Monthly Archives: October 2006

Burn Out: A Berkeley Home Goes up in Flames [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, June 24, 2006

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On Sunday October 20 1991, Frances Dinkelspiel and her husband Gary Wayne, who live in the Bay Area of California, decided to take his parents, who were visiting from New Jersey, to brunch in San Francisco. Their roommate, Brad Rosen, was having a lazy morning. He had been partying the night before and planned to go surfing later in the day. It was hot and windy as they drove over the Bay Bridge to the city and made for Zuni Café on Market Street. A couple of hours later they stepped out onto the pavement and glanced over towards the Oakland Hills where they lived. “There was a huge vertical column of smoke rising from the hills,” says Frances. “At that moment we knew we were in trouble.”

They drove back towards home but could only go so far as all the streets leading up into the hills had been closed off. Gary begged a bicycle from a friend who lived nearby and set off to find out what he could. He didn’t get far. A group of firefighters stopped him at the end of his street and asked him where he thought he was going. They told him it was so hot they themselves had to leave. Gary abandoned the bike and hiked to the summit of nearby Claremont Canyon from where he could see the fire cutting a devastating path across the hills. “Gary called me late in the afternoon,” says Frances. “He said he had watched our house burn down. He was crying and Gary hardly ever cries.”

The Oakland Fire, one of the largest and most costly in US history, engulfed 2.5 square miles of the East Bay Hills. Twenty five people died, many of them trapped in their cars trying to flee, caught up in the traffic jams that formed on the hill’s narrow, winding streets. More than 150 people were injured and at least 3,000 homes were destroyed, leaving some 5,000 people homeless.

Although the exact cause has not been established, a suspicious fire had broken out the previous day in the scrub brush of nearby Wildcat Canyon. Firefighters said they had successfully extinguished the 5-acre blaze. Whether embers from that fire were reignited by dry winds is unclear. Certainly the velocity of the Diablo winds, coupled with temperatures well into the 90s — coming in the wake of five successive years of drought — ensured the rapid spread of the firestorm the next day. At one point a home was igniting every 11 seconds and 790 structures were consumed within a single hour. Efforts to contain the blaze were severely hampered by the steep terrain and twisting, switchback roads. There was a lack of water as the fire took out the electricity needed for the pumps. The emergency services also had difficulty communicating: channels were overloaded and the hills interfered with radio signals.

Frances and Gary lost everything in the fire, including their cat whom they searched for tirelessly in the days after the fire. Brad, their roommate, had left the house that morning with his surfboard, unaware of the impending catastrophe. As he left, the neighbours were packing their car to leave. Unlike Brad, they had heard the advice to evacuate.

Recovering from such a trauma is a slow process. Frances and Gary had only lived in the modern, four-bedroomed house for eight months after moving to the West Coast from New York. Originally from San Francisco, Frances had favoured living in the city but they had both been drawn to the eucalyptus-scented air and stunning views offered by the East Bay hills. While the house itself didn’t hold many memories, some of its contents inevitably did. Frances says one of the most difficult things to lose was a box of letters and photographs relating to her father who died when she was 16.

The couple were allowed to go to the site of their home three days after the fire. “Everything was grey as there was ash everywhere as well as huge clumps of metal, and lone chimney stacks. There was an acrid, chemical smell,” she says. The fact that so many people were affected helped. “Recovery is very different if you suffer and grieve as a community,” says Frances. She remembers how generous people were and the support groups that sprang up to deal with practical as well as emotional issues. Many of the local merchants offered discounts to fire victims.

But Frances found it hard to begin replacing things. And she didn’t feel like nesting for the baby on the way. “I didn’t prepare anything until a week or so before Charlotte was born,” she says. “I think in that way the shock was subconscious.”

Like most of those who lost their homes, the couple decided to rebuild. There was a financial incentive, but also a refusal to be defeated. “Gary was angry and, although we had discussed living elsewhere, this made him dig his heels in.” The couple had kept their insurance up to date and were able to claim substantial compensation for both the house and its contents. The quality of the new house they designed and built reflects this. Others were less fortunate, and spent years wading through red tape and even taking insurance companies to court to make claims.

The total value of the properties lost that day is estimated to exceed $2 billion. One year to the day after the fire, Frances and Gary broke ground to build their new home. Following revised building codes they have built the house from stucco, there are sprinklers in every room and fire-resistant planting in the garden. They keep negatives of treasured photographs in a bank vault and a back-up of the manuscript of the book Frances is writing is filed online. But the anxiety never really goes away. “Every time the weather turns hot and windy, I load up the car and get ready to leave,” she says.

Speaking Volumes: Ralph Steadman [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times Magazine, April 8th, 2004

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“Fiction should be banned. It’s sanctioned lying,” says artist Ralph Steadman as he guides me through his studio, a rambling outbuilding adjacent to his Georgian house in Kent. Evidence of his phenomenal creative output is everywhere: large-scale illustrations bearing his trademark ghoulish colours and ink-blots are piled high like millefeuilles, scattered across the floor and stashed in portfolios awaiting dispatch.

There are Dadaesque bottle sculptures, outsize photographs – even a shrine to Picasso. And there are books. For, in spite of his declared aversion to contemporary fiction, Steadman loves books. “I read in short bursts,” he says, “mostly reference books.” A shelf of leather-bound volumes on wine and anatomy provides particular inspiration. “I plunder these for their 19th-century wisdom and use it blatantly as the latest thinking.”

He pulls out An Atlas of Human Anatomy by Carl Toldt. “I bought this in Marin County where I ended up having a drink with Harrison Ford. I’m fascinated by drawings of the human body. I love the intensity of the observation in this book. It was a different mindset then – we’re gadflies now and don’t have long attention spans.” A book on cattle diseases is also well-thumbed.

As a child Steadman was more interested in making things than reading – model aeroplanes were a favourite. One of his first book finds was three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, on the bargain table at a shop in Rhyl, north Wales. This led eventually to I, Leonardo, his scatological interpretation of key da Vinci moments – the painting of “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” and his experiments with flight.

The Water Babies, illustrated by Heath Robinson, also made an early impression. “It started me thinking about illustration. I don’t think it should ever be secondary.” This view informed his approach to illustrating a 1968 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. There is an unspoken understanding that writers are superior to artists, he says. “I’m afraid I take an unserious approach to literature. There are so many egos. Look at the Booker Prize: it’s a shameless display of ego. I used to think anyone who was in the arts was bound to be nice, but they’re not.”

Some of Steadman’s spleen is perhaps influenced by a book on his bedside table, The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner. “It’s fantastic. It’s about how egocentric we are and how we all have our own best interests at heart,” he says. “Such awareness was quite revolutionary in 1844.”

One senses this disdain for writers is half-hearted, however. He has always moved in literary circles. “I used to go to Bernard Stone’s bookshop in Kensington. I did my signings there… I met all the poets: Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs. It was a real watering hole – or rather a wine hole.” His author friends include Will Self. “Dear old Will. He’s trying to befuddle me… He takes me down avenues I don’t wish to go down – verbal avenues. He has a tendency to invent words that are not on the map. He does it to provoke. He does try one’s concentration.”

Steadman’s concentration does not waver with regard to his work, however, or to his recent support for the refurbishment of London’s Hackney Empire theatre. He is also finishing his second book on wine, Untrodden Grapes. “I think I am coming around for the second or even the third time.”

WHAT’S ON THE SHELF

Foundations of Modern Art by Amedee Ozenfant “It’s about connections – between tribalism, music, modern art… It’s a dipper. I look in and read something quite marvellous that can affect me for the whole day.”

You Can’t Get to East Kilbride from Here: Poems 1968-2003 by Gordon Kerr “He’s the greatest living poet.”

Who’s Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers “He sends me his manuscripts – it’s like an Olympic game trying to keep them from sliding off your knees. He played God in this book and killed off the wife. I argued with him about that. Why arbitrarily dismiss this wonderful lady?”

Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer trs. by Belfort Bax and Bailey Saunders “I can’t let philosophy go by without having a look at it. I read it now and then for the intellectual exercise.”

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde” He wrote it in prison. It’s about his abject contrition for what he had done. His spirit had been broken. It’s the idea that such a sparkling mind can be driven so low.”

Speaking Volumes: Julie Myerson [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times Magazine: April 30th, 2004

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Julie Myerson admits to occasionally suffering from book fatigue. As a novelist, journalist and critic – and a regular on Newsnight Review – the books tend to pile up by her bedside. “I sometimes ignore them and read Vogue instead,” she says. “I have a complete weakness for glossy magazines.”

Usually, though, she devours books – and not only for her work. She is currently judging the Betty Trask Award for a first novel and is enthused about Louise Dean’s Becoming Strangers: “It’s fantastic. I’m as excited to discover a book like this as to read the latest Booker Prize-winner.”

When she was planning her own fictional debut, Sleepwalking, Myerson made a point of only reading first novels. “I didn’t want to read writers who had ‘moved on’.

I read Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky and it was so good that I felt very competitive.” The two are now good friends and researched and wrote their fifth novels at the same time – both are set in Suffolk where they each have second homes.

Growing up in Nottingham, Myerson was the first in her family not to leave school at 16. She distinctly remembers enjoying the Janet and John books.

“I saw one in a shop the other day and my tummy flipped over. I remember loving those three or four words each on a page in big black letters.”

As a teenager, Myerson would visit her local library every week and take out six books. She would read them all and return for six more.

One in particular left an impression. “It was called The Victorian Photograph I think, and it was scary, very creepy. I realised later that it had influenced my writing.”

Myerson’s latest novel, Something Might Happen, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, deals with a gruesome murder in a sleepy seaside town and its effect on two families.

Myerson favours contemporary fiction, and American authors take precedence. She cites John Updike, Paul Auster and Philip Roth as particular favourites – “such complex books, but I like books that I don’t fully understand.

It goes with me being impatient. I don’t like knowing what’s coming. That’s probably why I try to write surprises”.

Neither does she have much time for contemporary British women writers. She won’t name names but is disdainful of “all those self-absorbed novels that explore the ‘nothing pasts’ of their characters.

I want a proper plot”. She concedes, however, that when she started writing she took exactly the same approach.

If she had the time, Myerson would read more non-fiction. “I would read biographies of important people from the past 100 years.”

With her latest book Myerson has herself tackled non- fiction and, in effect, written a biography: the biography of her house.

Home: the Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in our House delves into the lives of all the inhabitants of her London home.

Her months of research at family record offices and local council archives uncovered abandoned children, royal servants and bigamous marriages.

It also revealed that the first owner of her house was a writer and journalist, like Myerson, with three children who were exactly the same age as Myerson’s children when she made the discovery.

A somewhat eerie revelation that one senses would be deeply satisfying to this lover of surprises.

WHAT’S ON THE SHELF

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

“This is haunting and wonderful. He writes about normal, middle-class Japanese people and about tragedy and loss, but with humour. There is a lot of ambiguity, which I like.”

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

“I would give anything to have written a book like this.”

Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide: by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope

“This kept me from going into therapy when I had three young children and was constantly anxious, scared of flying and a hypochondriac. It helped me to control my powerful imagination.”

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

“I re-read this recently thinking it wouldn’t stand up. But it does. It changed my life as a teenager – confirming every suspicion about falling in love and romance. It perplexes me more now as an adult.”

Puritan Pleasure: Palazzo Ducale, Venice [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times, January 8th, 2005

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Venice has many magical qualities, but its tendency to draw crowds isn’t one of them. So it is smugly satisfying to discover a way to avoid them entirely in the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), one of La Serenissima’s most popular attractions.

The “Secret Itinerary” is a private tour through parts of the palace that are not usually open to the public. A phone call at least a week in advance secures you a very special 90 minutes.

Having ascended the ornate, gilded steps of Scala d’Oro with the heaving masses, our guide unlocked a small, plain door and we left the hordes behind, slipping into a warren of tiny, wood-panelled offices where the real, day-to-day business of this, the nerve centre of the Venetian empire, took place.

The warren of tiny rooms is little changed from when the city’s clerks worked there in the 1790s – there are simple candle-sconces on the walls and scrubbed desks for the mountains of paperwork.

Up some narrow steps we came to the elegant chancellery, lined with map cupboards for storing treaties. Up again are the piombi, prison cells reserved for the more notorious criminals (petty offenders were kept on the ground floor). In his memoirs, Casanova tells of how he made a daring escape from here – stopping for a morning espresso at Caffe Florian before making his getaway by gondola.

We entered the torture chamber, where a single, ominous rope hangs from the rafters. Here, suspects were suspended by their wrists and questioned by the three “judges of the night”. But, the best is saved for last: right up under the eaves is the underside of a huge “floating” ceiling belonging to one of the state rooms below. Built by the Arsenale’s shipwrights in 1577, its muddle of criss-crossing beams is a formidable feat of engineering.

Emerging back into the public rooms we were invited to continue visiting the palace independently. We resisted. Somehow it would have felt too ordinary.

The “Secret Itinerary” costs Euros 315 per person, 00 39 041 520 9070.

Puritan Pleasure: Open houses [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times, April 1st, 2006

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If, like me, you relish taking post-prandial strolls around your neighbourhood purely so you can peer into people’s front rooms before they have shut the curtains for the night, the appeal of one of the US’s most popular Sunday pastimes will be obvious.

Open-housing is about more than keeping an eye on the property market. It provides a sheen of respectability to what is little more than glorified snooping. It’s also free and can be enjoyed by all ages.

It works this way: over coffee on Sunday morning you peruse the Open Houses pages of your local paper and map out your day. All the houses for sale are open from 2pm to 4.30pm, so other plans need to be scheduled accordingly. Many of the listings include a line- drawing of the home in question – vulgar photography is reserved for houses of the lower order.

There are different types of pleasures to be had from prying into other people’s homes. There is the bittersweet gratification of finding that the multimillion-dollar, architect-designed show stopper with its wrap-around deck and outdoor hot tub is the stuff of your dreams; and there is smug superiority, as in “I can’t believe someone with such obvious wealth has such appalling taste.”

In the part of California where I indulge this hobby the architectural styles range from modernist hill houses with great views of San Francisco, to delightful, shingled craftsman homes with their dark panelling and built-in cabinetry.

There is also fun to be had in discovering what the professional “home stagers” have been up to. Their presence is obvious in any house in the $2m-plus bracket in the Bay Area – spot the potted succulents on the porch, the tray of wine and (plastic) nibbles and the covetable linen on the plumped-up beds – I have even seen a guitarist strumming in a rose garden as the hordes poke their collective nose into the guest cottage.

What can I say? Legitimate voyeurism: it beats snoozing with the Sunday supplements.

Donald Gunn: A Need to Measure Success [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 11, 2004

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Never underestimate the importance of awards to the advertising industry. Anecdotes abound of the lengths agencies will go to to secure a prize. One French network promised each of its creative directors a share in a €1.5m ($1.77m) bounty if their work made it into one league table, and a Brazilian agency chief ordered his creative team to come in at the weekend “so that they could do the ads for Cannes”.

In some quarters there is a cynical belief that certain campaigns are created with a view to winning awards for agencies rather than driving sales for clients, or that competition juries favour big-budget and cutting-edge campaigns with which mainstream viewers are rarely familiar. None of which will, of course, prevent the industry’s creative tribes from descending on Cannes next month for the Golden Lion advertising awards festival, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Donald Gunn knows more than most about awards. Once dubbed “the man with the best job in advertising”, Mr Gunn, who spent three decades at Leo Burnett, has latterly dedicated his career to analysing creativity and tracking the best-regarded advertising and the agencies or countries which produce it. The results appear every November in the Gunn Report, probably the most respected, and certainly the best-read, measure of excellence in an industry obsessed by rankings.

So, to what does he attribute this compulsion to be honoured? “In every field there is an appetite to be the best and for that to be celebrated,” he says. He concedes that, compared with other creative industries such as music or design, advertising has a disproportionate number of awards. But their role in powering the business is fundamental, he says.

For agencies, awards create a virtuous circle: they establish reputation, attract talent and bring in new business. Even so, Mr Gunn believes they should be seen only as the icing on the cake. “Agencies should set out to create the best advertising for their clients. Winning an award is a bonus.”

The benefits may not be so obvious for advertisers. “Awards are not a priority for advertisers, but they do want the best, most original advertising, so an award provides reassurance: they are getting good work and they have good people at their agency.”

Mr Gunn has also examined the relationship between creativity and effec tiveness and has proved to his satisfaction that award-winning advertising increases market share. A study of 400 of the most-awarded campaigns in the world between 1992 and 1995 found that 86.5 per cent of the ads were associated with market success. In other words, ads with award-winning qualities were two and a half times more likely to achieve, or surpass, clients’ objectives. Leo Burnett reprised Mr Gunn’s study in 2002 and unveiled similar results: four out of five award-winning campaigns achieved positive market results for clients.

Mr Gunn’s insights stem from his experience as an agency creative chief and from the phenomenal databank that forms the backbone of the Gunn Report, launched in 1999.

While at Leo Burnett, Mr Gunn founded two institutions that still set creative benchmarks today: the Great Commercials Library, started in 1986, and the Global Product Committee. The latter involves a commitment that many agencies would find daunting: every three months, 20 of Leo Burnett’s top creative staff from around the world meet for a week to view the entire network’s output. Ads are scored and feedback is given.

To compile his report, Mr Gunn combines the winner lists from 52 national, regional and global award schemes (32 for television, 20 for print). But, just like Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, he has never revealed which ones they are. He says this is to avoid harming the contests that are not included (though it also makes it impossible for agencies to challenge the rankings). After much data-crunching, the league tables emerge – including top commercials, top agencies, top production companies and top countries – as well as a Showreel of the Year featuring the 100 most-awarded campaigns in the world.

Given Mr Gunn’s influence in the industry, one wonders if his rankings have ever been questioned, or if he has been offered incentives to skew results. “Much to my amazement nobody has ever seriously challenged the tables,” he says, “although there have been the usual queries about methodology”. A US network once hired a headhunter to find out which awards had made it into the report; it failed.

“There was a theory at one point that if you threw money at the awards and entered the maximum number of shows, you would come out well,” he says. “In fact, the agencies that spend the most are often those who are entering mediocre work.”

He has his own view about what makes an award-winning ad. He believes an agency’s shared vision and passion for good work – as well as a willingness to take risks – are more important than incentives (such as bonuses), or even strong leadership.

He has identified 12 “master-formats” which, he says, are a good starting point for delivering a selling idea in an engaging way: “Sitting down with a blank sheet to create an ad can be a lonely, scary process.” Approaches such as the testimonial or the celebrity endorsement can dramatise a proposition. Mr Gunn will flesh out his master-formats concept at a presentation in Cannes this year.

Mr Gunn has also spotted a welcome rise in creative standards across the world. “Three years ago, there were 22 markets represented in the 100 best commercials reel. Last year there were 28. Countries such as Canada, Mexico and India are moving up,” he says. Australia, he notes, has regressed since its 1980s heyday, while China has improved as Hong Kong talent has moved into Shanghai and Beijing.

This year, Mr Gunn is handing on the bulk of the work involved in compiling the report to his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. But, before then, he must complete possibly his most ambitious project to date: an online library of award-winning advertising he has tracked since 1962. “It will deliberately be the smallest online commercials library because it will only feature the best – and all the best – ads from around the world,” he says. The Gunn Report Library will be launched by BEAM TV this summer.

Mr Gunn claims he is taking it easy, but his diary tells another story. He has just returned from an advertising conference in Argentina, and later this year will attend festivals in Asia and eastern Europe, as well as Cannes. For this “awards supremo”, it is business as usual.

Harry Potter and the Gaelic Revolution [The Guardian]

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Tuesday December 23, 2003

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Scotland’s ancient language is making a comeback,
explains Tracey Taylor

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As children, Mary Galbraith’s grandparents were belted if they were overheard speaking Gaelic in the playground, even though it was the language they spoke at home. Even as adults they never properly mastered English. Just two generations later, Galbraith’s commitment to her grandparents’ native tongue is such that although she doesn’t speak it herself she sends her two daughters, Seona and Moire, to a school where the entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic.

Glasgow Gaelic school (Bunsgoil Gáidhlig Ghlaschu) is Scotland’s only dedicated Gaelic-speaking school. Children have all their lessons in the language and only start some lessons in English after they have been there three years. However, across Scotland more than 5,000 children learn Gaelic, many of them from homes where neither parent speaks the language.

What motivates parents to have their children learn a minority language? Gaelic is in decline – 99% of Scots don’t understand a word of it and, if the number of speakers falls below 50,000 (it now stands at around 60,000), Gaelic will be officially dead. Nevertheless, the Scottish Executive invests more than £3m a year in Gaelic education. A Gaelic language bill, currently in draft stage, is due to be introduced to parliament next summer with the aim of securing the status of Gaelic in Scotland.

For Mary Galbraith the answer is straightforward: “I wanted to give my children an opportunity that wasn’t there for me. I never learned Gaelic. The girls were looked after by a Gaelic-speaking childminder so they were already bilingual. It made sense that they continued with a Gaelic-medium education.”

Reconnecting with one’s roots and cultural heritage is clearly a significant factor. Gaelic was the main language in most rural areas of Scotland until the early 17th century, but it was outlawed by the crown in 1616, and suppressed further after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. “For hundreds of years, and until fairly recently, Gaelic was seen as a second-class language,” says Margaret Maciver, educational officer at Comunn Na Gáidhlig, a body set up to promote Gaelic.

Bringing up children to be bilingual has been shown to offer other, more general advantages including enhanced creative thinking, improved test results, higher self-esteem and greater tolerance. For this reason it is not only those with Gaelic ancestry who are rediscovering Scotland’s mother tongue. “We see families who have moved from England who are having their children taught Gaelic as it is the ‘local’ language,” says Donald John McCloud, Gaelic education advisor for the Highland council which, along with the Western Islands, embraces the Gaelic heartland.

These facts are not lost on Caroline Stewart, mother to seven-year-old Alexander, who also attends Glasgow Gaelic school. “My older daughter spent a year at school in France and has spoken French since. Children who speak more than one language have been shown to have better cognitive skills. I wanted Alexander to be bilingual so I was looking for a school that taught a second language. The fact he was learning Gaelic rather than another language was secondary at first. But now I am pleased: the more I learn about the history of the language the more important I feel it is to preserve it.”

Gaelic now features at all levels of Scottish education: pre-school, primary, secondary, further and higher education, and as part of teacher training. In 2002-2003 there were 1,928 primary-level and 375 secondary-level children in Gaelic-medium education. Another 3,000, approximately, learn Gaelic as a second language, usually in special Gaelic-language units within schools. The number of Gaelic-speaking teachers graduating in 2003 was 25 (for primary school teaching), an increase of eight on the number qualifying in 2002.

These are not big numbers and, despite the avowed support of Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for education and young people, who has said his aim is to ensure Gaelic “survives and thrives”, the Gaelic lobby faces a struggle. Obstacles include a lack of Gaelic-speaking teachers, a paucity of teaching materials and a drop-off in the provision of Gaelic education at secondary level. Detractors also point to the limited usefulness of Gaelic compared to, say, a modern European language in the increasingly globalised career market.

Boyd Robertson, senior lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Strathclyde, which trains Gaelic teachers, says the teacher-shortage problem needs to be solved urgently, particularly within secondary schools. “At the primary level there is something of an equilibrium between supply and demand, but the numbers of secondary school teachers are not growing in the way that is required.”

Supporters of Gaelic tend to look for inspiration to Wales, where concerted efforts since the 1930s have resulted in census figures that show that 26% of people under the age of 35 can now speak Welsh, which has been included in the national curriculum since 1988. One in five primary pupils are taught in classes where Welsh is used either as the main medium or for teaching part of the curriculum; one in seven secondary school children are taught Welsh as a first language, and four in five learn it as a second language.

One technique used to accelerate the take-up of Welsh has been “immersion education”, a concept that is now being put into practice in Scotland. The idea is for children as young as nursery school age to “plunge” into a language completely speaking, reading and writing it all day.

In order for Gaelic to have a good chance of reproducing itself, at least a third of under-25-year-olds need to speak the language. Scotland is a long way off achieving this. The Scottish Executive, which earlier this year set up Bórd na Gáidhlig, a development body to promote Gaelic, has given itself a target of a 5% annual increase in the number of Gaelic medium-educated primary school children. Privately, however, civil servants admit they would like to see a much higher take-up. “To be truthful, we are very jealous of Wales,” says one.

The pupils at Glasgow Gaelic school can take credit for a small victory in the crusade. Fed-up that they couldn’t read about their favourite fictional character in Gaelic, this summer they sent dozens of letters to Bloomsbury, publishers of Harry Potter. As a result, a Gaelic edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone looks set to appear next year.

Online Support: Berkeley Parents Network [The Guardian]

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The Guardian, March 30th, 2005

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Tracey Taylor was blown away by a Californian online network for mums. But is there anything like it here?

Earlier this month, Maria was feeling desperate: alone at home with two young children and a husband who worked all hours, she was sleep-deprived and depressed. She submitted a posting about being at the end of her tether to an online parenting network. Within two days she received 27 email replies from mothers in her neighbourhood. They offered practical advice on good therapists and playgroups that would give her a break from the children, as well as many sympathetic reassurances of the “You are not alone” variety.

This was Berkeley Parents Network, a US service I discovered when preparing for my family’s move this summer from London to California. Since subscribing to the free network, I have received an overwhelming amount of information about this leafy suburb of San Francisco.

While worrying about how I could avoid becoming either a “soccer mom” or a Desperate Housewife, I also needed practical information such as: which neighbourhoods were the most desirable and/or affordable, how to find a house for rent and schools to shortlist. I now know which paediatrician my two boys “must” sign up with and where to find a babysitting cooperative, as well as a multimedia summer camp (whatever that is).

Angela, who recommended her paediatrician, has been a regular correspondent. She has already done extensive – bordering on obsessive – research on schools for her offspring and, although my views do not always correspond with hers, her advice has been welcome.

Berkeley Parents Network was started by Ginger Ogle in 1993 – before the worldwide web in its current form even existed. Ogle was a computer science graduate student at Berkeley with two school-age children. Originally a list of 14 student parents campaigning for improved parental leave, the database grew to encompass all parents on the campus, then, eventually, was made open to all parents in the community.

Today, this non-profit-making, parent-run email forum has a subscriber base of more than 10,000, most of whom are parents or carers who look after young children and who live in Berkeley, with its population of around 100,000.

BPN works entirely online, predominantly by email. Busy parents post questions about child-rearing, local resources and community events, look for childcare and sell household items. Newsletter digests with dozens of parents’ questions and the responses they generate are emailed to subscribers eight-10 times a week. As Ogle puts it: “Our success is a combination of an early start, my technical background and an unending supply of smart and altruistic parents.”

What is surprising is that such patently useful grassroots services have been relatively slow to take off, even in tech-savvy America. “I hear about other lists for parents but they are much smaller – at the level of a neighbourhood or a school,” says Ogle. “There are for-profit efforts too that have mostly not worked out, although I continue to hear about these.”

So, does the UK offer anything as useful and well-run as Berkeley Parents Network? No – but there are encouraging signs. Netmums.com, for instance, bills itself as a “local network by mums for mums” and hosts local sites around the country that include forums such as Meet a Mum and Buy and Sell. Some are more trafficked than others. When I looked up my area in south-east London it had only one posting listed under Childcare, two items for sale in the Nearly New listing and a mere handful of email exchanges from mothers wanting to meet up. However, the Bristol section is very active. And the Harrow and Hillingdon section, where the site has its roots, has 5,000 members and its discussion boards are buzzing.

BPN demonstrates how “nappy valley” neighbourhoods can exploit the web to help create dynamic and mutually supportive communities. Clearly these online tribes can go some way to replacing the extended families of past generations. When I move to the west coast and am looking for a soccer club for my football-mad nine-year-old, I’ll know who to call.

Tea with the FT: Barbara Ehrenreich [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, February 18th, 2006

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First it was blue-collar misery in America – now the writer has exposed the lot of its corporate workers, writes Tracey Taylor

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As soon as I meet Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned chronicler of America’s working class, we are thrown into an awkward social moment. Our plan is have tea somewhere inside the swanky Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. We wander into a restaurant off the hotel’s lobby that looks appropriate but a woman behind a desk stops us and says we need to be club members to eat or drink there. As we turn on our heels, Ehrenreich mutters: “You see, you come somewhere as upscale as this – which I’m not used to at all by the way – and you think you have reached the top. Then you realise there is a whole other level.”

The incident doesn’t phase Ehrenreich. You sense that there isn’t much that would. This is a writer who chose to work as a waitress, stack shelves at Wal-Mart and clean “three different kinds of shit stains” from toilets as a housekeeper to gather material for her best-known book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. And this at an age when most people would be comfortably retired.

Ehrenreich, who is 64, has a brisk manner and a practical appearance: her hair is cut in a bob and she is wearing black trousers, a coral shirt and what she describes as “slouchy” flat sandals. She assumed a new identity to see at first hand how the other half live for Nickel and Dimed, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years after it was published in 2001.

The “immersion” style of writing is in the tradition of George Orwell, whose descriptions of coal miners in The Road to Wigan Pier aimed to shock middle-class readers out of their complacency. Ehrenreich herself has spawned imitators in the UK and Australia. Her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, (which comes out in paperback in the UK in March) takes the same approach but this time her focus is on the white-collar world – the middle managers and account executives who toil at the corporate coalface.

These are the people “who did everything right”. They earned degrees, postponed child-bearing and dedicated themselves to climbing the career ladder. But now, as Ehrenreich describes it, they are in trouble. Setting out to find a job as a PR director or speechwriter, Ehrenreich found a white-collar netherworld full of people who have been downsized or outsourced or were still employed but heard “the drumbeats of lay- offs”; or had survived cuts but were burning out doing the jobs of two people.

Ehrenreich found the project hard-going, she tells me, as we settle at a table in a rather soulless dining area where we have been assured we will be served tea. “It was more enjoyable with Nickel and Dimed,” she says. “I liked the camaraderie of the workplace. There might have been similar camaraderie in some white-collar places but I got the feeling that it is very different, that people are more anxious and mutually distrustful in the white-collar world. A lot of people described the workplace to me as cold and unwelcoming. “I don’t mind manual labour,” she continues. “And I like the straightforwardness of the blue-collar world in that there is a job, youdo it and you get paid fo rthe job. There is not all this . . . ” – she pauses before choosing a word that she thinks can be printed in the Financial Times – ” . . . this manipulation about attitude and personality.”

Ehrenreich, who has been gesticulating to make her point, stops talking and looks flustered. She explains she is concerned that our waiter, who is standing some feet away, may have interpreted her hand movements as a rather cavalier summons. She mouths apologies to him. Maybe her experience as a waitress explains why Ehrenreich is going out of her way to be nice to the waiter. (I, on the other hand, am feeling less sympathetic and would be happy if this particular one did his job: we have been in the deserted restaurant for more than 10 minutes and he has not yet taken our order.)

The manipulation Ehrenreich refers to is most apparent in what she discovers is called the “transition industry” – the career coaches who help reveal one’s “true occupational passion”. What Ehrenreich finds galling, rather than amusing, however is the message the coaches invariably impart to their vulnerable, often depressed audience, about blame. “I could see this philosophy being dumped on people – this new-age idea that it is really your fault because you control everything with your attitude,” she says.

The job-seekers Ehrenreich meets in the book seem prepared to take this analysis at face value. I ask her why she thinks that is. “I think this mind-over- matter idea is quite deep-seated in American culture. In fact, I encountered it and wrote about it when I was being treated for breast cancer five years ago. There is this strong ideology that it is all in your attitude whether you recover or not. It creeped me right out. You find it in the 19th century with Mary Baker Eddy, in the mid-20th century with Norman Vincent Peale and with EST (Erhard Seminar Training) in the 1970s.”

The waiter arrives to take our order and Ehrenreich again apologises to him for what he may have interpreted as her “uppity” behaviour earlier. She orders an iced latte – decaf, one shot, with 2 per cent fat milk. The waiter mishears and assumes she wants iced tea so she reiterates the minutiae of her order. She collects her thoughts and sighs. “I really don’t know what to make of the corporate world after all this. A great deal is being demanded of white-collar workers that has nothing to do with getting the job done. There seems to be so much emphasis on relationships: do you get along with people? They say 90 per cent of hiring decisions are based on an emotional response to you. I am so amazed by this world where decisions are so irrational, where there is a lot of delusional thinking going on – controlling the universe with your thought forms, for example. It makes me wonder how anything gets done.” She laughs: “Then I suddenly realised: this is the culture that leads to Michael D. Brown heading up Fema. I’m sure he’s likeable and he knew all the right people – dresses nicely, good-looking fellow. Probably a lot of fun to have a Margarita with.” [Brown was the Bush-nominated head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who lost his job after what critics saw as a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.]

Despite almost 10 months of searching and an investment of more than $5,000, Ehrenreich failed to find a job. She had honed her CV to perfection, had a makeover, networked frantically, and displayed admirable flexibility, “applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey’s”.

“I now realise that it was a kind of hubris to imagine I could find a job in half a year or so,” she says. “As I got into it and began to meet all these seemingly terrifically well-qualified people who had been searchingfor well over a year, I thought, ‘this is what it is really about, the white-collar underworld’.”

So the book ends up being a call to arms. Ever the activist, Ehrenreich urges the unemployed, and the anxiously employed, to exploit the endless networking events they attend. “If people had been allowed to, say, share their stories, that would have broken through some of the feelings of isolation and worthlessness.”

She says she wants those that read the book to realise that it’s not their fault if they are being badly treated by companies. “I see it as a possible antidote to [the business tome] Who Moved my Cheese? which says, ‘You’re going to get jerked around, get used to it.’ I would like people to read Bait and Switch and think, ‘Yeah that was ridiculous’ – to feel free to have such a subversive thought.”

Ehrenreich advocates fundamental change at policy level, too: “There is a simple agenda: one, let’s get going on universal health insurance: having it attached to your job is ridiculous. Two, let’s have a more secure and adequate unemployment compensation. And third, let’s stop tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are made in the name of job creation but actually have nothing to do with it.”

At this point Ehrenreich’s mobile phone rings and she excuses herself to see who the call is from. “I just want to check whether it is one of my children or someone else,” she says squinting at the phone’s small screen. “No it is a publisher,” she snarls, “To hell with you.” Her phone rings again and she frowns, making clear it is her publisher again. “I see that 212 area code [her US publishers are in New York], then my cellphone died as far as I’m concerned.”

So what does she see as the way forward for corporations? “We have to find ways to make corporations more accountable to the people they serve. I don’t think they just serve the shareholders – there should be a broader vision of stakeholders, which includes consumers, communities and employees.”

As we get up to leave, Ehrenreich points to the pretty three-tier cake stand on the table next to ours. It is filled with delicate sandwiches and petits-fours in pastel hues. “Look what we missed,” she says, grinning. But somehow the image of Ehrenreich sipping Earl Grey tea from a bone-china cup and nibbling on miniature cakes doesn’t quite cut it. The immaculately groomed ladies of leisure who are doing so are enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Ehrenreich is too busy fighting its flaws.

California Dreams: Norah and Norman Stone [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 27th 2006

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Six of the eight bedrooms in Norah and Norman Stone’s mansion have been given over to art. But the San Francisco power couple assure me that the encroaching collection has required no real sacrifice on their part and no significant alterations to their beautiful Arthur Brown-designed house.

“I was actually pleased to have the housekeeper move out and be replaced by Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney,” says Norah, referring to the top floor where they now keep several pieces by the two artists.

A tour of Stones’ home, which has views from Presidio Heights over the city and the bay, reveals just how inventive they have been when it comes to sharing their living space with their art. What is particularly striking is the juxtaposition of the many uncompromisingly modern pieces with the more traditional, elegant surroundings, originally created by the renowned interior designer Frances Elkins.

In the entrance hall, against a background of sumptuous antique Chinese wallpaper, hangs “La Poupée” (1938) by Hans Bellmer. One of Joseph Beuys’ ”vitrine” works, housed in a rectangular glass case on legs, stands nearby. “You don’t see many of those in people’s hallways,” quips Norman. Tucked into a closet – the Stones admit they struggled to find the right place – is a sound piece by Stephen Vitiello that includes recordings made in the World Trade Center in 1999.

In the relatively small, formal dining room two giant wall pieces by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog” (1996) and “Cheeky” (2000) face off against a large Andy Warhol self-portrait, “Fright Wig” (1986). Strolling through the living room you spot a familiar image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee – Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1940).

The Stones like to contextualise their collection by including pieces by a previous generation of avant-garde artists that influenced many of the younger names in their collection. Thus, on an upper floor, Robert Gober’s “Pair of Urinals” (1987) echoes Duchamp’s succès de scandale, “Fontaine” (1917).

Norman, who is president of his family’s foundation, explains the rationale behind their acquisitions: “The wisest thing to do is to know your end-game,” he says. “We collect museum-quality pieces so that in the end they will go to museums.” (The Stones have ties to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Tate Modern, among others.) “Our mission is to act differently.”

Some of the work is highly provocative. But, says Norman, who is a psychologist by training, and who works regularly as a psychological counsellor with young people at a local community centre: “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them but they exist and should not be shirked.”

As one explores the house, it’s clear that every possible nook and cranny has been exploited as space to show art. In a labyrinthine series of rooms in the basement one happens across Keith Tyson’s 2002 Turner Prize-winning “Bubble Chambers”. Also below ground-level, a long whitewashed room acts as a minimalist gallery with works by Donald Judd and Richard Serra as well as one of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings.

Even the garage, which houses his ‘n’ hers Porsches, has been put to use. When Norman decided to buy “Electric Earth”, a video piece by Doug Aitken, he realised the five screens and 1,200 ft of space it required would pose something of a challenge. The solution was a linear version of the piece, created by the artist, with just one screen which drops down for viewing once the cars have been relegated to the street.

Maintenance issues inevitably arise with such an eclectic collection. A Jeff Koons work, “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985), which consists of two Spalding basketballs in a tank of distilled water, requires a regular water change. Unfortunately the person who had been performing this task for the Stones – and was familiar with the 13-page manual explaining the necessary procedure – recently left town. Norman shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience. “We’ll find someone else,” he says.

In any case, the couple have bigger issues on their mind. At their Napa Valley estate, where they also manage a vineyard, they are drilling below ground into the limestone to create a 5,000 sq ft cave of exhibition space. Also in the planning stages is a James Turrell skyspace which is being built into the swimming pool. Norah says when it is completed LED lighting will allow you to change the colour of the sky.

The Stones insist they always find solutions when they want to install a new work of art. Still, the “art cave” is perhaps an admission that their city home has finally reached full capacity.