A Sassenach Soliloquy

Monday, September 27

The trials of flathunting: #5 in a series of envy

A fellow postgraduate student and now friend of mine found, the day before I arrived here, a gorgeous on George Square; that is, on the square where all of my study takes place, next to the Meadows where everybody plays frisbee and in the middle of town.

I went to two house-parties over the weekend, and both were in stunning flats with giant rooms.

I want my home.

(I think I have one, but it is subject to a few things, and I don't want to bore you with the details nor raise my own hopes too much.)

Friday, September 24

Oh goody - another session of theist-bashing...

I don't normally post external links up here, but I'm going to make an exception today, because this should be compulsory reading for everybody. Ever.

Thursday, September 23

Random thoughts about life in Edinburgh so far

1) Academia and academics are, generally, hopelessly unprofessional.
2) Edinburgh is beautiful, and the architecture interesting (photos to follow soon).
3) Normally ethical and friendly people become bastards when flats are up for rent.
4) There are lots and lots of foreign students in the department (perhaps 80%); this is a good thing...
5) ..but how those of them who don't have excellent English skills expect to survive is beyond me: advanced has two syllables, not three, and nobody at that level of English should be making such a mistake.
6) Most people think evolution is a synonym for change. It isn't.
7) The weather here may, on the whole, be terrible, but it is at least interesting and this is, I venture, better than weeks of anonomous grey.
8) All female 20-year-olds look fantastic. It is effortless. Equally it is tragic that such beauty evaporates. Even worse is when they encourage that deteriation by drinking and/or eating too much.

Wednesday, September 22

In what other context would you pay to be lectured?

My first degree was in Mathematics. That meant lectures were spoon-fed to us. By its nature, Maths necessitates lectures and lecture notes being structured, and written down. Some lecturers took this to extremes, literally writing, over the course of ten weeks, a small book on the subject on the board for us to copy down. However barmy that may be, the other extreme - talking, digressing, illustrating but not structuring - was far worse. There was just one example of such an approach at Sussex, and marks for his courses were consistently poor. As ever, the best exponents struck a balance between these extremes.

So my first archeology lecture, and my first experience of having to concentrate and take my own notes was a new experience. Clearly its a skill I'll have to learn quickly. I think I did fine this morning, but throughout I couldn't help think what an archaic form of 'teaching' this was: he talks, and we listen. Was this what school was like 80 years ago?

Although clearly knowledgeable and reasonably personable and approachable, our lecturer did not seem a teacher. His passion for the material did not come through, and neither did any motivation to teach. I understand that for many faculty lecturing is a necessary evil done to gain access to the time, money and environment needed to conduct their research. However for me, and many others, this is a place of learning; but where is the teaching that accompanies that?

This raises many questions about the nature of Universities, and subsequently the way in which they are funded. I am a paying customer of Edinburgh University, and as such I am entitled to expect a certain quality of teaching. Yet no doubt little teaching training goes on here, just as it doesn't in higher education institutions nationwide. But can we, as customers (with top-up fees now a reality, undergraduates fall into that category too), influence the market? I fear not, since the product we're buying - education - isn't the same as the product our future employers will look for, namely a degree from a prestigious institution. What that means is that, for example, Oxbridge (and, to only a slightly lesser extent universities like Edinburgh) can continue to charge the highest rates whilst not delivering the highest quality of education, since their brand will ensure a future employers interest. It would take a generation - at least - of poor teaching to erode that brand, and similarly it will take many years of outstanding teaching to put, say, Luton on the employer's radar. The playing field of this open-market is not a level one, and whilst it remains so bored faculty will continue to give boring lectures to bored students. My motivation levels are inevitably high at the moment, so that's not me - yet - but it could be, and given the financial price I'm paying for being here, I think I'm entitled to expect a little better.

Tuesday, September 21

The trials of flathunting: #4 in a series of men behaving badly

It's too boring to go into, but just remember people are bastards, especially when they are about to become your landlord. Back to square one.

Everything else is sunny though, and I can't wait to start the archeology course tomorrow morning.

Sunday, September 19

I love life

My course will be fascinating. This semester I will spend time with faculty in archeology, economics, biology, linguistics and philosophy, all in relation to the evolution of language. Next semester will see computational modelling, computer science and more linguistics, amongst others. I cannot wait to start, and I feel ready and able. My course mates - there are 12 of us - seem nice, and I've made other friends; some from elsewhere in the department and others from frisbee and canoeing, both of which I've already done.

In fact, I haven't felt this alive since my time in Barcelona 18 months ago. However that was the negative energy of escape being channelled in a constructive way; a good thing, but different from the positive, forward-looking and future-focused energy I have now: for the first time in my life I have proper direction and I understand why I'm doing what I am. I expect, imminently, to be fulfilled in what I'm doing, and with a healthy array of friends and hobbies around me. Edinburgh is treating me well, and I am a happy man.

Thursday, September 16

Why Edinburgh University is not like South-East Asia

This is a remarkable University. I have been through the entire registration and matriculation process, including registering with the library, my department and two sports clubs, and I have not had to provide a single passport-sized photo to anybody. Incredible.

Wednesday, September 15

The trials of flathunting: #3 in a series that's making me think about housing issues

When I was writing about Berlin earlier this summer I said that England - and by extension, in this case, Britain was "..a population that doesn’t know how to live in cities". I also pointed out that "Flats are considered a poor man’s choice..." and these ideas are now firmly entrenched in my mind after wandering around another British city and some of its flats.

Fed on a diet of mythical British ideals, we insist - and I make no apology for repeating this - on living in houses with gardens. Rather than designing and developing flats we instead build compromised houses. The distinction is one of the perception of living styles. Houses, with their seperate living, dining, cooking and sleeping rooms retain echos of a timeless Britain, when our genteel company would accompany us to the dining room where dinner would be served (by servants?). The ritual is repeated after the feast upon return to the living area, and is mimicked by all stratas of society; how often have you heard the phrase "Shall we adjourn..."? British flats are built in this mould, with walls continuing to seperate our cooking, eating, living and sleeping, as if each were a seperate life. Yet the reality is, moreso today than ever, that these activities are increasingly mixed, and the distinctions between them blurred. The architecture of apartments should recognise this, creating imaginative yet viable ways of making maximum use of the space; with their necessarily reduced area, flats are not well-served by walls, and even less so by other trappings of the British man's house: hallways and baths, corridors and porches. Indeed, even the balcony is treated as a miniture - compromised - garden, and is often stuffed with plant trays or other garden ornaments.

Our refusal to release our grip on our rural dream stiffles original use of our urban spaces. Our instinctive conservative nature places high emphasis on private initiative, and distrusts public institutions. This means that we place our lived identities in the institution of the house, which remains the default housing choice. However by doing so we necessarily reject, at least to some degree, the immediate locality (in contrast, it's interesting to note, to many continental Europeans; indeed, the Spanish word barrio, meaning area or suburb, but yet neither of those words exactly, doesn't have a direct translation into English).

Consequently, through politicians responding to the electorate's interests, we instigate the neglect of our public spaces, and especially our communal town squares. But these places are the centre-pieces of urban living which, it is worth emphasising, is the lifestyle that most of us live in 2004, and will continue to do so. As long as we continue to build walls and halls in houses with gardens we will continue to experience urban living miserably (numerous surveys continue to tell us that urbanites are unsatisfied with their quality-of-life) and urban spaces as dangerous. Yet so often we travel abroad and bathe in marvellous piazzas and plazas and long for the same back home.

A living manifesto for the 21st century should recognise that, within our towns and cities, we must dispense with attempting to live an unimaginative, sterile rural fantasy. That dream remains healthy in the place where it grew and continues to thrive: the countryside. However it should have no place in the town-planning of the 21st century. Instead we should make our urban environments something to enjoy by embracing their vibrancy and creativity, and putting that flair to productive use. And we should begin by recycling that very idea, and directing its energies exactly at where it came from: society's building blocks, housing.

Tuesday, September 14

More More More

The flat I'm temporarily staying in has cable TV. (I nearly put '..the rare luxury of...' in that last sentence, before realising that 300 channels of crap is not a luxury but something that wastes your time when it would be better employed sleeping.) So last night I found myself flicking through the various music channels and I discovered that the beautiful Rachel Stevens has realeased a cover of the disco classic More More More. (Don't you just love the way the lyric "How d'yer like it? How d'yer like it?" rolls off the tongue like a wheel down a hill? Fantastic.)

Now, we all know that covers are rubbish. Mostly they are little more than a direct copy, marketed to the auidience of the day: Atomic Kitten can rot in hell for, well, lots of reasons, but in this particular instance for taking advantage of the Bangles' class and popyfying (Is that a real word? How do you spell it?) Eternal Flame, amongst others.

I actually have more time for artists (Why do we have to use that word for these people? Most of them are nothing but glorified manekins.) that desicrate a track, for at least they've tried to do something new and, hopefully, original, even if they fail. In this respect The Kittens did a lot better with Tide Is High (they even got it right, turning it into bone-fide quality pop); it's a pity they lose all credit for that for basing their careers on pop-covers: sooner or later one of them had to come good. Paul Weller has just done a cover of Thinking Of You by Sister Sledge, and truly given the song new life; he's not tried to improve a classic baseline but instead has gone acoustic, slowed it down and, in his own words, "..tried to bring the song out a bit more". It works.

Back to Ms. Stevens. She's done something new with More x3, adding a pacier beat and making use of that layered technique so popular in dance music; a technique that probably has a technical name but which I'm too much of a musical philistine to know what that name is. You'll just have to make do with the pub definition: y'know-that-one-where-the-track-is-faded-and-muffled-like-at-a-club-and-then-suddenly-it-becomes-crisp-and-clear.

What do I think? It's ok, but, like most of today's pop, it looks bland when compared to its predecesor. But y'know what? I don't care. It still sounds like disco, and no doubt I'll find myself in some trashy bar over the next few weeks when it's played and I'll be first up there, pretending I'm listening to the original and dancing with my imagined disco girlfriend. Anything which teaches today's youth that disco is the purest and only true form of pop is good, and if just a few hear it and search out the original then that's good enough for me: More More More.

Monday, September 13

The trials of flathunting: #2 in a series that is already too long

Flat-hunting is rubbish, isn't it? We always forget how bloody boring it is.

It should be easy. But instead... oh, it makes me angry. I won't bore you with the stories, except to ask: Why do some people not tell you the whole story - crucial pieces of information - until you're at the flat, like they're thinking that once you're there that information may no longer put you off?

But frisbee people are great. I'm writing this from a nice flat that belongs to a frisbee player I didn't even know until the weekend just passed, when I played on a team with him. Super weekend it was too.

Friday, September 10

Food matters

Flicking through the paper today I came across a couple of articles about food, and they reminded me how much I'm looking forward to cooking in my own flat again. Although, obviously, I cooked in Verona, I only had two hobs and the variety of produce available in Italy is not good, even if the quality is excellent. A good greengrocer and fishmonger near to my future home in Edinburgh, and a proper kitchen, will go a long way to making me happy.

I've asked my parents why they insist on buying supermarket food, and, like most, they trot out the convenience argument. Then, reading those articles today, I was reminded how difficult it can be in this country to be serious about food. Friends call me fussy when I'm prepared to criticise a restaurant; others call me a food snob when I say I can't cook anything decent if you buy all your 'fresh' ingredients from the supermarket. The only conclusions I can draw from this is that most people really can't taste the difference (Sorry for nicking your phrase Sainsbury's; what's worse is that I usually can taste the difference, and your stuff normally fares worse).

But an individual is, obviously, free not to take their food seriously if they wish. What angers me is the abuse one gets for doing so: 'pretentious', 'fussy', 'ponce', 'snob', just to pick a few. This is wrong. If a Spaniard, say, (and I'm deliberately not picking France or Italy - where food is taken even more seriously - for this example) were to approach the fishmonger in their local supermarket with a question, they'd walk out if fishmonger couldn't answer. But here on our island we choose not to demand proper food but instead packaging that tells us what's good. And rather than expecting proper service we bashfully accept some spotty A-level student who doesn't know what cleaning a fish actually is, let alone how you do it. But what's worse is that trying to buck that trend results in abuse: don't rock the boat Thom, we're customers and you'll upset the restauranteurs. The logic is backwards.

These thoughts chipped away in my mind, and began to echo something I was ranting to friends about recently: we - the British - don't value intelectuallism. We prefer our pragmatic common sense and trusting our instincts. This certainly has its merits - it's a major reason why we've never been swamped by isms - but need it come at the expense of ideas? Articulate informed rants are normally greeted with "In your opinion", swiftly followed by that great excuse for intellectual laziness: "Everybody's entitled to their opinion". But it's not good enough to just sit on your 'opinions'. C'mon, I think: tell me why I'm wrong. Unfortunately trying to raise the level of conversation will, in most circles, result in derisory calls of 'pretentious' or, maybe, 'ponce'. Sound familiar?

Does this refusal to engage with depth in the most important facets of human life - food, drink (that food paragraph could easily have been written about wine too), ideas - go further? Politics? Possibly, and if so we have a chilling view of where that leads: in the US politics today personality is, nakedly, a far more important quality than a coherent ideological vision. Many here think we're increasingly going down that road too. Yet an electorate that chooses not to engage seriously with the subject matter but instead to trust its instincts gets the politicians it deserves; similarly a populace that chooses not to take food seriously gets the diet it deserves; and a society that spurns intellectualism gets the base media it deserves. Thus increasingly, and with regret, I wonder if here - Great Britain - is not my natural home. Edinburgh may be my last hurrah.

Wednesday, September 8

A fresh eye

That's one thing you need to take good pictures, I think. I want to get some pictures of London, but nothing seems suitably dramatic. Obviously that's nonsense - to pick just one example, the bank of the Thames is possibly the world's finest architectural showcase - but I grew up here, and so nothing is new: it's hard to see what is interesting or different.

But I tried yesterday. Here's one:

Sunday, September 5

The trials of flathunting: #1 in a series of hopefully not very many

Perfect: Large double-room, kitchen not seperate from living area, wooden floors, bike storage, broadband; one or two non-smoking flatmates, non-British flatmates, female flatmates, late-20s or early-30s flatmates; close to Uni, good greengrocers down the road, good fishmongers down the road, good off-license (Oddbins) down the road, good pub around the corner.

Acceptable: Medium-sized room with one-and-a-half-person-bed, kitchen not a box, carpets, bike allowed in room or in hall, good internet connection at Uni; one or two considerate smokers as flatmates, British flatmates, male flatmates, early-20s flatmates; a 15-minute cycle from Uni, good greengrocers on the cycle to Uni, a fishmonger somewhere nearby, respectable off-license down the road, good pub ten minutes away.

Unacceptable: Box room, box kitchen, peeling carpets, no bikes, no good internet in my life; three or more flatmates, heavy smokers, Daily Mail readers, 'lads', teenaged flatmates; suburbia, Tesco as only local food supplier, dodgy off-license acting as a front for the local drug den, Wetherspoons as the local.

I actually don't think that finding all of that top list is too much to ask; can anybody help?

Saturday, September 4

"You want to kiss me? Are you drunk?"

It’s been a busy and fun week: Frisbee on Tuesday, Edward Hopper and proper beer on Wednesday, live Jazz on Thursday and drinking and dancing with students on Friday. It’s the sort of week I like, especially when I’m enjoying the day job at the same time. Pity it doesn’t pay well.

I was particularly pleased I went to see the Hopper exhibition at Tate Modern on Wednesday. It was very enjoyable, and, I think, the first time I realised how much a collective body of work can be (far) more than the sum of its parts. Credit to the curator.

I’ve viewed Hoppers in the past, most recently just a few weeks ago in Berlin, and, like everybody else, I’ve always taken away a sense of isolation and independence. They’ve always seemed decidedly, almost fiercely, neutral, with no perojative comment attached to the lives and the society depicted. However, as I proceeded through the exhibition those common themes articulated themselves; where previously an personal reading of a given piece was possible, it became clear - through the repeated strands - that the characters are suffering: from existential angst, from purposelessness, from emptyness and from isolation. These notions, and Hoppers representations and metaphors of them, became well established as the chronologically-arranged exhibition progressed. And then, in the later works, Hopper stripped his pieces down to their minimal, largely symbolic elements, and appreciation of that work would have been largely impossible without what had gone before. Excellent stuff.

Down from high culture, yesterday evening I went to a well-known chain of pubs-with-a-dancefloor in Soho with the students. It reminded me of my undergraduate days when I loved the tacky fun of those places, and I had fun this time too. The biggest difference was that I had no urge – indeed, didn’t want – to drink. But I was still asked “Are you drunk?”, and that’s the second time a girl has asked me that when – sober – I’ve gone to kiss her. Would you believe me if I said I was only doing it in the name of social research? For the record, what I found out is that it is true: Japenese girls really are very shy.