Sorry, it wasn’t me who broke it.

Team GB’s success in Rio did something to raise the mood but there has been a somewhat somber tone to the UK this Summer. Now the athletes are back home polishing their medals the national news returns to the political turmoil.  

Through ineptitude, some of our very senior politicians broke Britain and severely dented Europe. The referendum result, on June 24, was a classic example of uninformed democracy with one side promising billions of pounds to the National Health Service and to stop immigration (all total lies because they never believed they would win and have to deliver). The other side decided to ignore the positives of us being in the UK and patronised the electorate with ridiculous doom scenarios (the EU may be crap but we’d be worse off out of it….). A significant number of people who voted to leave only did so to give the Prime Minister a bloody nose – never actually believing that they would be on the winning side. The shock result of 52% leave and 48% remain has divided the population down the middle. The Prime Minister, who called the referendum to silence the swivel-eyed loons on the right of his party, promptly resigned to be replaced by a rather canny politician, who kept her powder completely dry during the referendum campaign. She inherited a government and a country who has no plan for leaving the EU. No plan was drawn up because no one believed we would need one.

We shouldn’t have needed one. We may be sat on a little island but we are still European. We are lucky to have a language that others choose to speak. We are a significant world economy and punch well above our weight diplomatically and in terms of soft power. We are world leader in creativity and the arts and are very good at elite sport as evidenced by the GB medal tally in Rio. On the whole we are quite nice really – we tend to be a bit conservative and traditional but that’s not the worst trait in the world. None of this is possible without cooperation and collaboration. Much of our economic status cames from being the financial managers for the rest of the world. Diplomatically people listen to us because we are collaborators, we bring membership of the EU, the Commonwealth, NATO etc to the discussion. We need trade and conversations to be creative.We can’t be good at track cycling if no one will compete with us.  

There are some important lessons about democracy in the UK here. Firstly, we live in a parliamentary democracy. This means that we elect politicians to represent us. We give them the resources to research and become the experts and vote accordingly. We don’t have a tradition of referenda as they undermine parliamentary democracy. The referendum was decided on the basis of uninformed democracy. Secondly, the vast majority of members of parliament in the UK recognised that the only sensible course was to stay in the EU. Our out of date ‘first past the post’ electoral system, rather than a sensible proportional system, means that we are largely a two party democracy with the Conservative Party on the right and the Labour Party in England and the Scottish National Party in Scotland on the left. The Conservative Party includes a range of people from One Nation centrists to the swivel eyed loons on the far right. Labour range from Blairites in the centre to Trotskyists on the far left.

One Nation Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a referendum to placate the far right of his party. If we had a system of PR, as exists elsewhere in Europe we would have a larger number of parties made up of people who broadly agree with each other. Mr Cameron would not have needed to recklessly put Europe at risk to retain the support of a few right wingers unless he’d chosen them a coalition partners. All this has thrown the left into disarray. The lackluster left wing leader of the Labour Party has lost the confidence of 80% of his MPs but refuses to stand down. This leaves the new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, with almost no opposition. We’ve long needed a PR voting system that will allow all our parties to divide accordingly.

What a mess!

Without a plan there is no clear timescale for or idea how we will leave the EU. The referendum was not binding. The UK parliament is sovereign and will have to make the decision. May has put three men, who all campaigned for Brexit in charge but they are clueless. Boris Johnson, former London Mayor and the new foreign secretary speaks from the hip and over the past few years has managed to insult just about every foreign leader. Look up what he has said about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and worst of all Turkey’s prime minister, Erdoğan. The new International Trade Minister was kicked out of the last government for fiddling his expenses and taking his boyfriend on trips at government expense. The Brexit minister has just admitted that when he was campaigning he genuinely thought we’d be able to negotiate individual trade deals with other European partners. We can’t we will have to negotiate with the whole EU. Trade deals usually take about 10 years and most specialists claim that you cannot do more than one concurrently as they influence each other so – 10 years for a deal with Europe, another ten for a deal with the US, then China, Japan, Canada, India…..  It will take about 300 years to get to where we are now as members of the EU. On top of that every single law that has been passed in the UK since 1974, when Britain joined the European Economic Community, will have to be re-written as then all enshrine European law into the detail. Because we have been in the EU since 1974 we don’t have any trade negotiators employed by the government.

The world is a better place if we talk, debate and share rather than argue. The UK is a big player but we are so much stronger when we look outwards and sit alongside our friends rather than fall out with them.

Will we ever leave – I certainly hope that someone will come to their senses, realise what a mess this is and find a way of reversing the decision. Perhaps the threat of Scottish independence, major financial institutions leaving the UK etc will be a catalyst. Perhaps it will just be delayed then somehow overturned at the next general election. Who knows. I have another year on Pancake Street. If nothing improves I may need to apply to the Netherlands for asylum. It wasn’t me that broke it – honest.

Back by popular demand

Or I soon will be. My first year in Rotterdam was fantastic – I’ve loved almost every minute. Sorry for my absence from your screens. I have been duly reprimanded and will endeavour to try harder.

After a Summer break, back in the UK, August turns and I start to think about coming back to Pancake Street. I’ll be sharpening my pencils and filling my fountain pen in readiness for the MA proper. At the end of June the results were in – confirming that I had cleared the hurdle of passing the Pre-Master year.

My Pre-Master thesis was on the relationship between CEOs and boards of arts organisations. I got a good grade but gratefully take on board the feedback that I made it a bit too complicated. This is great learning for next year when the thesis element will be twice as long and worth a third of the grades for the year.

20160606_181421Since I last tapped a key on this site I have also completed courses in Academic Writing, International Arts Markets and Advanced Economics of the Cultural Industries. I feel academically well equipped and a little nervous about the year to come. Most of my Pre-Master friends will be returning with another thirty five or so new faces who will be coming straight onto the Master year. Lots of new friends to make and new people to learn from. I can confidently say that I have learned as much, if not more, from my fellow students as I have from the formal lectures and assignments – that is how Universities should be.

I will be flying back to Rotterdam in about ten days time. Sue is coming back with me for the weekend and I’ve got a few days to re-orientate myself before the learning begins in earnest. I fear that my limited Dutch has rusted over during the Summer and I will be a lot poorer as the pound has plummeted against the Euro but I look forward to settling back into life on Pancake Street.

The Swan on a cold bright February afternoon

It has been a cold crisp sunny day here in Rotterdam. A beautiful day for a walk and a visit to the Swan which looked beautiful against eh February blue sky. The Swan is the local nick name for the Erasmus Bridge which crossed the Nieuwe Maas  in the heart of the city. The bridge is 20 years old this year. We are planning a tribute to the bridge with a very special concert by Blackburn People’s Choir on April 30. Watch out for more news on that one. In the meantime, if you want to find out about the architecture click here or just look at some of my photos below.

End of term report

 

The campus bell tower in the November sunshine

The campus bell tower in the November sunshine

Remember when there used to be three terms a year punctuated by Christmas, Easter and the Summer? The world doesn’t work like that at Erasmus University. Here there are four terms in the year. Christmas and Easter are just inconvenient holidays that get in the way. All this means that half way through November I finished term one with two exams and an essay deadline. In term one I’d taken three courses. Introduction to Social Science Research, Introduction to Economic Theory and Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. I’m sure that you’ll be as relieved as I am that I managed to pass all three, including the exams, (which were ‘orrible).

But what have I learned that I can pass on? I thought I should try and sum up each course, that’s eight weeks, into one sentence. Here we go.

 

 

Social science research is about how we know about things, how we find information, how we ask questions and how we look at the world objectively.

Economic theory is about prices, supply, demand and a rather unrealistic assumption that we are all capable of making rational decisions and that we spend based on our rationalising.

The creative economy is driven by creative people and organisations who create, communicate, organise themselves and others, collaborate and socialise.

I found each course useful and interesting in their own ways. I better understand the principles of scientific research when it comes to society. I know that I want to further question the standard economists and challenge their view of how things work. I have also had chance to think about creativity, how it works and what it needs to have impact.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that my best marks came in Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. One, I’ve been helping run a creative organisation for a few years and two, there wasn’t an exam, (did I say that the exams were ‘orrible?). I particularly enjoyed writing an essay on Country House Opera, an area that I knew nothing about. It’s another world and it was fascinating applying the literature to it. (If anyone would like to read it, I’ll send you a link). I think my enjoyment must have shone through as I got a very good grade.

The grades here are not out of 100 but out of ten. Why does 78% sound better than 7.8? Is it just because of what we’re used to?

My results

Introduction to Social Science Research 8.1
Introduction to Economic Theory 6.6
Creative Economy and Creative Organisations 8.9

I’ve put these books to one side and am almost half way term two. We have a lovely course entitled an Introduction to Statistical Analysis*, another on the Values of Culture and a third on the Economic Geography of Creativity and Urban Development. So hard sums, values not costs and creative cities. All is going well.

 

*My German friends tell me that sarcasm is a very British trait.

The exam invigilator’s domain

Today I sat my first exam for many years. It was an infantalising experience.

We arrive at the imposing Van der Groot building on campus quite early. It’s a vast grey brutalist concrete structure. I like it. It’s imposing. it has a a rather fashionable retro aesthetic. It’s the building you see from the river, as you approach from the city centre. It’s on the prospectuses. The Erasmus signature logo looks down from the seventeenth concrete floor. This is a proud building – proud to be in Rotterdam, a city that increasingly defines itself by its buildings.

The interior is just as vast. This is the building with gigantic lecture halls that seat thousands. . It’s big enough to have staircases signposted ‘Oost’ and ‘West’.  This is where exams happen. Most of the ground floor consists of one giant room filled with thousands of  small desks separated by a meter of unfriendly space on each side. The desks are slightly dog eared from being relentlessly stacked and unstacked.  No one loves them: Caretakers who move them, cleaners who sweep between them, students who sit at them. Empty, this hanger of a space looks like the visiting hall of state penitentiary waiting for boilersuited convicts and weeping wives.

We wait outside. Monitors tell you where to sit based on your student number. Block 18 for me. We are allowed in. I find my allotted place.  Just before  13:30, a disembodied voice tells us, first in Dutch, then in accented English the rules. Phones off and out of the way. Watches removed – use the clocks. The toilets are scanned for mobile signals. Standard dictionaries, the only aid permitted.

The memories of the school hall so many years past flood back. As I turn over the paper it takes me the first five minutes to tune into the printed words. The instructions on  writing my name and student number feel baffling. The silence isn’t silence: the scratching of other people’s pencils; the heels of the invigilator; the shuffling in seats and the deafening noise that the paper makes as someone turns a page.

Block 18’s two invigilators are like minor tragi-comic characters from a Dickensian novel.  A man and woman in their mid sixties. She is in charge. She sits at the front directing him from student to student in loud whispers and exaggerated arm waving. He wanders around, head and shoulders low, checking our student cards, responding unenthusiastically to requests. They don’t smile. At one point a tea trolley arrives for them with paper cups and Viennese whirls, soft enough not to crunch.  She oversees proceedings and precisely peels and slices an apple while he checks and checks his lists.

We are watched but ignored. We are this afternoon’s cohort of lab rats. They are in charge – we are unimportant.

Once the words on the paper start to make sense I proceed with my multiple choices. D, C, A, B, B, B….. I start worrying if I see patterns in the answers and double check. Yes D, C, A, B, B, B….. It is hard to focus. I read the questions three or four times before I take them in.  They are not in the order of the lectures or book chapters. The cunning examiner has mixed them all up to confuse us. We have three hours for 32 Multiple choice questions and three short open questions. The first of the open questions stalls me. I know I’ve read all about it  – twice – but I’ve no idea what the examiner wants. I guess. The others are clearer. After fifty eight minutes the first candidate leaves. They are followed by a steady stream. at 15:00 I’ve done all I can so put up my hand. Mr invigilator comes and folds up my paper. He checks my student card again and walks away. As silently as possible I gather my pencils, sharpener and rubber and leave.

I have no idea how I’ve done. Being stalled by the first open question makes me feel that I must have failed but rationally it was worth three percent of the exam. It is highly unlikely of course but there is still the capacity for me to get 97%. I have to do it all over again on Friday.

 

Museumkaarten

I’ve been living here for two months now and have only just got round to getting a Museumkaart – shame on me. I did visit TENT, the contemporary art gallery on Witte de Withstraat on one of it’s free Friday nights but as a student of Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship I should be more committed. I think that the ‘economics’ bit is relevant to my lack of enthusiasm. I know that these places need to be paid for. We’re spoiled in the UK as most of them are free, (unless you want to go and see the interesting exhibition that is). Here in The Netherlands they are not free. In Rotterdam the Kunsthal is €12, (about £9), Tent is €5 and The Boijmans Museum is €17.50.

It is not the cost – they are all full of wonderful things – it is the fact that I can only take so much in on one visit. The Kunsthal has about six galleries. If I’d paid €12, I’d want to get my money’s worth. I’d feel obliged to see everything. I would come out overwhelmed and feeling a bit cheated.

There is something wonderful in Rotterdam called the Rotterdam Card. With this you can get in free to all the museums and a lot more too. For ‘normal people’ this still costs €60 and it expires in March 2016 but for students it’s only €12.50. I queued to get one. I was planning multiple trips to all the attractions. With this card I could go to one exhibition at a time. I’d never be out of the places. A spare hour here, a sleepy Sunday afternoon there…. Unfortunately for the Rotterdam Pass, students need to be under 33 – oldies like me not welcome.

20151025_165510I was left with a choice. An expensive Rotterdam Pass that covers Rotterdam or a Museumkaart that covers the whole of the country. Sue is over for the weekend so this afternoon we both opted for the latter and used it to go to Kunsthal. We saw two exhibitions and enjoyed a coffee in the café.  I hope that we’ll get some use out of these over the next 12 months.

 

Belgian beer

The beer menu at Boudewijn

The beer menu at Boudewijn

Boudewijn in the October sunshine

Boudewijn in the October sunshine

One of the many great things about Rotterdam is that it is so close to Belgium. More importantly all those lovely monks and others who spend their time brewing beer. There are anumber of bars who specialise in selling this lovely stuff. I really like the Boudewijn Belgian Beer Cafe on Niewe Binnenweg. It’s perfect for an afternoon beer and croque monsieur in the early October sunshine.

Bokaal across the road from my apartment is also excellent though the beer selection is a bit smaller. I’ve written previously about enjoying a Witkap Dubbel here

Locus Publicus

Locus Publicus

Thirdly if you’re really into choice in a big way, try Locus Publicus at Oostplien. Despite its corny name it’s cosy, atmospheric and busy. The choice is vast. My advice us to start at the top. You won’t get that far. Most of the beers are 6 or 7% with some in the early 20s. I think I now know why Google maps told us to beware of Belgium.

The barbers of Rotterdam

As a small boy I remember my dad taking me to the barber’s shop on Station Road in Prestatyn. I’ve not been to a gentleman’s barbers for years, In fact I’ve been having my haircut at Mojos in Blackburn then Wheelton since about 1997.

Today I changed that habit and entered Schorem on Niewe Binnenweg, Oude Westen, Rotterdam. I’d read about this place. I needed to see if it lived up to expectations. As I write my hair feels solid and I can still smell the manly pomade.

20151002_163021This is a men only establishment. As you enter you are taken back in time – two rows of vintage barber’s chairs, elaborate mirrors atop counters covered in potions and lotions. Rockabilly and bluegrass music provide the soundtrack to haircuts hear. This is a place of bottled beer for the customers, elaborate beards and moustaches, hair is shaped, quiffed, clipped and pomaded so that it wouldn’t move in a hurricane.

You don’t make an appointment. You turn up and wait your turn which gives you a chance to watch the white coated men at work. Everyone has tattooed arms, most a moustache and some beards that Darwin would have been proud of. They are precision engineers. It is not a quick process. I watched a young Italian student have his thick Latin hair clipped away leaving  a solid wave of black on his crown. An older man have at least six inches cut off making him look smart, stylish and considerably younger. The barbers whealded clippers, razors, brushes, combs and scissors like musical instraments. They checked each detail, each sideburn, each hair like an artist finishing an important commission. This was theatre, the coats and tattoos costumes; the shop the set.

It was also about audience participation. My turn came. I was led to a chair and my barber shook my hand. He asked me what I wanted and told me not to worry – he knew what I needed. I sat facing the shop, not the mirror. I just had to sit back and let him do his thing. There was no chit chat – no questions about holidays or films I’d seen recently. I continued as a spectator watching the other barbers at their work. I’ve always found haircuts relaxing. A chance to sit and be done to. You hand over control. It doesn’t hurt. I’ve no idea how long my hair cut took. I heard the swish-swish-swish of the scissors, the buzz of the clippers the shhh of the manly scented spray he used to dampen things down.  Then he pushed a pedal and swung be round for the reveal in the mirror. It all looked fine if a bit fluffy. He then applied what felt like half a jar of water based pomade, massaged it into my hair making a child’s bath time pineapples and horns. It was then all swept back as far as it would go. He put talc onto a brush and swept me up. He then put stinging aftershave on my neck, sideburns and ears. I was done.

There are no options here, no extras for colour, curling, washing, blow drying. It’s a fixed price. €33 for a haircut, (about £25) €33 for a shave or €61 for both.  The bottle of beer is included.  I paid and left.

20151002_163106The verdict. My hair looks a bit severe and I’m not convinced I’ll wear it like this very often. The pomade will wash out and I’ll no doubt go back to a softer look with less exposed forehead.It was an experience. I’d happily go again. I might save up my stubble for a cut throat shave next time.

Study

I’m very sorry, I’ve been far too quiet since I got here. I’ve been working hard.

I thought you’d like to know what I’ve been doing at university and how it’s going. We’re four weeks in, half way through term one. Erasmus University, (EUR), has four terms a year of eight weeks each. This term we have three courses. They are:

  1. Introduction to Economic Theory
  2. Introduction to Social Science Research
  3. Creative Economy and Creative Organisations

For Introduction to Economic Theory we have a three hour seminar each week and are ploughing through the weighty Krugman and Wells textbook. (there was some confusion over our text book). As I’ve said before I’ve done quite a bit of pre reading on economics but have concentrated on the different views and schools – who thinks what etc. Then weighty Krugman and Wells book is more technical. So far I’ve not come across a single reference to another economist. I’ve spent most of my time looking at supply and demand graphs and variants thereof. It’s not the most exciting book but I can see the logic of us going through it. Our lecturer, Paul helps bring it to together and valiantly tries to find cultural examples. Today we’ve been given out midterm assignment. I’ve got to prepare four arguments for a politician who is going to enter a debate arguing against public subsidy for the arts. A very interesting position for me to take given that my income over most of the past twenty odd years has come from public arts funding.  There will be an exam at the end of the course.

Introduction to Social Science Research is taught a bit differently. We are doing this course with a range of other students. Most of them are BA students in International media. We have another American textbook by Earl Babbie. We have weekly two hour lectures with Marc who does his best to animate what could otherwise be really tedious to what is a big audience. We’ve started to sit at the front to avoid the bachelor chit chat. We also have a three hour tutorial with Aldo – a charismatic Brazilian who has rapidly become all our favorite. He uses his own research to help us relate the general course to our area of interest. Last week we submitted part 1 of a three part assignment. In pairs, we’ve been developing research questions. Simone and I are looking at the differences and similarities between cinema and theatre audiences. Part 2 involve designing a quantitative survey and Part 3 some qualitative interview questions. There will also be an exam at the end of this course.

Thirdly we have Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. In a lot of ways this is the most interesting. We don’t have a set text book but are given three chapters or articles to read each week. We’re also encouraged to read around. We’ve been looking at things like creative motivation, organization and definitions. We are working with students who are doing electives or exchanges from other universities. We don’t have an exam in this course – phew! We are working on a ‘class assignment’ in groups. Our group are a fictional vlog, creatively reviewing content on Netflix. Each week we’re given questions to answer through the filter of our organisation. For our midterm assignment we’ve been given a range of statements. We need to choose two and argue for or against them using the set texts and additional reading where appropriate. We’ve only got a week to do this so I’d better get on with it.

My desk awaiting my creative input

My desk awaiting my creative input

The whole course is taught in English, I couldn’t be doing it otherwise. I’m really lucky, most of my fellow students are studying in their second languages. The disadvantage of this is that a lot of the texts we are get are written in and about the UK. I’m hoping that as time goes on I will get to learn more about the rest of the world. The course comes from a western perspective and I expected that but, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve a lot of experience of the UK cultural scene.

I’m actually really enjoying it all at the moment. There is a lot of reading and some of it is either challenging, tedious or even badly written. I’m finding my way through and starting to make the connections between the courses. I’m enjoying someone else making my organisational arrangements: be in this lecture at 11:00; read that chapter by Wednesday; submit your assignment on line by the 7th… I’m working hard but keeping up and learning.

Let the festivities begin

Last week I had my induction day at Erasmus University and met all the other students on the Pre-Master course and Master course that I’m taking. The Pre-Master is a bit like year one of a two year programme for those who haven’t got an academic background in economics. We are truly an international group. I’m the only Brit on the Pre-Master though there are two doing the Master year. I have fellow students from Germany, Italy, Aruba, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Kenya, France…..

We’ve not started lectures yet but a few of us have been getting to know each other over the weekend. The Rotterdam calendar is packed with festival and public events. On Friday night we went to a gallery for museum night when it was open for free. Last night we went to experience the river show and fireworks as part of the  Wereld Haven Dagen, (World Port Days), festival. Rotterdam is about twenty kilometers from the mouth of the Rhine, which is called the Maas as if flows through The Netherlands. It is the largest port, (or haven), in Europe and right up in the global premier league of posts. The Wereld Haven Dagen festival lasts three days with the water show and fireworks being a key highlight.

There was a large naval ship onto which a transparent marquee had been erected housing a full orchestra.  The ship paraded, up and down the performance area. The music accompanied a 20150905_223301range of boats spurting water which was lit as it plumed into the air. There were lasers directed from the skyscrapers to the south of the spectacular Erasmus Bridge all of which formed an impressive backdrop to the show from our standpoint on the north bank. I cant imagine the difficulty of amplifying live music to both banks of a large river surrounded by tall buildings without it echoing back and forth. It worked but more volume would have added to the experience.

The backdrop is huge. I’ve seen , and been involved in, some events and projects that have failed to compete with the scale of the stage, Some public art I was involved in commissioning for Town hall Street in Blackburn looked great until it was dwarfed by the law courts. The dance performance at the end of the Preston Guild in 2012 and some of the early attempts at animating Salford Quays failed as the human form is too small for a mass audience in a big area.  After the spurting water we were treated to some pretty impressive trampolining on a boat. From where we were we cold just make it out but most of the audience probably didn’t even notice that something was happening.

20150905_225208This apparent pause in the show was, however, followed up by some very impressive fireworking. While watching professional fireworks I invariable find myself grinning with a kind of childish joy, the noise, the height, the light, the colour – what’s not to like. This was a great show from a barge in the river. The skyscrapers remained as the backdrop but the fireworks easily competed. the colour and the intensity of light was particularly impressive.

Yesterday I took a couple of hours to see what else the World Port Days festival had to offer. I pootled around on my bike, looked at stalls and explored a number of old boats including the only surviving Herring Logger built in 1912. Before the second world war this boat traveled between the French fishing ports on the channel and Lerwick in the Shetland Isles. It was an alarmingly small vessel for six men, the turbulent north sea and several tonnes of dead herring.

An added attraction of World Port Days is the Sea Shanty Festival. Choirs, mostly men from what I saw, from all over Europe gathered to sing and perform. It’s great, as a choir member myself I know how good it feels to sing with others. Disappointingly, even in the smallest of spaces, the choirs were all miked up and amplified, (and not very well). It was a real shame, It added a drone to the sound and distorted the voices. A choir can be heard. My choir back home frequently sings outdoors to appreciative audiences without amplification. Please organisers, drop the microphones and speakers next year – that way we’d get to hear the choirs. I shot this short video from behind the choir to avoid the speakers.

There is a very full calendar of festivals here in Rotterdam. I can’t go to the all. Next weekend there is a festival showcasing all of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and solo concertos in three days, the launch of the cultural season with a festival of contemporary art on Witte de Withstraat, a street food festival and a heritage festival opening up buildings across the city, (this is also happening in the UK with a big event taking place in Blackburn including some somewhereto_ performers).

The list goes on – no reason to be bored in Rotterdam.