On the subject of the cyberflâneur

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I was tickled, earlier this week, to read an interesting article on the New York Times website about the supposed death of the “cyberflâneur”. Actually, I was mostly thrilled to be reading an article about the subject of the cyberflâneur in general.

It concerns the idea – in parallel with the flâneur of old – of the web surfer jumping from site to site, checking out this and that, just for the sake of curiosity. It’s not a concept alien to most web users, even if the term itself is used less frequently.

Many’s the time I’ve found myself wasting hours, having had my interest piqued by something as innocent as a photograph or a paragraph of text. I’ll end up reading all about the subject on Wikipedia (almost always my starting point), before looking for related images, maps or related media.

Often, I’ll even find myself consulting primary resources such as newspaper archives or ebooks as a result of a particularly interest concept.

Very occasionally, such an information expedition can lead to a life-long obsession.

So, as much as I enjoyed the well-written NY Times article mentioned above, I was somewhat baffled at the assertion that the cyberflâneur, that curiosity-fuelled web-surfer I declare myself to be, are “few and far between.”

Really? Are we really a dying breed?

Anyway, the article, and the concept of flânerie in general, has occupied my mind for the past few days, and I’d been meaning to write this blog post to highlight an article I found interesting, but one which I felt was deeply flawed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that it’s not just me that’s had this notion.

Over at The Atlantic, a hastily-written but useful piece has been posted, expressing feelings similar to my own. The author argues, quite rightly, that the cyberflâneur lurks – and, indeed, thrives – on Tumblr, Flickr or Pinterest. He (or she) jumps from obscure maps to interesting images, constantly in search of some new thing to be fascinated by.

Sure, as the NY Times piece affirms, we use the web in a different way these days; jumping to particular destinations to perform particular tasks. And, as it says, the use of apps has leapfrogged browsing to websites, allowing us to do very specific things without getting caught up on the way.

But these specific and particular tasks, I’d argue, are the equivalent of the original flâneur’s banks, post offices, or similar.

Much as we may find ourselves connecting directly to the likes of Gmail or Facebook for certain needs, the flâneur would make a beeline to the bank if he deemed it necessary. And just as the flâneur would then take an idle stroll through arcades of shops selling things he could never dream of owning, so too does the cyberflâneur spend a ‘wasted’ half an hour drooling over things they wish they could afford, or places they would much rather be.

The concept of flânerie is one I find very interesting, and I would consider myself to be something of that kind. I’d say I’m probably more just a daydreamer, and a curious, nerdy one at that, but flânerie – cyber or not – is as romantic title to give it as any other.

Although Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times piece may be flawed in its eulogising of the cyberflâneur, it’s still a cracking read, and will hopefully set off a train of thought in your mind too. He’s clearly a learned man who has a way with words, and he paints a nice picture of the original flâneur.

John Hendel’s Atlantic piece is rather more slapdash – with less panache, and some rather oddball comparisons – but it’s still worth a read as a rebuttal to Morozov’s argument.

Oh, and I couldn’t resist it: reports of the death of the cyberflâneur are, indeed, greatly exaggerated…

A tour of Chetham’s library

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The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.

Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.

The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.

 

It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.

I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.

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The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.

The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.

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We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.

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The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.

 

Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.

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A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.

It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.

For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html

You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.

The Fat Cat

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The Fat Cat Sits on my Feet. Fat is not enough to describe him by now. He must weigh pounds & pounds. And his lovely black coat is turning white. I suppose its to prevent the mountains from seeing him. He sleeps here & occasionally creeps up to my chest & pads softly with his paws, singing the while. I suppose he wants to see if I have the same face all night. I long to surprise him with terrific disguises. M. calls him “my Breakfast cat”, because they share that meal – two boys – alone together. M. at the table and Wingley on. Its awful the love one can lavish on an animal.

[Letter from Katherine Mansfield to Dorothy Brett, 2 November 1921. Source.]

Awash with colour and ghouls: Thorp Perrow Arboretum

 

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A recent, spontaneous daytrip took the three of us to Thorp Perrow Arboretum at Bedale, somewhere off the A1, nestled between Yorkshire’s Dales and Moors.

It was a marvellous time to visit; not only were the leaves starting to change colour, but many of the park’s trees were bedecked with rather humorous Hallowe’en characters.

The arboretum is laid out as a series of tree-lined paths, with many straight lines providing a view from one landmark to another – from a mock bandstand to a grand house, for example.

The scale of the place was hard to grasp at first. We had been provided with a simple map, detailing areas with names like Milbank Pinetum and Spring Wood. But as we walked the leafy lanes, it was easy to feel lost and enveloped by the trees, seemingly in their natural home.6278879773_6c5a20e9fb_b-6076487-8605505

 

The park was also home to a nice selection of falcons and mammals. It was lovely to see some rather majestic birds up close, but I must sheepishly admit to spending a good ten minutes or so shrieking with joy at the capering meerkats.

I thought at the time that an arboretum is a sort of zoo for flora; wandering in wild woodland is the preferred activity, but such a cultivated, manicured place as an arboretum has rather a different feel to it. It’s no less beautiful of course. Further, the rough, organic nature of the set-pieces combines beautifully with the subtle yet well-thought-out placement and alignment, creating a wonderfully pleasant world in which to get lost.

With the leaves on the turn, and being blessed with the appearance of bright sunshine, the place was awash with colour. With nothing yet looking as though it was dying, it was all reds and yellows, and deep oranges and golds. It’s hard not to fall in love with nature this time of year, with everything seemingly putting on such a wonderful show.

The hokey Hallowe’en ornaments we found dangling from one tree or another were an amusing aside. They were occasionally creepy in the traditional way, while others were rather more hammy: a sinister pair of upturned legs emerging from the shallow waters of one of the park’s ponds featured not far from an impossibly skeletal plastic spider.6295249226_fd69ddf8e2_b-6882501-9964660

 

It being half term, it was a cheering sight to see small children in their own Hallowe’en costumes running up to investigate the spooky displays – getting just close enough to spy their general outline, but not so close as to risk some unknown fate.6295209568_0f4e3f1dc4_b-3672111-4932319

 

The spooky air of the ornaments was detracted from somewhat by the dazzlingly bright sunshine, but I still felt it was a joy to see such a display in such unlikely surroundings.

In a world of supermarkets selling plastic masks and garish accessories, this simple combination of scary symbols strung from trees recalled a more traditional Hallowe’en celebration. Even despite the sunshine, it wasn’t hard to imagine the likes of Irving’s headless horseman galloping between the ancient oaks. I secretly wished I could revisit the park after dark on a cold, misty night – until I remembered that my imagination wouldn’t bear such a thing.

Overall, though, Thorp Perrow Arboretum has such a magical air to it that I would love to revisit it in any season or weather. I imagine the park and surrounding fields would look terrific all covered in snow, and I can barely conceive of how refreshing it must be to see the place spring back into life again after months of hibernation.6294700475_0a7d9f3d02_b-7236755-5515364

 

In praise of Charles Paget Wade

I never properly rounded-up my time at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, where I spent five weeks this summer. The last few weeks were very busy, and as soon as I had stopped there, I got stuck into another new project. In short, I guess I never fully rounded it up in my head either.
6021910624_a95e1fab73_z-4659510-5833397This is all part of a much wider feeling of placelag, a term I’ve come to use more often, and one which rather aptly encompasses how I’ve felt for most of this summer.

But what I want to tell you about today is a man named Charles Paget Wade.

As part of my work at the Trust this summer, I was collating research on some of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s more prolific architects. The plan is to produce some rather neat little monographs on a handful of them, complete with timelines and photographs and drawings of their work. Some preliminary research had been done by Trust staff, and it was my job to bring it all together, fill in any gaps, and write something rather more readable than mere bullet points and dates.

I was honoured to be given this task, and I think I gave it my best shot, completing draft monographs on the lives and work of architects Michael Frank Wharlton Bunney, Cecil George Butler and Courtenay Melville Crickmer.

But what I found really enjoyable was raking through all the gathered research on these men; delving into their world and finding contemporary resources to back up what they did.

My time on the reference desk at Chesham Study Centre (and my general in-built nerdiness) means I have a thirst for such information, and a small but useful repertoire of places to go looking for it. Along with online resources, I also had access to the Trust’s own archive of maps and books.

In one of these books, Raymond Unwin’s seminal Town Planning in Practice (read online at archive.org), I found a map of the Suburb. A fairly decorative map dating from 1909, it contained not just the roads and place names, but also little illustrations of buildings dotted around the area, and small doodles of historic events that took place nearby.

I was taken in by its combination of simplicity and complexity; its informative yet childish style. The doodles were silly and unnecessary, yet the map didn’t lack attention to detail.

I noticed, in the bottom corner, the artist’s mark:
screen-shot-2011-09-15-at-19-27-07-8338903-7371099The map can be viewed in full at the Trust website, here.

Something about his turn of phrase – “Charles Wade made me” – urged me to find out more about this Wade fellow, and fortunately I was in the right place. Not only was the rest of Town Planning in Practice illustrated by him, but I had access to plenty more books he had collaborated on, and I was able to ask David Davidson, the Trust’s architectural adviser about him too.

Before long, I had a figurative rough sketch of Charles Paget Wade – one he could have penned himself. “A very strange man,” David told me, who liked to dress up and who had a very childlike nature his whole life.

Another of Wade’s signatures on a different map ran, poetically: “On winter’s nights Charles Wade made me, in solitude in his upper room, in nineteen hundred and nine AD, at the Vale of Temple Fortune.”

(It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Wade’s peculiar turn of phrase helped inspire the name of my girlfriend’s craft enterprise: Lisa Made Me.)

The more I found out about Wade, the more I wanted to know. It turns out he was an architect as well as a book illustrator (and more), with a handful of works on the Suburb itself. I managed to combine some photographic surveys I was conducting with visiting some examples of his work, and I used any downtime I had to read more about him online.

It turns out that Wade was an architect for only a few years, instead concentrating on illustrating several books with his distinctive drawings, and building up a collection that would become his life’s work. Whilst at war in 1917, and having inherited his family’s fortune of a sugar plantation on St Kitts, Wade stumbled on an advert for a run-down manor house in the Cotswolds which he went on to buy.

The house was, Wade said, ” in the most deplorable state of ruin and neglect, but had not been spoilt with modern additions,” and he proceeded to fill it with items he had collected over the years.

He was a real magpie of a chap, with an eye for the exotic; he picked up items from antique dealers all over the country, anything that exhibited great craftsmanship. He lived next to the manor house in a small cottage, giving the larger building over to house his eccentric, growing collection. He welcomed guests, clearly enjoying the items being seen and enjoyed by others – and using the strange collection to live a rather unusual, somewhat theatrical life. When Queen Mary visited in 1937, it is said she thought Wade himself ‘the most remarkable part of the collection’. (From Jonathan Howard’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available here.)

Wade gave Snowshill Manor over to the National Trust some years before his death in 1956, and it has been looked after by them ever since. A massive restoration project took place in 2004 on the house and its collections, taking care to reproduce the ambience and presentation Wade had painstakingly created.

I’m still in the early stages of my quest for more information about Wade. Luckily it seems that as well as illustrating for most of his life, he also kept scores of notebooks and diaries. I have ordered a copy of his memoirs, and a visit to Snowshill Manor is on the cards when I get the time. (National Trust website here.)

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© National Trust

Whilst he remains something of an enigma to me, a handful of quotes about Wade (found here) only go to further cement my belief that he’s a fascinating chap, and one I want to know more and more about:

J B Priestley said of Wade:

“He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers…”

A visitor to Snowshill in the 1920s said:

“with his slightly sinister sense of humour… he would sit as still as a waxwork till one saw him, or to my terror as a child, he would leap out from the parted flames of the fire with his grey hair streaming…”

And finally, in Some Country Houses by James Lees-Milne

“With his old wax complexion, angular features and sharp nose, his presence was daunting. He admitted to Lutyens that he loved toys and had never grown up. He had a child’s insatiable wonder and curiosity. A tassel to him was an object deserving intense scrutiny and examination. How was it made, and of what, and by whom, and for what purpose?'”

It’s that kind of curiosity and nerdiness that I absolutely love. So here’s to the eccentric and obsessive Charles Paget Wade.