Bland Brands @ the Bush

So today I finally made it to the Westfield shopping centre at Shepherd’s Bush Green. Very impressive and clean and shiny, but somewhat dull I have to say.

It reminded me of a long stopover at Dallas Airport about 15 years ago, when I sat reading my book, surrounded by people all looking the same and bumbling around like contented zombies.

What struck me most about Westfield is the branding. There are brands and nothing else. No room for inventiveness, no room for individuality, only conformity and conformism. Perhaps something like the Church of England before Methodism.

Still, I was very happy with my chicken noodle soup from Pho, a little Vietnamese chain, whose place in Clerkenwell is a favourite. And I bought a couple of things and the sales people were friendly.

The second thing that struck me after the blandness of the branding, was the nature of the private public space, which is the thing with shopping centres. I’m sure as a young girl out shopping on Shepherd’s Bush Green in the 1930s my mother would have felt she was in an open public space, with a shape of personal freedom that has been clinically removed from the new shopping centres. People must like the security and the security cameras and the security guards and the lack of dirt and tramps and other undesirables, but I couldn’t help wondering quite where I was. I suppose the fact that there was a branch of Boots reminded me I was in England, but otherwise I could have been anywhere else in the galaxy.

Happy shopping, fellow consumers!

Lively London Life

In spite of all the economic uncertainty and political mediocrity, there is much to celebrate culturally. This week in London has been very stimulating.

On Wednesday evening went to the French Institute in South Kensington for the launch of The Invention of Paris, by Eric Hazan. The London author, Iain Sinclair, an old friend of Saskia’s was there in conversation with Eric Hazan. The library was packed with interested and interesting people and the atmosphere refreshingly non-corporate and creatively critical; vive l’entente culturelle!

Then on Thursday evening I cycled on my two-wheeled hack to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn to see my friend Sean Campion play in “The Dead School” I’m not the best audience for theatre, but this was brilliant; fast-moving, funny, sad and sensitive about values and the pace of change in Ireland. Relevant to everyone. The staging was very inventive and good performances from all the cast.

And what’s more they have  a great bar and kitchen with charming staff. A home-cooked quarter pounder and chips for an amazing £3.90!

Last night was Friday, and thanks to Facebook I got a £5 front row seat to hear Emanuel Ax at the Barbican play Chopin, Schumann and a UK première of Thomas Adès’s Three Mazurkas, Op. 27. I could hardly believe my luck as I took my seat about 10 feet away from the Steinway and was able to see Ax’s hands at close quarters. And there was a free programme!

I had never heard Emanuel Ax play before, but what a sensitive performance. He had the score for the Adès piece, but played all the rest from memory. It never fails to amaze me how pianists can remember so much music.

I wish I had an apartment in the Barbican; imagine living above the culture beehive. You could pop downstairs to a concert or a film in two ticks. Pure honey.  And it would be particularly convenient this weekend as I’ll be back there this afternoon for a film about the Thames Liquid History, A Journey along the Thames and London’s Waterways.

Tomorrow, it’s the Barbican again for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. It’s looking good!

And it doesn’t stop, as on Monday lunchtime, I’m hoping to go to a concert at St George’s Hanover Square as part of the London Handel Festival to hear David Allsopp sing Love’s Folly

And going from Handel’s favourite place of worship to mine that evening, I shall carry on with more of his music in Covent Garden for Tamerlano.

So, although we may be going to hell in a handcart, there are certainly some great cultural moments to send us on our way…

Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009

Good-bye Mark, it was more than great to have been your friend. Thank you for being a very important part of my life.

Hereafter is the tribute I read to Mark at his funeral today. A lot of people will miss you, but will also rejoice in having known you.

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One of the greatest sources of joy and happiness in many human lives is the gift of friendship. Since Mark’s death at the beginning of the month, the messages posted on the internet and the memories we have been sharing about him all show what a great and good friend he was to so many people.

I was lucky to meet Mark on our first day at school, at the age of five, at the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon in 1965. We soon became accomplices in all kinds of bad behaviour, from wearing our smocks as Batman capes, to teasing the girls and more importantly to finding about the world together. As soon as we learned to write we became regular correspondents. It was Mark, ever interested in technology, who introduced me to e-mail nearly twenty years ago. We had a rich and varied correspondence spanning 44 years.

We were regular visitors in each other’s homes and I loved going to his house in Rodney Road, New Malden, where he grew up with his parents, Ronald and Angela, his brother Simon, his sister Julia and his rather grand grandmother, Mumsie, who lived at the top of the rambling house, which had a long, mysterious garden. There was his beloved cat, Scramble, who would leave unexpected gifts for unsuspecting visitors who happened to leave their shoes in the hall. It was a house of music and books and always an interesting place to play. One book that made a great impression on both of us was ‘Futility’, by William Gerhardie. Originally published in 1922, Mark’s dad lent him a copy of the Penguin reprint in the early seventies and we both read it avidly. It is a novel of comic absurdity on Russian themes and, I believe, the inspiration for The Futility Orchestra, Mark’s one man band for which he produced an album, writing, playing and producing everything himself. Mark was an heir to Gerhardie’s legacy of absurdist humour, in which comedy and the pointless ridiculousness of so much human behaviour are blended with teasing affection. At school we got further into surrealism, which more often than not caused trouble, for instance when Mark ended an English composition essay with the sentence ‘And the taxi flew off in the direction of Lewisham.’ Our English master was not amused.

We carried on at school together, through Donhead and Wimbledon College, which neither of us enjoyed, but our shared dislike was comforting and provided us with the courage to get through it and plentiful ammunition for surrealist subversion. Paul Wheeler was the third member of our trio. We would spend lots of time together, drinking coffee, smoking, listening to music, complaining about school. Mark could get bored easily, and when he did, he would say ‘I must go and tidy my room’ at which point he would disappear. For anyone who had ever been in his room, it was a mystery what he meant by tidying.

Another good old friend of Mark’s is Chris Gardner, who lived with his family around the corner in New Malden. His father John Gardner, the composer and Mark’s dad, Ronald, had been friends from early school years, and were so until Ronald died in his early 70s. The two families were very musical and provided a conducive environment for Mark’s talents, which came to the fore early. He loved going with his family on holiday to Bernard Robinson’s Music Camp. He was learning the cello, but his ambition to become a bass player took a decisive step forward when his parents bought him his first bass guitar in 1972. That was the year we went to one of the first of many gigs together, to see Procul Harum at Wimbledon Theatre. There was no looking back from there and, with hindsight, it is clear that Mark had the wisdom and equanimity to understand and pursue his vocation. Shortly afterwards he joined his first pub band, Smackeroo, with Mark Sullivan and they played the pub circuit in Kingston, Richmond and Twickenham. Although only a young teenager, he knew what he wanted. Not surprisingly, school got in the way, so from time to time Mark went walkabout, leaving home to live a while with his cousin Vicky at Sussex University. He even stayed a few days in my house. Unbeknownst to my parents, I had smuggled him into my attic room and kept him fed and watered when the coast was clear downstairs.

In the weeks since he died so many friends have spoken about Mark’s great sense of humour. He will be missed as a great source of jokes and a great conversationalist, interested and engaged in the world. He was someone who always kept his own, drily critical perspective on life. And he never took himself too seriously. One day, when we were in our late teens, he turned up at Mark Sullivan’s house for a rehearsal. There was a photo shoot going on for a teenage romance magazine, which Mark Sullivan’s mother, Hemma used to cast. Hemma needed someone to play an old woman passer-by, so Mark was roped in, obligingly he rolled up his jeans and donned one of Hemma’s old skirts and a head-scarf to play the role. Someone somewhere must have a copy of the magazine.

We will also remember Mark’s great love of cigarettes and smoking. For those who haven’t seen the story posted by Richard Naiff of the Waterboys on Mark’s Facebook memorial page, I’d like to share it with you now:

I remember checking into a hotel somewhere in the US with Mark et al. The first thing he always did was to check that he had a smoking room. This time however he was informed by the receptionist that there were no smoking rooms in the hotel and that it was a $200 fine if you broke the rule. Mark reached into his wallet, slapped $200 on to the counter and said “Send an ashtray up to my room, would you?!”

Through our twenties and thirties it was a source of vicarious pride for Mark’s friends to go and see him play in bands or hear about his adventures around the world with Receiver, Boys Don’t Cry, Kokomo, Morrissey Mullen, Tony O’Malley, Gonzalez, The Leningrad Cowboys and many others. His virtuoso bass solos would attract sustained applause from audiences appreciative of his talent and dedication. But he did not totally embrace the rock and roll lifestyle. Notwithstanding his impressive consumption of cigarettes and coffee, he avoided drugs and alcohol having realised that they could undermine his ability to serve his musical gifts. He would often quote a favourite idea from the French 19th century novelist, Gustave Flaubert, who had said that an artist should live a quiet, ordained private life and give vent to his passion and wildness in his art. He also liked to quote the psychologist Alfred Adler, who he claimed had said “What person, if confined in a bare room with nothing but a tea-cosy, would not eventually try the tea-cosy on their head?”

I lived outside the UK for more than twenty years, we often met up abroad, when he was recording in Paris or performing in Moscow with Patricia Kaas. She is not well-known in the UK, but is a big star in France and even bigger in the former Soviet Union. In Moscow in 1998 Mark was on tour with Patricia. On the Saturday we met and wandered around Red Square together and it seemed like a bigger version of the playground at the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon. The next day, she was playing the Kremlin to a sold-out audience. Tickets were like gold-dust and had been changing hands for $500 apiece, but through Mark I managed to get in. After the show, I asked him to introduce me to Patricia as a Russian friend had asked me for her autograph. Mark took me to her dressing room, where she was glamorously basking in the adulation of the Muscovite audience after an energetic and enthralling performance. Mark gave her a long, serious look and said ‘You know what, Patricia? You were really quite good. Have you thought of doing this for a living?’ For a moment she looked furious and scowled, but then burst out laughing and shrugged her shoulders.

One Sunday evening a few years later the phone rang. It was Paul to tell me to turn the telly on quickly as Mark was on the Michael Parkinson show with Bryan Ferry. Sure enough, there he was, as ever, calmly nonchalant and boyish in the background with his bass guitar, keeping the music together. I emailed him the next day to ask how it was that he looked so young on television. The email pinged back with his reply. It’s easy, he wrote, when you’re forty and in a band, make sure all the others are over fifty.

It’s very sad to think that we won’t be celebrating Mark at fifty next February, but let us celebrate his memory and the Good Fortune we all had in having him in our lives for as long as we did.

Thank you.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Mark-Smith-Memorial-Page/326780975331?ref=mf

Auf wiedersehen JustGiving, До свидания (Do svidanija) Leather Lane!

Today was my last day on the Helpdesk at JustGiving, an innovative, respectful, useful, transparent and fun internet company that kept me off the streets and paid the bills for three years. I didn’t really intend to stay quite so long, but time flies when you’re having a good time, as the saying goes.

In 2005, when I was still in Brussels, working for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body of the European Union, my eldest brother ran the Snowdon marathon and I donated to his JustGiving online fundraising page. I had already heard about the company as managing director, Anne-Marie Huby, and I have a good mutual friend. At the end of 2005 I alighted from the Euro gravy train, disappointed and disillusioned with the EESC. But that’s another story.

Back in London in 2006, I bumped into Anne-Marie, who knew I was looking for work. She asked whether I might help out a few days a week on the Helpdesk, as the company was growing and Jules, the original helpdesker, was overloaded with email and phone queries. The rather ramshackle offices in Old Street, where I carried my bike upstairs to stand by my desk, was a far cry from the shiny glass and steel ‘Whim of the Gods’ buildings in Brussels in which my besuited self had grown used to shaking hands with the great and the good. Having worked in a previous life in a large technology company in Paris I was not a complete stranger to the concepts of online databases, graphic user interfaces and the increasingly fast business world of electronic communication. And I like people and talking to them.

JustGiving was still barely out of its startup phase and had only just broken even, but the team was relaxed, yet hardworking, good-natured and welcoming. Not only is the business a brilliant idea, using the internet to connect charities, their fundraisers and donors online, it was and is underpinned by a central concern with ethics, personal responsibility and respect for diversity. I remember sitting in a training session led by Zarine Kharas, the CEO, at which the entire twenty-strong company discussed the meaning of honesty and transparency. I metaphorically pinched myself, wondering whether this could be real after my off-putting encounters with the lack of openness, arcane hierarchies and inefficiency at the EESC.

The other reason I think I stayed so long, responding to emails, then as time went by answering telephone calls, are the company’s users, in particular the fundraisers and donors, for whom JustGiving has provided a platform to create meaning and positive value, very often out of difficult and even tragic personal circumstances. Sometimes I felt tears welling up when listening to parents wanting to help charities who had helped their children; friends raising money for basic humanitarian causes; proof that altruism and good intentions still abound in the selfish, consumerist world. It was almost as though online fundraising was being used as therapy. The internet was democratizing the ways in which individuals could make a qualitative and quantitative difference enabling them directly to support their causes and those of their friends and social circles. The company went from strength to strength, keeping a keen eye on the bottom line, as its development depends on a sound business model that needs to provide value for money. In a rapidly changing economic and technological environment it has constantly to invest in people, ideas and infrastructure in order to keep its offering relevant and attractive.

And then along came the social networks and the floodgates seemed to open. It was an inspired, yet risky decision to develop the JustGiving Facebook application; my middle-aged pride was flattered to gossip that I used the network, despite my nephew’s astonishment at me poking him when I saw his inebriated photos at uni online. “I didn’t know oldies were allowed on Facebook”, he replied. And then came Twitter and realtime debates about the business; immediate praise and criticism for all to see.

JustGiving’s social demographic spectrum also fascinated me. Any UK registered charity can use the service and those that do range from hospices to specialist medical research groups to churches, mosques, synagogues and humanist societies, to conventional health and social charities, including the innovative and leading Cancer Research UK, to animal welfare and other bodies. All are able to promote their causes, raise money and, increasingly important, connect with their users in a personal and direct manner and not only in Britain; anyone on the planet with an internet connection and a credit card can use it. And it’s fun! When the Atheist Bus campaign came along, it took everyone by surprise, touching a raw nerve among a social group who had felt excluded by the polarities of religious debates in society. The campaign went far beyond simply raising some cash to put posters on a few London buses. It spawned an international happening from Australia to America. Or take the inspirational Phil Packer, who raised over one million pounds for Help for Heroes, in part through his JustGiving page http://www.justgiving.com/philsmillion/ Whatever your political or religious persuasion, JustGiving is simply the tool, servers whirring constantly in the background, providing a non-judgmental medium for those who choose to give their money to religious, non-religious or other causes.

Chatting all day long to fundraisers began to take effect. If all these people were having fun raising money for good causes, then maybe I should give it a go, I thought. On a regular run with my brother and sister-in law around Hampstead Heath, we decided to raise money for WaterAid at the Stevenage half marathon. And it really worked!

After that another pet project came to fruition and brought me down to earth, literally, when I did a skydive for Help the Aged:

Finally , a once in a lifetime (I think) stroll around beautiful London town taking part in the Flora London Marathon!

A few weeks ago JustGiving launched a new platform, so that the company could continue to grow in line with increasing demand and traffic on the site. We lit the blue fuse paper on 20 June, and the fireworks began… because we hadn’t done our homework properly. JustGiving infuriated thousands of users as the donation process crashed. Frustrated donors, fundraisers and charities besieged us, but the core values and determination of the company came to the rescue and the team pulled together to make the best out of a botch. In our culture of blame and shame we were subjected to a torrent of grief and bile. “I will not be using justgiving again, I wouldn’t trust them to run a proverbial in a brewery.” was one relatively polite contribution. But we didn’t hide, we apologized, we opened our blog to all comers to vent their spleen.

What struck me most about the re-launch was the depth of feeling provoked by the mistakes and the volume and quantity of the complaints. Luckily, JustGiving’s half million weekly unique users did not all phone us up at once, but a significant percentage did. One blogging complainant even called for an independent audit, indicating a mistaken belief that JustGiving is, or should be, a public service in the conventional sense. It is a private company, financed by private investors and the 5% transaction fee on donations, but it has no public service obligation. However, not only does it provide a service to a very wide spectrum of the public in the peculiarly British third sector fashion of charitable action, it is also remarkably open and candid about how it does so. You only need to compare and contrast the speed and openness of JustGiving’s response to its mistakes with the foot-dragging of Parliament over the MPs’ expenses scandal or the BBC’s coyness about what it pays its top people.

It has also been fascinating to witness at close quarters the coming of age of mainstream business online in which the notions of service, delivery and commitment are so radically new. For instance, I use Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to conduct important parts of my life, yet I do not pay any of them anything for the extraordinary and increasingly essential services they provide me. Not a bean. During the problems in the past month at JustGiving many people complained that they had lost money, when in fact they had not. They may have lost opportunities to raise, give or receive money, but no money went missing. Nothing was embezzled or used to pay off mortgages on floating duck houses, trim wistaria or buy flat-screen televisions. So although the company chose to compensate charities by waiving fees on donations for a week, there was no model to compensate for the real, yet virtual loss of opportunity. I mean, could you sue a train company for failing to sell you an online ticket for a train that was cancelled?

JustGiving is made up of a bunch of good people, doing good work, sincerely trying – and for the most part succeeding – to help people help each other. Following the economic debacle of the past two years and the sorry display of corruption and incompetence in leading political and business institutions around the world, it has been an especial privilege to be part of a company that talks the talk and walks the walk.

Go JustGiving!

Last day photo album here

Adelphi Amble

A couple of years ago, my friend Jenneth and I went to the Sir John Soane museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field where we saw an exhibition about the Adelphi, the grandiose 18th century property development of the famous Adam brothers.

Adelphi is the Greek for brothers and the name the four Scottish brethren bestowed on the north west bank of the Thames between the Hungerford and Waterloo bridges.

For Christmas that year Jen gave me the fact-filled study of the area, Adelphi past and present, by David G C Allan and I promised to read it carefully and take her on a guided architectural promenade around the area.

It took us two years, but finally last Friday evening we met in John Adam Street, two tourists, Jen from Earlsfield SW18 and myself from Bayswater W2 and sat in her car leafing through my notes while the rain poured down outside. It was worthwhile revision, because when the rain finally eased we were well-briefed to enjoy the delights of this fascinating and historic part of London, which I for one, thought I knew. As a student in the early 1980s I had been familiar with Buckingham Street where I would often buy foreign language books from Grant and Cutler and I had been to Gordon’s cellar wine bar at the bottom of Villiers Street near Watergate Walk.

The list of luminaries, artists, writers and actors who had lived in the area is seemingly endless. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, had lived in Buckingham Street, David Garrick the actor had been one of the first residents and a major publicist for the Adelphi development, which was the first major neo-classical residential project in the capital. The Royal Society of Arts founded by the Adams had served as a magnet to attract scientists, politicians, the great and the good and some rather dodgy characters, too.

It’s worth reading the book, but was fascinating to learn that the Savoy theatre, to the east of the Adelphi, was the first public building in the world to be fitted with electricity. The British Broadcasting Company, then Corporation, started in a building on the corner of Savoy Hill and Savoy Place, which now houses the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The Royal Air Force was founded in the Hotel Cecil, which stood on the Strand.

Our visit also took in the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy which was spared by Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants in 1381 when they burnt down the Savoy Palace.

We wandered back along the Strand in a westerly fashion, noting the decapitated sculptures of the Zimbabwe Embassy, I had thought that this had been done by political correction after independence, but Wikipedia has another explanation here.

We took a left down Craven Street, which is a beautiful, quiet residential street in the very heart of the capital, where Benjamin Franklin and Heinrich Heine both lived, but needless to say not together.

We were amused and amazed by The Ship and Shovell pub, which has bars on either side of Craven Passage, just by The Arches which lead to Heaven and Villiers Street beyond.

We ended up at Gordon’s wine bar to wet our whistles before heading over Hungerford Bridge for supper and an evening of “Spank” comedy at the Udderbelly by the London Eye. Brendon Burns was on fine form.

Altogether a fine recession-proof way of spending an interesting, cultural evening in town.

And there is a photo album of our Adelphi Amble here.

Back on training form

Well it’s been a good weekend for running. Now am back on good form as the holiday approaches:

Friday afternoon was 6.37 miles around Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, The Green Park, St James Park, then back up Park Lane and along the Bayswater Road to home at 5.9 mph.

Saturday did the shorter circuit around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, thus avoiding the traffic and crowds at Hyde Park Corner: 3.98 miles at 6.6 mph.

Then this afternoon another circuit like Saturday’s, but slightly longer to avoid the Race For Lifers who had just finished their run: 4 miles at 6.5 mph.

Am thinking of a half marathon in the autumn to keep the training going.

Have been inspired by reading Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running.

Lovely Londoners!

Yes, I did it. In 5:38:36 mins. The weather was superb, beautiful sunshine, lots of lovely Londoners lining the route encouraging us all. Ran past Katie Price and Peter Andre somewhere in Deptford. Met a couple in bridal gear in Commercial Street E14 who told me they were going to get married at mile 24. All kinds of weird and wonderful runners, including two rhinos, Tigger, Buzz Lightyear, a Pink Lady apple, some policeman and a criminal. Slightly miffed that I was overtaken by a two-humped camel at the end, but my left leg seized, so I had to walk the last four miles.

The atmosphere was fantastic. Just goes to show that people can be nice to each other and that we don’t have to focus on base materialism and consumerism all the time.

A huge thank you to my running partners over the past few months: Brer Andy and querida Mia, James, Anne-Marie (Soerensen) and last, but not least Hannah Miller who encouraged me to run through the pain to cross the finishing line. Please visit her fundraising page by clicking her name.

And here’s me and Stephen in Kensington Gardens on the way home to a fabulous party, deliciously catered by Chef Saskia.

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Thank You!
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On your marks, get set, …

Went down to the London Marathon Expo in docklands yesterday afternoon to get my race number. Got quite a buzz, as I realised that this is really it!

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You can track my progress by texting RUN to 83040* and Adidas will send you a link to the mobile tracking service. Simply enter my Race Number 33925 to find me.

You can also track me online at www.adidas.com/running

And for those who didn’t know, Adidas stands for: “All Day I Dream About Sex”, as a five-year old once told my sister!

If you would like to sponsor me, please visit my Justgiving page here.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported me already!

Six miles round Hampstead Heath

A good solid 6 miles @ 5.5 mph around the Heath with Andy and Mia this morning. Ian and Anne and Zoe were over from Paris; Ian joined us for the first few miles, which was very encouraging as he has only recently recovered from a major hip injury. Beautiful weather, lovely fresh spring in the trees; magnolias blossoming and a sycamore with young reddish leaves back lit by the sun. Perhaps one more run midweek before the big day next Sunday! Delicious bean soup and assorted cheese then rhubarb and ice cream for lunch. Planning my post marathon supper party.

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