Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Layer 374 . . . London, The City, Spitalfields, Shopping, Eating, Gaugin, The Impressionists, Reading Strategies, Innovation and Inspiration

Tat Modern

An interesting and enjoyable few days - going out and about with Brother B.

Sunday was glorious - as beautiful a late autumn day as you could wish for. Outside St Paul's there was lots of activity - setting up grandstands for the Lord Mayor's Show. The cathedral looked stunning against the clear blue sky.
                                               (c) Oxzenpics

The LMS is apparently the world's oldest 'civic procession'. "Three miles of splendid pageantry", says the blurb. It depends what you mean by splendid. This is the Establishment showing off its civic and military might.

"Participants include bands and members of privileged regiments of the City of London such as the Honourable Artillery Company and The Royal Fusiliers. "Privileged regiments" have the right to march through the Square Mile with bayonets fixed, colours flying, and drums beating." (Wiki)

Which is exactly what they do. It's quite an eye-opener - like going down into the crypt in St Paul's for the first time and realising it's a place that demonstrates the close linkages between all the arms of the Establishment - the monarchy, the Corporation of London, the armed forces, big business, and of course the established church. This is where the State's power lies, at the heart of the Square Mile. Politicians may come and go in Westminster, but the State goes on for ever.

Right next door to the cathedral is the newly-opened One New Change - a massive block of high-end shops, topped by several floors of offices. The building is about as functional as a building can get, and from various angles looks like a massive military installation, or like a huge futuristic warship with its guns and missiles not yet fitted. Inside it was practically deserted, just like the rest of the City on a typical Sunday - in spite of its shops being open.

Just a short distance away, Spitalfields, in contrast, was really buzzing. It's amazing how the old abandoned market has evolved into something quite special. Lots of quirky shops and stalls, and lots of people strolling around.

The small food stalls that used to be in the old market hall during the first phase of its redevelopment have migrated across Commercial Street to what was probably a large clothing factory in Brick Lane back in the days when the rag trade was at its peak in Whitechapel. The choice of hot food stalls there is now amazing - various Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Ethiopian, Brazillian, Portugese, Italian, Moroccan, Mexican, French, etc.

And of course Brick Lane itself continues to thrive, with its restaurants gradually creeping upmarket as the area becomes more and more of a destination for people from further afield looking for a good night out or a good lunch in a decent and inexpensive curry house.

So there are now two Square Miles cheek by jowl with one another - this second one consisting of Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Columbia Road market, Shoreditch and Hoxton, which are all rising from the ruins of the old East End, thanks in part to their colonisation by young artists and artisans, students and art galleries, with lots of formerly commercial properties converted into loft flats, studios and workshops. There are some similarities with the Marais district of Paris - a formerly prosperous Jewish area which became run down for a period but is now extremely chic and trendy.

The City now has a semi-surrounding arc of increasing regeneration and gentrification which roughly follows the inner ring road from Kings Cross through Islington, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Whitechapel, and ends up at Wapping and the riverside around Tower Bridge.

A similar process has been happening along the south bank of the Thames facing the City, and it's well worth walking the distance from Bermondsey and Shad Thames through Butlers Wharf and the City Hall area, and along to Blackfriars Bridge and beyond, via London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral.

Yesterday, in spite of the foul weather, we crossed the river on the Millenium Bridge and went to the Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern. I can see certain similarities between Gaugin and his pal Van Gogh, in terms of certain impressionistic techniques, but for me Van Gogh's work is intrinsically more vibrant, passionate and engaging. I prefer his colours, his figures and his landscapes. Which isn't to say that Gaugin is a second rate artist - only that he doesn't have a certain je ne sais quoi for me, which the true greats like Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir have in abundance. See them all at the Musee D'Orsay. Forget about Tat Modern with its roomfuls of rubbish. But do go to see the Gaugin exhibition - it's well worth paying a few quid for. Also go to the cafe on the top floor for coffee and biscotti - the views across to St Paul's, and from the Gherkin to Centre Point and the BT Tower, are amazing - especially at sunset.


                                                   (c) Oxzenpics

Reading Strategies


This clip on Yahoo shows clearly why learning to read involves a lot more than using 'synthetic phonics'. A quiz show contestant managed to 'guess' (or predict) an entire sentence from just one letter -

x'xx xxx x xxxx xxxLxxx xxxxx xxxx.

It's not hard either. I too would have won the $9,000, or whatever. Anyone can do it.

The point here is that it's a lot faster to tackle text using a range of strategies, including syntactic and semantic cueing, than it is to use phonics only. In fact phonic strategies should be used only as a confirmation strategy, or when all else fails.

The example I've used often with parents in explaining the process of learning to read is:

Once xxxx x txxx txxxx xxx x . . . . . . . . . . .

This shows that reading ought to be primarily a thinking process - after the first word the mind needs to think ahead to what might follow, using prior knowledge of common phrases and sentence structures. Obviously the single letter words here are likely to be either "a" or "I", or both. Frank Smith called reading a 'psycho-linguistic guessing game'. If this wasn't true then we couldn't possibly read at the speeds we do. Children need the freedom to speed up, to imagine, to predict, and yes - to guess. Forcing them to plod through texts using only phonics forces them to slow down, and forces them to approach reading in a way that they must immediately UNlearn if they're to become fluent readers, especially as English isn't a phonetically regular language.


The Business of Innovation: Steven Johnson


Isolation v collaboration

His latest book, Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation, is his attempt to explain the phenomenon of inspiration.

"[Good ideas] come from crowds, they come from networks. You know we have this clichéd idea of the lone genius having the eureka moment.

"But in fact when you go back and you look at the history of innovation it turns out that so often there is this quiet collaborative process that goes on, either in people building on other peoples' ideas, but also in borrowing ideas, or tools or approaches to problems.

"One of the lessons I've learned is that so many of these great innovators, Darwin is a great example of this, one shared characteristic they all seem to have is a lot of hobbies."

"I mean the web was a hobby for Tim Berners Lee, that's one of the wonderful things about it, it was a side project at his job at Cern."

But for those who yearn to find the spark within ourselves, Mr Johnson rounds off the book with this advice:

"Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down; but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies, frequent coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent."

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