Writing about talking

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Last night I spoke at LDNIA. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at a thing for a while. Two reasons for that.

1) I haven’t had anything to say for a while. I wanted to wait until I’d made some things rather than just reckoned about them. I’ve been with GDS for a year and a half now, and I’m comfortable talking about what I’ve been up to (although, to be honest, you’re probably better off asking Sarah Richards to say something instead. Seriously. I’ll put you in touch if you want – she’s brilliant).

2) The last talk I gave was a eulogy for my Grandad. You know, I didn’t think that was a thing until I realised that it was, absolutely, a thing. The last time I spoke I had to fight very hard not to step away from the lectern – funerals are nothing like anything.

Hannah’s post the other day reminded me that stacks of energy goes into talking. Or, at least, that I try and put a lot in. They can wipe you out, when you put a lot of yourself into them. I haven’t been doing them all that long – often it feels like a novelty.

I get so much more out of them though. I work out what I think about stuff when I write a talk, and how I feel about things when I perform one. That’s a valuable thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying to those who came last night ‘Thanks’. You were lovely. It would have been my Grandad’s birthday yesterday, and it felt fitting to be exercising a bit of my brain that’s been dormant for a while. Thanks also to Matt for inviting me – much appreciated.

Printing out blog posts

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed a few blog posts from the GOV.UK blogging platform and sent them to print.

We’re about a month away from the volume of blogging over there getting too big to keep track of. We need to explore different ways of collating that stuff for people, and I thought a ‘best of the month’ in print might be an interesting experiment.

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It doesn’t work. At all.

The lag between sending something to print and getting it back – whether with Newspaper Club or Lulu or anywhere else – makes it way easier to put some distance between whatever creative spark prompts the work and the actual final thing. That distancing effect was even greater when I realised I’d fucked up the file before I exported it (the front page header was utterly wrecked).

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Many pieces are too ‘of the moment’ and don’t stand up to a monthly schedule. The ones that do work well could actually just as well be collected in a year or so – it doesn’t really matter when.

Still and all, it’s a useful thing. What we did end up mulling over is how a PDF collection, or epub version, might work. Something not a million miles away from what Aly‘s getting people to do for the Transition readers, just downloadable. For people to ‘take offline’.

Basically, it’d be nice to get some of these stories in front of people in a format that doesn’t remind them of work. I like the idea of a few curators – for service managers, designers or delivery managers – picking their highlights and packaging up the URLs for people to read over a weekend, or on the train home.

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It’s wetter by bike

I’ve still got a little bit of The Fear when it comes to cycling. I had an accident on my Brompton a few months after I got it that basically put me off bikes. It’s a tiny tank – it came out of it fine. I picked up a cast for a little while and a gristly click in my elbow when it gets cold.

Thing is, cycling to work is the second easiest form of exercise. It’s much nicer than the tube at 8am, and only slightly slower. The last twelve months have been a slow reminder that my body can’t thrive on earnest nervous energy forever. I lead a relatively sedentary existence most days in the week, and this is the absolute least I can do to break out of those habits.

Since joining GDS I’ve become a bit of a fair weather cyclist. Any condition even slightly sub-optimal – weather, my mood, the clothes I have to hand – can put me off doing it. Today the forecast promised rain.

I’ve just come back from pootling home on my bike in a pissing heavy shower. I’m damp, a bit sullen, and I’m desperate for a Twix. But I do feel better. Hurrah! Well done, tiny bike.

Matt's Brompton

Nice old things

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Spent a brilliant few hours at The National Archives this morning. Lovely place, filling a building that feels like the civil service you see in old reels – just newer.

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Churchill’s memorandum telling civil servants to write less.

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Original ink drawings by Ronald Searle.

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Old globes!

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These are interesting – posters produced with blank spaces so local communities could fill them in as required.

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Loads of food for thought. Huge thanks to Laura, Emma and Ruth for showing us round.

Space is still massive

I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards for the last three years, as a guest of Anne. She’s produced the exhibition’s films since 2011, and they’re lovely – like this one of chap called Fredrik, shot in Norway:

Each year I leave thinking something like ‘My god, we’re all so TINY’, and clutching my camera close to snap the sky. This year the moon obliged, and while I still don’t really know how to use my camera I managed to get a nice blue glow in the night, plus a shot across the river.

18 September 2013

18 September 2013

18 September 2013

Words not pictures

“I went to the Mass Observation exhibition.”
“Was the copywriting better than the photography?”
“Y… yeah, actually. How did you guess?”

This Is Your Photo is fine. It’s a neat overview of MO, leaning heavily on the Observation aspect. Much is made of the hidden camera and the sneaky shot. But it falls terribly short on the Mass part.

Mass Observation had scale. It wasn’t always successful at it, but in terms of coverage it did alright. This exhibition shows such a limited selection of the archive that every shot feels closer to portraiture. On those terms most of the photography, even many of Humphrey Spender’s beautiful shots, are much weaker than the scribbled entries of the wider MO community.

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This photo, for example, poses fewer questions and offers much less tension between subject/photographer/viewer than this passage:

MO in Blackpool

The thing is, accounts like these don’t work at scale. Not now. The oral/written culture of MO is too massive to absorb, it’s just words and numbers. As portraits they’re incredible, but as a body it’s too damn much.

But the photographs? My god, a wall filled with these would paint such a vivid picture of a time that no-one would come out with the same story. As it is I felt like I was on rails, a narrow selection confirming an interpretation of a collection. I couldn’t explore it. You get flashes of it in the second room and the newer projects, but it’s just as haphazard.

(That said, seeing the reference to Worktown joined another bunch of the dots in The Red Men together; the fundamental failure of The Great Refusal to acknowledge what it’s actually riffing off, and contemporary technological life’s debt to the ’30s and ’40s)

Finally, it manages to be a little careless. There are typos dotted about all over the place and a few of the selections don’t really tally with what you’re being told. It’s a shame, because just upstairs there’s an incredibly powerful, simple exhibition called Deeds Not Words that’s well worth your time.