Flâneur

I’m in that London you hear so much about (you know, the one off the telly) and I’ve got time to kill before I have to return to York. I think I might get lost. I came down to catch up with a client. The meeting went better than expected – there were sandwiches and I didn’t break anything. Most of my interactions with clients and suppliers and suchlike are conducted via email (and increasingly via abrupt quick-fire exchanges on Twitter DMs), so being a proper human in a room with other proper humans made a nice change.

Of course, unfamiliar with how human interaction normally works out here in the wild, I completely misjudged how long the meeting would take. My train isn’t due for another six hours. Plenty of time for a good wander. I kind of know where I am and I kind of know where I need to be, so I point myself in the general direction of King’s Cross and let my feet take me where they want to go.

I’m soon reminded that most of my usual haunts on the internet are merely simulacra of this wonderful city. There’s that gallery I’ve seen pictures of! There’s that agency! And that one! That shop is an actual place! It’s all real!

When chance and thirst dictate, I stop for a sit and a coffee; a chance to doodle and catch up with whatever urgencies have appeared on my phone. It’s good to work and think somewhere else for the day, if only to be joggled out of all those little familiar routines and ruts.

I’ve come to realise that being partially-lost in London is one of my favourite pastimes. I am no longer a designer, I am a flâneur – “a man who saunters around observing society”. The trick is inefficiency. You must ignore the pace of the harried, drudgerised locals. They have places to be, things to tut at. The more your journey slows you down, the better. The tube is to be avoided at all costs. You’ll see nothing that way, just people wanting to be somewhere else. 

If you absolutely must use public transport, try to get upstairs on a bus – that way you at least get the benefit of being able to peer into people’s windows (remember: it’s not voyeurism, it’s sociology) – but ideally, you want to stay on foot. Once you’ve figured out the general direction you want to be sauntering in, zigzag. Go down as many side-streets as possible. Each is a microcosm, full of characters and history and really quite peculiar smells.

Compared to the compact historical theme park that is York, London is vast and fast and more than a little science fictional (plus there’s a disconcerting absence of Vikings). I’ve known this place my whole life, but it never gets old. Fresh nooks and crannies are everywhere; the ever-changing snaggle-tooth skyline constantly unrecognisable.

It reminds me of Alex Proyas’ 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City, in which the city shifts and churns into new forms each night. All the protagonist can do is explore the city anew, struggling to make sense of the impermanence of his habitat. Of course, the city is only behaving in such a way because it is trying to make sense of him. He is merely a rat in a maze, an unwitting flâneur rodentia.

Eventually my feet find their destination, and my saunter concludes with the traditional “ooh doesn’t King’s Cross look lovely these days” proclamation to nobody in particular. And then it’s back to York, back to my little desk, back to the little city that lives in my computer.


Written for Creative Review

LP

There’s a theory that recorded voices can be drawn from tiny irregularities in the surface of ancient ceramic vases, having picked up vibrations while their clay was still fresh; like grooves laid in vinyl.

It’s probably a load of baloney, but it’s a nice idea. Along those lines, I’d like to think that each of my projects has a bit of music in it; the rhythms of the grid subconsciously translated from whatever I was listening to when I worked on it. 

On a big diagram of creative pursuits that has yet to be drawn, design and music are clearly seen to be opposite poles, complementary forms. Distinct enough to avoid one pastiching or disturbing the other, but similar enough to inspire and influence. They may work on different senses, but they share an underlying language of repetition and rhythm, colour and shape.

This is especially true when it comes to LPs, a tidy containedness that neatly reflects the defined boundaries of a design. I grew up with C30, C60, C90, so I’m hard-wired to appreciate music in neatly defined albumular shapes, pre-sequenced packages, structures within structures. The freeform shuffle of iTunes and Spotify has its place, but I’m not going to get any work done tossing coins into an infinite jukebox. I love daily morning ritual of flicking through my collection, from Ant Music to Zooropa, to select the day's soundtrack. Once that's done, no more distracting decisions to be made.

LPs have beginnings and ends, but most importantly, they have middles. Middles that demand attention. The necessity to get up and walk across the room to flip the disc offers a welcome break from the staring and clicking repetition. That brilliant idea isn’t going to magically appear on the desk you’ve been hunched over for five hours. Observe the silence of the album, start again, reset your brain, get out of a thinking-rut. Stretch your legs, pore over some liner notes and stroke that sleeve art. But most of all, play the music.

Fast and slow, quiet and loud, every good record holds valuable lessons that can be applied abstractly to whatever you’re working on. A conversation between black circle and white rectangle. When you’re elbow-deep in grids and guidelines, a mire of technical considerations and constraints, music reminds you that design should be alive and vibrating. Warren Zevon’s hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent; Michael Hutchence shouting “trumpet!” to introduce a saxophone solo; Eddie Vedder making glorious Eddie Vedder noises. A single nugget of pure silliness or joy or truth nestled in the middle of a song can breathe life back into whatever you’re working on.

When it happens, when it kicks in, my computer ceases to be a tool, it becomes percussion. Drumming with fingers, peddling with feet, lots of finger-clicking and … hey, ho, let's go!


Written for Creative Review

Films

Here's last month's slew of cinematic happenings. Check out my Letterboxd profile for more of this sort of thing.

Wonder Woman. A lot of fun, at least until the standard issue DC climax kicks in. Gal Gadot is absolutely perfect in the role. Much like Captain America and The Rocketeer, the film benefits hugely from a period setting and being stand-alone. Rather than skip straight to present day, I'd love to see the sequels tackle other eras – 70s New York WW would be glorious, if only for the hair – without those silly boys getting in the way.  

Suicide Squad. It's like they took a bad film and then recut it to deliberately make it even worse. And then they patched over the joins by occasionally fading Best Rocks Anthems Ever Volume 3 in and out every so often. The result is teetering on the very edge of what constitutes a film.

Tangled. Deservedly holding a permanent spot in this list. Watching for the umpteenth time, and it struck me how near damn perfect the comic timing is. The dialogue, the editing, the action, the expressions of the characters, all absolutely spot on. And there's a lot of comedy, none of which falls flat. Honestly can't think of another film that I laugh at more. Should be a set text in comedy school.

Hop. Many, many times. The boy's new favourite film. Actually rather good.

Moneyball. Given that's it's about a sport I have absolutely no interest in, this was really rather good. Whole scenes of baseball player trading shenanigans went way over my head, but somehow I was still riveted. The always underrated Pitt absolutely perfect in lead role.

Morgan. Imagine if Ex Machina was sucked dry of all goodness and remade as a TV movie; maybe an episode of nineties Outer Limits. The Scott family should probably stop making films about robots.

Valkyrie. Some tense moments, but frustratingly keeps falling short of full-on seat-edge nail-biter. And nobody's quite sure what accent to go for.

Apollo 13. Damn fine film, and a timely reminder that Ron Howard is a hugely underrated director. Looking forward to seeing what he does with Han Solo. 

Baby Driver. Enjoyed this immensely. Huge smile on my face from beginning to end. Weirdly, the wit and invention and sheer joy of it all gave me the same overwhelmed-by-glee feeling I get from watching Hey Duggee. Stick that on the poster. 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Good fun. Very creepy, up to a point. An interesting case study in the effect lighting, editing and music can have on your perception of a completely still face.

Week

Remember Week? I liked Week. Week made sense. I appreciated how Week was neatly divided into a cycle of manageable chunks; five for work, two for cartoons and jigsaws. The UI of Week was a bit skewiff – fashioned from a hotchpotch of Norse mythology, Judeo-Christian DIY habits, pagan leftovers, Roman gods and planetary orbits – but it mostly worked. Week provided the comfort of repetition. You knew where you were with Week.

And now … well, now I’m self-employed, Week is long gone. Is it Tuesday? Am I supposed to be doing something on Tuesday? Didn’t we just do a Tuesday? Or was that last week? There’s a lot to be said about the wonderful chaos of autonomy, but I’ve come to realise that a certain level of predictability is good for my mental wellbeing. It’s hard to keep a firm grasp on the passage of time – if you don’t have the framework of office hours and weekends and bank holidays, the universe changes shape and meaning a little bit.

Add to this the whims of a pre-schooler’s turbulent social life into the mix, and time falls apart completely. It congeals into a bewildering nougat of work, rest and play. Everything feels urgent. I’m in and out and working and I’m not working and then I’m sort of working and then maybe I’m eating and then there might be sleep and it goes on and on and on. There’s no beginning, middle or end; no clocking off for the weekend because I have no idea when the weekend is upon me. I feel no sense of progress or pause, just this constant … constantness. Everyday is like Wednesday.

But all is not lost! Having spent the last few years completely deconstructing Week, I’m slowly starting to patch it back together again. Auntie has shown me the way. Television may no longer offer the dependably rigid schedule that it once did – displaced by box-sets and catch-ups – but there are still some things that demand to be seen when broadcast, and BBC Four have reinstated an important tradition, one programmed into the very core of the human condition: Seven thirty. Thursday night. Top of the Pops.

Sure, it may be repeats (fabulous, fabulous repeats), but this half hour of appointment-TV provides a vital waypoint from which to navigate the rest of Week. It’s something to look forward to, to stop work for, to be in a particular place for, a reason to be still for a set amount of time. Once I latched onto this, I noticed other little markers presenting themselves on certain days, small events against which time can be measured.

On Tuesday, a welcome chunk of advice, inspiration and inspiration from Lecture in Progress lands in my inbox. On Wednesday, social media automaton and absolute hero @binnightbot reminds me to put the bins out (impossible to overstate how important this is to the smooth running of my life). On Friday, Tina Roth Eisenberg’s Friday Link Pack digests all the best bits of the web into one manageable procrastinatory list. On Saturday, book design mavens Spine Magazine keep me on my toes by sharing the week’s finest new book covers. And then the Design Museum’s #FontSunday turns Twitter into a wonderful festival of type (#TypeTuesday is entirely different).

It’s not as clear-cut as the old nine-to-five pattern of Week, but amongst these newsletters, hashtags and blogs, little reading habits and activities, a gentle rhythm can still be found. Gradually, day by day, I’ll make a path back to good old dependable Week. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll find the ultimate prize: Weekend.

Films

Here's everything I watched in May, on small screen and large. For further discussion, all links lead to the corresponding bit of my Letterboxd profile. And yes, I did pinch this monthly movie missive idea from Khoi Vinh.

  • The Silence of the Lambs. Still incredible. If you can't afford film school, just buy this and watch it every day for a month. You will learn a LOT
  • Prometheus. Thought it might be a good idea to watch this again before seeing Alien: Covenant. It wasn't.
  • The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Lots of good stuff, lots of bloat. I never thought I'd say this about anything, but Michael Rooker is the star here. 
  • Moana. So many times. Is it as good as Tangled? Quite possibly.
  • Margin Call. I'd heard good things about this for a while, but never quite found myself in the "ooh, I'll watch a low budget banking drama" state of mind. And then it appeared on iPlayer and I gave it a shot – and oh boy, it's good. Highly recommended. 
  • Alien: Covenant. Such high hopes, but despite the title, this is more of a Prometheus film than an Alien one. And it weirdly has the same boring core as Guardians
  • Coherence. Made for approximately five quid, and all the better for it. 
  • I Origins. Really wasn't sure about this one right up until the last scene, and then it completely broke me (partly because of a beautiful bit of Radiohead). Raises some big questions about science and faith – it's a great late night discussion-starter. 
  • The One I Love. A three minute short film dragged all the way out to a feature. Shot at Ted Danson's house apparently, so maybe worth watching if you like a spot of Through the Keyhole. Rooney Mara is credited as costume designer, which is utterly preposterous for a film that features a frock and a couple of shirts. 
  • Wild at Heart. Back when Cage was Good Weird rather than Bad Weird, and Dern was approximately 8 feet tall and had to hold her hair in place for entire movies. Vastly superior in every way to the embarrassingly poor new season of Twin Peaks.
  • WALL-E. Brilliant, obviously. Not sure why exactly, but I have a feeling that this would make a cracking double bill with La La Land.
  • Rogue One. Second time around and … nope, still doesn't work for me. Mostly down to the unlikeable characters, the unnecessarily convoluted plot and the weird no-loose-ends third act. 
  • Tangled. Love it love it love it. Straddles so many genres, and wins them all. Those celebrating the fact that Wonder Woman is the first successful female-led superhero movie clearly haven't seen this. Or Moana. Or Frozen.
  • Nightcrawler. Dr B didn't like this at all, but I rather liked the cynical, sleazy, Taxi Driver-ish feel to it – but you do need to have a shower or two afterwards.
  • La La Land. Still utterly adorable, but it loses a lot on the small screen. As with any film about films, this demands to be seen on the biggest, brightest screen possible.
  • Solace. A fine, forgettable little thriller. Notable for apparently being written as a sequel to Seven
  • Hop. Surprisingly inoffensive, and stands up to repeat viewings with the boy. Basically the Easter equivalent of Arthur Christmas. Russell Brand is really rather good – and surprisingly tolerable – as a voiceover actor, and James Mars den continues to be one of Hollywood's most underrated talents.