(james benedict brown) on the road

Dirty (un)sexy Glasgow

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 11 March, 2009

Terribly urgent business involving a punt and a smoke machine dragged me (kicking and screaming, of course) away from Glasgow over the weekend. I returned on Monday afternoon after a tolerable train journey, largely spent considering the three fallacies in the phrase “Try our mouthwatering meal deals!” that adorned adverts for the train’s buffet. Down south the weather had been changeable but largely pleasant, and with a conservatory tacked onto the house I was staying in, breakfast felt more like petit déjuner in the south of France.

Scotland, however, remains a bit parky, and there was still on snow on the ground south of Glasgow. The chill in the air welcomed me back to Scotland, and the mountains of domestic waste that had been dumped on the pavements of Govanhill welcomed me back to Glasgow.

These scenes might not seem unusual to a born and bred Glaswegian. But they are to me. They’re nothing short of shameful, in fact. While I accept that my neighbourhood (Govanhill) might not be the most attractive or affluent parts of the city, in general Glasgow is a monstrously filthy city.

I mean, downright sickeningly dirty. I have lost count of the number of people I have seen (of all races, ages and appearance, before any Daily Mail readers get hold of this rant) who openly hack and spit onto the pavement. Littering seems to be a Scottish art as well: carefree hands offer elegant flourishes as empty bottles, cigarette packs, wrappers and even (I kid you not) entire newspapers are thrown from the windows of moving or stationary vehicles.

But what gets my relatively tolerant back up the most is the city’s casual tolerance of street dumping. It’s quite acceptable for residents to haul outsize waste to their own kerbside for free collection. Almost any bulk domestic refuse – including furniture and white goods – can be left on the pavement for collection once a week. Everything gets picked up by a team of city cleaners and thrown into a refuse truck that crushes it in preparation for landfill. A few weeks ago a largely undamaged three seater sofa was dumped on the pavement across the street from my apartment. It was unceremoniously lifted in a rubbish truck and crushed for burial outside the city.

As far as I’m aware, no other city in Britain tolerates or encourages residents to dump on their own pavements. And while it’s true that no self respecting Glasgow hipster does not own (for example) a perfect 1950s telephone table that they happened to find while out walking, most of the stuff that’s dumped is just waste, often with no regard for the conditions for collection (nothing over four feet in length, nothing dumped loose on the pavement).

And because the city willingly cleans this up, residents continue to haul junk out without consideration to the cost or implications of its disposal. While I can see the logic in defending a system that allows other citizens to save bits of furniture before they get collected, this act is technically illegal, since household waste left for kerbside collection is technically the property of the council once it hits the pavement.

But here’s the irony. It’s legal for residents to expect uplift of ‘bulky items of domestic waste’. But it’s illegal to ‘fly tip’ … i.e. dump domestic or commercial waste, normally from a vehicle, in a public place.

I’m confused. So it’s legal for someone to dump their own waste on the pavement outside their apartment, but illegal for someone else to come and dump it there?

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Snapshot: under a parasol

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 2 August, 2008

After two days at the Oxford Conference last week I had a chance to enjoy a leisurely punt through Oxford. I stand by my decision not to take the helm of the punt, and as a result thoroughly enjoyed a relaxing afternoon slipping beneath the tranquil overhanging branches of the River Cherwell. That sort of physical activity is best left, after all, to the experts.

Sunbathing at Ely station

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 12 May, 2008

The inverse law of blogging content is in effect again. The more that happens, the less that I write. I’m just a few weeks away from finishing my taught postgraduate degree, so although my eyes, ears and mind are processing more than usual, I’m just not able to spend the time ruminating on it here.

A few weeks ago I headed home to Norfolk for one last weekend before the final push. A certain octogenarian was celebrating a birthday, so much eating, drinking and celebrating took priority over technical reports and design submissions.

This will probably have been my last trip home from Sheffield to Norfolk. On and off for the last seven years, I’ve traveled between the city and the countryside: two beautiful parts of England that I have grown to call home in different senses. The tranquil countryside of East Anglia, a low-lying rural landscape of fields and forests, and the confused modern city of Sheffield, an industrial powerhouse turned into an uneasy regenerated metropolis.

I traveled between my two ‘homes’ in a number of ways. I’ve driven a selection of cars (my crumbly Saab, two Nissans, a handful of Fords and the odd Vauxhall panel van) and I’ve even taken the god-awful National Express (six and a half hours, including fourty-five minutes in Peterborough and an hour in Leicester). By car the journey takes about two and a half hours, dropping south a few miles on the M1, before crossing east to the A1M and then south again, before another turn east and across the fens. By bus it’s decidedly less direct, and infinitely less comfortable. But my most frequent steed on this cross-country journey has been the ambling shed known as the Liverpool – Norwich train.

If you forgive me for blogging just one last time about this hideous service, I promise not to complain ever again. For seven years I have endured this shameful service. As a child traveling by train through Ely station (approximately halfway between by childhood homes of Cambridge and west Norfolk) I might have glimpsed a shabby but generous rake of first and second class carriages being hauled by a full size locomotive. Intercity passenger service between East Anglia and Scotland and the north-west of England was provided by old but reliable full service passenger trains. Then in the eighties came the Sprinter – the apparent “saviour” of cross-country passenger transport. The Sprinter was a family of self-propelled diesel rail cars, normally operating as single or two carriage trains. No need for a big old locomotive up front; just sling a couple of smaller engines under the coaches and off you go. No first class. No real luggage space to speak of. No buffet. Nowhere to park a bicycle.

I started traveling between Sheffield and Brandon in 2001. The train I took was the Liverpool – Norwich service, an hourly connection between the west and the east, calling at Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and several other major towns along the way. It’s a five hour slog from one side of Britain to the other, three hours for my trip. It could easily feel like double, since the minuscule trains were always dirty and always overcrowded. Intercity passengers carry luggage with them, and with precious little space it’s usually in the aisles or blocking the doors. Impoverish commuters who use shorter segments of the route for their daily travels usually ended up standing.

The first post-privatisation franchisee Central Trains were canned in 2007. I did not shed a tear for them, fans as they were of truncating my routes with unannounced cancellations and even unannounced diversions. On one occasion my Sheffield – Norwich train magically transformed into a Sheffield – Birmingham train at Nottingham station. No announcement was given. I was well on my way in the opposite direction to Leicester before the guard told me.

The problems with Central Trains were considered to be so fundamental that the franchise was dissolved into other neighbouring operators. The Liverpool-Norwich service went – bizarrely – to a new company called East Midlands Trains (EMT). The bad fit of this route with this franchise is only emphasised by the fact that the train is only in the East Midlands for about an hour of its five hour journey. And while I don’t miss Central Trains, the franchise split has not benefited my journey. EMT are chronically short of suitable trains to operate this franchise, and have to borrow a few from a sister company to operate this service. Hence some confusion went a train bearing the name South West Trains pulls into Sheffield station.

But it is a three hour journey that has become so familiar, it is now almost subconsciously lodged in my memory. The first hour from Sheffield to Nottingham is through the last rolling hills and dry stone walls of Derbyshire and into the industrial cities of Nottinghamshire. The second hour from Nottingham to Peterborough takes us across the wide open fields of Licolnshire and down the relatively fast east coast mainline. The last hour from Peterborough to Thetford is the most dramatic; upon leaving Peterborough the chatter of passengers in the train begins to recede. Within minutes of leaving one great cathedral city we are following a near-dead straight track for the next – a rapid run across the magnificent Cambridgeshire fens, where the sky suddenly opens up into an arc above us, consistently the deepest blue (whatever the weather) above the blackest soil I’ve seen.

At Ely the astonishing cathedral emerges on the horizon, and the train pulls into the third platform of a regional interchange station. One north-south line connects London and Cambridge (south) with King’s Lynn (north); our east-west line connects Peterborough (west) with Norwich (east); and a solitary branch heads south-east towards Bury St. Edmund’s and Ipswich. The trains shudders to a halt, the driver and guard switch ends, and we chunter off back the way we came in to leave Ely by another line. Scrubland and wetlands appear, and then the deep woods of Thetford Forest envelop the train.

Hour by hour, this three hour journey in a tired and unreliable railcar has become – for better or for worse – my cushion between city and countryside. Three segments of an hour each; three hours to unwind, read, think and watch my country roll by.

I left Norfolk on Monday morning to return to Sheffield, and boarded the Liverpool train bound for Sheffield for what could be the last time. I was already in a thoughtful frame of mind as we approached the turn-around in Ely. The significance of one final train ride to Sheffield was not lost on me.

But at Ely something went wrong. Or to use the words of the train manager, “something exploded” under one of the two railcars. A major component in one of the rattly diesel engines had gone pop, and left a bedraggled heap of debris on the track. With only one working engine, the train didn’t have enough power to drag itself onwards. With such a fragmented privatised railway, there were no back-up trains near-by to help us. We were instructed to step off the train and relax for a while – the next train to Liverpool was due in an hour, and it would have to couple up and drag us the rest of the way.

The orange-suited driver paced the trackbed and reached under the train to remove more debris. Passengers for Peterborough and Scotland were directed to another train. Those of us going to Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool remained on the station, sunning ourselves on one of the first noticeably warm days of spring. Under a bright blue sky I remembered all the times I’ve been delayed at this fenland railway station. At least it was warmer than the last time I had a connection here.

Cambridge: how things change

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 4 January, 2008

My new year involved seeing out 2007 and seeing 2008 in Oxford, before an long overdue social call on New Year’s Day. I left Oxford the following morning, arriving that afternoon in Cambridge to rendezvous with family for lunch, January sales and a poke around some newly acquired real estate.

I grew up in Cambridge, or at least half in Cambridge. Up to the age of sixteen my life had one foot in that city and one foot in the quiet landscapes of west Norfolk. I went to school in Cambridge from the age of five to the age of thirteen, but then rapidly removed myself from that city as I moved first to college and then to university. Arriving back in the city on Wednesday, I found it hard to remember when exactly I had last been there.

Growing up and moving away from your childhood hometown can make return visits unusual. As the bus from Oxford reached the city’s outskirts, and as we progressed along the Madingley Road into town, my eye caught sight of landmarks that recall deep and occasionally extremely clear memories. Despite the countless semestral commutes, the M11 motorway is no longer the recognisable artery it once was to me. The Møller Centre is far from being the dramatic architectural novelty that I remember it being; in fact it’s suddenly rather ugly to look at, still vastly inferior to the spectacularly successful modernist campus of the neighbouring Churchill College.

The tip of Grange Road where it meets the Maddingley Road, and the modern house that hides behind a diagonally formed fence at that junction both leapt from the darkest confines of my past. As the bus pulled away from the traffic lights (I don’t remember them) I caught a momentary view down Grange Road, towards the school where I spent so many years. I noticed not the line of trees on the left nor the narrow perspective of the houses and school buildings to the right, but the sudden appearance of new traffic calming measures and a brightly coloured ‘Citi’ bus approaching the junction. The Grange Road of my childhood had neither traffic calming nor a bus service, so regardless of the importance I place on more important memories and emotions, they somehow locked in my vision more rapidly.

Pubs have changed names, shops have been repainted and trees have filled out. The suddenly cold winter has, however, shed the leaves of these enlarged trees, and with the extra height of the coach I was travelling in, opened up several walled gardens to my passing gaze.

But it was in the city centre itself that the changes have happened on the grandest scale. The coach station is still in an awkward corner of Drummer Street, and the surrounding roads are still clogged with buses. But on St. Andrews Street (whose name I know well from my bank account paperwork, even though I haven’t visited that bank branch in six years) everything gets confusing. The city’s John Lewis has completely changed, moving out of a charming but confusing mess of old department stores and into a newly built building that corners with Downing Street. The old buildings have yet to be re-opened, but it seems that the city’s magistrates’ court is moving as well, and new arcades are planned. An entire precinct that was once the grotty Bradwell’s Court has disappeared and been replaced with a new line of shops.

I meandered through town, stopping at a few places to browse the bargains. It seems, however, that many of the larger shopping chains are openly abusing the enthusiasm of their customers with miniscule January sales that draw you in to a store that is crowded with many unreduced items. One of the few surviving Fopp shops pulled me in off the pavement and only released its tight grip on me when I had bought £20 worth of music (which, admittedly can be a lot of music in Fopp).

My lunchtime rendezvous was in the new John Lewis department store. I remember the old one fondy from regular visits to the various departments, each one shoe-horned into a completely inadequate and misshapen space on one of the many intersecting floors. The basement was a cosy den of lamps and white electrical goods, and a guaranteed source of those unusual or hard to find light bulbs. I think you had to go upstairs two flights and then across a bit to find children’s shoes – that was one building that consistently fooled my normally above average spatial awareness. And to find the televisions, sound systems and computers, you had to physically quit the building and walk thirty metres down the street to a smaller satellite shop. Pretty much every alarm clock, hifi and computer that passed through our household during my childhood came from that shop.

All those disparate places are gone. They’ve been replaced with a singular building of five storeys and a vast lightwell. It sits on the site of what I think was an old office building and a shallow arcade of shops. It’s hard to remember exactly; this must be the first time that I have returned to a city and been confused by such radical redevelopment. I didn’t even have time to get acquainted with the building site during construction. I just went away and came back to find it had all changed. Outside, the John Lewis name has replaced the city’s old and recognisable company name of Robert Sayle. Inside, it’s just like any other modern John Lewis in the country. Sheffield’s Cole Brothers will also be getting a similarly dramatic demolition and re-construction in the coming years.

The new building has to make some concessions to existing buildings. The shop stretches back behind a row of terraced houses, whose rear elevation can be viewed from three glass elevators that serve the shop floors. On the third floor above ground level the ascending elevators emerge above the roofline of the neighbouring terrace, and suddenly confused shoppers locate themselves. Waiting for lifts is now a scenic activity.

The top floor also features a ‘brasserie’ and an ‘espresso bar’. I may detest modern shopping developments for their blandness and car-centric facilities, but is true that it is now much easier for a wheelchair bound shopper to move about the entire store unaided, and the vast number of families with baby strollers proves that in-house car parking and plentiful lifts make life much easier. The brasserie was humming with a contented lunchtime crowd, but the beautiful roof-top view to the south was obscured by inexplicable net curtains. A highly paid interior designer will surely get shouted at soon for specifying composite granite tables, however. Within just a few weeks of opening, the brasserie’s tables are getting permanently marked by the rapid succession of plates, cups and glasses being set down and taken away – enough for the eldery couple next to us to comment on this to a bemused waitress.

The new John Lewis is just part of a major shopping centre development that has joined the disparate dots of the city centre’s shopping precincts. A new four storey mall, aspirationally named the ‘Grand Arcade’, will link the department store to the existing Lion Yard shopping arcade. The new arcade is not yet finished, but the view of the building site from inside the John Lewis store is a major draw for those shoppers (mostly men) left unattended while their partners concentrate on the actual shopping.

If there is one treat to be savoured, it’s the view from the new parking garage that has been opened as part of the new ‘Grand Arcade’. Cambridge’s skyline may not be as attractive as that of Oxford, but it has at least been suddenly re-opened to the public.

There has been a multi-storey car park on this site for as long as I can remember, but this is an entirely new construction that has lifted the parking spaces (and several hundred cars) above the shops of the new Grand Arcade. Lifting the parking accommodation skywards has created commercial space and allowed visitors a vertiginous ascent in their vehicles each time they come to shop.

Although you cannot see Oxford from Cambridge, I turned in that direction and watched the sun continue its slow descent towards the south-west. Cambridge lives on in my absence, and as I stood there considering all the changes that had happened during that time, I wondered to myself if I would be back before something else remarkable was demolished and rebuilt.