How to grow salad.

It’s April, but everything looks dead, or dying. This should not be the case. The chilli plants should not be crispy; the cacti should not be droopy; the orchids should not be stubbornly dormant. There has been sunshine, I’ve seen it, and I’ve been persistently watering and nurturing and feeding.  I even played Classic FM to them – science says they like it. But alas, nothing. It seems I may have to consider starting from scratch. With this in mind, and given that it is a good time of year to be planting things, I’m going to present you with some gentle suggestions for things to grow yourself, if you feel so inclined, in this and the next few columns.

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Why Brutalism is beautiful

Last week, the Chief Executive of English Heritage, Dr Simon Thurley, gave a lecture at Durham University entitled The Pendulum of Taste: Architecture and the Rise of a State Aesthetic. In it, he put forward the idea that we still do not have an adequate framework for discussing architectural quality. Experts have particular types of analytical discourse that they can use, he suggested, but the public are often left wondering why certain buildings are revered or reviled. George Square’s David Hume Tower, for example, was listed in 2006 and many people wonder why: few people would call it beautiful. Likewise, Sheffield’s Park Hill – a grade two listed building – which is, visually, popularly accepted as being something of a monstrosity.

Both of these buildings were designed and erected in the aftermath of WW2 and are prime examples of the Brutalist movement. Its name needs little explanation, but, perhaps because of it, the movement’s structures have been misrepresented and unfairly vilified. The buildings look brutal, yes, but in naming them for how they appear, we reinforce the idea that the visual facets of architecture are the most important. The value of buildings is all too often based, in the popular conscience, on their aesthetic appeal – or lack thereof.

In the case of Brutalism, there is a lot to love beyond the stark grey walls. Dr Thurley suggests that establishing value requires a more complex classification system than currently exists in the public sphere. He presented a condensed version of the criteria English Heritage use when deciding which buildings are listed, or, in some cases, unlisted. This includes considerations such as whether a building is a particularly striking or early example of a movement’s architecture, and, tellingly, how socially important the building is.

This is where the beauty of Brutalism becomes obvious: it is fundamentally functional. A building’s aesthetic qualities were hardly going to be important in a landscape of bombed out ruins. What Britain needed was buildings that provided public services: housing blocks, libraries, council buildings, and so on. They did not need to be visually pleasing, they needed to help the country get back on its feet as quickly as possible. Brutalism achieves every one of its aims and, in doing so, is part of our social and cultural heritage. Its value is in what it represents: stability, survival and strength.

Originally published in The Student, 8 November

Bedroom Gardener: part one

As much as the weather last week has tried to persuade us otherwise, we are approaching the end of the summer season and consequently things are starting to slow down in my greenhouse – sorry, bedroom.

The tomatoes, once the seven-foot kings of my bay window, have been cut back to encourage them to direct their energies to ripening the last few remaining fruits. As determined as I was, back in April, that I would be positively replete with tomato-based foodstuffs by now, the glut I anticipated never quite happened. The Black Russian variety produced about six enormous, deep maroon tinged specimens, which were delicious, and the Rosada plant was the most prolific, producing four beautiful vines of cherry tomatoes. Tigerella, though very pretty (the tomatoes live up to their name, with orange and red stripes) was disappointingly lax in terms of productivity: I had about ten fruits off it over the course of the summer, with a few left to ripen. The Ferlines, described to me as “exceptionally useful for soups and stews” are continuing to swell and redden in these last few days of sunshine – I shall report back on their progress next time.

Chilli plants, I was informed by my mother, were a sensible choice for the bedroom gardener – compact, productive, and aesthetically pleasing. She was right, of course. Perhaps the brief sojourn my fledgling chillis had to her greenhouse whilst I was at Glastonbury can be credited with their success: green wisdom and a sunny patio proved a winning combination and I now have about six chillis on each of my four plants. This may not sound much, but they are powerful little things – one small, green Apache chilli was enough to spice up a large pot of curry the other night.

My orchids remain dormant, stubbornly refusing to flower, though – joy – I have noticed a new leaf on the twin-stem one, which bodes well. The cacti are happy as ever, and the dragon tree is growing at an almost alarming rate since I potted it up. I am planning to begin a hunt for some winter flowering house plants soon – I spotted something with beautiful red berries outside a shop in Morningside a while ago, which I intend to investigate further. I had hoped to put together some sort of herb window box as well but, given Edinburgh’s tendency towards extreme windiness, I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of that. Still, as the weather starts to turn, I’m almost grateful for my lack of a real garden – cold evenings spent weeding are no fun. Evenings in my armchair next to the tomato gang, on the other hand…

Originally published in The Student, 4 October 2011

In Defence of Vogue

Vogue is easy to love, and as – if not more – easy to hate. Is it a celebration of glorious high fashion needing no justification other than the pleasure it evokes, or a pointless and expensive piece of advertising? Yet it is an icon of sorts: instantly recognisable, and even in its 94th year of existence, still capable of making some sort of statement about its readers. Continue reading