Monday, August 29, 2016


Don’t worry, I will explain what these five symbols mean later.
Last Saturday, I returned from a trip to Winchester, ready to write about semi-detached houses, still overwhelmed by the surprise I came across there, while walking to the shops.
From 2005 to 2007, I worked at the Portsmouth branch of Mail Boxes Etc., a business offering mailing, shipping and printing services, where I also designed business cards, menus, posters, and anything that needed a bit of design. Surrounded by university buildings, there was a brisk trade in printing end-of-year essays, and sending belongings back home.
In 2006, to make our student shipping prices clear and simple, I designed a colour-coded map of Europe, with prices listed by colour. The colours I used – red, green, pink and amber - where to avoid confusion as much as possible, not because they were the nicest choices.
After changing the top of the design, posters and flyers were printed up, and the word was spread. I remember we used it the following year too. It does its job better than any lists and tables of prices would have done. I’m just glad it worked.
Meanwhile, ten years later, I walked past the Winchester branch of Mail Boxes Etc., and I see my past looking back at me.

Going into the shop later, the lady behind the counter told me it had been placed there two and a half years ago, and people are often seen looking at it, or tapping the window when pointing at it.
I still don’t know what to make of this because, of course, having designed it for a business, they can use it for as long as they want – I just never expected something I did would ever last so long. Perhaps, it’s better to concentrate on what I can do now.
I now work at a healthcare company, which recently introduced a set of Core Values, setting up a competition to design pictures for these values, to put them at the front of colleagues’ minds.
It hadn’t been mentioned how they would be used, so I sketched out something that could be adapted as much as possible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a winner, but I think the ideas still hold up.
The five symbols created symbolised, from left to right, the Core Values of Innovation, Business Responsibility, Professionalism, Adaptability and Mutual Respect. All the symbols are based within the same app icon-style frame, which represents the business itself. For “Innovation,” I needed anything but a light bulb, but lightning striking the existing turning cogs of the business was perfect. For “Business Responsibility,” all eyes are meant to be on the prize of new work, so we have arrows all pointing to a prospective new contract. For “Professionalism,” which you should bring to work with you, becomes the person that you are, and it is as simple as that – the snorkel then shows the “Adaptability” angle, and some waves would have later been added in the background. Finally, “Mutual Respect” is simply that, from one person to another.
All the symbols were in black and white, with no greyscales, meaning they could be used in anything from forms to posters, in whatever colour was required, while always remaining the same. Ultimately, a good symbol will be one that creates its own meaning, and it would have been interesting to see what would have been made of them, but there will always be another time – I’ll see what they look like in another ten years or so.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


ere is all I knew about semi-detached houses: I live in one; they are a quintessentially British way to build a place to live; and they are less desirable than a detached house, but more than a terraced house or flat. The last of these made me wonder what kind of question "semis" are trying to solve, and why the answer means they make up about a third of all the housing stock in the UK.

The desirability factor can be seen on the map of any town, from as early as the nineteenth century – semis became a compromise between the rows of terraces found in the centre, and the larger detached houses found on the outskirts, where land was cheaper. This distinction has been muddied due to the spread of new semi-filled suburbs and estates, and the houses themselves being built at a lower cost, or lower standard. 

This is where I lose the point on why we build semis. If you look at one of the most important early examples, the Grade II-listed 3-5 Porchester Terrace, London W2, it is designed to look like a substantial detached house, with a colonnade topped with Grecian urns masking the front doors placed on opposite sides. The designer, John Claudius Loudon, better known as a landscape gardener, wanted the houses to appear as one, giving a sense of dignity to both, rather than each simply being a mirror image of the other.
The semi my mother grew up in, a simpler, more mass-produced post-war design, did keep the front doors on opposite sides, but this was already rare enough to look quite strange, and it annoys me to see how a later occupier has since moved its entrances around to the front, matching what others did to theirs in the same road. But, as extensions, white UPVC windows and loft windows have also been added through the road, the original look was lost long ago.
Regardless of how they now look, semis most adequately fill the need to cost-effectively build a house where someone would actually want to live. They came with a desire to make the area they were found better, giving rise to both front and back gardens, bringing running water inside the house, model towns like Port Sunlight and Bournville, the Garden Cities, cul-de-sacs, building societies, and the mortgage. The semi remains the British middle-class dream, even if you don’t want to think in those terms.
…and yet, semis also exist in across Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada and even the United States – what was their thinking? All I know is, when singing “Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt (or, if you like, Kylie Minogue) wanted Santa to “fill my stocking with a duplex and [cheques],” they could have set their sights a little higher than just a semi-detached house.

Friday, August 19, 2016


Based on two song lyrics used as titles, and a quote about his tempestuous relationship with the saxophone, “David Bowie” is currently the third most searched term on this site. For someone whose work speaks to everyone, even a little of it goes a very long way.
I switched on to Bowie very late – I don’t remember his albums in my parents’ record collection; my choice of listening when growing up in the 1990s was eclectic, but not yet wide enough; and when studying later, I buried myself in books on philosophy, psychology, art and postmodernism, along with William Burroughs and the other Beat Generation writers.
However, when I did come around, mostly through Jonathan Ross rationing himself to one track per week on his old BBC Radio 2 show, I was primed to pick up on what Bowie wrote into his songs. Far from singing about more than just love, I was listening to an artist making sense of his world, his place in it, and ours, with one eye fixed firmly on what was coming over the horizon.
Since Bowie’s passing in January, my personal tribute became buying his albums – with each one, I have kicked myself that I hadn’t done so before, as “best of” compilations lose the context in which many songs were intended.
Having now heard hundreds of songs, with no day going by without hearing at least one, I fully understand now why the power of Bowie’s art, and the man himself, is adored to the point of worship: in exploring so many styles, so many ideas, and so many identities, especially sexualities and genders, it makes your world bigger, brighter, and so much more open to discovery.
(Plus, having albums you can buy at £6 a pop from HMV is certainly a help – Beatles, take note.)

So, why is 1976’s “Station to Station” my current favourite David Bowie album? The one recorded at reportedly the lowest point in Bowie’s life, and didn’t remember much about recording? The album of the “Thin White Duke,” a character that was “ice masquerading as fire,” singing songs of love while unable to feel it himself? The album of six perfectly crafted tracks, where the title track starts as a black, foreboding drone, placing the singer in a position of power, before exploding into a joyous, driving rock song about someone deluding themselves about what love is?
What’s not to love about that?
Getting to hear “Golden Years” afterwards makes you feel even better, before you realise the Thin White Duke implores his subject to “run for the shadows” for his own benefit. “Word on a Wing” features a fragment of a dream taking over the Duke’s “scheme of things,” before being able to shape them again. “TVC15” features a girlfriend crawling into a television, now misinterpreted in a world of relationships that only take place online.
Before the album closes with a cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wild Is the Wind,” the chorus of the penultimate track does “Stay” with you: “Stay – that’s what I meant to say or do something… you can never really tell / when somebody wants something you want too.” The Thin White Duke is supposed to be deluding himself, but here, he sounds like all of us, at one time or another, whether we wish to recognise it or not.
I cannot say any more than just tell people to get a copy of “Station to Station.” After that, keep exploring David Bowie’s albums – there is no bigger favour you can give yourself.

Friday, August 12, 2016


It is too easy to take the piss out of conspiracy theories, but before I do, I have a theory of my own: a proper conspiracy theory should always point to where the truth will be found.
Most conspiracy theories inevitably come from the United States, but only because of the number of conspiracies that have been uncovered.
Repeated claims the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) use mind control techniques on people comes from “Project MKUltra,” an illegal program of experiments that included drugs, hypnosis and torture. The program ran over twenty years from 1953, until panic over the Watergate scandal, which brought down President Richard Nixon, led the CIA to destroy all trace of the paperwork… until a Freedom of Information Act request led to 20,000 documents being discovered in 1977, having been stored in the wrong place.
Watergate itself began as a conspiracy theory, the name coming from the office complex – in an area of Washington DC apparently named “Foggy Bottom” -  where the US Democratic National Committee was based, that was spied upon by Republican party officials in 1972. The tapes of Richard Nixon discussing the surveillance were released, by order of the Supreme Court, in 1974. By the way, the Watergate Hotel charges from over $500 per night.
Both theories were known to have evidence – the issue was getting to it. Even the assassination of John F Kennedy, with all the claims and counterclaims made over the years, is still subject to having classified documents that won’t be released until 2017. It will not stop the theorising, but it makes people more informed.
Once a conspiracy is uncovered, the theory is no longer needed. However, with an industry in conspiracies to keep going, dubious links can be made to create new theories, and things can be said without the burden of supplying evidence, making them too easy to be picked apart. The bizarre claims over Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and disqualified from being President, were debunked by just producing a birth certificate (he was born in Hawaii).
Even worse, conspiracy theories can be made to operate within their own system of logic. The assertion that alien reptiles, disguised as prominent figures in society, have controlled the world since ancient times, is not something that can be proved, because that would give the game away. At the same time, those that rubbish the theory are accused of being “sheeple,” of not having their eyes open enough.
Furthermore, if you have a theory, why don’t you prove it, apart from using it to prove you are powerless to do anything about it? Maybe that’s it – conspiracy theories are a plot, concocted by the New World Order and the Illuminati, to keep the masses in their place, making them feel helpless, and stopping accusations that, if they are really running the world, they are not making a good job of it.
I know this much – we definitely landed on the moon.

Friday, August 5, 2016


For my own sake, I once had to check that “ain’t” was a proper word, thinking I discovered a blind spot in my ability to speak and write. I’m still not sure - even when typing that last sentence, Microsoft Word thought I wanted to say “isn’t,” “aren’t,” or “am not” instead.
“Ain’t” first appeared in the mid-eighteenth century as a development of “an’t,” itself a contraction of “am not,” or “is not,” with the original “amn’t,” having appeared in around 1610. It is a simple case of words blending over time, with “aren’t” also popping up in about 1675, before “ain’t” became an alternative for that word too. Like the verb “to be not,” “ain’t” can also mean “to have not,” but it took until the nineteenth century for “han’t” to become “an’t,” before the vowel was rounded out in different parts of the country.
Having asked around, there appears to be an active dislike of the “aaaaaiiiiiinnnnn’” sound of “ain’t,” with one person reacting like I had threatened to hit them. With the idea of a standard English dialect, devoid of regional differences, being spread by the introduction of regular radio broadcasts in the 1920s, perhaps the sounds of some words no longer fit how English was expected to sound.

Having a word that so easily replaces others also gives the impression it is too easy to use when speaking informally, leading to a generally accepted rule that “ain’t” ain’t to be written down. The website advises “ain’t” is not to be used in a formal or written context precisely because “it does not form part of standard English” – well, punctuating sentences with swear words is not standard English, and I know what reaction I would get if I said that to someone.
However, as someone who used “knackered” in a secondary school writing exercise over twenty years ago, describing a particular kind of tiredness, only to see a red line put through it, and “tired?” written above it, “ain’t” can be shown to be the perfect choice of word, without resorting to dredging up examples of when Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope used it.
Taking at their word, are song lyrics not an example of formal writing? Using lyrics as titles for my articles here meant that, this time around, I was spoilt for choice – instead of the Stevie Wonder song I chose for this article's title, I could have chosen “Ain’t Nobody,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” or even “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother.” No-one would ever criticise these songs of sloppy diction, in an art form where choosing the right word is as crucial as hitting the right notes, as the single syllable of “ain’t” can be used to provide a powerful punch.
Following this reasoning, formal writing cannot deploy language in as strong a fashion as a song, due to the rules we insist on imposing. Daring to correct the chorus to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” will only dilute the impact of its carefully chosen words – or, if you like, it becomes knackered.