It’s good to be the king!

Today over 3.5 million people in Britain run their own business. In 1979 there were only 800,000 companies in the country.  

In an interview in today’s Times, Lord Young of Graffham (David Cameron’s adviser on enterprise and former Trade and Industry Secretary) describes the UK as “an economy in transition”, moving away from a landscape dominated by a few industrial giants to one teeming with small businesses.  “In 1979, we were down to 800,000 firms.  Today we have 4.8 million companies, 400,000 new ones in the last year.”

Behind this business population explosion is the rise of the self-employed entrepreneur.  As Young explains “three quarters are sole traders and 96 per cent of all firms in this country employ fewer than ten people.”

Is this a good thing?  I think it must be.  On the macro level, smaller businesses mean the economy is more agile.  Small companies can respond faster to events.  Their prevalence is surely a factor in the UK’s relatively low levels of unemployment.

On the individual or (perhaps more accurately) personal level, running your own business means more responsibility and, sometimes, stress.  But ultimately you are the king of your own castle. And it’s good to be the king!

Posted in all kinds of everything, business leaders | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Eggheads confirm we live in a material world

Gold fingers


Can money buy you happiness?  Yes.

A research study by the University of Michigan has found that mo’ money does not mean mo’ problems.

Reported in today’s City AM, the study identifies a strong correlation between rising personal wealth and happiness.  “There’s no stopping the trend: as income rises, happiness and satisfaction levels increase just as inexorably.”  Once you’re in the $100-$150k earnings bracket, everyone in the survey is either  “very or fairly happy”.  And it just gets better from there.

From my own experience, more money didn’t always mean I was happier.  But it certainly took the edge off the blues.

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Inside out

Cat Nap

Cat nap*

“Before I could reply, Gowing said there was nothing so completely uninteresting as other people’s dreams.”

Are other people’s dreams really boring? Scientists in Japan don’t think so.  Using an MRI scanner, they claim to be able to ‘read’ dreams.

Practical questions aside (what kind of person could fall asleep inside an MRI scanner: a claustrophobic iron tube that makes a noise like a giant pneumatic drill?) there is something disturbing about the idea of this invasion of our sleeping selves.

As with telepathy – and the possibility of a ‘brain-to-brain interface’ that could allow someone to “experience directly the imagination, dreams or emotions of another” – a dream-reading machine – is not an immediate prospect.  The private space within our skulls will remain private for now.

A more immediate concern for privacy is the amount of personal information we push into the digital environment when we use social media, shop online, blog or just visit a web site.  Almost everything we do today leaves a digital footprint: a trail of clues about our preferences, behaviour and aspirations.

Thanks to our digital footprints, scientists won’t need dream-readers or brain-to-brain interfaces to see inside our heads.  We’ve already put the information out there.

* gratuitous cat photo

Posted in all kinds of everything, privacy, science | Leave a comment

Labels are for bottles, not people

Beer Street and Gin Lane Gin Lane From the original design by Hogarth from The Works of Hogarth published London 1833

One for the road

Is telling us we’re “binge drinkers” the best way to tackle damaging drinking?

According to research by University College London, published today in The European Journal of Public Health (and reported in The Independent),  we’re “a nation of secret boozers” and we’re telling fibs when someone comes round with a clipboard to ask how much we’re putting away.

Apparently, self-reported alcohol consumption only accounts for between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of sales.  When this under-reporting is factored in, the study suggests around half of all English men and women can be classified as “binge drinkers”.

Nobody denies that alcohol is a huge problem that can wreck lives.  There’s a growing awareness that even what we consider moderate drinking may affect our health.

But the fact that people understate their drinking suggests we’re already feeling guilty about how much we drink.  Does labelling someone a “binge drinker” who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner every night – and a few more at the weekend – really going to help them cut down ?  Is shame a good tactic in (communicating) public health policy?

Posted in all kinds of everything, PR tactics | Tagged , | 5 Comments


Small shelter

A place to shelter

St Leonard’s-on-Sea in East Sussex was laid out as a new town in the 19th Century

Perhaps ‘genteel housing development’ better describes architect James Burton’s original plans for St Leonard’s.  Today, what’s left of Burton’s scheme has been absorbed into the rambling townscape of Mega-Hastings.

Like most seaside towns, there’s a sense the place has seen better days.  But then nobody looks their best on a freezing February afternoon, when it seems even the seagulls are staying indoors.

While Burton’s Victorian new town gave me a pretext to take the almost two-hour rail trip to St Leonard’s, what I really wanted to see were the later additions.  Like Marine Court, a vast beached ocean-liner of a building: all curves, decks and even the odd porthole.

Marine Court

Marine Court

When it was completed in 1937, Marine Court was the tallest block of flats in the UK.  But as well as the very big, St Leonard’s offers more scaled-down modernist treats.  Like the shelters on the seafront: miniature tours de force in glass and concrete.

Concrete doesn’t often seem at home in Britain.  It’s difficult and costly to maintain.  It stains and crumbles in our damp climate.  Exposed concrete takes on an oppressive character: the flat matt greys somehow intensify the greys of our wet northern skies.

And concrete has acquired guilt by association: it’s been used in so many laugh-free or anti-glamorous contexts: like inner city sink estates, bus stations, or local government offices.

Here, however, concrete is fun. It’s light and human-scaled.  It’s got some of the ‘machine ethic’ of modernism, but the straight lines are relieved by gentle curves.  It’s simple – but it doesn’t feel bare or ungenerous.  Like Marine Court, it borrows something of its style from ships.  But the joke doesn’t feel laboured.

shelter from road

Straight lines and curves

These moderne pavilions – offering protection from sudden downpours or nasty breezes – are perfectly at home at the English seaside.  In their modest way they soften concrete and even, as marycigarettes suggests, feminise it.

More shelter

More shelter

Posted in new towns, Planning | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Another go at new towns

Hive mind? (Craigavon, Northern Ireland)

The future looked like this, once (Craigavon, Northern Ireland)

Are new towns proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions?

I’ve always been fascinated by new towns.

New towns are about making new starts. They give us a chance to begin again, and do things better than before.

New towns are about ambition: literally, about building a better world. And they remind us that – however vivid and inspiring our dreams of perfection may be – we live in an imperfect world.

For years I’ve tried to ‘do’ something on new towns in the British Isles. Whether that’s some kind of book or maybe a blog or an article.

But I’ve always stumbled and fallen. Because it’s such a big topic – and I’m not sure you can distil it down to a few bullet points (unless you want to take the snide Crap Towns approach).

Nonetheless, I am going to try. In the next weeks I’m starting a companion blog to this one, focussed on British new towns. I’m not sure what I’m going to say – except that I will be writing from the point of view of a ‘believer’. I want to find examples of new towns that fulfilled their ambitions – however incompletely or fleetingly – and identify what we can learn from them.

Good intentions, and high ambitions, may not lead to heaven. But I hope I can show they don’t always pave the way to hell.

Posted in new towns, Planning | Tagged | 9 Comments

Opening windows into men’s souls

In a pickle


Telepathy could one day become a reality: is that something to celebrate?

Today’s Times (£) reports from the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where a Professor Miguel Nicolelsis of Duke University claims to have invented a ‘brain-to-brain interface’.

As well as telepathic communication, “the development opens up possibilities such as soldiers being able to read each other’s thoughts on the battlefield and a person being able to experience directly the imagination, dreams or emotions of another.”

As long as telepathy was in the realm of science fiction – and worked like a kind of brain-telephone – it seemed a benign enough concept. But the telepathy described in The Times could enable the grossest imaginable invasion of our private selves.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith tries to comfort himself with the notion that “the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.” Perhaps not for much longer.


Posted in science | Tagged , , | 5 Comments