Friday, 31 August 2012

"Making The Truth Better"


One of the things that the Trustees at the Nottinghamshire Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship had suggested that they would be able to organise was a trip to London to the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square.  I was very excited to get to be inside such an iconic building, the site of such dramatic protests around the Vietnam war and post-9/11 a potential target for terrorist activity such that the security around it has had to be ramped right up.  I’d stayed with work at the hotel over the road and I loved the view of the building – one that I find strangely beautiful but I know definitely divides opinion.  

(As an aside, I’ve been reading Owen Hatherley’s book, ‘A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain’ which I’ve loved, esp for the chapter on Nottingham of course.  It's a great read and introduction to recent architectural styles).  

As an aside to the aside, the Embassy is going to move in 2017 to a new location in Wandsworth and the artist’s impressions of the new place are certainly striking.  (The staff at the Embassy were keen to point out when I asked that the new building doesn’t actually have a moat…  I shame I think – would have loved the whole mediaveal atmospherics that would have created!). 

Anyway, yesterday was the day of the trip so I met up with Sarah and Gareth, two of this year’s other scholars, at Nottingham and Grantham respectively and we headed down to the big smoke.  I was somewhat nervous about the security process for getting in, we’d been warned not to take any electronics (including a mobile phone!) and I had to share with the world my terrible passport photo just to get in the building.  But all that was pretty smooth and we were inside and on our way.  The lobby is pretty impressive, I had to ask the assistant who was escorting us up to the meeting to pause so we could have a look – very ornate gold and marble with pictures of all the past presidents and a carved record of the past Ambassadors.  Obviously I couldn't take any photos but it’s worth getting a look if you ever get the chance.  Upstairs and it all becomes a bit local municipal building very quickly.  A particular bright spot in the non-descript corridors was seeing the Embassy Communications team flagged up on their nameplate by the entrance door to their section with the ‘mission statement’ of “Making The Truth Better”.  This I like and will be trying to use wherever possible from now on. 

The meeting itself was really useful – we met with a couple of the Assistant Cultural Attach├ęs – career civil servants rather than political appointees – and talked through our research projects.  I personally got a number of useful pointers and was able to test some of my assumptions.  Was also useful to talk through some of the cultural/social challenges I might face – I’d not really clocked that 20% was the minimum tip these days in a restaurant.  But I was most pleased to get a couple of suggestions of good breweries to look out for (see here for my thoughts on drinking culture.  And then we were done and out the door as quickly as we’d come in.  I got a sense of America and all it offers in its little outpost in central London and it’s really whetted my appetite for the trip – not long now, just over two weeks!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Rumours of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

(Yes, I know it's a misquotation: see here for the original wording)

This is today's jumping-off point: Company towns gone -- or are they?

I dislike on-spec posts that answer their own question in the title but I like the style of this article so I'm giving it an airing.

Some good detail and thoughts, esp the news of a company selling off a town they owned lock-stock-and-barrel.

But in reality the idea of a Company Town will never die.  It might not exist in the strict sense of a place actually owned de-jure by a commercial business but there will always be places de-facto controlled (or strongly influenced) by large local employers.  And that's ok - the very best employers will want to have a strong link to their locality, not just because of some modern version of Enlightened Self Interest but because it's the right thing to do full stop. 

Big employers have a duty to their employees beyond merely providing employment - and I like the idea of Google providing an "extensive list of services that ... employees can access without leaving the premises -- onsite doctors, meals and snacks, massages, laundry and dry cleaning, all sorts of recreational outlets, car washes and oil changes -- almost everything, in short, except housing".

But let's be clear, employers shouldn't be in a 'North and South' style position of total control - that would be intolerable.  But I'm up for a strongly symbiotic relationship between business, local government and the people - there's a creative tension there that can be hugely productive. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Don't Believe the Hype

(Don't worry, not another lengthy paean to my obscure musical tastes).  

I'm intrigued by what people say or think when I tell them about my trip.  Most people really get my research topic and offer up their own thoughts and ideas.  I've had a couple of interesting links sent to the me in the last few days - one about Washington, DC and one about Houston.  

The DC article is a interesting piece of writing.  There's a challenge inherent in that sort of analysis where the 'travel to work area' is smaller than the official boundaries of a City (see my own City Slang for a view on the impact of this for Nottingham).  Two points of note: a good proportion of the other major employers are support industries (eg hospitals) that wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the major employer and that of the remaining employers there will be lots of small similar organisations (again, mainly there because of the major employer - think lawyers and lobbyists) that when amalgamated will be a significant sectoral presence. 

Outtake: DC is a company town (unless you squint really hard and want it not to be true) but there's loads of other stuff going on too.  

Houston's a place that I've want to go to for a while.  I've got the typical British view that Texas is the deepest of the deep south and that my lefty views probably won't be that welcome but that Houston is an oasis of urban liberalness in the desert.  I know that both views aren't really true so welcome other evidence.  The article feels a bit like a rehashed press release but there's some interesting facts hidden in there.  I love the fact that "the median age of a Houston resident is a youthful 33" - (i) because it's great to have a young and vibrant city and (ii) 33 is still "youthful" - that gives me another 3 years of clinging on to my youth...  And I like the idea of a city that can be called a, "zoning-free mashup of a streetscape".  I spent a fascinating morning at WorkTwo1 the other month discussing Manual For Streets - I'm passionate about creating communities through planning policies so intrigued by what sort of City can be created through not applying planning ('zoning') policies.

Outtake: Probe below the surface opinion and you might find out something interesting.  

Outtake outtake: Trying to characterise any city in a homogeneous way will undoubtedly mean that you miss a lot of the richness and variety of a location.  I can't wait to visit both cities and make up my own mind! 

1. WorkOne = My four-days-a-week 'day-job' at Boots, WorkTwo = my one-day-a-week role as an elected Councillor for Nottingham City Council