Sunday, 24 January 2010

Go Charlie go!

Seven year old Charlie Simpson is raising money for Haiti by cycling round South Park in Fulham (with his dad!). Do sponsor him! He hoped to raise £500; he's up to £46,000.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The listening councils?

I am getting more hits than ever with a shedload of hits seemingly from Wolverhampton Council and Walsall Council. Different IP addresses as well for all of them. Wonder if they are cursing me, disinterested or just curious?

Started the Day Skipper theoretical course

About seven weeks of missed Tuesdays then a whole weekend in March. All very interesting stuff with bundles of charts, almanacs, plotters, bits of rope, dividers. No boat though. All in the classroom.

Monday, 18 January 2010

BCN Marathon Challenge 2010

On blogs and forums, skippers and crews are layihng out their plans for the 2010 BCN Marathon Challenge. It's on 29th and 30th a maximum of 24 hours between 9am Saturday and 3pm on the Sunday. There is handicapping to help the bigger boats, smaller crews, more locks, more unused arms. Check the BCN Society webpages for more details.

Urban angst - partnerships for the future?

In the last weeks, I have been somewhat critical of planners in Wolverhampton, Walsall and Banbury. A few months ago, I dissed those of Daventry and Sandwell. I am also getting a fair number of page-hits from the council offices of these very places.

I know I am not being totally fair on the planners and officials. Much of their world is determined by four groups who are - in the short-term - rather unchallengable: national politicians, European politicians, local politicians and the civil service nationally. This overlay of plans, rules, regulations and protocols is what creates the plethora of Biodiversity Action Plans, local development frameworks, demands for creating extra this and extra that even when it may not be needed.

But all the politicians simply reflect the lowest common denominator of national (and supra-national) politics: bland policies lead to bland cities. It is clear that charismatic cities tend to have charismatic leaders and mayors, whether it's London, Caracas, New York, Berlin, Mexico City, Wolverhampton or Daventry.

Decision-making for the city of cities, and probably even small towns, needs to be made by politicians who are truly only beholden to local interests, not national party politics. Some form of Partnership for Wolverhampton would seem to be an ideal new "development agenda".

We need vision and leadership, not political in-fighting with one group of politicians simply blocking or attacking the plans of other politicians simply because ofg the colour of their rosettes.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The refit starts soon

It has been enormously difficult to decide what to do. New kitchen and hall? Or refit the boat?
Well it has been enormously difficult for Helen to realise the priorities here.

Seriously though, it has been difficult. Our kids are getting to that age where we won't be having them with us much longer. Another couple of years, max. Unlike many (and despite some of my teasing posts here) we both get on very well with both our teenagers and they seem to enjoy spending time with us still. But we know we are on borrowed time, and reckon there are just two more summer holidays left on the boat. Until they come back with their own kids in a decade because they can't afford to go anywhere.

So our plans for a leisurely refit, doing one room at a time has been replaced by the new plan to get the whole boat bedroom, new bathroom, central heating, decent toilet, new windows, grenade launchers, remodelled kitchen.

We'd like to do more ourselves but there's simply not enough time right now. Not when there's a bit of wind most weekends and the possibility to get out on the water.

Culinary highlight of 2009?

Just remembered being asked at work what surprised me most in 2009.
I thought they were Wotsits until I saw the legs hanging out. Turns out they were deep-fried bees. I was in southern China at the time. I remember thinking that "You're kidding, right?" should be in the Berlitz Mandarin phrasebook. This is not the first time I have needed it, either. Like when I was asked "How do you want your camel cooked, sir?"

Would the last person to leave Walsall.....

I read this weekend that Walsall's Illuminations are to end. No. I didn't either, and that would seem to be part of the reason that the very last illuminations were held in 2008, and from 2012 they may be replaced by "concerts and laser shows". Because presumably nowhere else has concerts and laser shows.

A little research shows that the Walsall Illuminations date back to 1951 when the Arboretum was lit by candles in glass jars, and attendance peaked in 1989 when 370,000 people turned up to see them. In 2008, just 111,000 turned up. Only three other places in Britain officially hold "Illuminations", those at Mousehole and Matlock Bath eclipsed by the gargantuan and globally famous Blackpool Illuminations, so it would seem that the £200,000 net cost of the Illuminations was just too much for the Council to bear. I do hope some form of impact assessment was conducted to ensure that the area is not losing a considerably greater sum in lost revenue from visitors.

I can't help think that the rarity of Illuminations - and the fact that Walsall is a lot closer to much more of the British population than Blackpool - could have been leveraged to create something even more spectacular. However, I also know better than to ever criticise any local council because any organisation that close to the political classes is inevitably able to wheel out reports, spin doctors and slick pressers that are totally patronising yet serve only to reinforce the sheer mediocrity of what Britain has become recently.

So, great decision in Walsall! That's £200,000 saved. Switch off the lights on the way out.

Wolverhampton - an opportunity not to be missed?

In October 2009, a seemingly innocuous article published online by Lonely Planet, the guidebook publishers, showed which cities were "favourited" least often by online readers. By December, an updated article based on hundreds of online comments, was published which added Wolverhampton to that list. A great deal of journalistic licence prevailed and suddenly Wolverhampton was proclaimed one of the worst places to live, be in or visit.

Predictably, many rose defiantly to defend Wolverhampton and her people, although the misguided PR efforts of some actually made the situation far worse. There were suggestions from elected officials that the town should be visited "because it has a Premier League football team" and "a park" and because the nose cone of Concord was built in the town. Former local football legend, Steve Bull, went as far as to say, in effect, that Wolverhampton was no worse than Dudley or Birmingham. The subsequent attempt by Wolverhampton netizens to add "Wolvo-positive" comments on Lonely Planet has been equally creepy. It's been like watching a real-life Frank Spencer.

I love the whole of the West Midlands area, and especially Wolverhampton. I was born locally, went to university in Birmingham and make a 250-mile round trip every couple of weeks as a Wolves season-ticket holder. I spend many weekends boating or walking the canals of the region.

I believe that the Lonely Planet article, disgraceful as it is, should be used as a rallying call to help Wolverhampton grow, because - bluntly - there is a good reason why Wolverhampton is not "favourited" by readers of These reasons are complex but it is not a phenomenon unique to Wolverhampton. Those who live or work in attractive or interesting tourist destinations trend to take them for granted, while people in most areas see no tourism merit in the area where they live.

There is no point simply reacting angrily to Lonely Planet. It was certainly disingenuous to add Wolverhampton to a list based upon one (actually quite logical) criteria simply because it fits another unrelated criteria. There are tens of thousands of cities that are not covered by Lonely Planet: there is no more reason to pick on Wolverhampton than there is Jiaozuo in China or Sugar Land in Texas.

But maybe it is worth setting the hyperbole and Concorde nose cones aside and consider whether the people of 21st Century Wolverhampton have been served well by the officials, industrialists, bankers, politicians and planners over the last 50 years. It would be a question worth considering for the whole Black Country and maybe even the West Midlands. In fact, Wolverhampton's history and heritage actually does provide sufficient reason if there was investment and a real vision that included a wider set of indicators than presently used in Britain. it is interesting to see how Asian cities understand that they are in a global dogfight for inward investment and understand the need to build on heritage, build, suport and promote entertainment and incidentals.

It is interesting to see how, for example, the Korean city of Suwon and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi-do has developed in the last ten years, although - admittedly - it does have a UNESCO World Heritage site in the city. It is, however, an industrial city in the shadow of much bigger Seoul, ironically also on the Lonely Planet list. Suwon and Gyeonggi-do have invested constantly and tirelessly in education, industry, housing, parks, museums, art, infrastructure and all the little things and is a flourishing dynamic city. Even on a misty, wet November Tuesday evening.

Suwon commissioned architects to make all the public toilets in the town (you do remember public toilets, don't you?) architecturally unique: each one is amazing. Can you imagine the response in Wolverhampton or pretty much most parts of Britain, if residents were told that the city officials had commissioned architects to build stunning toilets? "What a waste of money", "They should spend it on this, that or the other!", moan, moan, moan. Look at The Cube in nearby Sandwell. Building a vibrant future for cities means investing in a whole range of different things, many of which might not make sense but when taken together start to differentiate Town X from Town Y.

The city of Jiaozuo in China is another case in point, although there is very little information available about it. This city of around 1 million people in north-western Henan province in China used to be a cold, miserable, desperately polluted place. It was a desperate place, full of badly designed, half-working rust-bucket steel mills and chemical plants. I spent a week there in 2002 and it was absolutely dire. There was a permanent smog because of the coal dust and pollution and it was grey and grim. I vowed never to return because it was just awful.
Then, five years later I heard that there had been a curious revolution in the city. The mayor and various officials had decided that the city's future needed to be different and they worked to unearth every possible aspect of the city's cultural and natural heritage. They invested massively in parks, roads, education, marketing, promotion and cleaning up the air and water. They pressed local companies into working with them, despite some opposition - even from many residents. They had this vision that was ridiculously expensive, ridiculously over-ambitious and unworkable.

They then went and did it.

Within a short time period, Jiaozuo had been spectacularly changed. A Chinese language tourism journal has written up the achievements (and unfortunately I cannot find the article right now) but the city leapt into the big time. It became - and possibly -still is one of the fastest growing tourism places in northern China, competing...remember...against the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the temples and warriors of nearby Xi'an and Luoyang and the Shaolin temple, also not too distant.

Jiaozuo officials created a hopelessly unachievable vision and simply made it happen. They brough sceptics around and worked with equally cynical media. The upshot now is that I understand that it has attracted inwarded industrial investment to the city, more than replacing the rust-bucket industry that previously belched out smoke and filthy water.
Wolverhampton needs a visions. It needs policiticans, officials and civil servants who will - just for a short time - forget about disagreeing with each other because they are Labour/Conservative/LibDems or whatever and start building a new Wolverhampton. One that includes more museums, more galleries, more human spaces, more heritage interpretation, more jobs, more inclusiveness.

The people of Wolverhampton have been fired up by the Lonely Planet (even if Wolves forwards haven't) so maybe it's time to consider what would be a suitable city for them, their children and grand-children. It's not about minimising public spend but about creasting a future. Maybe, come May, it's worth asking prospective political representatives "What's your vision for the area? And drop the party political stuff for a few minutes. Talk like a leader, for once"

Chances would be a fine thing

The former Chances Brothers glassworks in Smethwick (discussed earlier here) has been in the news again.
In August, the Express & Star reported that the current owner of the property, Anthony Copeland, a developer, suggested that the Grade II listed building would not now be converted into appartments as planned but the site would be used for a new-build business hotel.

Although a new build hotel would most likely be of the brick-and-gable-roof style of building so much loved by ring-road hotel architects in recent years, it would at least protect the remaining structures from being altered drastically. That might save them until some time when more appropriate and sympathetic conversion or adaptation might be feasible. However, the Express & Star also reported that the developer had been working closely with English Heritage and been very taken by the heritage of the site - good news indeed.

And this week, the Express & Star reports (not available in online version) that the task of archiving Chance Brothers history is now well under way. Sandwell archivist, Laura Brett, is part way through the mammoth task. The company gifted more than 1,000 cubic feet of archives to Pilkingtons who bought them, and around one third is expected to have been catalogued by this summer. Laura reports "there are many amazing things amongst the archives".

Laura will give a talk on these archives this coming Thursday at Smethwick Library at 2.30pm. Undoubtedly well worth going! However, you can also get a good feel for what is going on from Laura's Chance Archives blog.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Venice to be Hull of the Med - experts

Climate change experts have reacted positively to architects plans that could allow Venice to adapt to rising sea levels in the Mediterranean by becoming more like Kingston-upon-Hull.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ireland's Royal Canal book review

Interesting review of recently published latest edition of the prime historical account of Ireland's Royal Canal. I picked up several brochures about Ireland's waterways at the Boat Show - it is really, really tempting and you can sail on so many of them as well.

Keeping canal meetings a guarded secret

A mysterious article in the Watford Observer indicates that "a vounteer group dedicated to the upkeep and promotion of the Rickmansworth section of the...Grand Union canal is to hold a public meeting for prospective new members". It will happen on Tuesday at a local church.

Most bizarre. None of the sloppy journalist, newspaper nor volunteer group see fit to provide any more information....

...which volunteer group?
...what time?
...which Tuesday?

Clearly telepathy is going to be a requirement for prospective new members.
The Rickmansworth Waterways Trust website sheds no further light on the matter.
Well, call me old-fashioned but if they wanted to keep it a total secret, they shouldn't have mentioned the church or the day. Or Rickmansworth. Because, you can be quite sure that there will be people who will doggedly track down the location and time and have the audacity to turn up.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The highlight of January - the London Boat Show

I think they deliberately hold it in January to cheer everyone up. This weekend, most football was postponed, but this didn't seem to deter the thousands of visitors to the annual London Boat Show at the Excel Centre in the remote hinterlands of E16.

It's always a curious mix of the super-rich looking at 60' powerboats and impoverished Olympic hopefuls looking to squeeze another 0.2mph out of their Laser. There are those who will sail in all weathers in all seas and have to be dragged ashore screaming, and there are those who go afloat only to be seen, glass in hand, by others on even bigger boats.

Sadly, the Boat Show has become 99% boatmart - albeit an exceptionally busy one - and it's a pity there isn't more opportunity for learning, debate, competition, technical displays. Even the IWA National Festival for the inland waterways has more than this! I also objected to paying £5 for the Show Guide when it is simply advertising all the exhibitors.

Still, it was a good day out and minds could be taken off the snow, sleet, blizzards, the cold and the economy.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

More opportunities to trash Banbury

Cherwell District Council have a lot to answer for. The atmospheric Banbury canalside, a heady mixture of industry, commerce, trasnportation, houses, trees was swept away and replaced with a bus station and the blank side wall of a shopping mall. In one fell swoop, the developers ripped out what could have been the focus of the town for future generations. But like many towns through the 1970s and 1980s, Banbury chose blandness. It wasn't even a case of profits over heritage: the shabby bus station, grubby concrete wharves and echoing mall themselves remain at the periphery of the town. The sheer size and bulk of the bus station and mall act as very physical barriers, and as soon as the mall closes, the area becomes shady and has a feeling of isolation. It's as if some planner sat back, chewed his pencil and thought "Now how do we make it really cold and sterile?" The presence of Tooley's as a shop-cum-yard-cum-museum is no consolation. It's embedded in the bowels of the shopping mall like some kind of abcess.

The news that there was a new Development Plan for the area east and south of this monstrosity - for the Oxford Canal as it winds its way out of town southwards - was intriguing and encouraging. But the Development Plans are hollow; they are as bland as that original development and look set simply to extend the dreadful Banbury experience even further. It is a pity because Banbury is such a charming town with such an interesting history, good shops and pubs and good transport. Basically, anything the planners haven't touched are good; everything they have, is fairly useless.
The Development Plans will guide developers and builders as they buy plots of land and build on them. The plans completely ignore the current presence of light industry and commerce in the area, replacing it with high-density box-like houses. So a locus of jobs, income, tax and economy are replaced with cheap hutches. The plans have the now obligatory oblique references to sustainability but also - given the canalside situation - sketches of narrowboats. There is virtually no mention of any kind of boating activity other than mention of visitor moorings, but as all the individual developments will be privateky funded, it is almost guaranteed that there will be lots of orders for "No Mooring" signs. The Banbury waterside will become yet another lacklustre, sterile, litter-strewn pathway, characterised by grafitti, broken brick pathways, overgrown and weedy flowerbeds and broken benches. There will be the usual murals of canal history painted by local primary-school children, but nothing of consequence, nothing that future generations will want to treasure. Come to think of it, nothing that the current generation will want to treasure.

I didn't submit my comments in the Cherwell District consultation. I don't pay taxes locally, I don't work or live in Banbury. I doubt I will be spending much time in the town in future, either. Pity.

Is that it? The International 12 Foot

It's not easy. If you belong to a club you will probably only have experience with those dinghies popular at the club. The universal presence of boats like the Laser, Pico and RS's mean that most people can get a taste for these. But if you are after something a bit different, a bit unusual, a bit....well...not the sailing equivalent of a Corsa or a Mondeo it can be more tricky.

We are looking for a boat that is around in numbers, yet has a bit of a history and is also an elegant cruise. We are a bit old for pieces of carbon-fibre the size of a thong with a sail the size of the Sydney Opera House. The kids disagree. But it's my money.

We may have found the solution in the International 12 Foot Dinghy. But where do I blag a sail on one? A truly gorgeous boat. I can even see myself doing the BCN Marathon Challenge on it. Eye-wateringly expensive though.

Floating in The City, under the Bank of England

Read in the wonderful Floating in the City blog, a lovely post about the Spring of Wealth, an artesian well that lies deep underneath the Bank of England. How would we ever find out these wonderful tales about Britain - or the world - without the inquisitiveness of bloggers?