Monday, 30 April 2012


Every since I've started to firm up my itinerary (as seen here), it's kind of dawned on me that if I get to go to America I'm going to be spending a lot of time on the road/plane/train.  I like the journey almost as much as the arrival, so I'm not too bothered about that, but it's going to be critical that I have music with me to get me through what could be a 48 hour train journey.  Music's really important to me and I'm one of the few people who still buys CDs rather than downloading.  In fact I still enjoy buying and listening to music on vinyl too. 

Essentially, this post is an excuse for me to list some of the albums that I'm into at the moment - some more or less obscure than the others.  And some that are old favourites when travelling long distances.  

'First Days of Spring' by Noah and Whale.  I've owned this since it came out.  Saw them at Latitude Festival two or 3 years ago and was absolutely captivated.  Started listening to this seriously probably about a year or so ago - I love it, particularly the title track and 'Blue Skies'.  

'Allo Darlin'' by Allo Darlin'.  Love this - the slightly dream-like qualities are perfect for a long train journey. 

'Fear Is On Our Side' by I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness. I originally bought this just because of the preposterous band name.  But I now love it - great rhythm and lyrics. 

'For Emma, Forever Ago' by Bon Iver.  I could listen to this forever - particularly 'Skinny Love': "I told you to be patient / I told you to be fine / I told you to be balanced / I told you to be kind / Now all your love is wasted? / Then who the hell was I?"

'Plans' by Death Cab For Cutie.  Standout tracks are 'Marching Bands of Manhattan' and 'Brothers On a Hotel Bed'. 

'All Mod Cons' by The Jam.  Still one of my favourite albums of all time. Still a ways off being able to memorise all the lyrics to 'Going Underground' but not giving up yet.  "You want more money - of course I don't mind / To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes / And the public gets what the public wants / But I want nothing this society's got -"

'We Love The City' by Hefner.  Saw these guys at the Reading Festival in 2000 (the same day as The Strokes played most of 'Is This It' live before the album came out - it felt like the whole crowd know all the songs already - magical) and I still remember the reaction in the tent when they struck up with 'The Day Thatcher Dies'.  This album has some of the best lyrics about cities I've ever heard. 

'Holes In The Wall' by The Electric Soft Parade.  I saw ESP play live in the summer of 2002 at Fibbers in York - the final three songs were a wall of noise that I'm not sure that my hearing has ever recovered from. 

'The Sash My Father Wore And Other Stories' by Ballboy.   Hard to pick a favourite album from Ballboy but this just edges it because of the inclusion of the cover of 'Born in the USA'. 

'Rehearsals for Departure' by Damien Jurado.   I can still remember reading a review of this album in the Sunday Times Culture supplement when I was probably 16 or so and going to the HMV in Croydon hoping to find a copy.  Standout track is 'Ohio'. 

'Our Shadows Will Remain' by Joseph Arthur.  I vividly recall being introduced to Joseph Arthur one very hungover New Year's Day in the mid 2000s by a good friend from university.  'Can't Exist' is totally heartbreaking - but go see him live if you ever get the chance - a totally mesmerising show of looped vocals, live painting and performance. 

'On Your Side' by Magnet.  The album that I most readily associate with summer 2003 when I made the decision to live in York for another year.  Cycling over the Ouse Bridge one late August morning listening to 'Last Day Of Summer' I felt really at home for the first time in a long time. 

'When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog' by Jens Lekman.  A tricky artist to pick a good album for as so much of his good stuff was released on some early EPs.  But this is a brilliant collection none-the-less, esp 'Tram #7 to Heaven'. 

'Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters' by The Twilight Sad.  Not my usual thing - saw them live upstairs at The Social (when it was still just The Social) and could barely make out the lyrics over the bass and the shouted delivery.  But on record it's a different matter with some lovely touches. 

'Boxer' by The National.  'Squalor Victoria' is simply brilliant - the whole album deserves repeated listening. 

'Axxess and Ace' by Songs: Ohia.  Another Secretly Canadian discovery (see: Damien Jurado, Jens Lekman).  Their whole output is worth exploring. 

'Messenger In The Camp' by Seafood.  I remember the first time I heard 'Scorch Comfort' on Steve Lamacq's old show on Radio 1.  I've still got that vinyl 7" somewhere but this album is much more easily available.  "This house is lost without your smile beside me / Stepping up the pace / We'll scorch the inner city"

'Gold' by Ryan Adams.  Mainly included because I want to walk through New York to the sounds of 'New York, New York' and down La Cienega Boulevard to the soundtrack of 'La Cienega Just Smiled': "La Cienega just smiles as it waves goodbye / "Ah the it comes again" / It's off with the jeans, the jacket and the shirt"

'Give Up' by The Postal Service.  From the heartbreak of the opening track, 'The District Sleeps Alone Tonight': "The district sleeps alone tonight after the bars turn out their lights / And send the autos swerving into the loneliest evening / And I am finally seeing  / Why I was the one worth leaving" to the redemption of 'Brand New Colony': "Start a brand new colony / Where everything will change / We'll give ourselves new names (identities erased) / The sun will heat the grounds" it's hard to believe that this was put together with the two collaborating musicians trading tapes via the post. 

'This Is Hardcore' by Pulp.  I was in London the other month on a longish tube journey and I hadn't listened to this album for years.  I put it on and was blown away.  I think that the last seven tracks are some of the best writing that Jarvis has ever put to record.  It got somewhat mixed reviews when released - in the classic case of British music journalism giving bands the reviews their last album deserved.  (See Oasis, passim). 

'The Bends' by Radiohead.  One of my all-time favourite travelling albums, mainly for the lyric, "Alone on an aeroplane / Fall asleep on against the window pane / My blood will thicken". 

You can see from a lot of the references music has a very direct correlation to place and time for me.  I hoping that I can discover some new bands and musical culture in America or at the least create some more special memories that link to my favourite bands and albums. 

Phew, that ended up as a monster post!  Hope you found something of interest.  You can also check out my profile to see what else I'm into.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Possible Itinerary

Apols for the hiatus in this blog - my sister got married at the weekend so a lot of time was spent getting ready for that.  All went well so back to planning this America trip.  

In a statement-of-the-blindingly-obvious, I remarked to a friend at the weekend that America is a "big old place".  The photo below shows my dining room table at the moment - an enormous 1:4,000,000 map of America with my little sticky tabs showing where I might want to visit.  Vast isn't it...

Based on a two month trip, this is my latest thinking of places that I want to visit and what I'd do there.

- Woonsocket, Massachusetts.  Not just because of the amazing name, but because the retailer CVS are based there.
- Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Unsurprisingly, the Hershey chocolate company is based here.
- Cincinnati, Ohio.  Hoping to get to visit some contacts at P&G and also visit Kroger.

- Detroit, Michigan.  To visit what's left of the American car industry but also see some of the urban decay as outlined here and here
- Chicago, Illinois.  To visit the Roosevelt University and also the home of Pullman railroad cars
- Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The home of Target
- Seattle, Washington.  Hoping to visit Microsoft and also Amazon. 
(Hoping to get between Chicago - Minneapolis-Seattle on the Amtrak)
- Cupertino, California.  Home of Apple.
- Boulder City, Nevada.  A true Company Town for when the Hoover Dam was built.
- Bentonville, Arkansas.  Where WalMart call home.    
- Atlanta, Georgia.  Hoping to get to visit the guys at Home Depot
- Washington, DC.  Planning to time it to be there for the American Presidential election on 6th November.
- New York, New York.  To visit the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
- And then, home. 


If anyone has got any tips or offers of accommodation then please let me know either on a comment or via my twitter feed

Friday, 13 April 2012

Final Selection Stage

I now have the details of the final selection stage for the Nottinghamshire Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship I'm hoping to take advantage of.  The stage consists of a ten minute presentation with up to 15 minutes for questions.  The presentation needs to cover the following topics;

  1. Project objectives
  2. Outline itinerary
  3. Contacts in America and level of support from employer
  4. How the Scholarship experience will benefit my career and my employer
  5. Plans for self development outside of your specific project
  6. Plans to disseminate discoveries during the trip and obtain publicity on return.  
So quite a bit to cram into 10 minutes!  Oh, and it's in front of 10-12 of the Trustees...

Need to do a lot of detailed thinking and planning over the next couple of weeks I think. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Models of Innovation

I was discussing with one of my team at work today the perennial questions of "why can we never get anything done around here...?".  (As an aside, my experiences of the slow pace of innovation and delivery are universal across both of my employers - Boots and Nottingham City Council).  My colleague pointed me in the direction of an interesting article at the Harvard Business Review blog.  The post essentially makes the argument that large organisations are fundamentally risk-averse so will always stifle innovation in the hope of minimising mistakes.  This feels like it has the ring of truth to it.  My old boss talks about "good learn" - let's try things, see if they work and if they don't then learn why not and try something else.  Easy to say but less easy to implement when you're facing into that month's P&L...
One of my objectives if I get to go to America will be to visit other retail businesses, not only to see how they interact with the city that they are based in but also to experience the way that they operate: how are new ideas created, what's the process for getting things signed off, what does it feel like to work there?
The article specifically mentions how Target evolved out of the Dayton Hudson Corporation (there is a lengthy run-through of that here) through being a separate business unit that eventually outgrew its parent.  Target has a longstanding relationship with Boots that means that a lot of brands familiar to British shoppers are available in America - and so I hope to be able to use this relationship to arrange a visit to the Target head office in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Second on my list of retailers I love to visit is Walmart.  A polarising company in many ways but a dominant retail force.  I find pages like this that try to describe a corporate culture absolutely fascinating.  I find a lot of sentiments laudable and wonder if they are true in real life.  The stuff about staying close to your workforce ("associates") and listening to their ideas is really interesting.  The company is well known for not being that open to outside visitors but I'm hoping for the best.  At the very least I can go to the Visitor Centre...

I'm hoping to use these visits and any others I manage to arrange to give me perspective on how I and others create plans, generate ideas and get things done.  Can't wait!

Sunday, 8 April 2012


I've always enjoyed taking photographs but these days don't seem to have much time to do it.  It's annoying as I saved up for ages to afford this camera (including trading in my precious old film Contax) only for it to lie almost totally unused.  However, when I do get a chance to get out there and take some shots, I'm usually focused on the urban landscape that's around us all.  

The background of this blog is of the 'Futurist' building which users of the Ring Road in Nottingham will be very familiar with (probably whilst stuck in a traffic jam...) to the point of contempt, but I still think is one of the most striking Art Deco buildings in the city.  I was excited to hear that one of my favourite Nottingham photographers, Trish Evans, is planning to do some of her fantastic free-running photos on the roof, once all the health-and-safety stuff has been sorted out.  

If I get to go to America I'm hoping to take lots of photos, and will in particularly be focusing on the built environment that shapes our cities.  I'll also be interested in the sort of buildings that large companies choose to base themselves in - and how this affects their workforce and productivity.  I for one get a little tinge of excitement knowing that I work in a Grade II listed building which is part of a site with two of just a few Grade I listed buildings in the UK.  Does that make any sort of difference to the work that gets done there?  Perhaps not but I like the sense of history and place that it helps to create. 

I thought I'd share a handful of some of my photos from around Nottingham.  It was on my list of 'things to do this Easter weekend' to get out and take some more but not sure I'm going to have time now.  These are mainly of areas that have seen somewhat better days, but they're not typical of Nottingham of course...!

Old Midland Bank Building, Basford

This is just round the corner from the Fox and Crown pub if people know that area.  It's on the walk to the tram station from the pub so I always enjoy looking at it on the way.  The surrounding area has by-and-large been revamped and transformed into a light-industrial space but this building is still there and abandoned.  


I really like the faded patina of the wood boards and the door;

Warehouses off Ilkeston Road, Radford

I'm quite often around this area of Nottingham as I used to live just up the road and the leisure centre (John Carroll) is where my diving club meets.  I've always been intrigued by the warehouse buildings - they look huge from the outside and with the few exceptions now seem to be totally abandoned.  I wonder what it was like when in full swing compare with the eerie silence you can get on a Sunday morning now.  


The major industry now appears to be weed control and security which is a real shame.  I hope that some use gets found for this site soon enough before it falls apart. 

The surrounding area has some great sights too - the below is not posed, I really did find a 'morning after the night before' abandoned shoe in the middle of the road - just outside an abandoned pub it seemed quite fitting really.  

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A Place To Lay My Head

I'm both nervous and excited about where I'm going to stay if I end up going to America.  Nervous because the Scholarship requires you to spend the majority of time staying with host families (through family, friends, work, university etc connections) and I will need to invest some serious time and energy sorting all that out but also excited because that means that I will truly get to sample American life in the cities that I visit.

The social aspect of this will be fascinating but I'm also really interested to stay in a variety of physical houses too.  My role at Nottingham City Council means that I always want to hear and see more about what sort of houses people want to live in and the types of communities that the built environment of housing can help create.  

There are a couple of great examples close(-ish) to home where the choices made at various points have had profound consequences on the communities that then end up living there.  
  1. The Meadows, Nottingham.  The Wikipedia article I link to isn't great but gives you a sense of the place if you don't know it.  There's a little bit more info here on the history and some old photos here.  It's generally accepted now that whilst the demolitions of the 1970s were necessary given the poor quality of the housing the choice of replacement housing (of the Radburn type) was a mistake.  What's left of the 'Old Meadows' is increasingly being gentrified, including this interesting development whilst the 'New Meadows' was the subject of an (unfortunately cancelled) PFI bid to try to correct some of the mistakes of the original layout.  I often wonder what the Meadows would be like now if all of the 'Old' (Victorian, often 3 storey, terraces) housing had been retained and refurbished.  Something we'll never know but an interesting example of how the built environment fundamentally affects the perceptions and reputations of a neighbourhood.  
  2. Park Hill, Sheffield.   Often known as the "I Love You" estate after a famous piece of graffiti, it was the subject of a documentary on Radio 4 last year which was recently repeated and now appears to be permanently available on iPlayer - have a listen, it's brilliant: The I Love You Bridge.  The development was the origin of the phrase, "Streets in the Sky" that was also the title for one of the episodes of Melvin Bragg's 'Reel History of Britain' which was on TV late last year - the relevant episode is here.  You can't watch it any more but there are some clips.  Again this is the story of an idealistic approach to a problem of overcrowding that didn't quite pan out as hoped.  In this case the Manchester based developer Urban Splash have redeveloped the estate and are now marketing it as "a genuinely vibrant and sustainable community for the 21st Century" - I hope they're right this time... As an aside, the play 'Benefactors' by Michael Frayn is a great exploration of some of these themes and worth a read or seeing it if you get the chance.  
I wonder what sort of houses I will end up staying in if I go to America - perhaps an enormous McMansion?  Or a city-centre flat?  The American equivalent of a suburban "two-up-two-down"?  Whatever it ends up being I'll be interested to see what drives to people to live in the neighbourhood they've chosen and how it affects their perspective on the world. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Reflections on Interview

So, the interview this morning went relatively well, I think.  Always hard to tell isn't it.  The panel was certainly engaging and welcoming and I enjoyed the fact that one of last year's Scholars was on it - gave a really useful perspective.  I find out whether I'm through to final interview in the next day or so - fingers crossed!  

EDIT 6th April 4pm:  Found out this morning that I'm through to the next (final) round of the process - a presentation in front of a panel!  Will be in about a month and I'll get details next week.  Exciting!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Gone Tomorrow - Interview Prep

So, my first (of two) interviews for the Nottinghamshire Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship is tomorrow morning.  I'm one of those annoying people that actually quite likes interviews.  That said, I'm still nervous about it - it's only 20 minutes so want to make sure that I'm able to get over all the points that I want to in that time.

There's a fair amount of info on the website about what the Trustees are looking for in a potential Scholar and I've seen sent some additional prompts too, but it's still tricky to know what to talk about and what to leave out, particularly when you don't know who the interviewers will be.

My current thinking is that my main points will be;

  • Passionate About Nottingham
  • Distinctive and Relevant Topic 
    •  My proposed study topic of Company Towns is distinctive and timely for the challenges facing my city in the here and now.  I genuinely hope to gather experiences, ideas and opportunities that can benefit the city and its business community.  Cities are at the centre of the opportunities we need to seize to get the UK's economy back on track and I want to play my own small part in helping to make this happen.  And there will undoubtedly be ways that I can share the great things that Nottingham does more widely. 
  • Foot in Both Camps
    • Finally, I am uniquely placed to understand both the business and local government challenges facing Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.  As both a senior leader at Boots and as an elected Councillor at Nottingham City Council I am able to see both sides of the opportunities and problems that the city is facing.  I'm excited about being able to build relationships with host families and the employees of large organisations, plus engaging with leaders of local municipalities in all the cities I plan to visit.
I also hope that the interview is a genuine two-way process as I'd be interested to hear feedback from the Trustees what they think of my application so far - so that I can refine and tweak in advance of any possible second interview.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Riding the Rails

As I discussed in my post on transport options, I'm hoping to experience as many different modes of transport as possible if I'm lucky enough to get to go to America.  But one absolute must is a trip on Amtrak.  I love train travel at the best of times but a leisurely trip across the unfolding scenery of the American interior sounds incredibly compelling.  Some of my favourite journeys in the UK have been by train and I'm hoping that I can find something as pleasurable as the trip north of York up along the East coast to Edinburgh and Glasgow (on particularly memorable weekend in my second year at university I went down to London for a Friday night then back up to Glasgow for the Saturday night - probably about 8 or 9 hours on a train in total - but I loved it).  This was back in the day of GNER (RIP) which often seemed like a step back in time to a more refined age but the scenery is still as stunning as it ever was - Northumberland is a bit of an unsung gem as far as I'm concerned.  (Looks like it has been covered in Great British Railway Journeys, sorry I missed that). 

Via the ever excellent Man in Seat 61 I'm feeling pretty up to speed on the various options so I'm considering the following trips if I can fit them in;

- Chicago to Seattle.  This is the brilliantly named 'Empire Builder' route all across the rural West of America.  That said, I'm also tempted by the 'California Zephyr' which is billed as one of the best train journeys in the world.  

- Chicago to DC via Cincinnati.  This has a somewhat more prosaic name but still looks like a great route.  

- Detroit to Atlanta.  Not a route so suspect would have to change at least a couple of times but I like the idea of getting a train away from (or in to) Motor City and then travelling away from one of the industrial centres of America and into the deep South.  (And I would get to go on the Wolverine service...!)

Incidentally, via this map of the Amtrak routes, I'm both shocked and not at the same time to learn that there are whole states (eg Wyoming) that appear to have no train services at all.  Can that be right?

Monday, 2 April 2012

City Slang

Cities have personalities.  Cities have a narrative.   Cities have a direction.  And for the very best cities they have a political and business leadership that matches that - say Manchester and people of my musical generation immediately think of The Hacienda, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and Factory records.  And say Manchester Labour and political activists on the left immediately know that you're referring to a distinctive, working-class, iconoclastic brand of metropolitan leadership.  

In all major cities you'll find historical and contemporary drivers for political and civic decision making.  In Nottingham the ruling Labour Group is conscious of and proud that we're from a tradition that does things a little differently - with the historical context of Robin Hood, Chartism and the 1832 Reform Act riots you struggle to be anything else.    

What I find a strange and dislocating experience comparing the UK with America is our incoherent and faltering approach to City governance.  Starting right from basics, the actual administrative boundaries of Nottingham fail what I call the 'sunlounger test' - if you met people who live in West Bridgford, Beeston, Arnold, even Ilkeston and Long Eaton on holiday and asked them where they lived they would say, "Nottingham" when in reality they live in the boroughs of Rushcliffe, Broxtowe, Gedling and actually in Derbyshire.  All this has a technical name - underbounding - the concept of a geopolitical boundary being significantly smaller than the conurbation that it sits in.  The majority of England's "Core Cities" are underbounded - with the notable exceptions of Leeds and Sheffield (a third of which falls into the Peak District National Park).  Why does this matter except to political nerds like me?  Well, it matters for two reasons - it matters for reasons of scale/efficiency and it matters for reasons for practical politics.  

  1. Having the political boundaries the same size as the geographic ones gives a scale that enables services to be delivered efficiently and as cheaply as possible.  For example, there is effectively an exclave of Broxtowe Borough in Nottinghamshire County only accessible by going through Nottingham City - halfway along Latimer Drive in Wollaton to the west of the city the boundary is arbitrarily drawn - eg here at around number 20 it's the city but half a dozen houses further along here around number 32 you're out in County.  I've got this image of a totally inefficient journey by Broxtowe refuse trucks driving alongside City trucks to collect the bins on the same day...   Only a trivial example but it underlines the wider point - the residents of number 32 will have exactly the same desires, challenges and ambitions for where they live as their near neighbours at number 20 but will be served in a totally different way by their respective leaders.  More broadly, having the right boundaries allows a city's leaders to punch at the appropriate weight.  Manchester (the City of Manchester is a tiny authority in respect to the total conurbation) have got around this with the idea of a City Region but other cities aren't as lucky.  
  2. Secondly, the right boundaries enable interested stakeholders to engage in dialogue and once an agreed position has been reached strive towards the goals rather than constantly defining yourself with or against near neighbours.  The experience of the BBC's relocation to Salford (or is it Manchester?) and Salford's move to a Directly Elected Mayor out of line with the rest of the wider city are good examples.  
(Lots of Manchester examples in this post - but then it is one of my favourite cities)

But underbounding is the least of the issues facing how our cities are governed - the last decade and a half have seen a bewildering array of experiments, re-organisations and failed proposals regarding local and regional government.  And I think that the 13 years that Labour were in power marked a real failure of delivery for cities - ironic given this is the predominant source of the party's power base.  From the bizarre inside-baseball shift from 'Leader and Cabinet' to 'Strong Leader and Cabinet' to the failure of political leadership over Regional Assemblies to the odd idea of 'Super Unitaries' and the recent ill-defined proposal for new powers for core cities (City Deal), local and city government hasn't been well served over the last few years.  And now we've got the distraction of a referendum on the idea of a Directly Elected Mayor in Nottingham and other Core Cities in May.  An issue that no-one has ever spontaneously mentioned to me on the doorstep is now consuming time and money that would be better spent on creating jobs, cleaning the streets and keeping people safe.  

Fundamentally, citizens and employers in cities want clarity of political leadership and stability of governing structure.  Nottingham has been lucky to have the former for over a decade but, as with other cities, has been ill-served in terms of the latter.  I will be interested in seeing how similar sized American cities have dealt with some of these issues.  There certainly seems to be a stronger trend for annexation of neighbouring areas into the authority boundaries that have become part of the conurbation over time.  And the clear federalised government structure means that powers are typically better defined and demarcated.  The higher levels of Mayoral governance will be interesting to observe - it obviously offers a high level of clarity and profile for a city but the degree to which positions that would be expected to be unelected in the UK (eg judges to even State benches) I'm sure poses challenges as well as opportunities.