Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Scientists beaten by Sod's Law

The Times, February 26, 2008

After five years of research dedicated to overturning one of the most influential theories in modern science, some of Scotland’s finest minds have succeeded only in proving a much older and immutable proposition – Sod’s Law.

A team of physicists at Edinburgh University spent two years and £7 million building a supercomputer called QCDOC, and a further three years analysing the behaviour of quarks, the tiny particles in the nucleus of atoms. Their intention was to find exceptions to the Standard Model of particle physics and open up new pathways which might lead to an understanding of the origin of the universe.

But the scientists were unsuccessful. It was, Professor Richard Kenway, of the university’s school of physics, said, “a Sod’s Law thing”. According to Chambers Dictionary, Sod’s Law states “that the most inconvenient thing is the most likely to happen” - such as toast landing butter side down. “We put in a big effort, but unfortunately we didn’t find the clue. Every time we try to measure things more precisely, the Standard Model just keeps working,” Professor Kenway said.

The Standard Model was developed between 1970 and 1973 and sets out to answers the most fundamental of questions: ‘What is the world made of?’ The answer is mathematically complex, but boils down to the proposition that matter is composed from 12 elementary particles which interact through four fundamental forces.

However, the model cannot accommodate the force of gravity within its theoretical framework. “It is a curious situation. We have a tremendously successful model, but we know that it is wrong. Gravity is not included and that is wrong, inasmuch as physicists have a belief that there has to be a complete mathematical theory which has no contradictions,” said Professor Kenway.

Scientists from Edinburgh joined with reseachers from Southampton University, the University of Columbia and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Supported by IBM, the computer manufacturers, they developed QCDOC – the acronym comes from “Quantum thermodynamics on a chip” - a supercomputer capable of tens of trillions of calculations per second. Despite the mind-boggling depth and complexity of the computations, the answers remained within the parameters of the Standard Model.

These results said Prof Kenway, suggested that the shortcomings of the standard model would only be revealed at the highest energy levels. That is likely to happen later this year when experiments at begin at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and the Large Hadron Collider becomes fully operational. Located 100m underground near Geneva, this particle accelerator has a circumference of 27km and will bring a tenfold increase in the level of energy used in experimental work.

Physicists all over the world had been looking forward to the result of the Edinburgh research, which is published this month in the journal Physical Review Letters. Testing on the Cern experiment is expected to start in May, with some scientist suggesting that the next level of research could establish a fourth spatial dimension.

“Most scientists are absolutely confident that the Standard Model will break down. Or is nature so perverse that it makes it even harder for us understand, or pose still more questions?" said Professor Kenway.

“Ultimately the research brings a cultural benefit for us all: a better understanding of the universe we live in.” Except where Sod’s Law applies.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Edinburgh's claim on football

The Times, February 23, 2008

The passions aroused by the oldest sporting rivalry in the world are strong enough to ensure that in the 21st century “friendly” matches are still no longer scheduled between Scotland and England – so now enthusiasts for the game north and south of the border are going to war over the question of who gave football to the world.

These are matters of fierce sporting pride and in Yorkshire, they have no doubt about the truth. This year Sheffield FC has been celebrating its 150th season, its status as the oldest club in the world recognised by the Football Association and by FIFA, the game’s international governing body.

So strong is Sheffield’s claim that Pele, the world’s most famous footballer, was persuaded to kick off a celebration match between the English non-league side and Inter-Milan (the home team lost 2-5). Later, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, attended the club’s anniversary dinner at Cutler’s Hall and there was a service of thanksgiving in the city’s cathedral.

But a challenge is coming from the north, where supporters of Edinburgh Foot-Ball Club, founded by John Hope in 1824, believe that they have the documents which will rewrite history and prove that their team is the oldest in the world.

Scottish researchers insist that Hope’s lifelong commitment to the game ensured that a set of rules was established and a wide cross section of Edinburgh society was playing the game long before Sheffield FC was even a glint in its founders’ eyes.

Just to rub in that Scottish sense of superiority, the Edinburgh club was re-established last week, and the lure of its unique heritage has already won it a sponsorship deal from Umbro, the international kit manufacturers.

“This club offered the first organised provision of football in the world,” said Kenny Cameron, the 27-year-old youth worker who has revived the club. “Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, wherever – they all took the lead from Edinburgh. Fair play to Sheffield, they’ve made a good commercial go of it over the years. But the documents are there which say the Edinburgh Club was there 33 years before they were formed.”

The Scottish case is built on Hope, a 17-year-old trainee lawyer when he staked his claim to sporting history.

Four pocket books and three bundles of papers in the National Archives of Scotland record his club’s activities. Subscriptions were set at 1s 6d (7½p) and there were 85 members in 1826-27 season, most of them wealthy young professionals.

Like a golf club, games were organised among members, rather than against other opponents. There were rudimentary rules, though the sport probably resembled the rough and tumble of earlier forms of football far more than “the beautiful game” that conquered the world in the 20th century.

Though his club folded in 1841, when Hope and his contemporaries succumbed to bad knees and pot bellies, he emerged again in the late 1840s as a promoter of a Society for Juvenile Abstainers, and was soon popularising the game among young working men as an alternative to drink.

By then Hope was a wealthy lawyer and a philanthropist. He established Stockbridge Park, near Raeburn Place, and set aside an area for football. He encouraged the young members of his temperance group to divide according to occupation and form teams, establishing a new kind of footballing network, in an era when organised sports were largely confined to the public schools.

By 1854 there was even a new set of rules, the first of which stated: “There must be no kicking of shins nor tripping for these are apt to produce quarrels or hurts and do not form part of the game.”

Richard McBrearty, a curator at the Scottish Football Museum said that Hope was innovating as he spread the game. “He was not seeking to promote the rules within his own club, but to get them out among the working men. We realise that this is a sensitive subject [in Sheffield]. But this is a story we have to talk about – it is important for our museum and for Scottish football,” said Mr McBrearty.

The sensitive side of Rich Tims, the chairman of Sheffield FC, remained well hidden however, when he brushed off Edinburgh’s claims, ahead of his team’s difficult Unibond league fixture today at home to Retford United.

“Various organisations, clubs, countries and towns have come out of the woodwork and said ‘We are older than you, blah, blah blah” said Mr Tims. “I think the guys in Edinburgh will have to go and prove that their rules are any relation at all to the rules now, if FIFA and the FA are going to change their minds.”

Mr Cameron remained bullish. “Sheffield can be the oldest continuously-playing club in the world all they want, but Edinburgh is the oldest club. They had Pele kick of a football match – we have contacted Alex Salmond.”

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Old Town tales

There's been a surge of interest in Edinburgh's Old Town and a high rate of hits on this site, around the Caltongate articles which I've put up in the past couple of days.

For the benefit of my American buddies, and anyone else who's passing, I've pasted in a couple of articles from a few years ago which describe other aspects of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, which you may find more interesting.

Furthest down the page is an interview with Benedetta Tagliabue, the architect and widow of Enric Miralles, who designed the Scottish Parliament which now stands at the foot of the Royal Mile. Six years ago, the then Scottish Executive had put a wall around Benedetta, and journalists were not meant to interview her in Scotland. Brilliant tacticians that these government goons are, they overlooked the cheap flights available from Edinburgh airport to her home in Barcelona, so cheap that even the Scotsman was prepared to foot the bill when Benedetta agreed to meet me.

Immediately below is a piece I wrote with the help of Richard Demarco and Charles McKean, who accompanied me on a walk along the Royal Mile, discussing both its history and architecture and its increasing state of delapidation.

Ricky is a force of nature, who has Edinburgh running through his veins. About five hours into our walk, he told the story of the 12th century King David and the Holy Rood ("rood" means "cross"), as we wandered down past the gaggles of tourists on the Canongate.

Lingering over every detail, as if he'd been a witness to the events, Ricky described King David taking his horse, and against the advice of his courtiers, riding out alone to hunt. The fears of his subjects appeared justified when in the dark of the forest, David was startled by a stag and thrown from his horse. Lying prone on the floor it seemed certain that the beast would gore him, but as David reached up to protect himself from its antlers, miraculously a holy cross appeared between them. The king was truly blessed.

All this Ricky revealed to rapt attention as we ambled along. And then, with exquisite timing, he swept up his arm to the sight above our heads and pronouced with a voice from deep within: "Behold. The Holy Rood of God." And there were the cross and antlers which sit on top of the Canongate kirk.

That's the only time I've heard "Behold" used in anger before or since. But it's a word worth bearing in mind if you want to make an impact in public speaking. Buses screeched to a halt; dogs stopped barking; tourists, bagpipers, buskers and drunks all looked up; people rushed out of shops to see what was going on. And there was Ricky - then in his late 60s - who'd jumped up on to the wall, posing for a photographer in the shadow of the Kirk.

That was just about my favourite day in journalism. Apart from the time Natasha Kinski entertained me in a caravan in Ayrshire. But that's another story.

Pictures, from the top: The Holy Rood, on the Canongate Kirk; Ricky Demarco; Natasha Kinski. The serpent is saying: "Shouldn't you be trying to find an e-mail address for that strangely attractive chunky guy you met near Culzean?"

Dirty Old Town

The Scotsman, 17 April 2002

It's an image which defines the decay of Edinburgh's Old Town. On the wall above Craig's Close a plaque reads: "Site of the Cape Club, spiritual home of Robert Ferguson, distinguished Edinburgh poet, died 16 October 1774." Behind, up a short flight of steps, a huge metal gate, topped with barbed wire, blocks the former route between Cockburn Street and the Royal Mile. It might be the entrance to a prison if not for a panel daubed with an anarchist symbol, and beneath, an empty bottle of wine lying next to a reeking mattress.

So much for the poet's "spiritual home" in the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment. This is the reality around today's Royal Mile. This great street, the tail of the Castle rock, could be the equal of Rome's Via Veneto, with a bustling backstreet life to call its own.

But it's not like that. The closes, wynds and alleyways, the veins which give the Old Town its character, are all choked up.

Some - like Libberton's Wynd, Rae's, Morocco and Seaton Closes - have already disappeared. Others - like Bishop's - deny access; still more are sadly neglected, empty of human life, defiled by graffiti and worse. But, with an ironic nod at history, almost all, in the early morning air, have an authentic smell of the past, the stench of urine and vomit, as if ghosts had shouted "gardyloo" moments before your visit, and - like the Edinburghers of old - emptied their chamberpots onto the streets below.

To find out more about the closes, wynds and courts of Edinburgh's Old Town, I asked professor of architecture Charles McKean and self-styled "architect manque" Ricky Demarco to walk with me down the Royal Mile, to describe how its closes had developed, analyse their current state of disrepair and suggest ways in which they might now be improved.

Of course, there are still strengths to the Royal Mile's nooks and crannies as they are. Hundreds of flats and thousands of people fill its tenements - from those brazen 1960s intrusions around Chessels Court to the "saved" and swankier closes towards the top of the Lawnmarket. There is life in the old dog yet: can any other British city boast an historic centre so densely populated?

There is plenty of work going on around the place, too. The law courts are teeming, the Assembly Hall, the Scottish Parliament for now, has brought new life to bars and restaurants, to add to custom from the council chambers. In the festival season the High Street fills with tourists, there is even an Edinburgh World Heritage Trust (albeit based in the New Town), tasked to nurture the buildings.

Most of all, the thing the visitors love, the shape and scale of the medieval city, the long curve of the Canongate - so designed to keep the wind out - is still imprinted on the ground.

As Demarco says: "There aren't really great buildings here, but, despite some unbelievable bummers, it still comes together in a cohesive whole."

Yet so much of the whole is in decay. McKean and Demarco broadly agree on the need for action to save the wynds and closes of the Old Town.

Some of the most fundamental changes were inflicted long ago. "Part of the character of the Royal Mile, which people talk about, is this rubbley stone. But originally, none of that would be visible, the buildings would all have been harled, with lime, and the whole town would have been vividly coloured, to enhance the natural light," McKean explains. The colour, which added to the buildings' sense of height, was systematically removed in a 100-year period from around 1780.

Some closes were lost with the construction of the Bridges; then with the Victorians came further changes. Just as Princes Street's New Town facades were lost, so the older buildings of St Mary's Street and the Canongate were covered over, and the closes began to disappear. When these developments were compounded by post-Second World War planning, and the nearby vandalism of the new university quarter, some feared for the very future of the Royal Mile.

Since then, an Old Town Plan in the 1980s and the confirmation of World Heritage status in 1995 have supposedly buttressed the closes against further decline, though few have escaped the depredations of neglect in latter decades.

Three famous closes highlight the varying condition of the closes and courts. On the Lawnmarket, a small fortune has been spent on saving James Court, a courtyard which housed David Hume and James Boswell, and more recently was the first home to the Traverse Theatre. Here, and in the adjacent Lady Stair's Close, is a huge residential development now, but, for a place steeped in history its atmosphere is surprisingly sterile.

The shortcomings start on the outside, in the entrances from the Lawnmarket, none of which have been revived in a manner which might invite the curious traveller inside. Then, within the courtyard, the wide open spaces are empty. Worse, in "renovating" the area, modern architects and planners have imposed brutal changes on venerable buildings. Repairs have been crudely carried out, ancient doorways and windows have been cut in half, sacrificed to the pernickety modern desire for level pavements.

Further down the Mile, in Advocates Close, a famous haunt of Robert Louis Stevenson, the problems are of a different order. At its entrance on the Mile, visitors are met by a lintel from 1590, which reads "Blessit be God of all his gifts". At the lower, northern end they leave to graffiti: "I had a good fuck here last week."

Between these two are extremes of beauty and decay. First the good news. Inside an art gallery, the one obviously public building in the close, coloured walls from the 15th century survive. And in the open air, on higher ground, a garden has been lovingly maintained at the entrance to a solicitor's office.

But elsewhere the bulk of land in Advocates Close is derelict and overgrown, rubble and rubbish strewn all around. It is a vast neglected, unpleasant space. A few steps further down the Mile, Anchor Close looks less like a bomb site, but signs of human life are even rarer. "The entrance doesn't take you anywhere," complains McKean. "If you were in one of the great continental cities, there would be businesses at the entrance here, and others at the far end of the close. What we've lost is our permeability, where you could go into a close and turn right or left into a shop or a restaurant."

All down the High Street and the Canongate, the pattern is repeated. Roxburgh Close and Warriston's lead on to a bleak modern courtyard; Lyons Close goes nowhere; Carrubers is daubed with graffiti, dead. In North Gray's Close, the building's ancient timbers have been exposed at the entrance, but go up the alley and a rubbish tip greets the eye.

Modernity is condescending. Acheson House on Bakehouse Close is being left to rot; next door, the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland uses a medieval close as a parking lot. Adam Smith's lodgings, in Panmure Close, lie derelict and are visible across the grottiest piece of tarmac in Scotland. James Kennedy, grandson of Robert III and bishop of Dunkeld, lived at Monteith's Close. Now the way into the close blocked is by a Biffa bin.

It's not all bad news. On Castlehill, Jollies Court is undergoing renovation thanks to James Thomson, whose restaurant in the opposite close, The Witchery, incorporates the gateway to the Earl of Huntly's lodging. Riddles Court on the Lawnmarket has survived almost everything modern developers have thrown at it and its secret, enclosed space has Demarco and McKean in raptures.

Further down the Mile, Trunks Close, with its mix of old and new, its light and space, provokes the same intense and excited praise.

There are other wonderful little details along the way: an archway, to let the coachman into Old Fishmarket Close, is finished with a flourish; on the entrance wall, perhaps 200 years old, are dim colours, the remainder of a sign for a dressmakers shop. There are fine doorways - at the Camera Obscura, almost the full mile away, at Gloucester Gate. Look for pilgrims' seashells cast into the walls of the Tolbooth; and high above on the Canongate Kirk, the antlers of a hart and the golden cross, the Holy Rood discovered by King David (you can read this magical story on the menu cards in the Holyrood Tavern).

The ideal, surely, is that the remainder of the closes of the Royal Mile should reflect similar glories and be filled with life and wonder, an asset for the citizens as much as for the millions of tourists who pour every year into Edinburgh.

On our journey, McKean and Demarco suggest complementary means of achieving that dream. Demarco believes the Old Town will be saved only by a huge international effort, similar to the conference and support system which has formed around Venice. McKean agrees. "People will leap about and say: 'It's occupied, it's working, what more do you want?' But the argument is that it's not as good as it should be, within a European state."

Both believe that encouraging busi-ness - including some of Scotland's big institutions - into the closes is important. And neither is afraid of new building, if the architecture is good. Both shower praise on Malcolm Fraser's Scottish Poetry Library and the housing designed by Richard Murphy at Crichton's Close, which with its words ("A nation is forged in the heart of poetry") and its woodwork, builds on the works of past masters.

And perhaps the best hope for the Old Town's closes lies in the huge construction site at Holyrood, devoted to the most expensive building ever constructed on this street. If the architecture of the Scottish parliament reflects the proud ideals of nationhood, we can but hope it inspires similar grandeur in a new approach to the Royal Mile.

Champagne donation under fire

Links between the Labour Party and the developer of the controversial Caltongate project in Edinburgh have come under renewed scrutiny following the disclosure that the company, Mountgrange, made a £4,000 donation for a champagne reception at a Scottish Labour Party fund-raising dinner.

The company’s decision to sponsor the event was called “unwise” by Margo MacDonald, the independent MSP for the Lothians, while Ewan Aitken, the leader of the Labour group in Edinburgh City Council, accepted that his party’s association with Mountgrange had harmed “perception” of Labour.

The £300 million Caltongate project in Edinburgh’s Old Town has has been opposed by conservationists, but was supported by some members of the former Labour administration.

The company’s donation has attracted criticism because it was made in February as elections approached, and Labour’s majority the City Council was in doubt. Bob Cairns, a former Edinburgh convenor of planning said his party should not “have touched the money with a bargepole”.

In October, it was disclosed that Donald Anderson, the former leader of Edinburgh council, had been appointed Scottish director of PPS, a public relations company promoting Caltongate on behalf of Mountrange.

Ms MacDonald said: “It was pretty well established that some councillors had a very close working relationship with the company. That is case – and that allows you to judge whether it was wise of the company to have a champagne reception for Labour, and declare it during an election campaign. That is not clever at all,” she said.

Mr Aitken insisted that the Labour group on the city council was unaware of the donation until after the event, a fund-raising business dinner held in Glasgow on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party.

He said: “You heard what Bob [Cairns] said. I don’t think the association has helped the perception. But the notion that we were embroiled in something is simply not the case,” said Mr Aitken.

Meanwhile, Mr Anderson who was then still councillor for Kaimes in Edinburgh - said that he had attended the dinner but had only become aware of the Mountgrange sponsorship during the vote of thanks.

Scottish Labour officials stressed that fund-raising dinners were common to all parties, and that other businesses had registered similar sponsorship donations on this occasion.

Mountgrange’s donation is, however, the only one to have been made by the company to any political party which has been listed by the Electoral Commission.

A spokesman for the company said it had been invited to sponsor the event by Labour: “Given that the audience was largely senior business figures with whom we may do business, we were happy to agree to sponsor this on a commercial basis.”

The picture shows Donald Anderson.

A good vision doesn't die

The Scotsman, 7 December, 2002

An intricate little model of a desk and chair sits on the table top, as if ready to be placed into a miniature debating chamber. Next to it lies another tiny construction, strips of soft wood twined together with extraordinary precision, to make a perfect miniature of an open and oddly welcoming perimeter fence.

There are models like this everywhere, on the working surfaces in front of the 30 or so designers, and nearby in the dark recesses of a corridor many more are piled up together: scale replicas of buildings, whole or in part, sections of walls and rooftops, tiny pergolas and neatly-finished balsa wood bay windows.

Still more of these delicate constructions are laid out in the airy old drawing room which looks over the rooftops towards La Rambla. One is a vast construction of Utrecht town hall - the building which was realised from this model has already won three architectural awards. And, next to it, four townscapes placed together represent just a few months in the evolution of the Scottish Parliament.

These are the Barcelona offices of EMBT - Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue - the architects responsible for the design of the parliament buildings. And many of the structures, so haphazardly on show, represent the practice's work at Holyrood in Edinburgh.

It's a toytown environment, something from Gulliver's Travels, but straight away the office interior gives the lie to one of the myths which has developed around the new Scottish Parliament. Its architect, Enric Miralles, may have died more than two years ago, but those who suggest his influence on the building has been lost are wrong. The models emphatically prove that his design team, his philosophy and his grand plan - those upturned boats, those poetic little leaves - remain the foundation of th e Scottish Parliament.

Plans for the site are much changed since EMBT won the design competition in 1998, in association with the Edinburgh firm RMJM, but according to Benedetta Tagliabue, this is natural and expected. Ultimately it will create a building of great symbolism and significance, designed to last 300 years.

Tagliabue is Miralles' wife (she deplores the word "widow"), the mother of their two children, Caterina, seven, and five-year-old Domenec. She was also his business partner who by now has heard so many objections to the project, they wash over her. "Criticism is infinite," she says. "There are so many opinions, but you can't let them destroy your life."

Since her husband died with dreadful swiftness from a brain tumour in July 2000, she has often remained in the background of the Edinburgh project, leaving the day-to-day work on site to EMBT's joint project directors, Joan Callis and Karl Unglaub.

But, as the Parliament emerges from the ground, she has this week stepped back into the limelight, with a public lecture in Edinburgh, looking forward to the future of the new Holyrood.

She is adapting well to her unaccustomed new prominence. Now 38, Tagliabue was an award-winning architectural student at Venice and Columbia Universities. But Miralles, eight years her senior, was simply a stellar figure, Professor at Harvard and Frankfurt, a design philosopher with admirers all over the world.

"It is true it was sometimes difficult to live next to him, he was a genius, a strong personality," she admits with a smile. "When you are next to a person who is a strong personality, well, you are invisible.

"I was always next to him, and I had this role, which I accepted absolutely, of being next to him but being invisible, because he took all the light, let's say. Sometime I would think 'Do I change Enric?' But, it was not him choosing that this was happening, because he wasn't egocentric, it was just he was so special that it happened."

Now she is "visible" at least the first lesson she has learnt is this: "Visibility is not very important. You just have to be able to change and adapt."

That she is at ease in the limelight was made plain on Thursday in her lecture in Edinburgh, delivered to an audience of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland which had gathered to discuss the future of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

It was an acutely sensitive address, which began with slides of her own home in Barcelona's old town, linking deeply personal experience with a wider philosophy of design. She was wearing - as always - a necklace made by her children of colourful plasticbeads; to demonstrate the essential linkage between the natural and built environments, her visual aids included family snaps and free-hand sketches of Edinburgh made by Miralles from his hotel room.

For cynics, it was stuff to mock; for those impressed by the passion and sensibility which Miralles brought to the design of the Scottish Parliament it was a heartening restatement of belief.

Good news of any sort is long overdue for the buildings' supporters. The first cost estimates of �40 million - albeit for a cube of a building in central Edinburgh - have increased tenfold according to the worst calculations. The opening date at Holyroodremains unknown and the next session of the parliament has been booked into the Hub at the opposite end of the Royal Mile, a decent place for a Festival party, but an unlikely seat of government.

Not all the criticisms which have arisen have been directed at the architects. Those sympathetic to Miralles suggest key people within the government machine were responsible for implementing a construction management process which was flawed, and this has been responsible for vastly inflated costs. To make matters worse, there has been a lack of clarity in the numbers game: some rises may have been justifiable - who knows? - the information has not been made easily available.

Yet for the first year of the project, all went smoothly, as EMBT developed Miralles's initial concept into a workable design for the Scottish Executive. But, after elections in May 1999, the parliamentary body came into being, and the architects had a new client - the parliament itself.

Things changed rapidly as MSPs developed a vision of their own for their new home. Staff accommodation, which had catered for 400, now provided facilities for over 1000; the debating chamber was enlarged, and its shape changed. Press and broadcasting suites grew in size; and an education department was developed, so that children could come and see how their country was governed.

MSPs expressed their nationalistic pride in other ways. Scottish granite was specified for cladding, though the stone had not been quarried commercially in Scotland for years. Portuguese granite was available off-the-shelf at a fraction of the cost. Yet all of this change was possible within Miralles's scheme because the design was "elastic" says Tagliabue. Surely though this never-ending design spec, within a pliable design, impacted on the fundamental questions of delivery and cost?

"But it's not simple," she interjects with a smile. "This was a process which was chosen to be an open process, with a manager of construction, managing a huge number of builders. The choice was made to make this open. So you have more open possibilities, and things are not necessarily fixed in time."

Even the opening? It is not, she says, her role to comment on the opening. "There is nothing to hide, and nothing to be ashamed of," she says. "The building is there and it will be there."

The important thing was at the outset to win the design competition, as a kind of preview for the project itself. Then "we really had a situation", she reckons.

"It would have been absurd not to have listened to MSPs' demands. If they needed more space, if they needed a different way of working, if the shape of the chamber needed to be changed - this was the first time they realised how they would work together.

"My husband and I were happy to implement these things. And we are able to do that. It is not losing its fundamental idea, it can change a little - and so it did change.

"But it is an Enric Miralles building, absolutely."

Cost considerations, she adds, have sometimes held her team back. "You have to imagine us working with every part of the package. We were told always, 'You have to finish the drawings for this part of the building'; or 'The contractor has looked at the drawings and he found that complicated - please go and speak with him.' So we have sat down to find solutions. All the time we have had to stay on top, to find the best solution for the people working on site. This was our task and it is still going o n."

There is a strength of vision here that has been evident ever since EMBT have been concerned with the project. Back in 1998, the panel who witnessed the final presentations by the three shortlisted architects were unanimous for Miralles, despite the factthat his competitors Richard Meier and James Stirling-Michael Wilford had a much higher profile.

"He believed passionately in the project, who saw the connection between the environment, the building and nationhood," says one prominent observer of the process. "There was no question that Miralles was by far the most impressive presentation. He was head and shoulders above the rest."

Above all, the Catalan architect - perhaps with an understanding which comes from being a member of a small national group - struck a bond with the then first minister, Donald Dewar. Tagliabue recalls the EMBT presentation.

"There was point at which Enric became almost aggressive towards Donald Dewar. The conversation became very deep. Mr Dewar had put a problem to Enric - I don't remember exactly what - but he asked him how he would react as an architect to such and such asituation. Enric responded strongly. He said: 'You are a politician, you know how to work in your profession; I am an architect, I know how to work in mine. This way of working is very similar'.

Mr Dewar was very serious in what he was doing - I have great respect for him still - and Enric was very serious, very deep and with an ideal. This is not easy to find, in any profession, but they shared this ideal. And in that moment, which was not an easy moment, they both discovered that."

It was a real bond? "This was the point," she replies. "They understood. It was a political ideal for Mr Dewar, a dream, and for Enric it was too, to fulfil the desires of a nation and to make architecture which was capable of making everyone happy."

But now it is time to put ideals into action, and if Tagliabue has not made her points plainly enough in her office, she can demonstrate them ably in the city beyond.

So we begin a tour of EMBT work in Barcelona. A short walk through the teeming streets of the Old Town, brings us first to Mercado de Santa Caterina, a vast and complicated renovation of an historic building.

"Everything here was to be torn down or destroyed," says Tagliabue, looking beyond the ancient perimeter walls to the cleared site beyond.

"But it is important you keep memories."

It is a project as close to Tagliabue's heart as it is to her home, and she and her husband became involved with the project at first simply because it was on their doorstep. Miralles conceived the solution, setting the medieval framework of the crumbling market against his signature pergolas. It's making waves, causing excitement; the market will be complete in 2004.

After the tight spaces of the Old Town we move out of the city along the Avenguda d'Icaria, where again, great twisting forms jut into view, Miralles's pergolas punctuating the space of the avenue. "They gave him this project in the year of the Olympics," says Tagliabue. "He was young, they had to give him something." The development has just picked up a retrospective award for the best architectural project in Barcelona in 1992.

Finally we arrive at Parque Diagonal Mar, opened this year, in redeveloped land which bears a passing resemblance to parts of London's Docklands. Here EMBT have used groundwater to create a lake and the illusion of the sea lapping up to the foundations of the bleak tower blocks which surround the site. Fountains burst from hard standing, and massive flower pots are suspended in the air to create foliage over their metal supports; rolling greenery surrounds the artificial waterway.

"It's about inventing a part of the city," says Tagliabue. "It was just a drawing when Enric died - but people are very happy."

The park has been developed by the American property giant Hines, and in a children's playground at the south end of the 14-hectare site, the corporation's chairman, Gerry Hines, has built an unfinished wooden house, his tribute to the dead architect.

When we have returned to her office, this last revelation makes it easier to turn conversation to Tagliabue's own sense of loss after her husband's death.

"Maybe I will understand his legacy in more time. He was a genius also in dying," she says, with a smile. "But it's true. He was incredibly strong during his illness, absolutely conscious he was going to die. I was always hiding things from myself, thinking there would be a medicine, or some natural remedy. But he was very controlled - he knew he would die from the very first moment, even if his condition improved, but he was very serene."

For a brief period during his illness the couple stayed at Hines's house in Houston. It was, remembers Tagliabue, a beautiful time.

"It was short, but seemed very intense, a different part of our life. We had friends, many of them doctors, coming to us, we could be almost happy in this tragical moment. Enric was the first to say: 'Don't think about sadness, think about being happy, staying with the children and all those things.' It was an incredible lesson to me. He left me strong. I lived this experience, I lived no other. I think he prepared me and everybody else to survive well, which in a way is very generous."

And, of course, beyond all this trauma, she has, in her own terms, become visible. "I came through this very tough lesson, let us say, with this understanding: one day to another, we change, the unexpected happens. We are here now, we are not here tomorrow. I think it is important to understand life first. To understand that we are in life."

She laughs again. "It is enough. We are alive."

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Caltongate developers funded Labour

The Times, Feb 20, 2008

A London-based development company behind one of the most controversial planning decisions in Edinburgh made a £4,000 donation to the Scottish Labour Party to fund a champagne reception at a time when the backing of party councillors for the project was crucial to its success.

A Times investigation has established that the donation was made by Mountgrange, the company which is developing the £300 million Caltongate project in the heart of Edinburgh's historic Old Town. The scheme, which envisages the demolition of some listed buildings, is bitterly opposed by conservationists.

The disclosure of the donation last night provoked outrage among the scheme’s opponents, who demanded an investigation into links between the former Labour council and Mountgrange.

Bob Cairns, a former Labour councillor, who left the post as convenor of planning in 2003 said the party had been “extremely unwise” to accept a donation from a firm involved in such a controversial planning application. “Personally, I wouldn’t have touched money from that source with a barge pole,” he said.

It is claimed that the donation was made when the future political control of the city was in doubt. It was expected that Labour would retain control - in fact the SNP now holds the balance of power.

Links between Mountgrange and the Labour Party have been the subject of controversy since last October, when it was disclosed that Donald Anderson, the former Labour leader of Edinburgh council, had been appointed Scottish director of PPS, the public relations company which has been promoting the Caltongate project on behalf of Mountgrange.

While still leader of the council, Mr Anderson had spoken out enthusiastically in favour of the Caltongate scheme in a newsletter published by PPS on behalf of Mountgrange, though he had stepped down from his position by the time the donation to Scottish Labour was published by the Electoral Commission on 20 March.

Then, on 19 April, two weeks before Labour were voted from office, the city council’s planning committee approved by nine votes to five the installation of an underground heating system, which formed the first phase of the Caltongate project.

Steve Cardownie, the SNP councillor who is deputy leader of Edinburgh City Council, said the revelation was “disconcerting news”.

He said: “This is an extremely controversial planning application which found support within the previous city administration. It merits further investigation to find just how deep these connections go.

“Although the new administration has determined recent applications, this still does raise question marks over the relationship between the Labour Party and the company and why the donation wasn’t made known prior to their application being submitted.”

Any donation to a political party has to be declared within 30 days. In spring 2007 Labour were still hopeful of remaining in power at national and local level. In the event it was unsuccessful on both counts, and for Mr Anderson, who resigned as council leader in August 2006, there was further disappointment as he failed in his attempt to be elected as MSP for Edinburgh South.

He established Anderson Consulting, a firm which, according to its website, offered “comprehensive advice on planning policy, and processes. We help make sure your project gets a fair hearing from the planning process, and that you are able to respond positively to concerns.”

Five months later it was found that he had taken up a new position as Scottish Director of PPS. He is still employed in that capacity but despite his seniority, the company claims that he does not to work on the Caltongate project.

However, in May 2006, while still leader of the council, Mr Anderson, enthusiastically endorsed Mountgrange’s plans in a glossy newsletter produced by PPS and distributed to households in central Edinburgh.

“The Caltongate development offers Edinburgh a terrific opportunity to transform this area from a neglected backwater into a vibrant, integrated part of the city centre. The mix of residential, commercial and public space will make this one of the most desirable locations in the city and regenerate an area that for too long has been allowed to run down,” he said.

Opponents of Caltongate include community groups and the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh’s civic trust. They have campaigned against the demolition of two listed buildings, and against the size and scale of the project which lies of land between the Canongate and Calton Road. However, in Mountgrange, they have found a powerful opponent.

The company was formed in 2002 by Manish Chande, its chief executive, and Martin Myers, his business partner. In 2004 Caltongate was one of five development sites in England and Scotland that the company bought from the Sofam Beheer BV for a total price of £60m.

Mr Chande is a former director of Land Securities, the UK’s biggest property company, and, with Mr Myers, joint founder of Trillium, which won a contract to own and manage the majority of the Department for Work and Pensions property portfolio – a 2bn deal that made it Britain's biggest commercial landlord.

More than 2,000 objections have been lodged against the Caltongate development. It earmarked for the site of a former bus garage on New Street. A PPS spokesman said: “Mountgrange has sponsored a number of events, including the Cow Parade in Edinburgh and the reception at a Scottish Labour Party business dinner.”

No-one from the Scottish Labour Party was available for comment.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Broken Hearts, Rocky Mountains

The Times, 14 February

It is a story with all the ingredients of a tragic Valentine's Day tale. She was the intrepid traveller, whose endless explorations were honoured when she was elected the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was the one-eyed renegade, “fascinating yet so terrible” who was shot dead within a year of their unlikely passion blooming on the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains.

This doomed love affair between Isabella Bird and “one-eyed Jim” Nugent has been revealed by researchers at the National Library of Scotland from letters which have been held in the John Murray Archive for more than 100 years. It is a true-life romance which mingles all the sexual repression of the Victorian era with a seam of raw emotion to transcend the ages. It could have been the bodice-ripper to end all bodice-rippers had not the two protagonists been so impeccably behaved.

The daughter of a clergyman, Isabella was born in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, in 1831. Advised for the good of her health to travel, she took her doctor at his word and spent 50 years roaming the world, writing voluminous letters to her sister Henrietta, who lived on the isle of Mull. Edited versions of this correspondence were an instant hit when they were published and Isabella’s books helped fund her adventures.

In one of her letters – some of which are on display in the National Library in Edinburgh - she describes her first encounter with Jim in October 1873, as she rode 800 miles on horseback through the Rocky Mountains.

“In the narrowest part of St Vrain canyon I saw a fearful object … and I wanted to turn back fearing either he was not sober or in an ‘ugly fit’. However … when [Jim] got up to us my fears diminished. He is a most extraordinary man. His appearance was frightful but as soon as he spoke he was fascinating with his gently cosy manner low musical voice and slight Irish brogue … his poor disfigured face literally beamed with nice kindly feeling.”

Jim – who had a log cabin at nearby Muggins Gulch - was famous locally for his bouts of drunkenness, his acts of bravery and his love of poetry. He was reputed to have been a brutal “bushwhacker” in Kansas during the Civil War and lost his eye in a fight with a bear.

By the time of the couple’s encounter, Isabella was no less formidable and was determined to conquer the 14,255 ft Long’s Peak. With Jim as her guide, she set off with two male companions. Soon the men complained that Isabella – in her thick tweed skirt and bloomers – was a “dangerous encumbrance”. Jim was having none of that.

“’Jim’ dragged me up, like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle,” wrote Isabella, until they reached the summit. But it was after their descent that her guide made his declaration. For good taste’s sake, Isabella’s account – which revealed her own buttoned-up emotions - was omitted when her journals were first published.

“Then came a terrible revelation … he was attached to me and it was killing him. It began on Longs Peak he said. I was terrified. It made me shake all over and even cry. He is a man whom any woman might love but no sane woman would marry. Nor did he ask me to marry him, he knew enough for that. A less ungovernable nature would never have said a word but his dark proud fierce soul all came out then. I believe for the moment he hated me and scorned himself, though he could not even then be otherwise than a gentleman.

“My heart dissolves with pity for him and his dark, lost, self ruined life. He is so loveable and fascinating yet so terrible. I could not bear to think of him last night out in the snow neither eating nor sleeping, mad lost wretched hopeless. It is really terrible. For 5 minutes at the camping ground on Longs Peak his manner was such that I thought this possible, but I put it away as egregious vanity unpardonable in a woman of 40 and afterwards he explained his emotion satisfactorily, and never showed a trace of it again. I miss him very much. He is so charming and can talk on all subjects and has real genius. It takes peace away.”

When she returned to Britain, Isabella was pursued by an Edinburgh doctor, John Bishop, and the couple married in 1880. But following her husband’s death six years later, she set off as a missionary to India, travelling on to Baghdad and Tehran. In the 1890s, in her 60s, she journeyed along the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and Korea before her death in Edinburgh in 1904.

One-eyed Jim was not so fortunate. The year after his encounter with Isabella, he was shot in a drunken dispute over hunting rights near his shack. When she heard of his fate, Isabella claimed she had known only “pity and yearning” for her erstwhile companion, and begged her sister, “don’t let anyone think I was in love with Mountain Jim”. By then, Henrietta had probably come to her own conclusions.

Turner winner's Edinburgh inspiration

The Times, 14 February 2008

A initiative to supply the “missing link” in Edinburgh’s contemporary art scene by encouraging leading artists to live and work in the city will claim a striking success this weekend when Mark Wallinger, the 2007 Turner Prize begins a month-long residency in a luxurious West End flat.

Wallinger, whose body of work for the Turner included a video of himself dressed in a bear suit, will be joined by his partner, the sculptor Anna Barriball, in a Georgian apartment which is owned by Charles Asprey, of the London jewelry firm. Both artists will seek to draw inspiration from its dramatic setting on Randolph Cliff, and will share their experiences with final year and postgraduate students at Edinburgh College of Art.

The initiative, which was pioneered by Clementine Deliss of ECA’s Future Academy, draws on the active support of the National Galleries of Scotland but is fuelled by Mr Asprey’s love of Edinburgh, his commitment to art in the city – and above all his philanthropic outlook.

“We hope to put Edinburgh on the map. It’s far from a backwater in the art world, it is an extraordinary place with enlightened people just as it has always been,” said Mr Asprey.

Like generations of his family, Mr Asprey, 36, was groomed to work in the jewelry business, which has been a fixture in London’s West End since the 18th century. However, the company was sold in 1995 to Prince Jefri Bolkiah, a younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei, for £243m and Mr Asprey decided to follow his passion. He has been a collector, promoter and patron of the arts ever since, and over that time has been a regular visitor to Scotland, where he said he was “putting down roots”.

“Edinburgh has a broader spectrum of art than Glasgow, from magnificent Renaissance painting to contemporary work, the full spectrum of Western art. But there was a missing link, Edinburgh was off the radar as far as working artists were concerned,” said Mr Asprey.

He was approached by Dr Deliss who suggested that contemporary artists might be offered residencies if there was appropriate accommodation. Mr Asprey bought his property in May last year, and threw it open to artists five months later.
The flat enjoys magnificent views over the New Town skyline to the Firth of Forth and beyond to the Lomond hills in Fife.

Mr Asprey acknowledged that the project followed in the footsteps of the Edinburgh “legend” Richard Demarco, the promoter and artist whose “strategy: get arts” initiative in 1970 brought Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo and a succession of leading contemporary artists to the city in a blaze of publicity and excitement.

“We are building on the Demarco concept and perfecting it for a new generation. It is important to bring artists to a place they would not normally go. It offers them a chance to enjoy relative downtime and gives them the space to think. Students have the chance to meet the most up-and-coming artists out there. It is a win-win situation."

The Austrian artist Franz Graf was the first to take up the Randolph Cliff residency four months ago. His work included a show at the Sleeper gallery and a wall drawing workshop and exhibit at the National Galleries of Scotland. In November, Christian Flamm collaborated with ECA students on wall paper design and in a publication.

Future residencies include Nora Schultz from Berlin and the Japanese-American artist Ei Arakawa, as part of a much anticipated collaboration with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris; Frances Stark, artist and tutor at Art Center Pasadena; the Americans Stuart Bailey and Sean Snyder; and Olga Bryukhovetska, professor of cultural studies at Kiev University.

“We’re tremendously excited to invite such cutting edge international artists to Randolph Cliff. As well as the obvious benefits these residencies bring to students and the general public through collaborations and talks, the project also encourages artists to conduct research and develop new ideas.” said Dr Deliss.

Pictures show State Britain by Mark Wallinger, and Richard Demarco (left) sharing an Edinburgh moment with Joseph Beuys.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Animal magic

"One boy wrote 'I do enjoy your books. Please try and write a few more before you die.' Another topped that. He said, 'I do like your books. When you die, please say hi to Roald Dahl for me'."

An interview with the children's author Dick King-Smith, whose book, The Water Horse, has been successfully adapted for the big screen. King-Smith only began writing when he retired from primary school teaching at 60, but he has written over 100 books since and in the process has become rich and famous.

You can find this insipring tale in the Sunday Herald, Animal magic

You can link to more about The Water Horse from here: Monster hit

January more or less marked the end of my first 12 month's freelancing, and in many ways was my most successful month so far. I had work in the The Times, national and Scottish editions, the Irish Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday. But no bugger paid me.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Fleshing out the cannibalism myth

It is the creative marriage from which dreams – or more probably nightmares – are made. One of the most celebrated but macabre of modern novelists has fleshed out the story of Scotland’s most terrifying cannibal, Sawney Bean.

Louise Welsh, the author of such dark tales as The Cutting Room and The Bullet Trick, has researched and scripted a new radio documentary about Sawney, the brutal man-eating thug who is said to have terrorised a swathe of South-east Ayrshire for more than 20 years in the late 16th century.

Presenter and subject seem brilliantly matched. Sawney is one of the most enduring myths, partly because people are fascinated by stories of cannibalism, said Welsh. And she should know. The author recently wrote an essay about Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, and is fast becoming an expert in the field of human-on-human dining.

According to legend, Alexander (‘Sawney’) Bean and his wife lived in Bennane Cave, on the cliffs south of Girvan. From this dark and terrible place, the couple and their children terrorised the local countryside, laying ambushes for travellers whom they robbed and murdered, removing the corpses to their cave where they were dismembered and eaten.

It is said that Sawney was hunted down and brought to trial on the orders of James VI but “there is no paper trail” said Welsh and these supposedly real events are all part of the Sawney legend.

“Like all myths there might a germ of fact in there, but the Sawney Bean story that we know now is a construct. Whatever inspired it has been lost, but the reason it survives is that it speaks to quite elemental things within us, taboos, fears, fascinations with things which might go wrong – and we know that cannibalism from time to time might happen,” she said.

The legend was vivid enough for English cartoonists who used images of Sawney to characterise the Scots, particularly during the 1745 rebellion. However, Welsh believes that the myth had existed in Scotland long before their neighbours latched onto it and said it was more significant that the English had cannibal legends of their own.

“There was a cannibal, like Sawney, who was said to live in Cornwall. The story of Cinderella had an element of cannibalism before the Victorian cleaned it up. It’s fascinating that these myths persist,” said Welsh.

“Part of this is about breaking taboos, because these sorts of stories are ways of exploring things that we are frightened of. But they also appeal to something quite base in us as well. There is a kind of thrill – I don’t mean that people are sexually excited by cannibalism, but I think there is a thrill from facing our fear.”

Readers and viewers find something cathartic and even pleasurable in stories about cannibalism, she added, which in turn fuels sales of true-life crime stories and builds audiences for films such as Alive – centred on acts of cannibalism among the survivors on an air crash in the Andes in 1972. There was nothing morbid about an interest in these stories, said Welsh.

“I don’t subscribe to the theory that if you watch lots of horror movies then you will go out and commit some kind of outrage. When you get frightened in those kind of ways, endorphins are released – it can be a pleasurable kind of experience. That’s why horror movies are popular – you get frightened in a kind of pleasant way, and there’s a kind of excitement.”

We should be thankful that Sawney did not exist, but not feel too guilty even if we found ourselves laughing at his supposed exploits, said Welsh.

“Sweeney Todd is macabre, but quite funny as well. He puts people into pies, not any old pies, but the most popular pies in London. People enjoy them – they really taste good. There is maybe another fear, that if we tasted it, perhaps we’d like it. When you’re teasing children you say: ‘And the ones that tasted the best were the children’.”

Cannibalism jokes had even found there way into Billy Connolly routine, she noted. “Sawney is Scotland’s version of Robin Hood. He steals from the rich. And then eats them.”

* Case Reopened, BBC Radio Scotland, 1130am, February 4.