Monday, 28 February 2011

Manningham Part 1

That’s where I lived - though my parents said it was Heaton -- from the age of 12 till I left home for university, never to return except for holidays. Manningham was a suburb of Bradford, though by my time it had had at least 50 years as one of the main districts of Bradford, industrial as well as residential. Manningham in the 17th century had been a village -- farming and a bit of hand loom weaving; Heaton, a bit further out, still was and is a village, sort of, though with plenty of late Victorian and 20th century housing added, and in the way that Highgate in London is a village.

My return visit last week is an example of the difference a good book can make to perception and experience.
The authors are Simon Taylor and Kathryn Gibson; it came out in 2010 and is scholarly, readable and intelligent -- simply a fine piece of work by English Heritage, who have had conservation projects in the area. Cheap, too -- £9.99.

As a teenager I knew Manningham and Heaton well but never appreciated their architectural distinction. I got the book for Christmas, read it in soft southern suburban Surbiton where I now live and was inspired to go back and have a fresh look. So I did, last week, and this time what I saw was richly meaningful because of the explanations and historical maps in the book. What we see depends not just on perception (at least if that refers to light falling on eyeballs) but on the semiotic chains that are activated by the incoming ‘messages’-- the image evokes ideas or associations already there, which in turn evoke others...

In 1950s Bradford, old buildings -- working-class cottages, Victorian mills, 19th century co-op stores -- were smoke-blackened and shabby. They felt clapped-out when what we pined for -- or Stibbs and me and our AA architecture student friend Colin Bottomley did -- was Bauhaus and Corb, European modernism, clean lines, whiteness. This was before Asa Briggs’s (1965) celebration of Victorian Cities, and before the cream of cameramen started their black and white luxuriating in the north in films like A Taste of Honey.

I took my new compact camera, a cheap Nikon that I’d after placing portability above features. I suppose it did ok but I missed the viewfinder that such cameras no longer have -- the screen or monitor is useless when you’re looking into a bright scene -- simply can’t see what the camera’s going to take. That seems to be the case a lot of the time. But the main disappointment was that the weather was dull and non-photographic. Still, I offer a few shots here...

Bradford has fallen on hard times (nothing has replaced the textile industry) as can be seen from the run-down streets, though the Asian families (in Britain that means from the Indian subcontinent and not, as in North America, east Asia) are apparently very attached to the place. It means some fine buildings and squares are overgrown, neglected or derelict, like the wonderful Victorian Southfield Square off Lumb Lane (click to get photos a decent size):

Fairmount, an elegant 1853 development built in open fields, is a particularly sad case.

Further out from the centre I passed through Lister Park and up into Heaton, past several fine villas on Emm Lane.
No more pics allowed in a single post so continuing in Part 2.

What happened to libraries?

Time was when you’d go into a public library of the older sort -- Bradford Central Library as was on Darley Street, Bradford Carlisle Road Library, Surbiton Library -- and you’d find people sitting down and reading for extended periods of time, surrounded by ceiling-high shelves of books, many very old (e.g. 1840). This group would include business people on their lunch hours, housewives in the middle of a morning’s shopping, retired persons, unemployed men and school and college students.

It would be pretty well unthinkable to use a public library like that today. There are far fewer books and most of them appear to be newish, colourful and plastic-covered -- ‘attractive’ seems to be the watchword, whereas for me one category of the attractive has always been the unattractive. Older volumes have been disposed of and can be had for bargain prices on Amazon and other sites. The shelves are easy-reaching height and there are computers and kids everywhere. People do sit and flick through books but no one stays for a serious read. The atmosphere is ‘fun’ rather than contemplation.

So has the possibility of picking out and reading a book you don’t own for an hour or more at a stretch in some public space disappeared? no, the readers have moved to Waterstones. Waterstones in Leeds (a great shop ever since it opened -- even though we’re supposed to hate Waterstones, for some good reasons) -- is a fine example. I went in the other afternoon with a couple of hours to kill before catching a train and the place was full of readers in comfortable chairs or in less comfortable ones but with tables in the Costa Coffee area, and many of them were deeply engrossed. True, the books are all new -- and we understand new titles have a very short shelf life in which to prove they sell before they’re whipped away and remaindered or pulped -- but there are masses of them and the shelves go up to ceiling height so that you need stools to reach the top ones. Not a computer in sight except customers’ lap tops and the ones the staff use; and the staff know their stuff.

I was able to read a big chunk of the Bradford section in the new Pevsner Buildings of the West Riding -- a huge improvement on the original, which I got second-hand years ago, and I wanted it but the price was prohibitive (even on Amazon, I found later). But I'll get it one day.

Why I picked that book out to read will become clear in another posting, soon.

Walworth School research

We now have a website:

It’s about our research on English teaching in three schools, of which one is Walworth School (Mina Road).

It has a form on which people can comment and send in fresh information. We intend to keep adding stuff to the site.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Theatre under the arches

All my miserablings about theatre still stand but with this big exception: small theatre by small groups in intimate sessions. Last night I was at the opening night of Irish Blood, English Heart by Darren Murphy in the Union Theatre underneath the railway arches on Union Street, Southwark -- audience 25, cast 4; dramatic, electric, sparkling writing. And then mingling with case, writer and producer in the bar.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

New camera

I decided that in my choice of a new camera portability had to have priority over a good lens that could only be had at the price of bulk. If I can’t carry a camera casually and without it being a burden, I judge that I'm unlikely to use it much. The fact that a Nikon that seemed vastly superior to my years-old Olympus was only £70 (plus card) decided me. So far I've had little chance to use it -- weather’s been gloomy or rainy, no incentive to take pictures. Photographing documents in the National Archives seems to have gone ok, but it’s something I didn’t do with the old one so can’t compare.

Here’s one I took on the way to the archives at Kew.

This was on a railway route that I used to know as the North London line but I now find is called the Overground, which I presume is a new train company. I’d seen signs on the Underground directing passengers to the Overground and had assumed it was simply a convenient term for trains that weren’t underground. Evidently not. Stupid name, in that case.

Anyway, I don’t much like it. This sort of carriage, with seats along the side, isn’t what you expect in a train as opposed to a bus or tram. Fortunately I only have to use it for one stop, from Richmond to Kew. The rest is good old South West Trains, which I like and is comfortable and apparently well run.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Estates -- correction

That should have been Boundary Street Estate. I've re-read that chapter in Hanley and it’s very good still. The other book I read, some time ago, that dealt with public housing as well as other planning and architecture matters, was Lionel Esher, A broken wave: the rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (1981).

Thursday, 10 February 2011


I didn’t buy this because of the cover -- I ordered it blind from Amazon -- but it’s lovely, isn’t it. Is that Gill Sans?

It’s good. The first chapter’s about her own and her family’s experience of public housing (for North American bloggees, the ‘estates’ of the title are ‘council estates’ which means public housing developments/projects built and run by local authorities, the councils). The second is the best history I've seen of public housing in Britain -- a sad story. Wonderful development to start with -- Boundary Row in Bethnal Green which I've often walked through and admired -- by the LCC at the end of the 19th century. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ after the first war, built to the highest standards (‘Tudor Walters’), as were those provided by Bevan (Minister of Health and Housing) after the second -- but in both cases the gain in space and fresh air (the developments were on the edges of cities) were at the price of remoteness from family and work. In both cases, too, the standards of building were relaxed after a few years out of a need for economy, more rapid provision and higher density, so that whereas at first the council houses looked and were as good as those the spec builders were selling to private buyers, before long they were standing out a mile and attracting the social stigma that they’ve never since thrown off.

Then came ‘systems building’ (prefabricated units) and tower blocks and the familiar scene around us today in the inner as well as the outer city.


About ten years ago I had something called an iPaq, made by Compaq. It was a PDA but the beauty of it was you could buy a folding keyboard for it, called a Target Stowaway. It was in three parts and when folded it was the same size as the iPaq, comfortable pocket size, and I could easily take it into libraries, on trains etc. I had to abandon it when I switched from PCs to Macs and couldn’t get it to communicate.

I wish I could find something like that now. A virtual keyboard on a screen (iPhone, iPad) is no good for writing more that a few words. So when the muse or some other harridan strikes when I'm out, I’m reduced to writing in a notebook and then typing it on the computer when I get home.

If there’s time, that is, which often there isn’t, which is why you didn’t get what I scribbled on 27 January, which was:

‘The claim that the self is an illusion is philosophically incoherent -- i.e. bollocks.’

I noted down a trivial and rather annoying train of thought I’d just had -- some puzzle about the ticket barriers worked at Waterloo -- and wrote ‘It’s impossible to see these thoughts as just material movements. There was intentionality, desire, a form of wanting to know. If there was a chattering monkey -- which there was in that these weren’t thoughts I was wanting to have and they were distracting: I’d have preferred my mind to be still -- the monkey was me.

‘The incoherence in the statement that the self is an illusion is revealed in the observation that who can register that statement in consciousness -- evaluate it as true or false, accept it or reject it -- except a self, a consciousness?’

Now I see Mary Midgley reviewing a book on consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey (Guardian Review. Saturday 5 February) and observing that ‘Humphrey... still rules that this everyday consciousness is indeed an illusion. He seems not to notice that illusions are impossible unless somebody conscious is there to be deluded.’

Exactly. Good to find one’s idea anticipated those of a real thinker. Which is what has motivated me at last to get down to it and type out my scribble.

She needs a word ‘illuded’, doesn’t she.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The meaning of meaning

I’ve always had trouble with English teachers, primary school teachers, advisers, lecturers and the like who talked about children ‘making meaning’. I still hear it now occasionally but did a lot in the 70s and 80s and indeed there were books and articles with the expression in the title. Those who used it may have known what they meant but I never thought I did, which makes me think, still, that it was a mystificatory idea that served to conceal confusion.

Previously, people had only used the term ‘meaning’ in phrases like ‘the meaning of so-and-so’. As for ‘meanings’ plural, you got it in ‘word meanings’ and expressions like that -- ‘words and their meanings’ -- but never, I think, in isolation. Meanings were pretty well what you could find in the dictionary.

So what were these meanings that children were supposed to making? Well, I suppose they were the meanings of their written and spoken utterances or improvised dramatic actions, since it was always in relation to language or drama that the expression was used. There seemed to be a whole implicit theory in this way of speaking, that ‘behind’ the language was a non-language something that either preceded the utterance (less preferred version) or was precipitated by the utterance, in the course of speaking.

Well, then. First: if that was the implicit theory, it seems to have huge implications and needed spelling out -- and I don’t think it ever was. If it wasn’t, then ‘meanings’ were just a placeholder, like an algebraic x, for whatever the language or gesture meant, in the usual sense. It’s the implication that there’s some separate entity that children are making, to which language etc may be contributory in production but finally inessential, to which I object. Or rather, I object to the undeclared smuggling in, as if it’s unproblematic, of such a vast notion about the constitution of ideas.

I once took ages working in detail, in an effort to understand it, through the final chapter of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, the classic source of insights into this area, and concluded that I didn’t understand it and that it was either seriously defective in failing to explain some essentials or was incoherent. Vygotsky can’t be blamed: he was dying and in a rush. But I've never found what to turn to by way of a satisfactory modern (post-1935!) treatment of the problem and I remain seriously confused.

As others surely must be, but I don’t hear much worry being expressed. The issue is almost never addressed in any contemporary writings on the teaching of English, for any theory of which one would have thought some account of language and thought would be essential. Essential, too, to an evaluation of how important the much-celebrated ‘multimodality’ is: is the role of visual media, for instance, in ‘making meanings’ as significant as that of language? on that depends (in part) the weight that should be given to it in education -- and how much time should go to media studies.