Stuck in a rut

DSCN4015edit

If only I was a large fibreglass frog, life wouldn’t be so complicated

Oh hey there January blues, I knew you were coming – what took you so long?

So, we’re nearing the end of January now, but I’m still in a reflective mood.  Much of this month has already been spent away from home.  I spent the new year back in Berlin, drinking champagne on a balcony and watching Neukölln explode, whiled away the first week there and headed off to Dublin for my birthday on January 10th.  Now that the first month is almost out, I’m still not sure where this year is going.  I had plans for 2014.  New years resolutions.  Goals.  Determination.  Energy.  Ambition.  I was going to make this year the year.  The year I did it.  Made it happen.  The only problem was, and is, enduringly it seems, that I have absolutely no idea what it is.

Is it the perfect job I’m after?  The one where I get to make the most of my talents and creativity.  I would probably get to do lots of research and writing on art, business, culture, the economy, maybe take some photos, do something crafty, hone my Photoshop skills.  This would be the job in the right city, the right country.  The one where I am challenged to improve constantly.  The one where I get to meet interesting and intelligent people who inspire me.  The one where the work feels satisfying and fulfilling rather than grinding.  The job I really believe in, instead of towing the company line.  Is that it for this year, is that what I want?

Is it the enviable travel plans?  I didn’t do too badly in 2013 after all, I made it to 4 different countries, and 2 new ones.  I talked the night away in Copenhagen, swam in the lakes outside Berlin, I soaked up the culture in Vienna, the scenery in Salzburg.  I took an alpine train through the breathtaking Brenner Pass on my way to Verona.  I experienced a full turn of fortune’s wheel in Florence, and finally ended up in the autumn mists of Venice where my errant lover and I experienced some ill timed food poisoning.  Bellissimo!  I was soul searching throughout, but beyond the immediate of ‘this!’ ‘travelling!’ I still couldn’t come up with an answer for what I wanted to do with my life.  So maybe that‘s it for 2014, I should do everything I can just to scrape some money for the next adventure, go further away, set more ambitious travel plans.  Make that my goal.

Is it the big move to a new place?  I had a go at this in 2013 as well, but surprisingly enough Berlin was a riddled mess of problems that I had no scope for before I actually got there.  The catch 22 bureaucracy, the language barrier, the difficulty in meeting people who might be sticking around, the difficulty of finding somewhere to live, playing chicken with my finances, and really wondering if I was better off spending my time and money just travelling after all. Ooops.  I would do it completely differently if I made the attempt again . . . but should I?  And should it be Berlin again, or somewhere else?  Where?  These exact same problems are just waiting in the shadows of the next place I ‘move’ to, but of course the alternative of staying in England seems worse.  No easy paths here my dear, so is it the difficult road abroad again in 2014, previous lessons carefully considered?

Is it progression in my own work?  By this I mean writing, drawing, creating artwork etc.  Now that really is a tricky one, since it’s difficult for me to establish how ‘progression’ might be measured in this sense.  Could I aim to have something published in a magazine, or on a website that isn’t my own blog?  Could I try to sell my crafty bits and pieces  at a craft fair?  Do I really need that sort of validation and feedback, or is it ok for me to just quietly get on with the things I like and take pleasure in?  Last year I did the latter, and I aim to put plenty of time and effort into developing my skills this year.  I can’t help but feel I could ‘exploit’ them more to my advantage somehow though.  But how?

Is it time to go back to school?  Being an arts graduate having a life crisis I get asked quite often if I have considered teaching.  WHAT AN ORIGINAL SUGGESTION, YES I HAVE CONSIDERED TEACHING, AND NO I DON’T WANT TO DO IT AT THIS TIME, OTHERWISE I WOULD BE DOING IT.  I’m not saying I won’t ever, just not right now, thanks.  I have quite a few friends at various stages of becoming teachers, and it looks like mighty hard (though very rewarding) work.  Something you really ought to show some love and commitment for, probably something that fits in with your life philosophy and calm, patient, child friendly temperament.  Not something you do on a whim because it seems secure enough, and you don’t know what else to do.

What I’m really talking about here is becoming a student again myself.  A masters is completely out of the question since I can’t afford it, but I would, perhaps, like to go to language school.  This was one of the things-I-should-have-known-to-do items off my Berlin list.  I can speak basic German, but a spot of intensive language school wouldn’t go amiss.  Learning languages is fiendishly hard and not particularly fun in my experience, but it’s a pill I’m willing to swallow.  Language school is not terribly cheap though, which brings me back to the question of . . . would I be better spending my meagre money elsewhere, like on travel?  Argh.  I would also like to learn a little graphic design, since I have hunch I would probably be pretty good and it would fit in nicely with my current skill set.  Same financial puzzle applies.

Is it time to find the right person to settle down with?  HA.  Ok, I laugh even writing that since you can’t flick a switch and just make that happen.  Of all the musings on my list I really believe that’s the one you can’t make a goal.  Sure, I can learn InDesign and take an immersive course in German, I can save up to go to Peru or scrub floors in the alps if I’m single minded enough.  But I can’t magic up a special someone.  My facebook feed would suggest otherwise though.  Screw you facebook feed.  Babies, weddings and settling is nowhere on the agenda, but maybe a partner in crime for everything else is about to appear from the ether in 2014?

I suspect what will happen this year will be a mixture of all the things I’ve outlined here.  All things considered I felt like I did achieve a lot in 2013, even if things rarely turned out at I expected . . . the trouble was that much of last year was plagued by indecision and I was constantly second guessing myself, and trying to work out what I was ‘really’ supposed to be doing.  I was hoping I’d shake off that feeling, but it’s still hanging around, I’m still stuck in the same rut.  I have plenty of ideas, a lot of fear, and not much money.  And I’m making it up as I go along.  Again.  Always.  WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Advertisements

Industrial decay: reflections on the ‘working class’ in England in 2014

IMG_3873edit

Pear Mill, Stockport, one of the last cotton spinning mills to be constructed, 1913

You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different.  You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated.  You thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring.

George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

I don’t often write about where I am from, mostly because it depresses me, and the majority of my life has been spent in failed attempts to get away.  Recently however a renewed interest in the history of the town has made me appreciate it with new eyes, even if hasn’t contributed anything in making me want to stay.  Stockport is an old industrial town on the outskirts of Manchester which was formerly a centre of manufacture.  Although recorded as being in existence as early as 1170, Stockport is really a baby of the industrial revolution, the traces of which still form a large part of the landscape of the town today.  Terraced houses.  Cobblestones.  Mills.  Chimneys.  Rats.  Soot blackened red brick.  Canals.  Poverty.  Rain.

As the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the north of England, but especially in Manchester throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Stockport’s mills sprang up in earnest to take advantage of the roaring international trade in cotton.  Impoverished agricultural labourers and hand weavers who had been put of business by new machines flocked to towns to work in the factories, producing a quantity and quality and woven cotton that had not been possible before.  So far so good, I learnt all this in school without any particular interest . . . but then I picked up a copy of ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ by Friedrich Engels, and suddenly the industrial revolution has come back to haunt me.

IMG_3942edit

Meadow Mill, Stockport c.1880, cotton and wool spinning

Engels was born in Germany, and at the age of 22 in 1842 his parents sent him to Manchester to work in the ‘Ermen and Engels Victoria Mill’ in the hopes that it would encourage him to reconsider a career in business, as his father had intended.  Far from this, Engels began an in depth study of Manchester’s mills and slums, carefully considering the horrendous conditions of the working class and their station in society.  The outcome of his work was a call to revolution; ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ (which also prominently mentions Scotland, Wales, and Ireland).  It was a detailed and disparaging study, which surely would have scandalised the mill owning bourgeoisie had it been published in English (which didn’t happen until 1887, when a number of improvements had necessarily already been made).

He describes my hometown of Stockport in somewhat uncomplimentary terms, ‘There is Stockport too . . . [which] is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent.  But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town and valley bottom to the crest of the hill.  I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.’

Stockport in my opinion is still ‘excessively repellent’, and the recession has not been kind to the town centre; now containing a familiar financial downturn collection of payday loan shops, betting shops, £1 shops, charity shops, and of course the pre-requisite large number of empty premises.  The mills these days (where they are still standing) have been divided into units of furniture show rooms, museums, cafes etc. and are in various states of disrepair.  Several are now listed buildings, but the mills in general are so numerous and just so big that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain them all.  Some attempt has been made to convert them into luxury apartments, but I’m inclined to think they would probably make draughty homes, and wandering around the ones I visited today I would guess it probably takes a lot of work to convert them into something liveable.

IMG_3977edit

Meadow Mill

The cotton trade relied on slave labour on both sides of the Atlantic, from the slaves in America who picked it to the mill workers who wove it.  Engels suggests that the mill workers, ‘are worse slaves than the negroes in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, and shall think like free men . . . the bourgeoisie [exploit] the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones’.  While I wouldn’t like to make a comparison between the slaves and the mill ‘hands’, it is a cruel type of freedom that offers a choice between starvation in the streets or a short lifetime of toil, misery and boredom in the mills for barely subsistence wages.  What is obvious is that the success of both England and America, and perhaps every nation that has undergone/is undergoing industrialisation owes much of its development to human exploitation, ‘the destruction of their health, the social, physical, and mental decay of whole generations’.

This is particularly poignant when considering countries such as Bangladesh which have made headlines in the past year over working conditions, pay, and even the safety of the buildings.  Engels noted that Manchester had been constructed in such a way that the bourgeoisie could go about their business without ever having to enter a working class slum, and the same might be said of the west today.  We outsource manufacture to developing countries to exploit cheap labour, keeping the factories quietly tucked away in corners of the world we are unlikely to go to – saving us from being confronted by terrible conditions that capitalism has created.

IMG_3996edit

Room with a 19th century view, in the spinning room at Meadow Mill

The more I read of Engels, the more I was able to apply his descriptions directly to what I see happening in front of me in England today, and I have been reflecting on this more acutely since watching the controversial new Channel 4 series, ‘Benefits Street’.  This program, which documents the lives of benefit claimants and low paid workers on a street in Birmingham has clear parallels with many of the things that Engels discusses in ‘conditions of the working class’.  Although the clear difference is the government issued benefits, which outside of workhouse provision for the most desperate, did not exist in 1844.

IMG_3906edit

Vernon Mill, Stockport, constructed 1881, cotton spinning

Last week’s episode featured a number of Romanian workers, Britain’s most recent influx of ill received migrant workers, who had arrived on the street.  Working exhaustive hours for low wages, living in cramped conditions and derided by their unforgiving British neighbours, the Romanians received a raw deal in their hopes for a better life in England or of saving enough money to send home.  Engels, too, discusses migrant workers, but in 1844 the majority were from an impoverished Ireland, and from 1845 onwards an impoverished Ireland starving in the grip of a potato famine.  Desperate families left Ireland, only to receive a predictably hostile reception in England and were bound to slave away in a squalor which Engels described as being synonymous with the Irish.  The very worst slums in Manchester (a quarter known as ‘Little Ireland’) were those inhabited by the immigrant workers;

‘The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by the Irishmen.  Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces . . . the Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he is accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air . . . The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves is impossible to describe.  The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch . . . When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door posts, mouldings . . . finds its way up the chimney.  Moreover, why should he need such room?  At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England.  So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by Irish immigration.  And since the poor devil must have some enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself of the drinking of spirits.  Drink is the only thing which makes the irishman’s life worth having . . . so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness.’

The concerns of English workers at the time were much as they are now, that the immigrants would bring unwanted competition by agreeing to work for less money and in worse conditions, and so would undercut the natives and bring standards of living down; not to mention introducing an element of moral decay.  Descriptions of the poor treatment of Irish workers was slightly painful for me to read, given that this almost certainly would have applied to my own great grandfather (from a family of Irish immigrants working in the mills in the late 19th century).

Those who have seen ‘Benefits Street’ might recognise a few of the things described above; namely rubbish supposedly scattered by immigrants, overcrowding, and alcohol consumption as a means of escape.  With so much against the workers of the industrial revolution, I wonder how the members of the upper class could reasonably have expected the working class to better themselves?  It is easy to casually suggest (especially from a height) that if people work hard and ‘get on’ then they can clamber their way out of poverty, but I believe that unless you are made of exceptionally stoic and inexhaustible stuff, as well as having a little luck – then it is nearly impossible now, just as it was then.  Engels regrets the decline of social mobility as he sees it, ‘The disappearance of the lower middle class deprived the working man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself’ and this well applies to England today.

IMG_3986edit

Steps worn down by the clogs of the workers. Although I did go into the mills the interiors are very plain and I didn’t find much of interest to photograph on this trip. These were utilitarian buildings so nothing has been spent on interior decoration – the corridors and rooms are all plain brick as seen here.

I haven’t had the time to talk about many other things that Engels mentions; the health issues suffered by workers, child labour, widespread illiteracy, industrial action etc.  However, Engels was outraged by all that he saw, damning ‘the property holding class, when it is so blinded by its momentary profit that it no longer has eyes for the most conspicuous signs of the times’.  I think this is a sentiment well worth remembering.

IMG_3892edit

The ‘pear’ dome at Pear Mill

Photographs my own.  If you’re interested in ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ then it is can be downloaded for free off the amazon, go check it out 🙂  And if you’re interested in unearthing a bit more of Stockport’s industrial past, than I highly recommend taking a look at some off road urban exploration of the town here.

January Collage II – Ships in the night

Happy New Year! Some new work from my portfolio blog, check it out –

Portfolio

DSCN5100

DSCN5094edit

DSCN5102

The inspiration for this came when I stayed with a friend recently who hadn’t been seeing too much of his room mate, and commented, ‘we’ve just been passing like ships passing in the night’.  Nice turn of phrase.  Newspaper cut out letters are seriously fiddly and laborious, but I was rather pleased in the end.  I don’t know about the old cliche of using collage letters in crime so that your handwriting can’t be identified . . . my gluey fingerprints are all over this piece.  Decided to go for something a bit more minimalist to what I usually do, so lots of negative space here.

Belated happy new year – successful arting and crafting for 2014!

View original post

Paid to live; guaranteed income for all in Switzerland?

Rolling in it (photocredit - BBC)

Rolling in it

Switzerland is soon to vote on the possible introduction of a basic guaranteed income for all citizens; regardless of their employment status or circumstances.  The amount will be 2,500 Swiss francs (about £1,750) per month.  That’s right, the citizens of Switzerland may about to be guaranteed a set monthly ‘wage’ without having to do any work at all, unless they are so inclined.

Now, I had never heard of such a staggering concept before, but this article from the BBC suggests that actually the idea of a basic income for all has been around since this 16th century when Thomas Paine (I think incorrectly mentioned as Thomas More) presented it as part a utopian ideal.  In ‘The Rights of Man’ Paine argues that a basic income which would provide for a child’s education and welfare as well as a comfortable state pension and funeral costs should be a considered a human right rather than charity.  In a later pamphlet Paine stated:

It is wrong to say God made rich and poor. He made only male and female; and he gave them the Earth for their inheritance.
Ergo, we should all be provided for.

So, this brings me to the real point of this post: what would you do if your material needs were met and you were free to do whatever you wanted with your life?

Be lazy

Of course there is an argument that a guaranteed income will lead to laziness.  Swiss economist Rudolf Strahm suggests that, “There will be no incentive for young people to learn a job or study”.  I think this takes a fairly dim view of humanity.  Just because people are financially comfortable it does not mean that they will drift into inherent laziness.  If this were the case then no one born into wealthy families would ever be motivated to do anything, and we know that this is not the case.  It is ridiculous to suggest that money is the only thing which motivates people, I like reading, drawing and blogging.  None of those things pay, I’m not going to stop anytime soon because I believe they help me to develop, allow me to engage with the world and I find them interesting – but mostly because I enjoy them.

Be fulfilled

In my experience people are always in pursuit of something that will give their life purpose and meaning, whether that be raising a family, career success, a relentless pursuit of more money to add to the pile or even simply power; everyone is looking for something and financial stability will put these things within reach rather than cause them to disappear.  I believe that human beings enjoy learning, being productive and developing their talents and a guaranteed income would allow them the time and financial freedom to do these things.  My own personal take on this is that I would probably be in further education right now if it weren’t for the crippling debt involved.

Be an entrepreneur

A society where people have the freedom to pursue what they like and are good at can only be a good thing, could Switzerland become a nation of happy entrepreneurs?  Young people are curious about the world around them and eager to learn and develop new skills, in fact, they are the driving force behind the guaranteed income in Switzerland.  It would help them to study, learn a job, and be more engaged in society rather than hinder them as Strahm suggests.

Still be an employee 

I often wonder if there are people out there who might be doing my dream job, but they are totally and utterly miserable and are unable to give it up because they can’t afford to.  I have my suspicions that there is probably a lot of this unhappy job clinging going on at the moment, and there are a whole plethora of people waiting for the economy to recover so that opportunities might arise for jobs they might actually like.  If a guaranteed income was introduced then people would have real power to choose a job that motivated them, rather than do something they hated just to pay the rent.  Enno Schmidt (as quoted from the BBC article), a campaigner for basic income suggests that ‘a society in which people work only because they have to have money is “no better than slavery” ‘.

Switzerland need not worry about employees suddenly just giving up work because they don’t need the money anymore, so many people love their jobs and have spent a lot of time and effort getting good at them – they aren’t about to throw that away.  Perhaps there would be more freedom of movement between jobs where you would have an opportunity to try something out for a while, with no pressure to stay if it didn’t suit you.  This might sound a little bit flakey initially, but in the long term companies could be sure that their employees were there because they really were dedicated and enthusiastic, not just  present under miserable duress.  I really do believe that a happy workforce is a more creative and productive one.  For those people in currently in wage-slave jobs who would definitely leave if they could, then perhaps mass resignations would prompt employers to reconsider working conditions.

But is it possible?

Switzerland is a very wealthy country with the fourth highest per capita income in the world at $78,881 (Wiki), so affordability is not the the central issue.  Nonetheless, if Switzerland did vote for a guaranteed income then it would be a fascinating and very risky social experiment.  2,500 Swiss francs (£1,750*) per month is scarcely enough to survive on according to Mr. Schmidt, so maybe everyone will be keeping their day jobs for a while yet, although it would undoubtably make life a lot easier for the majority of people.

Truckloads of gold (photocredit www.policymic.com)

Truckloads of gold: 8 million centimes representing the population of Switzerland suggest that the government can afford to pay a guaranteed income to its citizens (photocredit http://www.policymic.com)

My two cents: UK perspective

A guaranteed liveable basic income will never be introduced in the UK, but I thought I would muse over the possible implications.

*Yeah, ok, what?  £1,750 is pretty crazy amount of money from where I’m sitting here.  It’s more than what I got paid at the best paying job I’ve ever had, and I think there would be plenty of adults in the UK who would be delighted with this princely sum on top of their usual wage, given the real clamp down on pay increases and level of inflation here.  It certainly throws an interesting light on the notion of a living rather than a minimum wage.  However, I hear through the traveller grapevine that Switzerland is a hellishly expensive place as it is a very wealthy country, and a guaranteed income is probably going to drive the prices up even further – so if you were depending on this income alone then maybe life would be possible rather than easy per se.  I assume that unlike benefits in the UK the basic income would keep people above poverty levels, because otherwise this defeats the entire object.  Also there is something to be said for an income which everyone is entitled to, rather than fostering a suspicious and cold society where people are criminalised because they are poor; so called ‘benefit scroungers’.  It also eliminates the Dickensian idea of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor  which is increasingly creeping into the UK discussion state benefits (by actually treating people like human beings, we all have a right to a certain standard of life, opportunites and education).  If I was a viable adult in a career that was progressing well then I would probably hope to be earning slightly more than this in times not blighted by recession – and I would be proud to earn my own money.  However, it would be nice to know that I wouldn’t fall into poverty and be branded as scum if this were not the case.  So yeah, I do think the economic/personal incentive to work would still be there, just not in such an authoritative, threatening, shouty and judgemental way; all carrot and no stick – touché Switzerland.

Label making

I couldn’t just stop at Christmas cards, so here are some labels I have been working on . . . more to follow soon!

DSCN5068

Portfolio

Following on from my Christmas cards (which I absolutely loved doing) I have been making some labels/gift tags 🙂  I’m thinking of making a few more of these and setting up an etsy shop in the new year, so check back for updates!

View original post

Venetian dreams

DSCN4858edited3

“There is still one of which you never speak.’

Marco Polo bowed his head.

‘Venice,’ the Khan said.

Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’

The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’

And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Venice is a bizarre place, there’s really nothing quite like it and I would struggle to compare it to anywhere else I have ever been.  The first and fairly immediate dose of weird is having to get on a boat to go anywhere, and it was with abject puzzlement that I got onto a a little ferry, ‘vaporetto’ straight out of the train station.  I mean, I knew that Venice was built on the water, but never having encountered this sort of set up before it felt quite strange.

Since the island of Venice itself is hellishly expensive and requires some serious advanced booking at all times (there is no off season here) we opted to stay on the little resort island of Lido.  This suited us fairly well since it had a beach that stretched the length of the island and the weather was still good enough that this was a soothing place to walk along and nurse our Bellini hangovers.  Lido was actually an excellent little find which I would recommend as a holiday spot in its own right.  During the summer season it attracts 30,000 holiday makers and the entire island is catered to this summer trade with holiday homes and hotels making up the majority of the islands real estate.  As it was, the army of little beach huts had been long locked up by our arrival and the place was looking a little desolate.  The recession also seems to have got its hooks into the industry here, Venice might never be short of a wealthy visitor but Lido was supporting more than one derelict hotel.  Sad times.  I would love to holiday here in the summer though.

DSCN4923

Far from the madding crowd, empty Lido beach in the off season

When we did venture onto the main island we were greeted with a great mish-mash of architectural styles.  Venice is famous for this mix, a place where east meets west.  The influence of the renaissance is here of course, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli was probably my favourite amongst the the many churches I saw.  Just like the duomo in Florence the coloured marble cladding incredibly bright.

DSCN4981

Santa Maria dei Miracoli 1481-89, Pietro Lombardo

I have to say that I found Saint Mark’s Basilica (Venice’s most famous church, next to the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco) to be absolutely hideous.  Again, this is another example of how words and photographs are a poor substitute for reality because I had always assumed that Saint Mark’s was probably rather beautiful.  Perhaps its individual elements are, I guess, but together it’s a bit of a nightmare.  It’s a patchwork vomit of numerous architectural styles which have been piled on over the years in an uncountable number of alterations and additions.  Mark Twain aptly described it as, “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk”.  Saint Mark’s is like an embodiment of Venice’s achievements in the wider world, an architectural trophy cabinet of precious objects and materials traded, pillaged and plundered from abroad.  The Doge’s Palace which sits right next to the Basilica looks charmingly ordered and beautifully articulate in comparison.  What can be seen in so many Venetian buildings though is evidence of Venetian wealth and prosperity as one or the trading gateways to the east.  You can see the byzantine/ottoman influence at work in both of the buildings below.

DSCN4871

Choas vs. Order, architectural trade off in Piazza San Marco

Wandering away from the crowds down the labyrinthine backstreets away from Piazzo San Marco brings you to an altogether different Venice.  The streets are narrow and buildings are crooked, leaning drunkenly into each other or over the narrow waterways.  In these crumbling backstreets it is easy to imagine the Venice of different era, a medieval town wracked by plague*, the prosperous merchant town of Marco Polo, the playground of Casanova.

DSCN4883

Centuries unchanged, history is found in every crevice in Venice (note the beautiful colours, Venice might be sinking but it’s colour palate is very much alive).

DSCN4859

The Bridge of Sighs, which links the Doge’s Palace with the prison in which Casanova was incarcerated.

Our trip ended rather unfortunately with a bout of mutual food poisoning (can’t win em all, and ironically this wasn’t the fault of the famous Venetian seafood), but Venice will stay in our hearts I’m sure.  If you haven’t been then I’d definitely bump it up the list, but personally I think it will a quite while before Venice succumbs to an inevitable watery grave.

*A quick endnote on the plague in Venice.  If you have a morbid imagination like me then you would probably be interested in this article about Poveglia, an abandoned and supposedly haunted island near Venice.  Poveglia was used to quarantine incoming merchants as well as plague victims, and later housed a mental hospital in the twentieth century.  Rumour has it that you won’t find a boat that will take you out there as the island is considered unsafe for visitors.

Florence, Finally, part III

DSCN4825

A view to the Renaissance: Florence as seen from Palazzo Michelangelo at sunset

So after not having the best start to my week in Florence I did eventually get to see the mind blowing art and architecture that I was there for.  My one real regret for the week was that I hadn’t had the money to be able to visit this city sooner when I was a History of Art and Architecture student; I definitely would have had a renewed vigour for my studies!  I was astounded by just how many buildings that I had studied that were gathered together in such a small space, from the Uffizi to Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Riccadi, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce and countless others.  I was in architectural bliss.

DSCN4774

Duomo dreaming, first sight of the cathedral

For me the absolute stand out architectural piece was the obvious one; the duomo.  When I first saw this building, making slow progress towards it down a narrow Florentine street, I was totally unprepared by what I was about to encounter.  I spent an entire year studying Renaissance (re:90%Florentine) architecture, but obviously no amount of reading, lectures or tutorials managed to convey the majesty of this building.  I just could.not.believe.it.  The marble cladding is just so bright and beautiful, it’s incredible.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a building, or at least not in my recent travels.  I reckon it’s probably a contender for the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

In my head I was comparing it to Notre Dame in Paris because Notre Dame (1160-1345 w/later alterations) is also a city centre cathedral, but of a very different type.  Every time I see Notre Dame I think about how it must have looked to medieval peasants when it was first constructed.  It is a magnificent building now, but a person alive back then it must have looked like something that came from heaven; truly a house of God.  I think if I had been alive back then I would have gone to church just to bask in the architectural glory alone, and in Florence this idea is still very tempting in 2013.

Florence’s Cathedral, colloquially ‘the duomo’ and formerly referred to as ‘Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore’ was begun in 1296 and completed in 1346, although the green, white and pink marble facade that amazed me was a later 19th century addition.  Notre Dame always seems so dark and spindle-y to me, like a great black spider on the banks of the Seine while the duomo in contrast seemed incredibly bright.  The austere interior was a pleasant relief to the ‘busy’ facade and it was nice to be able to concentrate on the solid lines of the construction.  Absolutely astounding.  I’m a little bit sad that I never picked up this kind of enthusiasm for the building while I was actually studying it, I guess seeing something in real life is worth more than a thousand words, or even a picture.  Better late than never I suppose.  And here are some (totally inadequate) pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Appetite for beautiful architecture sated but not quite satisfied, my next stop was Venice which I’ll be writing about in my next travel post 🙂

Permanent Austerity and the 99%

I wanted to share this article by Ruth Hardy from the Guardian following David Cameron’s speech about his ‘commitment to the cause of permanent austerity’ at the Lord Mayor’s banquet last week.  I thought it was particularly interesting as it had been written by a young intern who was moonlighting as a waitress at the event.  It’s nice to hear the voices of young people in the press, and it’s always good to hear from the 99% – I thought her perspective was very interesting:

It was hard to stomach David Cameron preaching austerity from a golden throne
As a waitress at the lord mayor’s banquet, the contrast between what Cameron was saying and where he was saying it felt particularly chilling

At a state banquet for the new Lord Mayor on Monday, David Cameron gave a speech about his commitment to the cause of permanent austerity. He stood up to speak from a golden chair, and read his notes from a golden lectern.

As it happens, I was at the banquet too and heard the news about permanent spending cutbacks for myself. Sadly I was not there as a dignitary, a foreign diplomat, a captain of industry or the director of a big City firm. I was there as a waitress. The contrast between what he was saying and where he was saying it seemed initially almost too laughable to get worked up about. But actually, it reflected something chilling in Cameron’s attitude towards the people he purports to be working for.

Please follow this link for the rest of the article: http://cur.lv/5ghkl

David Cameron at Lord Mayor's Banquet

Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features (via The Guardian)