Exiting the news purdah

A month ago today I saw the exit poll results and turned the news off. I haven’t turned it on again.

I’d embarked on an unplanned news black out. I stopped watching TV and I avoided Question Time, which is really just a middle class version of Jeremy Kyle anyway. I stopped listening to the radio, apart from Radio 3, which only has news once an hour and pirate radio, which has news never.

What’s done was done and it was going to be bad for anyone unlucky enough to be poor or incapable. There was nothing I could do about it, so I switched off.

Social media was also off the agenda, because I knew that most people I knew would be raging into the echo chamber of Facebook and Twitter and that felt disheartening and pointless. I averted my eyes from free newspapers when I was working in town and avoided conversations about politics.

Some news filtered through early, mostly from the far-off land of my teenage son, but mostly I spent the last month vacuum-packed, protected from unsightly post-result posturing and jostling. I only found out Michael Gove was Justice Secretary last week and immediately wished I hadn’t.

My news blackout posed an interesting question: what happens when you’re not being enraged and distracted by the minutia of the daily news grid?

The answer is that unsurprisingly, it gives you back a lot of time. It also focuses the mind on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Cabinet ministers waft into the distance when you don’t see them every day, remote and shapeless as smoke, and local problems pop into focus in their place.

The last month of national radio silence has made me want to connect locally. The main thing now is rediscovering our individual and collective impulse to do it ourselves, to find opportunities to volunteer, and to strengthen ties with the communities we’re already part of through location or background or interests. We need to make alliances outside of our usual friends and family. And then, who knows what might emerge?

We don’t have the same collective impulse as Spain, which makes it harder for a phenomenon like Podemos to occur, but we do have a long-established tradition of DIY culture. If the mainstream isn’t providing, we’ve filled the gap with grassroots responses, whether that’s pirate radio or punk. We’ve also, thanks to a useful bit of local democracy, now got new neighbourhood forums that give communities legal rights and powers to shape new developments.

So that’s what I’m saying: DIY and do it local – and don’t let the news distract you.

Image: Jon S


Township twitching

I wrote this story for Caught By The River on Kliptown’s only bird tour guide after my recent trip to Soweto. It was published today, on the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.

There’s only one picture on the story so I thought I’d share a few more.

Meet Bafana, Soweto poet and bird tour guide.

Bafana II

An orchid growing by a Kliptown portaloo.


Bafana’s garden, previously a rubbish tip.

Bafana's garden II




Soweto stories

Earlier this month I travelled to Soweto for the inaugural Amaphiko Academy. It’s a ten day academy for social entrepreneurs, put together by Red Bull.

Eighteen South African social innovators were selected to take part. Some of them were running pretty sophisticated social enterprise, others had never heard the words ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ put together and certainly didn’t know that their after-school art project or skate education scheme or township gardening operation was indeed a social enterprise.


It was eye-opening for everyone. Each day comprised a moderated lecture (hence my involvement) with a top-flight guest, ranging from MIT’s entrepreneur-in-residence Julius Akinyemi, to Subway Art photographer Martha Cooper to Andy Walshe, director of high performance at Red Bull. The afternoons were spent in small crowdfunding workshops or in sessions where participants could co-create a logo or a short video, or where they could just work out ways of explaining exactly what they do.


Soweto is a huge place (population 1.5m) and much of the world’s most famous township is in pretty good shape. There’s a growing tourist industry, a new theatre and one of SA’s largest shopping malls. Some of Soweto, though, is still grindingly poor, like Kliptown, the area just across the tracks from our hotel where Amaphiko staged three evening events – itself a small, trusting, leap from the usual way of doing things. There’s nothing quite like walking along train tracks in the dark, with burning tyres as street lighting, chaperoned by street kids in youth centre t-shirts, to challenge your preconceptions.


I saw a huge degree of civic duty, innovative thinking and low-resource ingenuity. Meshack Sitoe runs an arts project for people with learning difficulties where they don’t have money for clay – so collect it from the riverbed. When his project was kicked out of their community centre he dusted himself off and set up in a friend’s back yard. Ramona Kasavan realised that girls were missing over 300 days of schooling a year because they couldn’t afford proper sanitation during their periods – and developed a two-pronged solution that involves a low-cost, high-performance pad and the rebranding of periods as ‘happy days’. Sifiso Ngobese realised that the township reclaimers who lug hug loads of rubbish each day to recycling for pittance wages were actually doing a great civic service – and developed branded, durable carts that both make life easier and rebrand these workers as heroes, not lowlife.

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This resourcefulness was also present in the people we met along the way, like the Kliptonians who run the SKY Youth Centre, or the collective of artists behind the Post 77 Gallery, or the kids adapting reclaimed plastic toy trucks with a long stick to make them more navigable. In a world where low-resource ingenuity will become more valuable as resources become increasingly scarce, societies like Soweto are well-placed to thrive – and there’s a lot we can learn from them.

It’s increasingly obvious, to quote Peter Senge in this month’s RSA Fellowship Magazine, “we’re not going to be able to keep privatising profit and socialising cost to the degree we have been.” Projects giving grass-roots social entrepreneurs access to networks and opportunities are a good start. It’s about putting social profit on a par with financial profit and recognising the value that both bring.

I don’t feel I got to know too much about the vastness of South Africa in my short stay, but I feel like I got a strong taste of Soweto, a place described in Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal’s excellent ‘Soweto: A History’ as “a catalyst… what happens in Soweto will determine what happens in the whole country.” On the 20th anniversary of democracy in that country, here’s to a new generation of social upstarts. And the next Amaphiko academy. I’m in.


A Year In Oxleas Woods

My Up The Woods column for Caught By The River has transformed into a monthly piece about Oxleas Woods. I’m reposting them here, although the originals remain on CBTR proper.

A Year In Oxleas Woods: January

On the floor of Oxleas Woods there’s a circle of dropped leaf, twig and acorn underneath a tree. It’s not a special tree, just one I’ve stopped under during this autumn stroll. The acorns have been on the floor for a few weeks now, and no doubt some of them will have been trodden into the ground and into the blackness ready to push through in the spring.

I find two smooth, plump acorns and put them in my pocket. At home I plant them, one each in a small black pot and put them between the window and the kitchen sink. It’s a nice spot: I stand at the sink and wash up, looking down the road where there are scrappy trees and bushes and lines of parked cars. It’s an edgeland of sorts, between urban and suburban, and I’ve just brought a tiny piece of ancient woodland into it. The wood’s Saxon name refers to oxen pasture and the ground there has been pushing up trees and watching them fall for thousands of years. Some parts of Oxleas date back to the ice age, although these days the woods fizz with barky dogs, not cattle.

My windowsill, onto which I’ve translocated these acorns, has only been here since 1988. I have a passing thought that perhaps I’ve committed a crime of space and time, stealing children from the oak mother and hurtling them through the centuries so that they’re growing up to the sight of streetlights and Nissan Micra rather than the unbending scenery of oak with an understory of hazel and sweet chestnut.

For weeks nothing happens and then just before Christmas a fat tuft appears in one pot. Two weeks on and it’s still foetal, a thin green line topped with pre-curled leaf on the top. You can’t see the oak in it yet: the parts that will be leaves look like claws or deep-sea creatures or perhaps an exotic flytrap.

The new tree growing in my kitchen is on my mind when I go back to Oxleas Woods for a run on Boxing Day, amidst the statue silhouettes of the gorgeously stark trunks and branches and twigs. The trees look like charcoal sketches of synapses, all sky-cupping black lines and channels and diversions; living receivers and receptors ready for the atmosphere to signal the next phase of their growth.

I run down an incline and into a scrubby patch of wood with ankle-high leaf mulch and a large stand of scrappy hazel. I jog along minor paths, bending under branches and leaping badly over fallen trees. I tack across particularly muddy paths, like the kids at the start of Swallows And Amazons who pretend to sail down their garden.

Then I run into a small clearing and there’s a man with two squat dogs standing there. Freedom is suddenly transmuted into fear and as I pass him I’m no longer running towards something, I’m running away from it. The guy is just standing there with his dogs but his presence instantly shifts my perception of the place from benign to dangerous, even though we’re only ever minutes from the main road that sits hard at the edges of the woods. I’m reminded of the famous bandits who used Oxleas as cover in the Middle Ages and of the salutary gibbets that lined Shooters Hill, and I work my way towards the many muddy arteries that convey runners and amblers and dog walkers in loops.

There are two huge oak trees up by the café at the top of Oxleas Meadow, just before you reach the car park. They’re full of promise; all raw, living wood. The once-green leaf cover has turned brown and fallen into a circle of mulch and twig around the trunk. I’m looking upwards into the venous jumble of the naked crown when it occurs to me that the sapling at home already has leaves, or a proto-leaf, at a time when all of its siblings and cousins are undressed. The sapling is an end-of-year signal from the next generation that spring is coming.








The Art Party Conference 2013

The Art Party Conference was always going to be a lot of fun, not least because of the delightfully irreverent call for attendees to create portraits of Michael Gove. These were the best-looking protest banners I’ve ever seen, a colourful exercise in the democratic right to say what you think humorously, and often very beautifully. Most were funny, some were a bit mean, but they all conveyed artists and art practitioners’ righteous anger at the downgrading of the arts in education – and the impact this will have ongoing.

hall of portraits I


The day-long event at the Spa Centre, Scarborough was organised by artist Bob and Roberta Smith, whose outsized flags you might have seen on the Southbank over the summer. He was so outraged by the impact of Michael Gove’s educational reforms on the arts that he made a painting called Letter To Michael Gove. This became a singularity which, when expanded, became The Art Party Conference: a gathering of art teachers, kids, curious locals and artists including Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth for a day of curious actions on the north eastern coast of England.

bob speaks

In a room looking onto the steel-grey sea there was an impromptu opportunity to do life drawing of surfers with easels and paper already in place. Around the corner, there was a Michael Gove lookalike in a bad suit, pushing his way irritatedly through the crowds at the Goveshy where crowds lined up to chuck stuff at the (beautiful, hand-crafted) plaster busts of the Secretary Of State For Education. Up the stairs, nestled in a corner was a nail bar where you could have images of iconic female artists applied to your nails and where the real art was in the conversation that the artist was curating between nail technician and recipient. There were all kinds of transactions going on and very few involved handing over cash. You paid your fiver entrance and everything was free, bar the normal commercial transactions of tea and bowls of chips that reminded you that we were indeed at a conference centre. Plates of home-made chewy cookies and lollipops were freely available on artists stands, alongside beautifully-printer A2 posters from Pavel Büchler, Ian Bourne and Bobby Baker. We were citizens in the free state of the Art Party and it felt like a participatory version of Carry On Up The Situationists.

missing woman

It was also neatly democratic. We went up to see what was happening with Roger Clarke’s Record Player Orchestra and ended up doing our own performance which involved choosing a tone on a record and playing it whenever you wanted along with nine other people doing the same thing. It was strangely comforting, the hum of electricity and the drone sending us all into somnambulance. This also led to another discovery: spending an hour playing pure frequency makes your eyeballs buzz.

turntable orchestra

And finally, we stumbled upon curator Lynda Morris’s talk, titled Drinking With Gilbert and George. This was a real highlight and could be compressed into ‘we got drunk/ we made art’. She finished her talk with a hearty ‘cheers!’ and played out the pair’s singing sculpture, which became our theme tune as we wended a happy way back the Travelodge, which like everything else, now looked like a piece of art.

James Blake, The Mercury and the future

Yesterday I heard a pundit talking about who might win the Mercury Prize. He mentioned James Blake in passing, not as a ‘proper’ contender like Bowie, but he said something interesting. Blake’s music could only have been made now, he observed. If you’d heard this music twenty years ago, he said, it’d have sounded like the future.

And that’s the thing. There’s great music all over the place –  Kwes or Goat or the riotous gloaming released by Blackest Ever Black to mention three off the top of my head. Naturally, there’s also a tonne of music that is just repeating what’s been done before, like a legal high with a molecule or two moved around. But something has changed.

I remember Martyn Ware talking about artists looking backwards instead of forwards. Imagine, he said, if Human League had made music that sounded like it came from two decades before – music from the 1950s? They’d have been laughed out of Sheffield. Everyone was looking ahead, using new technology and making sounds that propelled them out of their reality into something more adult, something further ahead: the future. The future was shiny, bleepy, better.

But is anyone making futuristic electronic music now?

No. Because there’s no point. There’s an understanding, even if we haven’t clocked it overtly, that the future is going to be worse than the past, or at least more complicated and probably more difficult and that’s not the easiest thing to turn into a tune. Futurism was about transportation and a belief in eternal growth, not reality. Derrick May and Juan Atkins made electronic music as a spaceship, a transporter, a time-machine that could move them forwards and outwards.

Congratulations to James Blake on his Mercury, and to everyone making music that doesn’t sound like the past or like the an outdated version of future. Forward the Now-ists!

Deptford Creek

The Creekside Centre in Deptford sits next to an industrial centre, off a brutal main road that links Greenwich to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Inside, a tiny corridor is lined with shelves. This is the Centre’s collection of specialist detritus brought up from the Ravensbourne: ancient mobile phones, driving licences, bones, cans, a pair of Javan faces smoothed out from a broken statue. It looks like a conversationist’s version of the Mutoid Waste Company peopled not by dystopian desert punks but by folk in muddy red coats and waders, holding the big sticks that will keep them upright during the imminent low tide walk.


Nick Bertrand is a conservationist with a seafaring laugh. He hoists himself onto the edge of a raised bed of wild flowers and gathers us round. What starts as a piece of incidental context – pointing out the Rue-leaved saxifrage behind him –  turns into a intriguing sermon on planting and self-seeding and the commodification of the wild. So-called wild cornflowers bought in your average garden centre, he says, actually come from Austria. “You’re being conned left right and centre,” he says, thrillingly, tossing facts about wildflowers inability to thrive away from their home like so many poppy seeds in the air. The flowers here at the Centre were translocated from a few miles away, which was lucky, he says, because the original site has been destroyed. Wild, it seems, is actually another way of saying ‘local’.

I’m here with my friend Kate Ling who wrote about this south London waterway in her award-winning poem Deptford Creek and we start the short walk to the river one in front of the other. This small incline, maybe a hundred meters, is a liminal zone. We’re already somewhere else – stepping out of normal life towards the water, dropping learned adult personas and adopting something receptive and natural. Land becomes specific: the slanted strip to our left comprises three distinct areas of marsh which changes by degrees before the transition into mudflat and water. These are distinct zones, with different needs and different communities. At the top, there’s round-headed Nordic native Angelica, down in lower marsh, there’s highly lethal water hemlock. So far, so exotic.

The creek is located at the tidal reach of the Ravensbourne, which meets our other local waterway, the Quaggy, behind Lewisham bus station before flowing into and out of the Thames. There’s the roller coaster rumble of the DLR above our heads, and we walk upstream towards a man-made bend. There are high bare walls and mud flats on either side of the slow green flow. We are in the deep ford that gave Deptford it’s name, a place that has been colonised by people since at least the 11th Century when the Domesday book notes eleven corn mills on the river, and where the original Golden Hind rested until it rotted and broke up.


I learn a new word: ‘syzrygy’, which describes the lunar configuration of earth, sun and moon lining up at full moon and no moon, a configuration which explains why the shelves in the centre are so laden with lost and discarded items. The tide here lifts mud and objects in the water, carries them along, and then drops them down, relocated, at static high tide.

It feels good in the creek. I feel like I’m rowing the boat of myself, navigating through the water with the momentum of my big stick. Sadly I am a boat with a leak as one of my waders has a slow puncture and gradually I experience a tidal increase of water up my leg. When I eventually return and take my waders off I have a high tide mark, mid calf, where Ravensbourne dregs met not the exterior of rubber, but skin.

The creatures of the creek are all around us. Like the Asian Clam. It’s an invasive species that was first found eight years ago in Richmond, and is now everywhere. Experts have no idea what impact they’ll have. Then there are two swans, lurking in the stairwell of the creek bend. In the altered narrative of the low tide walk, the swans have become lemon-faced geezers outside a dodgy pub. They are to be respected and avoided. We purposefully avoid eye contact and pretend they’re not there.

Some creek life you have to really look for, like the baby flounder who dart around the creek bed like transparent shadows, or the algae that populates the ‘rot zone’  on the creek walls where alternate damp and sun provide perfect conditions for micro-organisms. Later in the summer the algae goes fluorescent green, then in winter it goes black, and the whole creek becomes monochrome.

Nick reaches underneath a brick and picks up two leeches. They are terrible, inky punctuation marks that wriggle across and inbetween his fingers. They are a black silky comma followed by a fat slash of the pen and I find myself wriggling backwards through the crowd when they’re shoved towards me. I do not like leeches, even if they do look as if they’ve come straight out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Safer are the Japanese Mitten crabs who live under a bit of chucked-away carpet. The crab is green, but that’s because it’s actually just a shell. Crab moved out when space got too tight. Nick opens up the flip-top mechanism of the shell, and to really does open like a hinged box. Then we find two big ones under a metal sheet. One gets away and the other is held above the water, arms and legs dancing in air until he’s gently returned to the rusting comfort of home.

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 15.47.58

And that’s the thing. Rubbish is good for the river. When the Creekside Centre opened in 1999 they removed 14 shopping trolleys from the creek and fish stocks decreased by 50%. Our discarded debris replaces the natural habitats that used to hog the sides of the creek, like the reed beds. The trolleys are particularly good, because their metal grids become clogged with other bits of rubbish, which provide excellent hiding places for flounder, away from the bigger, badder guppy. We clear the river for people, Nick says, because of their perception of how the river should look.

It’s deep, this ford.

Originally posted on Caught By The River

Eine Kleine Musik

My friends at RBMA Radio have been locked away in a Berlin back room for over three weeks now, serving up ten hours of radio every day. I’ve come for the last two weeks of the pop-up radio station, which has turned a Kreuzberg Italian cafe into a musical magnet of sorts.

Berlin has become the central location for a  generation of artists who sit broadly within the descriptive realm of electronic music – which means a lot of local treasure. Even if it’s a lot of highly internationalised local treasure.

First day I was here I met Morphosis, aka Rabih Beaini who runs a label called Morphine. He is reissuing the work of a musician called Charles Cohen, who was one of the few people who used very early synthesisers, particularly those made by eccentric innovator Don Buchla. This was music made for experimental dance or theatre performances, but it sounds an awful lot like the music that Detroit musicians like Mad Mike, Jeff Mills and Derrick May would make some years later. Even the titles resonate with those of classic Motor City techno. Dance Of The Spirit Catchers is a Charles Cohen piece, but is interchangeable with UR titles like Hi-Tech Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons. The music is gorgeous.

Young Turks did a takeover of the station for the last two hours of the day, and included an interview with FKA Twigs. The music has a quality that marks her out as an innovator: it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Much is made of her distinct visual flair, which like the music, is confident, beguiling and seriously original. This is well worth a listen.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 10.47.03

A couple of days later we had a two hour special from the Hotflush label, who brought along one of their artists, Recondite. He’s a seriously serious man, both sartorially – all blacks and greys and minimalist glasses – and sonically. We played some of his music and talked about it, on air, in-between plays. On one, he described the music as coming from the perspective of a hawk, circling high up, seeing everything. He makes lovely music but should also be writing hard-edged, brutalist nature novels, like a Berlin-drenched Knut Hamson or Cormac McCarthy.

Leisure System, or more specifically Ned Beckett, came in yesterday. They run parties here in Berlin and have morphed over eight or nine releases into a record label, too. The thing they do really well is breadth, bringing together musicians as superficially distinct as Objekt and Gold Panda, and picking up brand new artists like Hubie Davison, like musical Manta Ray, scanning the ocean floor for buried treasure.

The final entry is for some music of the mouth. Yes, I got myself some classic Berlin fast food in the shape of gemuse kebap from Kottiwood, just down the road from where I’m staying at Kottbusser Tor. Yes boss!


Back to school

It’s back to school week for thousands of British children and young people, as well as all the teachers and support staff who work in our 24,000 schools and colleges. Uniforms are being pulled out of bedroom corners. Folders are being dusted off.  The first hints of autumn are being carried in the air, even if we’re still being embraced by the longest, sunniest summer in a decade.

All of which makes it the right time to post this video of Ken Robinson speaking at the RSA earlier in the summer. I squeezed in right before they closed the doors. It was a delight to hear him saying that creativity should be embedded into every school – especially as that’s at the heart of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, where I’m proud to be a (relatively new) school governor.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 11.23.15

It’s worth watching the whole video, but here’s a taster of what he said.

Why, he asked, do we ‘do’ education? His answer came in four parts: economic, cultural, social and personal.

Education, he said, has powerful economic purpose, contributing to health, vitality and sustainability. We want to make our children economically independent – so what does industry want? An IBM report from 2011 of 1,800 leaders in 80 countries said they wanted adaptability and creativity.

The world is complicated and increasingly conflicted. Value systems are knocking against each other head on.  We need forms of education that respond to and reflect culture  – that allows you to see your own identity and to understand others’.

He points to evidence of political disengagement. It’s important we take part in civil engagement. You do this by having a culture of participation – and schools are a vital part of this.

And finally, it’s about people.  “Anything not nuanced to diversity will increase alienation.”

His belief is that change needs to come from the ground up. “We need policy makers to think differently. They appear to believe that you improve things by issuing directives. It’s a false consciousness of how education actually works. If we do something different, government will respond.”

“You cannot improve education,” he said, “by vilifying teachers.”

Too right!


End Of The Road review 2013

Mostly, festival reviews are a bit pointless for those who didn’t attend. So I thought I’d try and do a bit of a round-up that makes sense, even for people who didn’t make it down to Larmer Tree Gardens for the loveliest weekend of the year.

It’s a good time for girls in bands

From Deap Vally to Warpaint to Rachel Dadd, female musicians were everywhere – and not just playing bass or singing. It seems that finally, it’s normal for women to play drums, or indeed whatever they want.

I had an interesting conversation earlier in the year with electronic music producer Patrick Pulsinger on this subject. He thinks that it’s the best time ever for girls to make music, and that this shift will be great for music too. His take is that the fact girls can just buy kit online, and can work it out for themselves without having to be embarrassed or intimidated by blokes in kit shops or music shops, is revolutionary. I think I agree.

Here are Warpaint playing a new song at EOTR on Saturday night.

Talking Heads songs sound great with a brass ensemble behind them

David Byrne did a headline set with St Vincent, playing the gorgeous songs they released on Love This Giant interspersed with some Talking Heads classics. The show was equally gorgeous, with the songs set to charming doll-dance choreography which saw Byrne and Annie Clarke flanked by a line of brass players. Even the Euphonium player was dancing, which must have been some feat. Naive Melody, aka the greatest love song ever written, sounded particularly beautiful in a Wiltshire field.

I couldn’t find any YouTube clips of this show, probably because the crowd heeded Byrne’s show opening exhortation to put down the devices and dance. But here’s one from elsewhere on the tour.

The food was almost as good as the music

I ate a blackcurrent and honey frozen yoghurt from the Hedgerow Deli that was like Bo Ningen on my tastebuds. Honestly, I know what John and Greg are on about now. Then there was the maple-smoked pulled pork and beans, and the two types of paella. I could actually do a whole festival review just on the food. Mmmmmmmmm.

Bo Ningen 

You can tell how amazing they were because no-one filmed them on their phones and put it on YouTube. OK, so that might be an exaggeration and no doubt untrue but that’s how it felt. The 15 year olds at the front lapped it up, as did the 50-something couple standing in front of me who declared it ‘completely awesome’. A very cool-looking middle-aged lady went up to the lighting guy afterwards and congratulated him on how he lit up the stage. She was right. When Yuki descended into the crowd and played his guitar upside down, or when Taigen swirled his guitar around like a hawk-handler might swirl meat, lighting guy was right there, picking out the best bits. They’re playing again soon. I advise you to go.

Here they are earlier this year at the 100 Club.

People who go to End Of The Road are proper music fans

EOTR is populated by proper music fans, whether they’re teenage kids or a fifty-something lady in a Patti Smith T-shirt, or festival regular Big Jeff who everyone seemed to know from bands on stage to kids wandering past the Rough Trade store. They’re all equal because they’re all into it. It’s surprising how surprising this is.

I’ve already got my ticket for next year.

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