Thursday, 22 December 2011

Have a Very Alcohol-mediated, Consumerist, Motorcentric, Advertising-driven and Illiterate, Xmas in Aberdeen!

I went to the barber. We like barbers, and we like the fact that there's a resurgence in their numbers on the streets of Aberdeen. Used to be, before the long boom, that there were lots of barbershops. Bastions of exclusive masculinity they were, where stoic-faced men and boys would sit or stand queuing around the edge of a smallish room, waiting in companionable silence or low-tone discussion for their turn on the barber's chair - impressively sturdy yet mildly frightening-looking in its functionality, sharing as it does a common ancestor with the dentist's chair. Ranged round the room - stonily staring either into the middle distance or at the chequerboard linoleum floor we would be; men together at one with the laminarity of our own smooth thoughts in that masculine mindscape which may flourish in quiet, understated and conducive spaces like the barbershop. Places like that are where best the masculine mindscape can range wide and smooth - idea upon idea distilling and concentrating, concatenating and ramifying; creative patterns merge and blossom - for it requires just that sort of continuous unity of environment and encounter for its best experience and function. The only sounds in the barbershop the whispered, measured tones of sober discussion, the hum of the electric clippers and the snick-snip of the finishing scissors, then a whispered "...and something for the weekend? Sir?" and the man currently being groomed was brushed down. He'd stand up, pay - and then it'd be your turn for the buzz-cut. No crap, no smalltalk, no faffing about, no feminisingly fragrant and functionally extraneous trichological 'product' - just an effing haircut, done expertly, quickly and cheaply by a grown man who you could trust had done exactly that same thing a million times before. You could have faith that in ten minutes flat he'd have you'd stepping out of the chair with your hair looking exactly like that of the NASA test-pilot you expected it to. What could possibly go wrong with such a simple activity, so quiet and uncomplicated a space, so straightforward a commercial relationship? 

When the long boom came, the barbershops one by one began to disappear - we thought it was natural wastage - the old barbers retired and their premises became unisex salons. Full of 'lifestyle' magazines, conditioner/gel/mousse/whatever 'product' (to be sold on commission), pop music videos, and late-teenage girls who would charge a small fortune for taking up to an hour to make a frankly bad job of cutting your hair. Sometimes these places would have aquaria. But, worst of all - oh by far worst of all - the smalltalk; the juddering discontinuity of arbitrary inconsequential crapchat, destroying the unity of the masculine mindscape. 

Now that the long boom is at an end, and the politicians and commentariat begin to  think about ways to try and tell the electorate that a return to economic growth may not actually be feasible, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good and barbershops are returning to the urban scene in Aberdeen - we daresay it's the same story all over the country.

So, more or less on a whim, I walked into one of Holburn Street's growing number (seven at the most recent count) of barbershops which have recently begun to typify parts of the town-centre. All appeared as it should have been: chequerboard linoleum flooring; fuss-free interior; traditional-looking barber's chairs; no branded hair 'product'; a small queue of men with reassuringly blank looks. All correct. I expected that I shared a common frame of reference with barber and clientele alike. But I was wrong.

Regular readers will know that we at Other,Aberdeen believe that - rather than the ticket-price or up-to-datedness of gewgaw possessions; rather than the external veneer of mere ostentation; and rather than an overdraft of ersatz happiness from the bank of Boozy Britain, the key to well-being is to be sought in the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, the strength of our relationships and the sustainability of our activities. So I was disappointed to to be subjected to the smalltalk of the barber who first asked me what sort of car I drive. (Living in the town centre, it's not necessary for me to own a car, so I do not.) That smalltalk opening gambit having failed, the barber then asked whether I would be out drinking that night. (I do not drink.) 
"What! Not even at Christmas?" 
< No. > 
"Are you not even going to take a drink on Christmas Day?" 
< No. I don't use it. > 
Eyebrows raised, and head shaking, the barber blew a breath out from between pursed lips: "Pffft".

Next I was asked what I expected to "get" for Christmas (I was not asked what I would be giving). And then, once my hair was cut and I had paid, I was handed a little seasonal promotional 'gift'; a barbershop-branded beer-bottle opener: "In case you change your mind and decide to have a wee cheeky beer or two over the festive season". The fact that I do not use alcohol simply could not, would not, fit into the barber's world view, especially at Christmas! 

Walking back home, I reflected on how misunderstood the straightforward desire for simplicity can be. At this time of year especially, and with the western world's economies undergoing the convulsions of phase change to a low- or no-growth future - we hope that simple, unmediated pleasures, unfreighted with commercial content and free from reliance upon fragile critical dependency networks become valued once again. I quickened my step, eager for the simple pleasures of hearth and home on that winter day. The day's consignment of Christmas cards awaited me in the vestibule. Among them, this gem:

Where to start with this copyright busting, advertising-subsumed, commercially complicit piece of seasonal "cheer", parasitising as it does upon the mass-culture iconography which has developed around the secondary arbitrage market for car insurance? Perhaps it is enough to simply point out that the producers of this Christmas card have mis-spelled "meerkat".

With Season's Greetings to all our readers!

Other, Aberdeen

Friday, 16 December 2011

Cacophonous Rosemount

As the oppressive noise level generated by motor traffic in Aberdeen increases in direct correspondence with the oil price, trying to undertake psychogeographical studies of the town and its socio-geographical relationships becomes more and more frustrating and our field reports run the risk of becoming increasingly one-dimensional. More than once, these pages have featured our bitter complaints about the growing cacophonous overburden of discordance on our town's streets and the impact of this noisy intrusion upon our quality of life. And when we visit an area of study, by chance dérive or purposeful expedition, it takes an engaged effort of the will to try to screen out the harsh racket which destroys the unity of the urban experience - that which our psychogeography seeks.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, we walked up and down Rosemount Place - host to a subsidiary commercial district of Aberdeen, about a kilometre from the town centre, and so fitting nicely the the multi-node-model of urbanisation. The Rosemount area is full of artefacts and arrangements of great psychogeographical interest. From ancient boundary stones to boutique cheese-vendors; from mid-century Viennese-style art deco apartment blocks to Georgian manor houses hidden behind Victorian tenements, accessible up long dark pends; from independent cosmopolitan cafés to cipher-embazoned granite pediments and gables - Rosemount is fascinating. Tree-lined avenues and traditional green-lane rights-of-way criss-cross the area. Rosemount would be a nice place to linger, to dawdle, to stroll and maybe even do some grocery shopping; to stop in a cafe and read a newspaper, to live life at a human scale and pace. But unfortunately, through-traffic roars up and down Rosemount Place, rat-running at maximum possible speed between the northwest of the town and the central business district. The noise generated by the continual high-speed flow of traffic makes Rosemount Place an unpleasant and oppressive zone. Not at all a nice place to linger.

We had intended to stay, to look at stuff, to think and reflect, to discuss what we were experiencing. But it was impossible. We couldn't dally, because we had to shout to each other in order to be heard. It just was not possible to stand on the pavement or stroll and maintain a conversation. Once again we were subjected to that most British of outcomes - the confusion that exists between streets and roads. In pre-mid 20th century urbanism, roads connected locations and streets connected people. A road's main function was transportation, while streets enabled public interaction. Today, in Aberdeen, even the streets are roads, and public interaction is marginalised in favour of noisy high-speed motor-traffic 'flow'.

According to the World Health Organisation document "Burden of disease from environmental noise" (pdf):
The health impacts of environmental noise are a growing concern. At least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western part of Europe.
Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health.
Excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.
So, what is to be done? We're pleased to note that the Scottish Government is obliged by European Union legislation to address environmental noise via Noise Action Plans covering Noise Management Areas (pdf). Unfortunately, we're less pleased to note that local greenwash boilerplate issuing quango NESTRANS (North East Scotland Transport) is the local body responsible for dealing with transport noise in Aberdeen.

The NESTRANS "Health and Transport Action Plan" (HTAP) document is difficult to find, particularly as NESTRANS appear not to have updated the document index on their website since 2008, but a bit of knowledge of how to conduct advanced Google searches delivers up the goods.
It's disappointing to note that the "Noise Control" section of the report is practically identical to that published in the NESTRANS HTAP last year, the only change in the form of words being those necessary to report that no action has yet been taken, not even to identify problem areas. We'll save them the time and effort: the whole of Aberdeen is now a problem area for traffic noise.
It was a fairly pleasant surprise to see that our local advertising free-sheet "The Aberdeen Citizen" (BEST free newspaper in Scotland) covered this story with a front-page splash last week: "EU COULD TELL ABERDEEN TO CUT DOWN THE NOISE" - they thundered. We were delighted. But then we read the article. The reporter who wrote it asked a local haulage magnate to comment. The transport tycoon in question responded by calling for road resurfacing:
"Drive past noise varies on the road surface ... it can be loud and intimidating. The only way to lower that is to improve the road surface."
(Our emphasis)

The reporter also sought a quote from a NESTRANS spokeswoman who said:
"As technological advances reduce noise levels from vehicles, it is possible that improvements will occur anyway."
Astonishing. This spokeswoman believes that "technological advances" will come to the rescue; presumably those advances being in the form of electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles which will emit negligible engine-noise. But, engine noise is already only detectable in today's motor cars at speeds lower than 20mph. Above that speed, it is the rolling tyre rumble and aerodynamic effects which produce the noise which so blights our urban environment and is of such great concern to the World Health Organisation. So the NESTRANS spokeswoman is happy to tell us that she is just crossing her fingers and hoping that the problem will go away, and the haulage magnate wants road surface 'improvements'. Neither of these quoted sources countenance measures (such as modal-shift away from use of private motor vehicles towards sustainable, active and/or public transport modes) which could reduce traffic volumes or speeds. They have not considered this obvious, low-cost and minimum intervention solution, because so entrenched has their motor-centric world-view become that they cannot see the bleedingly obvious fact that motor-traffic is the source of motor-traffic noise. To paraphrase the splendid "At War With The Motorist" blog:
The cause of traffic noise is traffic. Too much of if, driving too fast. We like to pretend that it’s bad engineering, because we can always fix engineering by replacing it with some different engineering. And we like to pretend that it’s not the volume and speed of traffic and the behaviour of drivers, because acknowledging this would mean giving up hope that one day the traffic noise will magically be solved. But that’s the way it is: too many cars, driven too fast.


OtherAberdeen's first hardcore psychogeographic photoblog project "Edgewatch" came to an end the other day. Check it out:

If you're in the know, you'll already know about the successor to Edgewatch: "Northern Liminalia"