Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Over the last few of months, my seven-day-a-week research and writing schedule didn't leave me a lot of time for other things, especially not extra trips into London for exhibitions. After the final hand in for my Master's degree, I headed straight out to visit my mum in Mauritius, and after that had a whole (slightly jetlagged) four days before diving straight into work on a research project. Most of those were spent doing life admin, but I also sneaked in a trip to the Wellcome Collection to see their new exhibition: Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

Split over six sections (persuasion, education, hospitalisation, medication, contagion and provocation), the show examines the often overlooked sphere of design related to health: the information campaigns, wayfinding design, medication packaging and a whole host of other graphics. It's something which I've thought about a little more since starting to collect matchbox labels, which very often were used to communicate health related information (or flat out propaganda). My favourite objects were the vintage anti-smoking stamps, issued from 65 countries so far; the Catoptrum Microcosmicum from 1660, featuring hinged paper layers showing human anatomy; the New Rail Alphabet typeface developed from Margaret Calvert's original and used first in the NHS; Yin Yao's pain visualisation research; and 19th century broadsheets warning of the cholera epidemic. It's really a treasure trove of amazing design objects, many of which you'd probably never notice in day to day life but are essential - like the 'battenberg emergency' pattern on ambulances, or the familiar prescription bags from Boots. Another cracker from the Wellcome Collection, and it's free! If you can't get to the exhibition before January, you can see highlights, and even download the information about the exhibits, on the website.

FIND 'CAN GRAPHIC DESIGN SAVE YOUR LIFE?' AT: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE

Some of my health-related matchbox labels!

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #7

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Leigh Brackett
Following the atrocities of nuclear war, the American people have taken to blaming technology itself for the devastation and have retreated into the pre-technological world, banning large towns and cities in an attempt to prevent further wars. Religious groups less reliant on modern technology have flourished, and are now dominant in society: it is one of these groups that Len and Esau come from. The boys push back at their strictly controlled society, and end up in Bartorstown, a semi-mythical hub of forbidden technology; soon they learn that it's not quite what they thought it was. This isn't a book which is lacking in characterisation - it's slow and considered (occasionally too much for my liking - I didn't warm to either Len or Esau much!), though if you're looking for women, you won't find them. It took me a while to wade through the religion, but it's worth it for an interesting coming-of-age story with a starkly realistic thread of disillusionment.

William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson
In the world created by Nolan and Johnson, society is entirely made up of young people: the population is controlled by compulsory, yet almost universally accepted, euthanasia for citizens once they reach the age of twenty one. Most citizens willingly turn up to the 'Sleepshops' to be executed, but occasionally some try to escape - and it's Logan's job to hunt them down, until he becomes one of them himself. The novel isn't fantastically thought out in terms of logistics; a lot of questions are left unanswered, and some of the answers we are given just don't make a whole lot of sense. The book is short, and so the story unfolds at a blistering pace in some areas, which leaves some elements feeling underdeveloped. However - I really enjoyed it anyway. For its flaws, the world created is vivid and intriguing, and despite its messiness, it was just fun.

Ray Bradbury
Another classic in the dystopian world, which I'm surprised I didn't pick up until recently. Fahrenheit 451 deals with a world where books are banned, and the ban enforced by 'firemen', whose job is no longer to prevent fires but to start them in order to burn the possessions of those caught reading. But what happens when a fireman himself is overcome with curiosity? I was torn about this book. I see people referencing it when they want to complain that 'modern society is so vapid, no one reads books!' (untrue and infuriating) and this made me stubbornly keen to dislike it. And yes, Bradbury is pretty much yelling 'television will ruin your mind!' He's gone on to emphasise this perspective in interviews; it's not the government censorship which killed books, he says, but the fact that everyone got distracted by technology! It's a common fear, but one which is clearly unfounded. Saying that, Bradbury does have a way with words - despite my problems with the premise, the reading was enjoyable.

Hugh Howey
By now I've read a lot of this genre, so it's not often I come across a new work which has an original perspective: in Wool, Howey has it. His story is set in the Silo, a huge underground bunker descending nearly a hundred and fifty storeys below the surface of the earth, now a toxic wasteland entirely hostile to life. The thousands in the silo are born, live and die underground, their population controlled by a reproduction lottery and their curiosity about the outside world suppressed by strict laws and the preachings of the silo's priests. Crime is infrequent, but severely punished. The most severe infractions result in being sent to 'cleaning' - being made to clean the sensors which transmit the view of the inhospitable world outside to the residents of the silo, and being left to succumb to the poisonous gases. Starting off as a short, self-published story, the novel expanded as readers showed interest, and does sometimes feel a little long-winded. However, Howey creates a really compelling mystery to the dark(er) reality of the silo, and I'm looking forward to see where it goes.

Adrian Barnes
Barnes tells a story of chronic sleep deprivation; a world suddenly separated into the Awakened, permanently sleepless, and Dreamers, who retain their ability to rest. Misanthropic Paul, our protagonist, is one of the Dreamers, and quickly finds out just how dangerous the new world can be for him, unless he finds a way to fit in to the new order of chaos. It's, perhaps understandably, a fairly grim read. I was expecting to really enjoy this novel, but none of it came together for me. I'd already read Kenneth Calhoun's Black Moon, another novel whose premise lies in sleeplessness (published after this one) and whilst Barnes takes his novel in a different direction, I felt it was nowhere near as successful. Barnes got a lot of praise for his experimental style, and some of it really works, but it also feels like the storyline development took a backseat. In an interview, Barnes said that he would 'invent people and places that are bizarre' and 'try to force them' into the novel -  and that's exactly what it feels like; forced.

See all my reviews of Post-Apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads here!

Summer in Suffolk

Saturday, 15 July 2017

After getting back from Canada and dealing with my first ever bout of jet lag combined with London's sticky hot weather and research fatigue, a couple of days of sea air were exactly the right remedy to blow out some of the cobwebs. Danny's mum and stepdad had rented a little cottage by the sea in the pretty town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and we joined them for a night by the coast. We arrived in the morning - with a detour via the shop at Alder Carr Farm to pick up a pint of their home made damson plum ice cream - and after breakfast headed straight out for a walk across the flats to the beach. Both of the dogs managed to mistake a weed-covered river for grass, and each got a surprise ducking when they tried to run across it; Angel managed it twice! Last time we took Angel to the beach was her first ever visit and she wasn't off the lead yet, but this time she had a blast fighting the waves, chasing pebbles (she lost her ball in the aforementioned ducking) and being stopped from drinking salt water. We took a walk along the coast and then back through the town, where Angel had her first doggy ice cream cone (in one bite), and back for a relax at the cottage before heading out for some dinner at The Lighthouse. Aldeburgh is beautiful, full of grand period houses and cute pastel coloured cottages. It's also very dog friendly - nearly every shop has a bowl of water outside, there's plenty of pubs and restaurants which allow dogs in their outdoor areas (including The Lighthouse) and whilst the beach in front of the town is dog free May-September, they're allowed on the beaches either side as well as the main promenade.

The next morning we packed up and headed up the coast to nearby Southwold, another very pretty town with sandy beaches and a lighthouse. We played on the beach and picked out which we'd have from the line of candy-striped beach huts before walking up into the town, but unfortunately the rest of our visit didn't go entirely to plan! A huge thunderstorm rolled in right over our heads, complete with fork lightning, and our thunder-terrified dog went into meltdown mode. We ended up back in the car having to restrain her from climbing onto the dashboard. All was not lost, however, as we drove out of Southwold back into bright sunshine and picked up strawberries from a local farm to eat with my homemade brownies and damson ice cream for lunch. The three of us were pretty sad when the time came to pack up the car and head back to London!

Kew Gardens, London

Monday, 3 July 2017

Despite the District line being 'my line' for all the years I've lived in London, I've been pretty contained to East London in that time, barring my regular visits to the museum quarter in South Kensington. I'd made a single venture to Acton Town to see the London Transport Museum's Depot, but that was as far as I'd got. Kew Gardens was always on 'the list', but it's a full two hours from where I live now and therefore relegated to the 'special occasion' list. Conveniently, it was recently Ainsley's birthday and so we took ourselves down for the day.

For some reason I hadn't realised quite how huge Kew is: we had a few hours to kill, but it was nowhere near enough time to take everything in properly. We started off with a pretty decent picnic on the lawn in front of Kew Palace, fending off a pair of ducks keen for our sandwiches, and then headed in for a look at the rooms. We admired the second floor's pastel pink paintwork, and some of the grander restored rooms, but the attic was my favourite part of the house despite being largely empty. We caught the formal gardens behind the Palace just in time; the much-photographed yellow laburnum arch was still just about in full bloom, buzzing with bees and giving off an amazing scent. The Royal Kitchens were surprising - the double height space is unexpectedly vast, and still holds the original wooden table from 1737 and giant fireplace with spits for roasting meats. It's lovely seeing the kitchen garden in full use, growing common eighteenth century plants (I spotted some redcurrants, and my favourite, rhubarb.)

From the kitchens, we made a loop round to the Rhododendron Dell, which was finishing flowering but still beautiful - it includes many varieties which I've never seen before (and my nan is quite a rhododendron buff). We sat at the lake for a while, eating the vegan Victoria sponge cake I made and promptly smashed by accident, Eton mess-style, keeping an eye out for ducklings. The giant Temperate House, the largest surviving Victorian greenhouse, is currently closed until 2018 for renovation, so we had a look at it through the gaps in the trees from the Treetop Walkway sitting sixty feet into the canopy. 

The final part of the day we spent in the glasshouses: everyone's favourites, the giant Palm House and humid Waterlily House, were first up. We were seriously overdressed for the occasion, but it was just as magical as it looks on Instagram. Fun fact: the water in the Waterlily House is coloured with eco-friendly black dye to prevent algae growth, which is why it's so reflective! After that, we managed to cram in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, filled with cacti and carnivorous plants, as well as the little sail-shaped Davies Alpine House and rock gardens. At this point, we were pretty much being herded out, but The Hive was still open. If you catch the installation at a quiet moment (or aren't afraid of embarrassment or being trodden on), lie down on the floor underneath the opening in the top and spend a few minutes really listening to the sounds and lights. The sounds and lights are linked to the activity of real bees in Kew's hive, and it's a really lovely experience. I'm itching to go and see it at night (as well as catch up with the rest of the Kew attractions that we didn't have time for!)

Exploring Brugge in 12 hours

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

After a day in Antwerp to visit the Plantin Moretus Museum, I hopped on a train to see the beautiful little city of Brugge. It's a place that I thought I wouldn't visit for quite a while; I knew it was lovely, but there were cities further up on my 'to see' list. However, with tickets for those under twenty-six being onl€6 between any two destinations in Belgium, I couldn't resist a little stop-off. It was a fleeting visit - I arrived at around seven in the evening, and I was back at the station to catch my coach back to London before 1pm the next day - but as usual I crammed plenty of walking in!

Getting to Bruges will usually require flying to Brussels, plus a train journey, but luckily the Belgian rail network is expansive, reasonably priced, comfortable and efficient (two storey trains!) and it's only just over an hour. The downside is that most of the flights will set you back around £100 each way, and adding transfers and train tickets bumps up the cost. A Eurostar ticket to Brussels is a cheaper option starting at around £60 return, but these seats book up fast - when I was searching three weeks in advance they had already increased to over £70 each way. By far the cheapest option (and my travel method of choice) is the coach. It can cost under £20 for a return fare and you're dropped straight at the train station in Brugge. I use Go Euro to search for cheapest options; it saved me £10 on my coach home simply by booking my ticket via the French Eurolines website rather than the Belgian one.

I nearly always stay in hostels - usually I won't be spending any time there aside from sleeping, and I'd rather have extra money to spend on another trip. The Monsieur Ernest was quite a departure from my usual, but it was nice to have a little luxury for a change. The hotel is styled beautifully, with a mosaic floor and a huge iron staircase cutting through the hall, dark walls and some great palm print wallpaper in the bar rooms. A double bed to myself is a luxury I rarely get these days, and I slept so well I briefly considered stealing a pillow. I booked my room using air miles, and I was expecting the usual room prices to be a lot more expensive than they are, but you'd probably pay more for a Travelodge in the UK. There are plenty of other hotels in the historical centre for reasonable prices, and if you're really on a budget there are hostels within the city walls starting under £20 a night (the Lybeer Hostel on Korte Vuldersstraat looks great).

I only took my average sized backpack with me on the trip, but ten hours of carting it around on the day I arrived had me feeling like it was filled with bricks - for a minute or two, I thought about jumping on a bus from the station to the centre. Once I got across the road and had a glimpse of the canal leading to Minnewater, I abandoned that plan and instead wandered the couple of kilometres up into the city. This is the best rule for Brugge: if you can walk it, walk it. The Poertoren (Powder Tower) formed part of the city's defences from the late fourteenth century and sits on the bridge at the south end of the lake, with a lovely view up to the lock house. I managed a quick walk around the tree-filled yard of the Begijnhof, admiring the white painted houses which were home to the beguines, before the nuns ushered the last straggling visitors out. A couple of streets up on Walstraat there's one of the Dumon chocolate shops, where I picked myself up a few dark chocolate caramel creams to take home. The rest of my walk to my hotel on Wulfhagenstraat took me up via Mariastraat, past Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which houses Michaelangelo's Madonna and Child sculpture. Construction on the church began in the 13th century and continued for centuries, culminating with the brick spire which towers over the street at a height of over a hundred metres. Just opposite is Sint-Janshospitaal, one of the oldest hospital buildings in Europe. I didn't get a chance to see inside this time, where you can visit the old infirmary's museum of artefacts collected by the nuns, as well as the apothecary's garden and the work of famous Flemish painter Hans Memling. My route also took me by Sint Salvatorskathedraal, Bruges' oldest parish church, which has some impressive tapestries and Flemish paintings. Whilst these streets are quiet and most of the museums shut during the evening, they make for a beautiful walk.

After dropping my bag at the hotel, I resisted the urge to jump straight into the giant bed and instead headed straight back out to get a look at the historic market square before it started to get dark. The Markt has been used as a meeting place for hundreds of years, and is ringed by beautiful buildings: the Belfort tower and the Provinciaal Hof being the most impressive. The Provinciaal Hof isn't particularly old (it was finished in the 1920s) but has a fantastic neo-gothic facade; the Belfort on the other hand, is part of a complex of halls which date back to the 13th century. Climbing the nearly four hundred steps of the tower gives a great view over the city, and on the way up you can have a look at the treasury or the 47 bells of the carillon. I finished off my evening by walking through to the Vismarkt, where fresh fish is still sold each morning under the arcade, and nipping into a restaurant for some Flemish stew. Right around the corner is the Rozenhoedkaii, one of the most photographed spots in the city: this wide section of canal reflects the Belfort tower and the warm glow of the other buildings in the water.

I woke up the next day to heavy rain, but took the rainbow from my window to indicate a bit of sunshine, grabbed some breakfast and made sure to be on my way for 8:30am. Most attractions aren't open until 10am, so I had a little time to kill. I walked along the quieter side of the canal to the northeast of the city centre, taking in the quaint streets and the backs of the larger houses along the water. Here on Pottenmakersstraat I stumbled across Pottenmakersgarde, a miniature (and very well cared for) public garden in a ruined cottage - it's a lovely stop off. My destination was the Volkskundemuseum, a small museum set in converted almshouses which reconstructs elements of traditional Flemish life: there's a classroom, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a sweet maker's and several other little rooms recreated, often with interiors saved from original shops in Brugge. Alongside these rooms are displays of objects relating to popular culture, from religious artefacts to smoking paraphernalia. The museum even has its own inn, De Zwarte Kat, and a real life black cat (Aristide) who wanders the grounds as a museum mascot! It's well worth the €4 entry fee, and you can get a combined ticket to the Kantcentrum on the same street for €6. This little museum has displays relating to Brugge's long-running lace making industry, and each afternoon has demonstrations of traditional techniques (the results of which you can buy in the shop).

With time getting on I started winding my way through the smaller streets back to the central areas, walking along the Groenerei canal and peering through the rain at the houses and boats. This walk took me back to the Vismarkt, and this time I made a right under the little arch of Blinde Ezelstraat into the city's second main square, the Burg. Originally in this square was a fortress and later the Sint Donaaskathedraal, neither of which survive, but you can see the cathedral foundations in the basement of the Crowne Plaza Hotel if you ask at reception! Here is also the beautiful gothic Stadhuis, and my final stop in Brugge: the spectacular Heilig Bloedbasiliek. The lower chapel is dedicated to St Basil, and the upper chapel holds an important medieval relic - a vial supposedly containing cloth with Christ's blood. The richly painted interior of the upper chapel, whilst not particularly old, is very beautiful. After watching the relic brought out for veneration, I finally started my walk back to the station, following the Dijver to the picturesque (but packed) Bonifacius Bridge, before heading down some quieter streets to Minnewaterpark and my awaiting coach. 

For the next trip: more street wandering, another box of chocolates from Dumon, climbing the Belfort, a look inside Sint-Janshospitaal, viewing the Flemish primitives at the Groeningemuseum, and a visit to the windmills.