Eamonn McCabe

One of the pleasures of going to Aldeburgh was the fact that the official photographer at the Festival was Eamonn McCabe, one of the best portrait photographers, who used to take a photograph every week for the profile in the Saturday Guardian and whose work is rightly well represented in the National Portrait Gallery. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce the photograph he took of me with a look of relief after I got down from the stage:-



I went to the launch party for the publication of George Saumarez Smith’s beautiful measured drawings of the different aspects of – mainly – classical buildings, done over the last twenty five years since he bought a cloth-bound sketchbook from Cornellisen before travelling in 1996. Of course, this was until recently part of the training of architects, so that, as George describes, they were required to engage with the details of form and proportion: a good discipline for the understanding and appreciation of historic buildings by studying them closely. Published (very handsomely) by Triglyph Books.


Stirling Prize 2021 (1)

An interesting choice of shortlist for the Stirling Prize, not least for its inclusion of of Amin Taha’s rough-hewn block in a conservation area of Islington, both traditional in its geometry, but at the same time very handcrafted, with evidence everywhere of its processes of construction. Its inclusion is odd because it was finished some time ago, but was then caught up in a planning dispute with Islington Council who wanted it demolished. I like the look of the Windermere Jetty Museum by Carmody Groarke and the beautiful elegance of the Tintagel Castle footbridge by Ney & Partners, a Belgian firm of bridge designers. It doesn’t say anywhere that I can find who picks the shortlist and now who picks the winner, which would be good to know, as it’s not going to be an easy choice.



Saving Spitalfields (2)

Sadly, but entirely predictably, Tower Hamlets has voted in favour of putting a large shopping mall into a deserted car park half way up Brick Lane without regard for its impact on the character of the area. One sees the relentlessness of the process of gentrification: artists discover an area; urban pioneers move in; then the big brands begin to take over, eating away and progressively destroying the character of an area, while developers cream off the profits; small businesses are driven out and it becomes soulless like the Kings Road and Covent Garden. The decisions lie with the members of the Tower Hamlets planning committee who, as they say, are simply applying the rules. It seems odd that the character of this part of London and its future should depend on such a small group and if they are just applying the rules, then surely the rules should change. But then one remembers that developers are the biggest donors to the conservative party, so you realise that the system has been effectively stitched up. Sad, but true.



I have been meaning to write a post about a book I read after staying in Beaune last month. It’s called Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy and it taught me more about the culture of wine growing – the conservatism, curious obsessiveness and phlegmatic character of the villagers who create some of the world’s greatest wines on small vineyards which are multiply sub-divided and re-sold. The author, Simon Loftus, was himself a grand wine merchant, chairman of Adnams, a family brewery in Suffolk. He got to know all the people involved and was lent a barn to write the book, which reminded me of the work of LeRoy Ladurie, a deep analysis of local village culture, but in a modern setting. By accident, the first print run of the book was lost in a flood in the warehouse, so when it was first published in 1991, it had less impact than it might otherwise have done, but it has recently been republished by Daunt Books, which is how I got to read it. I don’t know much about wine, but I know a great deal more about how it is produced now that I have read his book.


Aldeburgh (2)

I always like Aldeburgh – the way one can walk down from the church to the beach, the way that cottages abut straight onto the beach, how the beach is surprisingly unmanicured and the town not too chi-chi. I was told that it was wealth which kept it undeveloped and probably lots of people who have been there for years and know how to protect its character. Anyway, it made for a very nice audience for a literary festival, as interested in the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as in what I had to say about the future of museums:-


Aldeburgh (1)

I’ve come to Aldeburgh for a talk this morning about museums. I managed to get here in time for a conversation between Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Defence Correspondent, and Alex Younger, the former ‘Chief’. We are not allowed to say anything about what was said, except I hope I am allowed to say that both of them were extraordinarily impressive, widely and deeply well informed and whatever the mess we may have made in withdrawing precipitately from Afghanistan, it is somewhat reassuring that there are still people close to government who are able to talk about international strategic objectives on the global stage in a way which is convincing. Or it was to me.


Saving Spitalfields (1)

The Gentle Author is doing a good job trying to save Brick Lane from redevelopment; but, as he makes clear, the problem is wider than a single site on Brick Lane.

Spitalfields as a whole remains – but only just – an incredibly lively, interesting, mixed-use, historic neighbourhood with streets of fine early eighteenth-century Huguenot houses, jammed up alongside the energy of the Indian restaurants and local community in Brick Lane. It is this mix which makes it interesting. It is being developed at great speed with the support of Tower Hamlets, whose councillors are presumably attracted by the excitement of it all, encouraged by the Mayor, John Biggs, who detests conservation. They will destroy the character of Spitalfields and are doing so surprisingly fast.

It’s an area like the North End in Boston which needs a plan on how to protect it creatively and imaginatively, not just allowing piecemeal, out-of-scale commercial shopping malls.



The Barbican Centre

Isn’t there something slightly odd about the Barbican having ANOTHER competition to refurbish it, for £150 million which is a simply gigantic sum for refurbishment unless the whole place is suffering from some terrible, unmentionable failings of asbestos and concrete disease ?

Some of us will recall an ill-judged commission in the mid-1990s when Theo Crosby installed nine fibreglass muses in 1993 which were removed in 1997. Then it was revamped in 2006 for £12.6 million. The Barbican is growing old gracefully and is surely Grade 1 listed, so the last thing that is needed is a grandiose Diller Scofidio renovation.

On the other hand, £150 million would do very nicely to refurbish the existing Museum of London building as either a Museum of Fashion or a Museum of Photography, both long discussed and both of which would bring visitors into the centre of town.



The City

I know everyone is very anxious to pretend that everything is getting back to normal and the underground is busier than ever, but sitting in the board room of a prominent city firm today felt just short of the Marie Celeste – floors and floors of deserted office space as people have discovered the joys – and the efficiency – of working from home: less time wasted, more time spent with the family, able to avoid the hideous corporate anonymity of all those gigantic office blocks which have destroyed the character of the old City. A bit of me thinks it will serve the City right for their decision to turn London into somewhere now so bleak.