Man of Aran

It was just over a year ago that I attended the London premiere of British Sea Power’s magnificent live soundtrack the the classic film, Man of Aran at the BFI. I was mesmerised then and I was mesmerised again last night in Sheffield, where they played the soundtrack live to the film as part of the city’s Sensoria Festival.

This is British Sea Power at their best – a majestic, atmospheric, engaging and enveloping score that draws one into the film in a way the original score simply couldn’t do. It’s interesting to see the clips of the old film on YouTube and compare the two soundtracks – the new music delivers an immediacy and potency that I think is simply more in tune with modern tastes.

The film is a docudrama set in the 1930’s on the inhospitable Aran Islands that is essentially a series of set pieces, each building to a crescendo of struggle and difficulty the likes of the modern western world has not seen for a hundred years. Directed by acclaimed film maker Robert J Flaherty, it was described by American film critic Pauline Kael as “The greatest film tribute to man’s struggle against a hostile nature.”

“It’s a wonderful film,” says BSP guitarist Noble. “The images vary between huge drama and a brilliant kind of ridiculousness – check out the amazing foot-wide bobbled berets that the fishermen wear. It’s a great look, like a 1930s Irish version of Jack White or Kraftwerk. It’s a film that’s also relevant to the current era – a time when the idea of living a simpler life is in the air. The film shows something I’d like to think I could do, but know I never will.”

I agree with Noble – I don’t think there was a person in the theatre that wasn’t comparing our comparatively easy life the sheer hardship of the islanders. Of course there’s something rather noble (excuse the pun) about the life that they led back then: man against nature, man has small victories but nature’s really still in charge. And of course with our recent experience with ash clouds, we’re reminded that no matter how much we advance technologically, nature is still in charge.

Having seen the live scoring previously, I felt they’d developed the work further – it seemed tighter, more luxurious and somehow more immediate. The show was a precursor to the tan Hill festival and there was much anticipation in the foyer post show hubbub. The Showroom was a great venue to see this one off event (actually they played two shows at 7 and 9pm) and the evening was topped off nicely by a highly average curry.


For those of you in the design profession and of a certain age (ahem) the above photograph will bring a wealth a memories flooding back. It’s strange to think that it wasn’t that long ago when our creative lives were ruled by a very different type of technology that involved hands on skills to create beautiful typography.

What brought on this blast from the past?

I’ve been on the hunt for some self adhesive colour film for an art project for the girl and went googling for Letrafilm. This was a product we used day in day out to create visuals and colour artwork. It was lovely stuff: gossamer thin, an incredible range of Pantone colours and a beautiful matt finish. On the downside, absolutely anything would stick to it, and usually did, messing up the painstakingly created artwork.

Of course Letrafilm has gone the way of the dodo and was discontinued some time ago, so my search for the art project materials continues. But I was reminded, when searching, how the Pantone products held a vice like grip across pretty much all of our working designer lives when I was learning my craft.

Letraset is the one most people outside the industry will recognise – we had cabinets full of the stuff. It was expensive too and there was much craft and skill involved in applying the delicate letterforms to art boards or high quality paper. The Letraset catalogue was the first port of call when selecting a typeface and every studio’s copy was dog eared and well used. It was also a treasure trove of often bonkers fonts that defied belief.

Then there was Letratint – essentially black ‘mechanical’ half tone tints that were used in black and white camera ready artwork, saving a lot of time and money in reproduction. Again, these were hellish to apply, requiring deft scalpel skills. I learnt my trade from a studio of ‘commercial artists’ – the precursors to actual graphic designers – and these guys were all about craft and knew every trick and shortcut in the business. I learnt fast.

Then there was Letrafilm and Pantone paper – the former the self adhesive A4 sheets (hellishly pricey I seem to remember) and the latter, large A2 sheets of solid pantone colour (again, not cheap) but a lifesaver if you had to lay down a lot of colour in a design. They were prone to getting kinks in the paper when delivered I seem to remember.

Then came the ubiquitous Pantone markers. They completed the circle really and allowed a relatively consistent application of colours across everything. The pantone markers were more designery than the adman’s favourite the ‘magic marker’ and the Pantone markers seemed to last longer. And the smell…

Twenty years ago it would be almost impossible to imagine the quantum shift that has taken place where the technology (predominantly Mac of course) has revolutionised our industry – slashing timescales, opening up design to a wider user base, making life significantly easier for designers to meet the requirements of the brief and their clients.

Technology of course, is always a double edged sword and I couldn’t write a post like this without bemoaning the loss of craft though (you knew this was coming). Whilst the world in general races forward with innovation after innovation, changing lives irrevocably, I can’t help but thinking with the loss of things like Letraset, we’re losing more than rub down lettering.

Vegetable garden update

The veg patch is now fully functional with plants and everything. We even have a greenhouse for some of the more tender plants for whom a slight frost would spell certain doom.

So – this is what we’ve planted. Bed 1 – herbs (and later in the month, salad leaves) – for now we have rosemary, thyme, oregano, fennel and parsley (both flat leaf and curly leaf varieties). Bed 2 – broad beans, kale (again, two varieties) with leeks and courgettes  joining them shortly. Bed 3 – this has garden peas and more broad beans and this bed will be added to as the weather warms up a bit.

Elsewhere we have potatoes on the go and rhubarb. Does anyone have any suggestions or thoughts about their veg patch they’d like to share? All tips are gratefully received!

Do we need another design competition?

I read recently that another regional design award competition had been launched. It kind of passed me by to be honest. I got the email, saw the press release on a few industry websites and shrugged. It’s not like the design industry doesn’t have its fair share of competitions – in fact, I suspect we have far more than other industries.

Northern Futures (the latest addition to our growing list) aims to ‘celebrate future talent emerging from the North, seeking to identify and encourage future Westwoods, Hockneys, Boyles and Savilles…’ Well, that sounds great and I’m all for the design sector getting the profile it needs and deserves – because lets face it, it’s tough out there. I’m sure the competition is backed by people passionate about design, but I wonder where does it fit in the overall scheme of design competitions?

What else is already out there? There’s The Northern Design Competition – ‘developed to raise the profile of design talent’ – essentially for students vaguely hoping to catch the eye of an employer. It’s been around a few years and is growing slowly in popularity (it has a long way to go).

Then there’s the Northern Art Prize – ‘for contemporary visual artists’ – this is a pretty serious contemporary art prize growing in credibility year on year. In my opinion, it’s the closest thing to a ‘proper’ competition outside London.

On top of these we have a plethora of other regional design awards spanning the sector sponsored by publications such as The Drum . There’s Roses Design Awards, DADI awards, Cream Awards and even Roses Student Awards, to name just a few.

Not forgetting the highly commendable Sh! Awards organised by Northern Agency BRAHM aimed at helping students get their first foothold in the industry. And I’ve not even mentioned some of the dubious ‘international’ awards competitions that are floating around! With these, it seems all you have to do is navigate the complicated application forms to get a bronze.

So where does Northern Futures sit? I’m afraid there’s a real danger it’s just one amongst many. The truth of the matter is that in design, it’s the national competitions that hold the most kudos with agencies and clients alike.

It’s annoying, and we try to kid ourselves that when we win a few regional prizes we don’t care about London, but it’s just not true. And whilst it’s good to be recognised regionally by your peers and a decent panel of judges, it pales into insignificance next to a much prized national D&AD award or a DBA effectiveness award. And of course there’s the national industry publications such as Design Week, who all have highly sought after and  respected competitions.

I met an Northern agency owner recently who boasted that his reception desk was groaning under the weight of all of the awards they’d won in recent times. ‘It’s what we focus on’, he said. Fair play, I thought. But the problem is that I’d not heard of half of them – and the more of these competitions there are, the more they are simply devalued.

And what do clients think? I know for a fact they like the main ones where the awards dinners is at Grosvenor House or The Hyde Park Hilton. And who can blame them? They love swanky award dinners where they can measure themselves against their peers – we all do. I once attended an awards bash at The Cedar Court Hotel, just off the M606 in Bradford. I think we won best headed notepaper or most creative use of a compliments slip. That kind of thing doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Could Northern/Regional award competitions be aggregated in some way into something larger and more meaningful for the design industry? I think it’s almost a reflection of the lack of respect the creative industries gets outside of the capital – no-one is taking the sector seriously on a business level and it reinforces a completely London-centric approach to everything.

Speaking from the heart as a Northerner, I’m passionate about the people we have and I know for a fact we have the talent to hold our heads high in any competition – and come away with the silverware (and goldware). I’d like to see a regional awards competition for the creative industries that reflected our ambition, passion and scale of thinking.

London and The North are two different worlds in our world and I believe it’s absolutely right to concentrate on building creative industries that aren’t just concentrated within the M25. A serious and credible Northern Design Awards could be an central plank of an ongoing strategy to halt the drain of our best talent to London.

It’s a big ask, I know.

It requires joined up thinking across public and private sector and it won’t be easy. In the meantime, what we have is OK – the current awards landscape in the North delivers on a level that will keep moving design forward, but what we really need is audacious thinking to truly compete on a world stage.

The vegetable garden project

There has been a lot of feverish activity in our garden over the past two weeks. We started planning a veg patch in January and at long last, its starting to take shape. I’m not well known for my DIY skills but I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved here. I’ve had a couple of people ask me what we did and how we did it, so for what it’s worth here’s what we did to get it to the point in the photograph:

After lots of research, we opted for tannelised decking joists for the the raised beds. We looked at sleepers (too toxic, apparently), scaffolding planks (too grotty). I constructed three beds – 2.4m x 1.8m, fact fans – and placed them in situ and used wood fencing spikes to secure them.

Next up was edging the area with wood so the gravel has a border to go up against. Again, this was tannelised and spiked into the ground. So far, we’ve used two tons of plum coloured slate (and I think we’ll need another ton to finish it). All of these materials came from local builders merchant, Maddens and Farmac.

Before laying the gravel, we spread a permeable membrane on the ground to stop the weeds coming through. The beds were filled with a ton of topsoil (only £35) as we didn’t have enough spare topsoil elsewhere in the garden. The beds are now ready to be planted – we’ll probably dig in some manure to get the plants off to a flying start.

We’re starting to plant the vegetables this weekend and I’ll report on the progress as the summer progresses.

Simon’s Seat and Simone Felice

Wednesday saw two completely contrasting experiences for me. I spent the day hiking in the Yorkshire Dales and the evening crammed in a sweaty club in Leeds watching a band. And that’s just the way I like it.

Simon’s Seat is a relatively small peak (just a hill, not anywhere near a mountain) in Wharfedale, which is in the lower Dales. Only a short 45 mins from Leeds, it’s set amidst stunning, classic Dales scenery.

Patchwork quilt hillsides with dry stone walls mark the boundaries of ancient farmland – this is iconic scenery, and for a Yorkshireman it brings a tear to the eye. In early spring, it’s absolutely stunning with the fields full of newborn lambs and the trees just starting to come into leaf. On top of this, we plumped for a day when the weather was spectacular – clear blue skies and enough of a breeze to keep you on your toes. Amazing.

The climb up to Simon’s Seat itself – ie the top – was pretty challenging to be honest, as I’ve not done any serious walking for some time. But the view from the top was well worth it though and although the photograph above look like a staged photo opportunity, the Grouse nestling in the heather was absolutely real! All in all we did around 10 miles I think and managed to fit in a rather nice pub lunch at The Craven Arms in Appletreewick.

All in all, a rather splendid way to spend a day and I really do need to be doing much, much more of this. Good for the heart and the soul.

By means of a complete contrast, the evening was spent in the company of the rather wonderful Duke & The King at the HiFi club in Leeds. I love live music and this evening was a fantastic experience – sublime, soulful music served up in a cramped basement club in the city centre of Leeds.

The band’s frontman and founder is Simone Felice (of The Felice Brothers) and I’m a huge fan of the album and I’ve been desperate to see them live. I bought the tickets some while back and they’ve waited patiently in my little ‘ticket stash’ waiting for their moment. It’s hard to describe the music as it’s quite a contradictory mix of seventies Laurel Canyon MOR, bang up to date haunting acoustic and pure soul music.  noted the crowd had more than its fair share of balding forty somethings and maybe that tells its own tale, but these were thankfully supplemented by a good number of hipsters.

Although I myself fall into the former and not the latter bracket, I still like to think myself as one of the latter. Misguided, I know. If you get the chance, I would highly recommend you search out the band and dip in – you won’t be disappointed. The critics have been very kind to them and it’s for very good reasons.

I urge you to seek them out without any delay.

The ipad

As a notorious sucker for Apple products, I am waiting with baited breath for its latest baby to be launched in the UK – the ipad. It’s been much vaunted of course and in the US its been selling like the proverbial hot cakes and I simply can’t wait to get one in my hands.

I’ve held off writing about it just yet and perhaps thought I’d wait until I get one (which I most certainly will). I’ve seen too much now and the anticipation is reaching fever pitch.

Of course, it’s just like a big iphone (which is lovely anyway, so where’s the issue) and it’s not trying to replace computers or laptops, so you can’t compare it there. The ipad will be all about the content and many commentators more up to speed than I have already spotted this.

I knew this and sagely agreed but when I saw this on the Apple site, I realised for the first time that it really will be all about the content and the freedom for some of the previously printed media to expand into this completely new media channel.

I love comic books, always have. I like the smell of the ink and the feel of the paper and the box fresh nature of a new book. So for the comic (or is it graphic novel?) to work well on the ipad, it has to deliver something new. Well, it’s certainly started off well. In the demo movie, the colours fly off the page and the interaction with the digital page seems to be intuitively aligned with the way we read comic books. This will definitely be one of the first apps I buy for the ipad.

I firmly believe that the ipad will herald a new era in publishing – it will revitalise flagging printed publications and move content away from being delivered purely as a website. What we’re seeing in these early days is comparable to when the iphone was first launched and now look how it has transformed the mobile phone world with over 2 BILLION apps downloaded.

I can’t help but thinking Apple’s groundbreaking innovation will create another epoch-making device that will enrich our lives and fundamentally change the way we consume enetertainment in the way the ipod did.

Not so innocent after all

I discovered this week that Coca Cola have just taken a further 58% stake in the ethically-minded smoothie company, Innocent. There has been much discussion online and off about this and other big corporate involvement in ‘cool’ businesses – in truth, it’s just the latest in a long line of businesses to take the corporate dollar to develop their share of the market.

There’s more of this going on than you think: Green & Blacks were snapped up by Cadbury’s (who in turn were bought by Kraft), Body Shop is now owned by L’Oreal and Pret a Manger is actually owned by MacDonalds.

So there’s a lot of it going on and I think the question for consumers is – does it really matter, and should we even care? The directors at Innocent think not and whilst they retain control of the business, it seems to me like they’re using the huge investment funding from Coca Cola to do what they’ve always wanted with their product range.

For me it has to come down to the fundamental issues of brand values and experience. Like it or not, we all have our own portfolio of brands that we trust around us in our day to day lives. If one of these brands is acquired by a new owner and fundamental brand experience stays the same or actually improves then our trust and belief in that brand will actually grow. If on the other hand, the reasons why we first bought into that brand in the first place change due to the pressures of big business, then that brand is in serious danger of losing its place in our personal brand world.

Personally, I have a lot of respect for a business that recognises that it might have to hand over a stake or even ownership in return for the wider distribution or development of what they are passionate about. The logistical advantage of a larger group is hard to turn down when all you competitors have that advantage too.

I think ultimately the problem some people have with brands like Innocent is that they’ve followed them since they were a small startup business and the reasons why they loved the company and the brand now seem diluted. It’s a bit like following an unsigned band to breaking the charts with their first album and before you know it, everyone likes them and suddenly, the reasons why you loved them (chiefly, no-one else did) have now vanished.

It feels like part of the natural cycle of brands – the challenger brands grow and become part of the mainstream and add vitality, energy and innovation where it’s needed and in turn new brands continue to feed into the chain and inspire the big brands. Of course, some brands stay where they are and have no desire whatsoever to grow, they just like doing what they do and that’s fine and some big brands just keep trundling on regardless.

So the question is – how would you feel if you’re favourite small brand was snaffled by the big boys? Pleased that at long last the niche brand you’ve raved about is going to get the exposure it deserves or disappointed that the brand you’ve recommended to all your friends has sold out?


Whenever I go away, I relish the opportunity to really immerse myself in literature.

It’s one of the few chances I really get to get really stuck into a few books. Our Easter break is always chillout-centric and this year was no different – so I packed a good few  books in the hope that I’d be able to tick some off the ever growing book list.

I can heartily recommend all of the following books….

61 Hours by Lee Child.

The ultimate blokey guilty pleasure. Hard nut ex MP cop jack Reacher kicks ass all over the United States, usually without batting an eyelid and always with a Glock in hand, and this time in Montana (or somewhere like that). Easily read in a day and latest in a long line of predicable but hugely enjoyable airport trash. I loved every single minute and the good news is, this has a sequel attached, that arrives in September. Result!

Restless by William Boyd

Having read, and completely loved, one of Boyd’s earlier works – Any Human Heart – I was determined to have another go at his work. This is another second world war-centred drama, this time espionage focused. Unusually, Boyd writes from a woman’s perspective, which is interesting and worked very well I thought. And although it’s well written and tightly plotted, it feels a bit underpowered emotionally and the subject matter a bit too well-trodden. Disappointing.

Trespass by Rose Tremaine

This book felt like it was at a different level after Boyd. Deeply descriptive and resonant writing that draws you into a world thats strange and yet somehow familiar. Essentially a story about two completely different sibling relationships that are drawn together in a very dramatic finale. The prose is beautiful and very visual – the author definitely has an eye for the banality of violence and death. Superb.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Of course, this years Booker Prize has a pretty large reputation that precedes it. Having been warned off by a couple of readers (hard work, dull) I decided to give it a go and boy, I wasn’t disappointed. The story is a fictionalised ‘real life’ account of Thomas Cromwell – one of the leading lights in Henry VIII’s court, and his climb to fame. Surprisingly, it’s a very gripping and vivid account of his ascent to Henry’s right hand side – I’d definitely liken it to a combination of Dallas, Dynasty and Eastenders all set against a Tudor backdrop. It only tells half the tale of course and the sequel must be well under way. This book tells us a lot about the human condition now and although many things have changed in England since then, we certainly haven’t. Outstanding.

The humble sandwich

Sometimes, when I’m hungry, all I crave is a sandwich.

You can keep your fancy dan grub (and boy, do I like that stuff too) but when the urges takes you, the only thing that will do is a sandwich. Or, as we say in Leeds, ‘Sanger’ – or at least I do.

On this particular occasion, I’d spent a whole morning writing stuff and answering emails and before I knew it, lunchtime had been and gone. And I was famished. Apologies if you dig roads for a living, or lift heavy loads all day long, but I can assure you that it’s possible to get very hungry tapping on a computer keyboard. Honest.

So. I had a very clear idea of what I fancied and I set about constructing a very simple, but satisfying lunch that I had decided I was going to eat in the garden, regardless of the bright but chilly weather conditions.

Here’s how it shaped up:

Bread – white, processed, working class, thick and chewy. With butter, of course.

Ham – home-baked, lurking in the fridge for a month or so (but it smelled OK), spiced with cloves

Cheese – Emmental, nutty and chewy

Mustard – dijon, subtle heat

Salad – peppery rocket, new season spring onions (hot)

Seasoning – sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

The result was a classic sandwich that delivered on every level from comfort food through to bags of flavour. Accompanied by a cheeky glass of Chianti sat in a breezy Yorkshire garden in April, it was one of the nicest lunches I’ve had so far this year. Perfect.

What’s your favourite sandwich?