Gehry pavilion and the Serpentine Gallery

If you happen to be within striking distance of the centrally westerly bit of London, I can recommend a visit to this year’s summer pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery.

As you probably know, it’s designed by Frank Gehry.  Rather shamefully, this brings the total number of Gehry buildings in Britain to two.  The other is Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, which also features exuberant use of wood, and a scale that lifts the spirits without being imposing.

Inside the pavilion is plenty of staged seating, being used (I imagine) exactly as intended – for sitting, chatting, waiting for friends or just enjoying the space.  When the sun shines, the roof panels (all different as far as I could tell) play interesting shadows on the floor.

And the evenings bring a series of talks, discussions, screenings and live performances.

Just to make this a public space that can hold its head up with the best in Europe, there’s also an excellent kiosk (run by Gail’s Bread) with some fabulous filled rolls and good coffee.

The Gallery – Richard Prince: Continuation

The show in the Serpentine Gallery next door is also worth a mention.  Richard Prince is known for his reworkings of existing artefacts, often of classic Americana, from the illustrations adorning pulp novels – Dude Ranch Nurse, anyone? –  to cowboy imagery and casts of car hoods.

Some are fairly straight translations, while his de Kooning series portrays more disturbing, distended figures, with porn-derived genitalia.

The standout for me in this eclectic selection was his monumental “joke” paintings.  At a distance, they portray a gag pulled from a stand-up routine or magazine  But the fine working that becomes visible at close inspection shows Prince to be not just a clever conceptual magpie, but a fine craftsman too.

Richard Prince: Continuation er, continues until 7 September.

The Park

And finally a word for the overall setting of the Serpentine Gallery and its pavilion – Kensington Gardens and next-door Hyde Park.

Kensington Gardens

On a sunny day, there are fewer nicer places to be than an urban park, with its opportunities for people-watching:

Hyde Park people

stealing a little solitude:

or showing off:


Festival equipment – tents

A friend of mine will be attending her first music festival soon.  As I go to at least two festivals every year, and have been camping all my life, she asked me to advise her what gear to buy.  I thought it might be worth blogging about.

This post talks about tents.  I’ll cover bedding in the next, general gear after that. 

I’ll finish with some stuff that you might like to consider to make things more comfortable/affordable. That means, enabling to you avoid at least some festival-priced drinks and food.

You know what I mean by festival-priced.  Rip-off.

Golden rule

My general rule, as with everything in life, is to buy the best gear you can afford.  You may be able to buy good gear cheap, but that’s very different from buying cheap gear.  You’ll thank me when you’re in the middle of the sort of storm that made Glastonbury 2005 famous.


I’ll start with some don’ts:

Don’t get a tent that is advertised as “ideal for festivals” (unless it meets all the guidelines I give here).  All too often, “ideal for festivals” translates as “they’ll be too drunk to worry about being soaked to the skin.”

Talking of skin, don’t get a tent that has just a single skin. That’s not a  tent, it’s a Wendy house.

Finally, don’t buy a tent as part of a package with sleeping bags and other gear. There are usually lots of compromises.  It’s much better to pick the item in each category that really suits your needs.

What sort?

You’ll almost certainly be getting a dome tent, which is supported by two or three long bendy poles.  There are lots of different designs, but they all perform the same basic function. It should have a sewn-in groundsheet and consist of an outer tent (or flysheet) and an inner tent.

The alternative is a pop-up tent.  These are quite seductive, and may be just the thing for you.  Details later in this post, but the general principles are the same.

The tent will be held to the ground with metal pegs, some attached to the tent itself and some via cords called guy ropes – ideal for tripping over at the end of the evening.

Zips will be involved to get in and out of the thing.

How many people?

My recommended tent-to-person ratio for friends is one person per two man tent. Anti-social, I know, but you really only want to share a tent with someone you’re comfortable in close physical contact with.

If you’re so loved-up that you are definitely going to share, then consider getting one described as a three-person tent – manufacturers are notoriously optimistic about the minimalist midgets they expect to be using their gear.

Or if it is a two-person model, then at least make sure it has a nice big porch, where you can put wet and/or muddy gear.  Otherwise you’ll have to be very disciplined about packing yucky things into plastic bags to keep your bedding clean.  It can take a lot of discipline

And going to a festival isn’t really about being disciplined, is it?

How much?

If you think you might go camping over a period of many years, and certainly if it’s likely to be on the hills at any time, then I’d recommend thinking of spending around £100 or more for a two-person tent.


Well, the Vaude Space II that I bought twelve years ago for £150 (and that was worth a lot then, ee lad…) is still going strong and has withstood gales and storms (including Glasto ’05), with me inside warm and snug – and yes, I admit – smug too.  I guarantee that over that period I’d have gone through four “suitable for festival” excrescences – and been much less comfortable the whole time.

As well as Vaude, I’ve been impressed by gear by Blacks, Khyam, Robens and Vango (this isn’t an exclusive list).  There are also some high end manufacturers such as Jack Wolfskin and Terra Nova.  If you can afford their gear, great, but it’s really made for mountain use/very light weight etc.

If that sort of money is out of the question, there are lots of tents on the market at around £40 – £50 that should still do a reasonable job.  In fact, I’ve just bought one.

How waterproof

One important technical point is the hydrostatic head figure.  This basically tells you how waterproof the material is.  You really want 2000mm or more.  Look for this figure in the specification. It they don’t list it, don’t buy it.

Of course, that’s only how waterproof the fabric is.  The quality of manufacture will determine how waterproof the actual tent is in practice.

Try it out first

If at all possible, go to a shop where the tent can be set up for you.  If you’re planning to share it with another person, take them too.  Each equip yourself with a big holdall or rucksack.  People and luggage all get inside the tent, zip it up and then try to take off your jumper.

You’ll soon get an idea if the tent’s big enough.

If that sort of road test isn’t possible, then look at the dimensions in the specifications and try to recreate them somehow in the comfort of your own airing cupboard.

Want me to tell you what to get?

If you’re not sure about wanting a tent for the next two decades, or you’re confused by the huge range of models on offer, let me make one specific recommendation.

I recently bought one of my several sons (all of whom are festival veterans) a pop-up tent, as he was going on a three week drama camp.  It’s only had one outing so far, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen.  It’s a Quecha 2 Seconds XL II (£49.99).

I got the XL – the extra large one – as it will usually be shared by two teenagers. They’ve already given it an outing at Camp Bestival and it was great.  But one person should be comfortable in the smaller two-person versions, which are porchless.

Full details of the whole range at the Quechua site, which also plays birdsong as you browse.

Up and Down

The joke about these tents is that they go up in two seconds, but take two hours to fold away.  It’s true that there’s a knack to it, but I’ve folded ours away and into its bag in less than a minute.  Here’s proof that it can be done (that’s not me in the video, by the way):

The advantages for festival use, when you really want to be installed and off to the bar or the main stage, are obvious.  And when you’re feeling a little bit jaded at the end of the event, packing away in the time it takes others to pull their guy ropes out will be heavenly.

Frustratingly, Quechua tents are only available at Decathlon stores. If there isn’t a store convenient for you, it doesn’t seem like you can buy them online.  Other manufacturers such as Gellert have jumped on the pop-up bandwagon. You might find their tents easier to get hold of but I can’t speak for the quality.

The only drawback I can see with the Quechua tents is that, rather than the traditional cylinder, they pack away into a disk-shaped bag, .

This makes it harder for them to attach to a rucksack, and the all-in-one construction means you can’t split the weight between two people.

But if you’re festivalling rather than mountain walking, I can’t see that being a problem.

Shakedown camp

Whatever tent you buy, don’t let the festival be the first time you put it up or sleep in it.  Have a practice camp in a garden or nearby campsite, and give yourself plenty of time and daylight to become acquainted with the poles and ropes.

An insult to coffee and to me

I had a meal last night, with my wife and youngest son, in a gastropub near Stratford-upon-Avon.  Nice meal, friendly staff, pleasant place, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth – in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

To finish, I asked if they could do me a decaff double espresso.  I love the taste of strong coffee, but cut caffeine out a few years ago to help cure an insomnia problem, so decaff is my default mode nowadays.

The waitress took the order without remark and soon re-appeared with a demi-tasse cup containing a slightly sludgy-looking brown liquid.  I took it outside to the garden to enjoy with the last dregs of the sunset.

One sip told me this coffee had never seen the inside of an espresso machine.  They had just made a very strong decaff instant.  That perfect end to the meal was snatched away in a moment.  (I know I’m being precious here, and that there are far more important things in the world, but this was their business and they’d let a customer down).

I challenged them, and although a little evasive at first, they admitted what I knew already:  “We were just trying to make you happy, sir.

I’d have been happy if they’d served what I’d asked for.

But given that they didn’t have decaff ground coffee, I’d have much preferred to be treated like a grown-up and told that.  I’d rather have had no coffee than a poor substitute – I often do, as a lot of restaurants still don’t stock it. So I’d have been OK about it.

But they assumed I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between espresso and instant and thought they could get away with it. So now I feel insulted.

If they had a dish with Parma ham on the menu but had run out, would they have tried to get away with a bit of ordinary cooked ham instead?  It doesn’t show much respect for the people who pay their wages.

And we all know how many places there are to eat in the world.  I’m very unlikely ever to go back there now.

What a shame.

Starter jobs for would-be drama writers

This article was originally commissioned by 4Talent as part of their “How to get ahead in” series.

It’s mainly about the sort of jobs that people interested in writing (radio) drama might get as a step on the way. But it also gives an insight into the odd route that has brought me to being a writer on the world’s finest – well, certainly longest running – radio drama series.

As the shoulder-padded 80s turned into the unstructured 90s, I was working as a presentation and media trainer.  After a day of being nasty on-camera to a group of senior managers in the breakfast cereal business – and teaching them how to fight back – one of them asked for a private word.

He wanted my advice about a senior public relations post they were thinking of creating.  I did my best to help, but in the end he had to reveal his true purpose – he was sounding me out for the job.  Inwardly I kicked myself for not latching on to his real agenda.  Not the level of sensitivity they’d expect from a savvy PR operator.  But I promised myself that if I was ever in the same situation again, I wouldn’t be so slow.

Two years later, my conversation with Mr Oaty Puffs (some names have been changed) returned in a blaze of neon, accompanied by screaming klaxons and flashing arrows.

Archers producer

By now, I was a BBC press officer, promoting, among other things, BBC Radio 4’s long-running radio drama serial The Archers.  And I was being told that The Archers had a short-notice vacancy for a producer.  I wasn’t actually being sounded out for the job, but I didn’t let that stop me.

Thanks to the amazing open-mindedness of the managers involved, I was given the temporary job.  A few months later I applied for the post proper.  And got it.  I served eleven years as a producer (later senior producer) and five years ago became an Archers scriptwriter.

So, what was my starter job that got me on the ladder to scriptwriting?  None of the ones I’ve mentioned so far.  Before the training company I’d worked for an ad agency – but that wasn’t it.  I’d actually done my first scriptwriting when I was an officer in the RAF, for a video presentation used in recruiting, and later writing and directing comedy and panto for station shows.

So it was that then?  Actually, no.

My starter job

The starter job for my career as a writer was the very first job I did, at the age of 13:  a paper round.  In fact every single job I’ve done (and I’ve done plenty) contributes to my writing.

As a drama writer, you have to create character, settings, plot.  You have to tell your story through the technical constraints and possibilities of the medium.  And in radio especially, dialogue is your main tool.

Many would-be writers are told:  write what you know.  It follows that the more you know, the more you can write.  The more people you’ve come into contact with, the more varied the settings, then the more you have that you can draw on.

And if you want your characters to talk like real people, you’d better start listening to real people, from as many different backgrounds as possible.

Characters I’ve met

Because of the many years it took me to find my writing niche, I’ve worked with hundreds of characters, some ordinary, some more colourful. A rapacious gay milkman. The puffed-up bank manager (yes, I worked in a bank), who told me I ‘wasn’t officer material’ – just before I became an RAF officer.  An ultra-competitive angling maniac.  The driven, alcohol-fuelled, two-Jags socialist (not that one).

I’ve worked in a greasy, macho garage, a dreary supermarket, a rough estate pub.  I’ve communed with senior civil servants and committees of accountants.  As a semi-pro DJ and drummer I’ve been backstage in ratty clubs, fancy hotels and posh marquees on country house lawns.

And every one of those experiences makes me a better writer.

In the business

Of course, there are jobs ‘in the business’ that can help.  Any way you can get near the actual production process should educate you about the technical side of storytelling.  One fellow Archers writer started as a production secretary on the programme.  Another did a couple of weeks’ work experience.  Script editor jobs are great for the nuts and bolts of story creation and what will and won’t work.

Two Archers writers are former actors.  Acting and writing can be a good combination.  Most actors, sadly, have plenty of spare time to work on scripts.  But I’d only recommend entering that bruising profession if you want to act as much as you want to write.

Just don’t be in too much of a hurry to get a job ‘in the media’.  It can be great fun, but it’s very much its own little world.

Go and discover other worlds first.

Stop Tesco in Stirchley – please write an urgent letter

The Another Stirchley campaign has asked the everyone opposed to Tesco’s plans to build a superstore in Stirchley write a letter of objection – but it has to be done very quickly.

At their recent public meeting, they found that a lot of the local residents assumed that because Birmingham City Council is minded to approve the application, that it was definitely going to go ahead.  

That’s not so!  

The council has referred the application to the Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She will then decide to call in the application for further inspection, or allow the council to approve it.  If she doesn’t call it in then Tesco will go ahead. She will take this decision in the next week or so.

As this is the last chance to stop Tesco, they  are asking for letters to be sent to Hazel Blears, with a copy to the local MP,  Lynne Jones MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA (or email her at )

Here’s a draft letter.  Use it, or write your own – just send one!  Many thanks.




Rt Hon Hazel Blears,
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government,
Eland House,
Bressenden Place,

Dear Ms Blears,

Application S/0372707/OUT (Renewal of application S/0175202/OUT)
Proposed Tesco superstore on land at Hazelwell/Pershore/Hunts Road,
Stirchley, Birmingham

I am writing to object to the proposed development of a Tesco
superstore in Stirchley, Birmingham. I believe the city council have overlooked, ignored or openly contradicted a plethora of planning policies. You are now in receipt of the application. I would ask that you call it in.

  • Planning Policy Statement 6 asks that the impact of the proposed development will not be too great. Tesco wish to provide 567 parking spaces. This is considerably more than would be required for local provision and implies drawing custom away from surrounding shopping centres. At the moment nearby Cotteridge and Bournville have a rich selection of local, independent shops in this sector. The proposed superstore would put them in extreme jeopardy.    

  • PPS6 asks that the size of the development be appropriate. The proposed development is opposite a 120,000 square foot Co-op supermarket. The addition of another 150,000 square feet of supermarket space is far beyond what is appropriate or necessary. It should be noted that supermarkets are also available in nearby Cotteridge, Kings Heath and Selly Oak.    

  • PPS6 states that location should be acceptable. The site is on the Pershore Road, an already highly congested arterial route. As previously stated the development depends upon drawing in custom from outside the area. Tesco’s Arup report estimate an increase in traffic volume of 30% on some roads. The added pressure on the surrounding road network will become intolerable.    

  • PPS6 also states that there must be proven need for the development, if outside the town centre. It has been an area of contention as to whether the site sits within the town centre. What isn’t in contention is that there is little need for a large supermarket opposite a large supermarket.

The decision of Birmingham City Council to put this application forward for approval also contravenes their own development brief of 2002 which states that the development be ‘appropriate to the role of the centre and not of a scale to threaten the role of other centres in this sector in Birmingham’.

It also neglects Policy T1 of the Regional Spatial Strategy ( 2008 )
which states that developments must reduce the need for travel, tackle congestion and protect the environment. In the Local Area Agreement the council commit to growing small businesses, reducing CO2 emissions and tackling congestion. The proposed development contravenes all of these policy aims

It is true that Stirchley is in decline and needs regeneration. However
this decline is largely due to the huge level of traffic passing down the narrow high street. The development would only exacerbate this underlying problem. In the meantime the pressure put on the surrounding shopping centre would spread the decline up into Cotteridge and beyond.

If surrounding shops close it will mean more travel and less choice.
This looks even more dubious in light of the white paper on sustainability.

I believe that the people of Stirchley have been very poorly served by
Birmingham City Council’s planning committee. I hope you agree that the application needs further inspection and I would urge you to call it in.

Yours sincerely,


The man who taught me to DJ

I was reading an article in yesterday’s Guardian about makers of “How To” videos who have a big following on YouTube, and a name jumped out at me.

When I started getting interested in DJ-ing about ten years ago, I could find very little guidance on the web about the practical skills involved.  But I eventually found one fount of knowledge, on the site of a Scottish film-editor-by-day-DJ-by-night who went under the name of DJ Recess.

I printed out dozens of pages of advice.  They were my bible as I practised the new (to me) skills of beat matching and mixing. And then, as I started to play professionally, I forgot all about him, because that’s the sort of ungrateful guy I am.

Well, he still has his site.  It looks a bit fancier and it’s garlanded with videos now, which you can also see on his YouTube channel.

And he’s written a book: DJ-ing For Dummies, which was published last year and has an Amazon sales rank of 6,374.  I’m pleased to see that all the free effort he put in to helping people like me had some financial payback for him.

And I’ve discovered his real name:  John Steventon.  So let me take this opportunity to say: thanks, John.

DJ Recess website

DJ Recess YouTube channel

How to put people off contemporary art

Inspired by Nicky Getgood’s excellent Digbeth Is Good blog, I looked up the web page for the current exhibit by the Mexican collective Tercerunquinto at Ikon East.


Stuart Whipps
photo: Stuart Whipps


The exhibit looks great, but oh, how my heart sank as I read the accompanying blurb.

Apparently “the inscription of language onto buildings particularly corresponds with Tercerunquinto’s established interest in institutional self-definition through architectonic modes”.

I’m sorry?

“institutional self-definition through architectonic modes”

Repeating it doesn’t make the meaning any clearer, does it?  I have no idea what institutional self-definition means, and I had to look up the work “architectonic”.  Pertaining to architecture, it seems.  Did someone else have dibs on the work “architectural”, so the Ikon people couldn’t use it?

From the pic, this exhibit is bold and accessible. I could see it appealing to a wide range of people; maybe some who wouldn’t normally sample contemporary art.

But compare it with the words that someone has chosen to drape over it like an obscurantist shroud.

What on earth does the person who wrote this nonsense imagine its effect will be?  It doesn’t interpret the work; it clouds it.  I can’t imagine that many people would be more likely to visit Ikon East having read it – apart from a small group of institutional self-definition enthusiasts, that is.

I like contemporary art.  I’ve recently visited the Psycho Buildings exhibtion at the Hayward Gallery, and the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design end of year show.  I’ve even commissioned a piece, in a very small way.

But I long ago learned to ignore the pseudo-academic verbiage that accompanies contemporary art.  Let the work speak to you directly.  You decide what it means, if it means anything, and you decide how you’re going to react to it.

After all, if you wanted an interpreter, wouldn’t you want one who speaks English?

Stop Tesco in Stirchley campaign

Another Stirchley is Possible is a local campaign opposing Tesco’s plan to build a superstore in Stirchley. 

The campaigners, who aim to promote real, locally based regeneration for the area, are holding a public consultation:

Stirchley Community Centre
Saturday 12 July
10.00 – 14.00

to ask residents what developments they’d like to see in their neighbourhood.

They say:

“There are many reasons why we think that another Superstore in Stirchley is not needed:

  • Massive increase in traffic in already jammed Pershore Rd
  • Tesco’s buying power (4th largest retailer in the world) means it will force all other local retailers out of business
  • We want a Stirchley which will attract visitors and people to live here, not drive in, shop and drive out.”

They don’t appear to have a website (hey guys, set up a blog!) [Edited:  they have:]

Another Stirchley is Possible


This is what Friends of The Earth say about the Tesco scheme.

And here is some detailed planning stuff from Tescopoly.