the only other all-night venue, the launderette.”

I never thought of that – launderettes as the only mainstream 24-hour venue in the provinces. Like so much of the book – a great wake-up call.

p.132, in the chapter on “Living Space”, Judy Attfield offers commentary on home makeover shows like Changing Rooms:

“…such shows elevate a notion of design, which she defines as ‘things with attitude’, over the banal reality of material culture, which she calls ‘design in the lower case’.”

Totally. I loved this distinction – the idea that things with attitude, so valued at the temporary level (a cool thing in a shop, the first five minutes of staring at a made-over room) are not necessarily the things we want to spend long periods of time with.

p.145, quoting Paul Barker on ‘Barratt’s transformation of Britain’s vernacular landscape’:

“When the social history of our times comes to be written, he [Lawrie Barratt, the company’s founder] will get more space than Norman Foster. You can search out Foster masterpieces here and there. But Barratt houses are everywhere. Foster buildings are the Concordes of architecture. Barratt houses fly charter.”

p.157, on Moran’s trip to Chafford Hundred, a new housing-estate-cum-new-village in Essex:

“Walking around Chafford Hundred, it is not long before I am completely lost – partly because the sameness of the houses provides no landmark, and partly because the curvilinear streets are disorientating. Invented in American tract developments to close off the vista and protect the viewer from the unwelcome sight of an endless row of subdivisions, the curvilinear street has the unfortunate side effect of destroying any sense of direction… getting lost in Chafford Hundred seems like a metaphor for housebuilding as a political black hole.”


“In a note to its clients, [investment bank] Durlacher observed: ‘Probably the best indication of difficulties in the market will be when Property Ladder is no longer commissioned”

p.164, on the design of the Trabant:

“Its accelerator pedal even had a point of resistance part of the way down to discourage excessive fuel consumption.”

Moran points out that everything about the Trabi was counter to the traditional “counternarratives of speed, status and freedom” that cars espouse in the Western world, but I love the idea of the values of a society and culture being literally built into the products it produces; the socially-responsible accelerator pedal feels like a very good example of that.

p.167, on the problematic aspects of “mourning and coping narratives” in a post-9/11 world:

“…they confront us with and ‘ordinary life’ whose normality is never questioned. It is more difficult to make a similar imaginative connection with Iraqis or Afghans killed by bombs dropped from fighter planes, because their daily lives are not so easily recognizable or represented.”

Moran talks a lot about the dangerous ideals of “ordinary life” and “ordinary people” in his books – concepts we know are very dangerous in the concept of design. The idea that their are specifivites in our understand of the everyday that do not map elsewhere is a very important one, and a reminder that if anything is presented of foreign culture in the media – especially the news media – it is rarely the truly “everyday”.

More on that further down the page:

“Richard Johnson points out that the term ‘way of life’, which has a particular resonance in cultural studies and was constantly reiterated by politicians such as Tony Blair and George Bush in the months after September 11, ‘resists instant and “fundamentalist” moral (or aesthetic) claims to superiority without letting go of evaluation entirely’. It conflates ‘the necessary sustaining practices of daily living and the more particularly “cultural” features – systems of meaning, forms of identity and psycho-social processes – through which a world is subjectively produced as meaningful'”

p.169 – the final page, and a wonderful quotation from Henri Lefebvre to conclude these notes:

“Man must be everyday, or he will not be at all.”

A great book, then. There’s masses in it about ideas of mundanity and the everyday, and I got a lot out of it from a design perspective, particularly. It also looks like it will overlap with Adam Greenfield’s “The City Is Here For You To Use” quite nicely. Highly recommended!