Better by design

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 television last evening, reviewing the design innovations of Sir Kenneth Grange. Across an astonishingly diverse career, Grange has been responsible for the design of the Kenwood Chef, disposable razors, and the InterCity 125 locomotive. It was great TV and the sort of thing that the license-fee funded BBC can do, but which would probably be almost impossible to get commissioned on a commercial channel.

Prompted (I guess) by the programme, there was a feature on product design and marketing in today’s Guardian newspaper. Alongside a discussion of the Kenwood kitchen aid and an old style telephone handset, there are features on lip balm (some contain chemicals that actually make your lips dry so that you end up using more of the product!); and Heineken beer (with the smiley face ‘e’s that are deliberately designed to create a sense of happiness and fun in the branding.

Good design is critical to the success of products in a consumer-driven society; but it’s also important in terms of the quality of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Another story in the news today focuses on nature deficit disorder. This is the term being used to describe the impact of lives that are increasingly mediated through technology (television, computers, smartphones, tablets), and where many people spend virtually no time in the open air and green spaces, simply ‘being’ in nature. There is an emerging body of evidence that this is bad for us both psychologically and physiologically. Actually spending time in a green space looking at plants and trees, watching squirrels and birds, is good for our bodies and minds. And denying ourselves these simple pleasures can lead to physical and mental ill-health.

Mindfulness has gained something of a cure-all reputation in recent months, and there is (probably rightly) some cynicism about the extent to which it can really have all the positive effects that are claimed for it. Nevertheless, at the most fundamental level, creating space to simply be, focusing on the here and now in the physical world and concentrating on really experiencing the world around you as it is, seems to offer one route to addressing the damaging side-effects of an over-reliance on technology and indoor-living.

Perhaps we all need to think about designing in some time to appreciate the natural world around us as much as the wider, virtual world accessed through our screens. Have a good week everybody.

Didn’t we have a lovely time…

The day we went to Chester. There has been a settlement on the banks of the River Dee at the place that we now know as Chester, since the Romans established a fort there in the first century AD. Much of the land and key property around Chester is part of the Grosvenor Estates, the company that manages the holdings of the Duke of Westminster. The ancestral home of the Grosvenor family is situated at Eaton Hall on the outskirts of the city.

Our visit today was in part to see the Christmas market, focused around the Cathedral in the heart of the city, and in part to catch up with Dan, Bex and Bex’s parents before Christmas. The market layout is well planned, allowing large numbers of people to move leisurely through the stalls without ever feeling that the place was over-crowded or uncomfortable.

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Christmas market stalls with the Cathedral behind

In truth, on this fifth Saturday before Christmas, Chester was unsurprisingly very busy; but there was also a fantastic buzz about the place, helped by some of the most talented street entertainers that I’ve witnessed for a long time.

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Play the violin? Check. Singing? Check. High wire balance? Check. Bonkers?? Probably!

One of the great things about Chester is the architecture, drawing on styles from the city’s two thousand years of history. On a crisp, sunny, November day, the city looked magnificent (even through the lens of my smartphone).

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The only challenge today, was actually finding somewhere with six spare seats for lunch! There can’t have been many pubs in the city centre that we DIDN’T walk into in the vain hope that we might find a place to sit down and get something to eat. In the end, we opted for the loiter and stare technique, snaffling some space at a table in a JD Wetherspoon’s establishment just when all hope was almost gone!

A lovely day, followed by a glorious drive home as the sun sank behind the hills to the west.

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The positive impact of worrying

I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall which read : ” Don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t work, most of the things I worry about don’t happen!”

The reality of this has been brought home to me this week, when a number of potentially stressful situations – sources of severe worry at different times – have all been negotiated more or less successfully. Of course, the psychologists will point to the fact that a moderate amount of stress is a necessary precursor to successful completion of difficult tasks. We need to be ‘up for it’ and ‘on top of our game’ to be able to perform to our full potential. That has been true for me this week, but to be honest, it’s also quite wearing. There is a need to balance the stressful times with some rest and relaxation. Batteries need time to recharge. Stress enzyme levels need to be rebalanced. It’s not possible to keep operating at full speed all of the time.

So – sorry – no : there’s no chance of me making any progress on that list of jobs in the flat this weekend! 😉

Danny Dyer – simply a legend

So – tonight’s planned post has been usurped. I’ve been completely absorbed in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC1. Tonight, it’s Danny Dyer – and he’s basically a legend. The clash of cultures between the East End wide boy and the ‘old money’ that he shares an ancestry with is brilliant television! If you missed it, do try and catch up with it on the BBC iPlayer. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

Back to more substantive stuff tomorrow!

Facebook wisdom : an unrepresentative sample!

For today’s post, I am drawing on some of the accumulated wisdom of Facebook that I’be collected over the past couple of years. These are the memes, cartoons and pictures that have either made me laugh, or touched a nerve, or otherwise given me pause for thought.

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This first cartoon fits firmly in the laugh out loud category. The look of trepidation on the sock facing the washing machine, and the reassuring appeal of his ‘partner’ to remember the buddy system is beautifully observed.

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This second one is both funny, but also touches on a more profound truth for anybody who is involved in education professionally, or who is simply a parent. Children and young people spend far more time being controlled, and exhorted to conform, than being encouraged to develop their creativity and flair. Another favourite meme features the slogan, “In a world of Kardashians, don’t be afraid to be a bit more Bonham Carter”, and appeals to the same principles as the dog cartoon.

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For reasons* that I can’t write about today, but that I will almost certainly return to when the time is right in the future, this final Peanuts cartoon carries a particular poignancy at the moment. It gently reminds us that however difficult things may get, life always deserves a chance to win through. That helps me to smile even at very sad times.

 

 

* In case anybody is concerned, this is about work rather than anything to do with family or my personal situation.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.

Together Stronger

European football’s governing body, UEFA, today announced that three Welsh players had made it onto the shortlist for their team of the year. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have been rewarded for a series of stand-out performances for Wales as they progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships in the summer. Their recognition is well-deserved, as is that for Hal Robson-Kanu, who has been nominated for goal of the year for his audacious turn and finish in the quarter-final fixture against Belgium. There is no doubting that the European Championships was a major triumph for Wales – players, supporters, the management team under Chris Coleman, and officials. If qualifying for the first major tournament in 58 years wasn’t enough, wins against Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium propelled the team into the semi-finals and the spotlight in a way that none of us could ever have dared to dream. I was fortunate to travel to Bordeaux for the opening weekend of the Championships. It was an experience that I will never forget and that I will probably never come near to matching. You can read my blogs about the opening games of the tournament here and here.

What has been most impressive about the way that Wales has gone about building a competitive national football team, is that it has not been an accident of good fortune or lucky timing. Whilst Bale, Ramsey and Allen are undoubtedly the pick of the squad in terms of technical ability and (in Bale’s case at least) world class, the success of the team is founded on the established principles of working hard for each other, never knowing when you’re beaten, and giving 100% effort for the cause on every occasion. Whilst Bale received the plaudits in France for his goals and all around attacking flair, in many ways it was Ben Davies who set Wales on their way with a miraculous goal-line clearance in the opening 10 minutes of the first game against Slovakia. You could sense in the stadium at the time a sudden surge of belief that we could do this! We were not just there to make up the numbers – cannon fodder for the ‘more established’ teams.

The Welsh Football Association’s plan for the development of all aspects of the game – under the banner Together Stronger – encapsulates that spirit of teamwork and togetherness and applies it to junior and women’s football, at the grassroots and elite levels, and across all four corners of the country. In partnership with the charitable FAW Trust, investment in the latest artificial surfaces now sees many FA Wales Premier League matches played on high quality surfaces all year round, irrespective of the weather. And those same surfaces support youth teams, development centres, women’s football, and disability football programmes throughout the rest of the week. It’s a commitment to the game that has seen participation rates increasing, with over 210,000 (8% of the population) adults regularly playing football or futsal according to the latest figures. Just by way of comparison, this is nearly three times the participation rate for rugby union in Wales. Given that the last published survey was in 2014, one suspects that the numbers may have increased further in the last two years.

Whilst the current World Cup qualifying campaign has not yet reached the heights attained during the Euros, Wales remain unbeaten after four matches and very much in contention in a group where everybody is taking points off everybody else so far. The two matches against the Republic of Ireland look likely to be crucial in determining both nation’s fate in the race for Russia. The game in Dublin in March will be a cracker.