Monday, 30 July 2012

Colchester: A cycle-path's perspective

A few months ago I bought a bike from Colchester’s fantastic Cycle King. I made the decision, initially, to get me from A (my house) to B (the train station) with more haste than normal. In that sense it’s worked out perfectly. I’m shaving 20 minutes off my daily commute and am now incorporating a regular flow of  exercise into my life.

More interestingly, it’s allowed me to see another side to Colchester. Having no driver’s license [a decision fuelled more because of a preference for spending lesson money on booze rather than any environmental idealism in my younger days] meant my sightseeing was limited to the stretching of two legs or my other half’s compliance in exploring beyond the confines of North Hill in the car.

So far I’ve free-wheeled my way around the country paths of Cymbeline Meadows and, a very muddy, Highwoods Country Park. I’ve also zipped my way around town, weaving in and out of traffic while I make my way to the various veg stalls peppered across Colchester during the weekend.

What’s struck me since my setting out on my cycling adventures is just how impressive Colchester’s biking infrastructure is. Too many councils in the UK pay lip-service to cyclists, creating pointless cycle paths that are poorly thought out in terms of congestion and the direction of cycling traffic.

Since 2008,  Colchester Borough Council (CBC) have spent an extraordinary £4.2m on increasing the number of cycle journeys in the town by 75%. My impression is that it shows. Perhaps not in the people actively cycling in town – the ratio of bikes to cars is significant, particularly around North Station – but the number of cycle routes available is certainly above the national average (if there is such a thing) and a thousand percent beyond the options available in my home town of Edinburgh.

An article in the local newspaper the Gazette last year suggested that the funding has been wasted [I have to say the article was loaded with negative rhetoric]. But Colchester, from my initial impressions, is a transient town that has relied on gas-guzzling cars to get around for far too long. Changing mindsets is not a short-term solution and, hopefully, CBC is aware of this.

Cycling in Colchester needs to be seen by Joe Public as a viable alternative to using the car. From my perspective, as a professional communicator, CBC must actively steer the promotion of getting in the saddle from cost or health-based messages (two particularly patronising and unspecific hits). It has to set a more emotional tone, highlighting the importance of building a long-term framework for the future of the town and the people who live in it.

Steering Colchester away from the perception that it’s nothing more than a commuter’s town obscured under the shadow of London should be a primary objective of CBC. That is, of course, not easy, nor can it be done through cycling alone. But by creating a community of people who prefer to explore the town on two-wheels, rather than escape from it on four, CBC will be well on its way to creating a Colchester that’s not just cycle-friendly, but cycle-centric. A town you’d want to live in.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Out and about in England: Dedham

The purpose of my escape from the City was to spend more time with Su and finally feel like I'm living a life down south. Already, I'm starting to see the difference. I've lost - or at least am losing - the commuter bulge; I'm getting out and about on my trusty bike more; and Su and I are having much more fun than I can remember in a long time.

All in all, life is pretty good. The summer down here is significantly hotter than Scotland, so I'm even developing a curious brown - rather than red - complexion as we explore the outer echelons of England. Much of our recent adventures are stemming from a terrrific book called Room at the Inn, which pinpoints the best countryside inns and accompanying walks across England and Wales. So far it's been a revelation.

The English do pubs like no-one else. The local ales are generally exquisite and there's a refreshin, if unspoken, insistence that taverns must maintain an olde English elegance in  both ambiance and decor.  And when the sun's out, there's always - and I mean always - space in the vast beer gardens buried beyond each ale-house's lounge bar.

Last week, we visited Dedham in north-east Essex to take on a three-mile country trail that followed the River Stour. It was a breathtaking and sanguine couple of hours. The English countryside may lack trajectory, but its pancake flat walks are brushed with a rich, earthy palette of greens, yellows and browns that make for some luscious summer eye-candy.

Knackered from our two-hour walk through England's countryside, we ambled our way to the Sun Inn. Centered in the heart of  the picturesque Dedham, this is an inn that packs traditional English pub sensabilities with an intriguing mediterranean menu. Veering between Su's mammoth vegetarian pasta dish and my meaty bread board, our flavoursome, well-presented dishes were washed down with a pair of jet-black organic ales (and equally dark and black Diet Pepsi on Su's side).

Feet-flexed and bellies-filled, we made our way back to Colchester with a rejuvenated sense of the countryside. Roll on our next England adventure.

Monday, 9 July 2012

In an Insta: Polishing photographic turds

Lugging a huge DSLR camera around isn’t always that practical. For a start, spending hours with a huge lens and body hanging from my shoulder is probably not great for my already imperfect posture; while the cost implications of having it nicked on a night out could potentially rise in to the £1,000s.

So, lately, I’ve been using my Samsung Galaxy SII smartphone and the Instagram app as a lightweight and extremely convenient means of taking on-the-spot snapshots of my daily movements. I’m still dubious about Instagram/cameraphonegraphy and its value for photography in the wider sphere (a point my wife addresses here), but at a micro level it’s a fun bit of kit that gives me the option to manipulate god-awful photography into some resembling vintage eye-candy. 

The appeal of Instagram lies in its Hasselblad-like framing and the variety of preset tonal adjustments it offers. Admittedly, it feels a bit like a cheat. Take a fuzzy picture of your family barbeque and it can suddenly look like a not- too-shabby moment when manipulated through the X-Pro setting. Essentially, Instgram is polishing photographic turds for you and I to share with the world.

I can see why this doesn’t sit right with everyone. There’s something about it that feels slightly disingenuous and, as my wife makes her living from pictures, it worries me that it’s leading a gradual depreciation of photography as a storytelling device. But if you take it as what it’s meant to be – a bit of fun – Instagram is another social medium that gets people engaged in photography. That’s probably not too much of a bad thing, is it?

My Instagram endeavours so far…

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Album review: Miaoux Miaoux - Light of the North

If you’re one of those sorts who like to organise their record collections by genre, you'd best look away now. Light of the North, Julian Corrie’s debut long-player under the Miaoux Miaoux guise, is the kind of album that’s likely to cause genre-junkies plenty of sleepless nights. It’s not that these ten cuts by the Glasgow-based circuit-bender are unidentifiable – far from it – but trying to make sense of where this record sits as one solid mass is no easy task. In fact, it feels almost impossible.

Effortlessly weaving between infectious pop hooks, conscious hip-hop, ebullient African rhythms, arable folk and star-striding electronica (to pick out just a few), Light of the North is an incongruous, ever-twisting musical kaleidoscopic. Anyone familiar with Corrie’s movements north of the border will recognise this inability to sit still. He has, it’s fair to say, form for steering down multiple directions; connecting dots between myriad Scottish scenes and absorbing all that surrounds him before reshaping it to his own advantage.

In most hands, this magpie approach would normally be unlistenable. Yet, a skilled and much lauded remixer, Corrie’s paws are more adept than most; a trait that’s exemplified in his expert massaging of ‘Sweep Clean’s juddering inidietronica and the scattergun glitches of ‘Cloud Computer’s. While this may be his inaugural offering, it’s executed with the trained ear of a musician who understands what he wants and, more importantly, what his listeners want: to dance.

And dance is exactly what this record does. But, given its maker, Light of The North is no pedestrian disco-biscuit-gnawing affair. To really embrace it, to really move to its zig-zagging, labyrinth of rhythms requires a certain kind of patience. Try cherry-picking from its summery branches and the idea of the ebullient ‘Is It a Dream’ living alongside the escalating dance-folk thrum of ‘Stop The Clocks' makes little sense. It has even less effect.

Yet played out in sequence, played out as Corrie meant it to be, and what unravels is a record that can bust a stone-cold, limb-shifting killer like ‘Hey Sound’ before seguing effortlessly into ‘Better For Now’s major-key electro-balladry. It’s no mean feat. And while the closing, slightly tedious, run of ‘Singing In The Dark’ and ‘Ribbon Run’ suggests Corrie’s veneer requires a little polish, ‘Virtua Fighter’s lugubrious beats – accompanied by the debonair rhymes of Profisee – underlines his ability to combine eclecticism and melody without aping a sub-par Hot Chip.

So where should you place Light of the North in your record collection? Even Julian Corrie can’t answer that. But, succumb to the contents of his fine yet indefinable debut, and you’ll soon realise that’s exactly how he planned it.