Alex In Leeds

(Book Reviews and Adventures…)


Reading Review: February 2015

Journal by Curt Fleenor Photography

February’s reading has rather been overshadowed by the planning of my 101 goals list, although I read nine books they were all either short or inter-cut with lots of images, sometimes both! I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into more lengthy or immersive books in March.

February’s Books

I read genetic history meets archaeology, some architecture, art history and two books on crafting history for a arts-heavy mix of non-fiction. Not a single finished novel or short story collection this month though. I did try to lose myself in some fiction but just couldn’t drift into its rhythm, I think it was all the planning I was doing for the 101 goals, I can only really enjoy so much daydreaming and plotting at one time. With all the castles-in-the-air in my real life, there wasn’t mental space for them in my reading. Now the list is finalised though I can settle back down into a more mixed selection of fiction and non-fiction. :)

The Read Books

8) John Ashdown-Hill – The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA (Non-Fic) (2013)
9) Alexandra Johnson – A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs (Non-Fic) (2011)
10) Juhani Pallasmaa- The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Non-Fic) (2005)
11) Ruth Kenny, Jeff McMillan and Martin Myrone – British Folk Art (Non-Fic) (2014)
12) Thomasina Beck – The Embroiderer’s Story (Non-Fic) (1995)
13) Gary Schwartz & Marten Jan Bok – Pieter Saenredam: The Painter and His Time (Non-Fic) (1990)
14) Jonathan Conlin – The Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery (Non-Fic) (2006)
15) Margaret Jourdain – The History of English Secular Embroidery (Non-Fic) (1910)
16) Rowan Moore – Why We Build (Non-Fic) (2007)

Books read: 9 /Books ‘Surfed': 2 / Books marked Did Not Finish: 3
Fiction: 6 / Non-Fiction: 3
Female authors: 3 / Male authors: 4 / Multiple authors: 2

February’s Highlights: I didn’t love anything I read this month but I think that’s the nature of what I was reading, none of these books are the kind to make you a ‘fan’ of them, they’re good for dipping in and out of and absorbing interesting fact and images from. If I had to pick a favourite though I’d opt for the book on the Netherlandish artist Pieter Jansz. Saenredam. I’ll be reviewing it or at least sharing a couple of images from it because Saenredam has long been a favourite artist of mine. He’s not so well known but he did these amazing architectural paintings in the 17th century:

Pieter Jansz Saenredam -The Interior of St. Bavo’s Church, Haarlem - 1648Pieter Jansz Saenredam – The Interior of St. Bavo’s Church, Haarlem – 1648

So many of Saenredam’s images look unbelievably modern and looking through the book, comparing different versions of various interiors, how his style developed though his subject stayed similar and drawings with finished works, was a great pleasure this month.

February’s Low Points: I suppose the flip-side of reading books you aren’t expected to fall in love with is not having much to dislike either! I wished the Conlin book on the National Gallery had a stronger sense of the author’s style (it had that dry, ‘correct’ tone of a spun-out thesis which I gather it was) and that the images of the gallery’s finest works weren’t all so unbearably dark in their reproductions. And Ashdown-Hill’s book on Richard III was simply messy, trying to do several things at once and not juggling them seamlessly. But it wasn’t really a ‘low point’ of my reading either, I still found the book interesting to skim through.

Reading Challenges

I am about to start another 101 goals in 1001 days adventure (01MAR2015-25NOV2017). I promise not to bore you to tears with non-bookish goals but you need to be aware that I’ll be working on these particularly bookish goals over the next couple of years:

6) Alternate male/female authors in my reading. (More info)
8) Have no more books in boxes by Day 1001. (More info)
19) Read a 19th Century of Books. (More info)
20) Read a 20th Century of Books. (More info)
23) Become an active autodidact. (More info)
38) Read all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. (More info)
39) See as many of Shakespeare’s plays performed as I can. (More info)
47) Get my Commonplace Book v2.0 up to date by Day 1001. (More info)
48) Rejoin and stay with the Leeds Library. (More info)
58) Go for a bibliotherapy session. (More info)
59) Put up An Introduction to Commonplacing on my blog. (More info)
60) Build a library of books I love but don’t currently own. (More info)
75) Use my Book Jar once a month. (More info)
93) Read a book a day for a month. (More info)

I obviously won’t be trying to do all of these at once in the next month but expect to see a steady stream of ‘Century of Books’ related posts, regular selections from the book jar and so on over the course of the adventure. :)

Plans for March

I have a couple of books I definitely want to read this month. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid has been patiently waiting my attention by my bed for a couple of months and I have Siri Hustvedt’s collection of art related essays here too, Mysteries of the Rectangle. Oh, and the Slaves of Golconda (a very informal online reading group I enjoy taking part in) has chosen Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet as this month’s read and I have tracked down a copy. Mostly though I am looking forward to using my book jar for the first time in ages, making sure I read more fiction (maybe something big and Victorian to get lost in?) and seeing how my first month of alternating books by author gender works for me…


The Flurry Is Over…

Apologies if you received the flurry of 101 goals posts I just put up and didn’t expect them. Every time I do 101 goals in 1001 days I warn readers multiple times and there are always one or two who miss the warning and don’t update their RSS feeds. Just go ahead and delete the posts from your feed reader or inbox if you’re not interested in my non-bookish adventures. :)

If you’re vaguely interested then the full list is here for you to scan over.

Final reminder: If you’re just here for the bookish posts you need to be following this RSS feed which is BOOKS ONLY. 1001 days is a long time to be deleting travel, cooking and other oddball posts from your feed reader if you’re not a fan of them!


101 Goals in 1001 Days, 01MAR2015-25NOV2017

Between 01MAR2015-25NOV2017 is 1001 days. In that 1001 days I intend to complete all 101 goals on the list below.

(If you have never heard of 101 goals in 1001 days before, you need to read this explanation.)


1) Daily photos. (Project 365) (More info)
2) 1001 Black and white pebbles. (More info)
3) Properly document this 101 goals adventure. (More info)
4) Track my stats for 1001 days. (More info)

5) Travel A-Z again. (More info)
6) Alternate male/female authors in my reading. (More info)
7) Switch to James Bond showers. (More info)
8) Have no more books in boxes by Day 1001. (More info)
9) Make the De Morgan peacock rug. (More info)
10) Complete a Saylor Academy course. (More info)
11) Go see Another Place at Crosby beach. (More info)
12) Make my own bread. (More info)
13) Try and grow a ginger plant. (More info)
14) Apply to become a Mass Observation diarist. (More info)
15) Buy a pair of glasses. (More info)
16) Go to a nicer lighthouse. (More info)
17) Make soap. (More info)
18) Add the charities/bookshops/resources I support to my blog. (More info)
19) Read a 19th Century of Books. (More info)
20) Read a 20th Century of Books. (More info)
21) Go on a foraging walk. (More info)
22) Make 1000 origami cranes. (More info)
23) Become an active autodidact. (More info)
24) Make a patchwork quilt. (More info)
25) Complete the C25K running programme. (More info)
26) Walk a marathon (26 miles) in a day. (More info)
27) Hit a 5km time target. (More info)
28) Make a 365 box. (More info)
29) Go to Florence. (More info)
30) Visit the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre. (More info)
31) Have a go at stone carving. (More info)
32) Make an I Spy list. (More info)
33) See 20 of the things on my I Spy list. (More info)
34) Try to grow a lemon tree. (More info)
35) Invest £100 in Kickstarter projects. (More info)
36) Relearn Latin. (More info)
37) Make uncheese. (More info)
38) Read all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. (More info)
39) See as many of Shakespeare’s plays performed as I can. (More info)
40) Volunteer 100 hours. (More info)
41) Have a go at watercolour painting. (More info)
42) Buy a watch. (More info)
43) Go to the Harrogate Turkish Baths. (More info)
44) Become an active Wikipedia editor/contributor. (More info)
45) Go and see a fireworks display. (More info)
46) Try making stained glass. (More info)
47) Get my Commonplace Book v2.0 up to date by Day 1001. (More info)
48) Rejoin and stay with the Leeds Library. (More info)
49) Put up a bird-box. (More info)
50) Make an I Cook list. (More info)
51) Cook 20 things on the I Cook list. (More info)
52) Get 3 of my own photos up on my walls. (More info)
53) Go to the International Medieval Congress. (More info)
54) Try making flavoured alcohol. (More info)
55) Go fossil hunting. (More info)
56) Go to a knitting workshop. (More info)
57) Get a Road ID band. (More info)
58) Go for a bibliotherapy session. (More info)
59) Put up An Introduction to Commonplacing on my blog. (More info)
60) Build a library of books I love but don’t currently own. (More info)
61) Build a library of music I love but don’t currently own. (More info)
62) Travel on the West Highland Line (More info)

63) Try and grow a Darlow’s Enigma rose. (More info)
64) Get hard copies of UK records up to my Great-Grandparents. (More info)
65) Submit information to the Macanese Families database. (More info)
66) Put up a wall map with pins for ancestral locations. (More info)
67) Pass on my father’s family tree. (More info)
68) Get someone else to do a 23andMe test. (More info)
69) Get my family tree up on the web. (More info)
70) Visit my great grandmother’s grave. (More info)
71) Visit a location for Line 1 and Line 2. (More info)
72) Visit a location for Line 3 and Line 4. (More info)
73) Visit a location for Line 5 and Line 6. (More info)
74) Plan a trip to Hong Kong and Macau. (More info)

75) Use my Book Jar once a month. (More info)
76) Make a monthly ‘mixtape’. (More info)
77) Go to the cinema/a gig/the theatre once a month. (More info)
78) One new cookery experiment a week. (More info)

79) Create an annual report each year. (More info)
80) Walk 60+ miles in a week, 2015. (More info)
81) Walk 60+ miles in a week, 2016. (More info)
82) Walk 60+ miles in a week, 2017. (More info)
83) Annual photo challenge, 2015. (More info)
84) Annual photo book, 2015. (More info)
85) Annual photo challenge, 2016. (More info)
86) Annual photo book, 2016. (More info)
87) Annual photo challenge, 2017. (More info)
88) Annual photo book, 2017. (More info)

89) Blog daily for a month. (More info)
90) Give up TV/DVDs/videos for a month. (More info)
91) Practice yoga daily for a month. (More info)
92) Give up wearing jeans for a month. (More info)
93) Read a book a day for a month. (More info)
94) Give up chocolate, cake and sweets for a month. (More info)
95) Run every day for a month. (More info)
96) Monthly Experiment (To Be Decided)
97) Monthly Experiment (To Be Decided)
98) Monthly Experiment (To Be Decided)
99) Monthly Experiment (To Be Decided)
100) Monthly Experiment (To Be Decided)


101) Celebrate Day 1001. (More info)



Review: Girl in a Green Gown by Carola Hicks

Girl in a Green Gown by Carola Hicks

Full Title: Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait

Category: Non-Fiction, Art History – Hardback: 272 pages – Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House) – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2011

The ‘Arnolfini Portrait‘ is a quirky, Dan-Brown-fan pleasing type of artistic mystery and it has the benefit of being entirely factual too.

We know who painted it (Jan van Eyck), where (Bruges, now in Belgium) and roughly when (it has the date 1434 included in the painting). We even know all the places it’s been since 1516, who owned it, what they probably thought of it, how it was catalogued in their collection, how they sold it or lost it when power changed hands. But why did kings and queens, Napoleon’s brother and the National Gallery all think that this small, confusing portrait of an obscure, long dead merchant was worth buying, saving and even fighting over?

Arnolfini Portrait

Even after nearly 600 years and countless researchers painstakingly examining the archives, we only know half the story of this work. We don’t know precisely who the people in the portrait are. We really don’t know what the painting was created for. Are they getting married and it’s been painted to celebrate the union? Is she pregnant and they’re hoping for a son to continue the family business? Was she dead at the time it was painted and being commemorated as a perfect wife?

These issues might make the painting a curio for art historians but here’s where it becomes a more fun game for everyone. What do the many possible signs and symbols within the painting mean? Which of the them can we ignore and which are significant? The chandelier? The oranges? The prayer beads? That very animated dog in the foreground? And what exactly is going on in that mirror?

The Arnolfini Portrait Mirror

The Girl in a Green Gown was Hicks’ last book before her death, she had almost finished the manuscript and her husband finished the editing and final revisions for her. It’s told in a different style to her book on the Bayeux Tapestry (there’s a link to my review below), each chapter on the Arnolfini Portrait‘s history is preceded by Hicks considering an element of the portrait in detail, like the dog or the choice and colour of fabrics in the room or the mirror.

As a reader I did wonder at this ordering when I was starting on the book but on reflection it makes sense for this particular work. So much of what we can guess or piece together about the imagery in the painting is ambiguous and no reader wants to read a solid chunk of analysis so heavily interspersed with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘possibly’. For example, the prayer beads could be about personal devotion. But they were also given as wedding gifts. Or they could be making a political statement… or they could simply be a sign of wealth and taste as the Arnolfinis traded them from the best sources. There are no definite solutions to this game without knowing the origins of the painting, which we will now never know, so there are many, inconclusive ideas about everything. It would feel very evasive if all that speculation was placed in one standalone chapter.

Spacing out the analysis of the details also guides you to really look at the painting, not to just absorb it as a whole but to appreciate the specifics of the artistic choices and the details included or omitted.

It also helps lift the history of the painting’s life story which appears to be a lot less perilous than that of the Bayeux Tapestry. Partly this is to do with the fact that for 500 years it has been owned by aristocrats, royals, national leaders and it’s been in the National Gallery in London since 1842. It’s hard to make an adventure story out of tracking the painting’s inclusion in catalogues and it’s life of quiet, privileged obscurity. Yes, it did get involved in Napoleon’s take-over of Spain and yes, there was a nasty incident involving it being pillaged from a Napoleonic baggage train. But it was stolen by a soldier who collected art works rather than a rough and ready squaddie.

I do wonder if Hicks would have revised the manuscript to address this had she lived a little longer. It’s not a bad book by any means and I happily recommend it to you if you like art history and hunting for clues in paintings. But the Arnolfini Portrait is a far less quirky piece of art to document than the Bayeux Tapestry. It has always been considered ‘Art’ unlike tapestry which has been caught up in the debate of what is art vs. what is merely ‘craft’. And it’s been far less vulnerable in the various collections it belonged to than a work of stained glass (which Hicks also wrote about in The King’s Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art). Obviously there’s no way Hicks could have changed the portrait’s tale but I suspect she might have pointed up occasions where it’s comfortable, privileged life on royal walls were not so guaranteed and we might have lost the work entirely. It would have made the portrait’s journey to worldwide recognition and importance within the National Gallery’s collection seem less inevitable to the reader and highlighted more how fragile any piece of panel just 82 × 59.5 cm (32.3 × 23.4 in) actually is.

Or perhaps I am just more suited to tales of scrappy tapestries gathering dust for centuries and then being dramatically saved from the Nazis, all the while waiting for the world to appreciate them as the historically important artwork they clearly are rather than sniffily dismissing them as ‘just needlework’?

Either way, I have now read two of Hicks’s books, have bought a third and am bitterly disappointed she didn’t write more for me to read.

Further Reading: My review of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, Carola Hicks’s obituary in The Guardian

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Non-Fiction


A Week in Reading: Bright Days and Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark

I’m combining more than a week’s worth of reading but despite January being hectic and chaotic I don’t want to pass it over completely. There were three real bookish threads of note in the month: a book I loved was adapted for the radio, a book took me to Venice but left me drifting there hopelessly and I spent rather a lot of time with a deliciously opinionated author. Oh and I accidentally borrowed a book from the library that could break my foot if I dropped it…

Firstly, there was that radio adaptation: J B Priestley’s Bright Day for the BBC. If you’re in the UK you can still listen to it for the next week or so. Bright Day was my first experience of Priestley’s fiction and, as I’ve since found some of his novels very hit-and-miss, I think this one was a great place to start. It’s under 300 pages, full of very people-y characters and at its heart is the contradiction of what we remember happening vs. what really did happen. It’s a little bit like Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending in that respect now that I think about it. It also manages to capture the sense of working 9-5 in the city and then joyfully scampering away to the hills and parties at the weekend just about perfectly. Anyway, my review is here but the BBC adaptation is just 2 hours long and rather good if you fancy trying a bit of Priestley.

Secondly, there was a book I really enjoyed but was frustrated mightily by: Bidisha’s Venetian Masters. London-based writer Bidisha spent a couple of weeks staying in Venice with a rich friend and her family and was then seduced and curious enough to return to the city to find her own place and live there for several months. She has a happy knack of perfectly capturing the feel of a market or standing in a particular square at a particular hour in just a few fragmented sentences. Like this passing mention on page 10:

‘We go to the fish market, the pescheria, in the oldest part of town: wet shadows, sour, addictive fish smells, sluiced water, columns white and grey.’

But all this evocative scene-sketching frustratingly doesn’t seem to add up to anything more. I kept wondering whether there would be anything to give the memories shape but eventually drifted away from the book after a couple of hundred pages when it just continued floating along like an unmoored, directionless gondola. I loved her style but I guess I need more substance to a narrative like this. If you don’t mind a very relaxed, meandering travelogue though, this would perfect.

Thirdly, I spent rather a lot of January in the mind of one author and he’d already popped up in another book I’d read in December too. Essentially it went like this: in October my Open University course on art history mentioned a work of art I remembered being covered in the iconic 1969 documentary series, Civilisation: A Personal View which was made and presented by the art historian Kenneth Clark. I own the series on DVD but remembered the scripts had been edited into a book so I went hunting it in the library thinking I could quote from it in one of my essays. And since I like Clark’s refusal to dumb material down and love arguing with his opinions sometimes, I borrowed a couple of his other books that were relevant to the course too.

In December I was reading Carola Hicks’s Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait (I’m not sure I’d write a full review of it here since it’s so specifically about one art work but I’ll manage a mini one) and found the wonderful story about Clark being so determined to do things his way at the National Gallery when he was director there that he gained the nickname Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark. Based on that I don’t suppose I’d have liked working with him for one moment but, after immersing myself in them last month, I really do love reading his books. They’re packed full of a lifetime’s worth of observations and absorbed readings and it feels like taking a walk with the most passionate, argumentative guide imaginable. Even when he’s wrong I love being pushed to consider my own opinion and its foundations. I foresee even more of his books in my future.

Finally, a reminder to always check exactly what you’re reserving at the library. The juicy, new history book I reserved in January arrived for me to collect this week and I was equal parts delighted and horrified to find it on the Awaiting Collection shelf and realise it is over 1000 pages long. And there’s another reservation against it so I have to finish it before the 23rd. Aie! It’s Robert Tombs’s The English and their History in case you’re wondering. I reserved it because I was rather intrigued by the fact that Tombs is a professor of French History rather than British but I somehow managed to miss any reference to its hefty dimensions. Having had a look at the bibliography it appears to be very idiosyncratic so I am somewhat dubious about this one.

Yes, I am the kind of girl that starts a book like this by looking through the bibliography. :)

Anyhow, this brings us to this week’s reading which appears to contain rather a lot of English history. I really must dig into my stacks and find some fiction to balance it out with. Maybe some of Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book? I don’t think I’ve read any Jansson at all but I’ve seen a lot of love for her around my favourite blogs so I think it would be a good pick…


101 Goals 2015-2017: And So It Begins

101 Banner

(If you’re not interested in following my 101 goals adventure I won’t be offended but please make sure you switch to follow the specific BOOKS ONLY RSS feed (available from the top left column on the blog) otherwise you’ll get all my posts mixed up together – and I am about to start posting a lot of 101 goals posts…)

101 Goals in 1001 Days. AKA The Day Zero Project. AKA Mission 101. It’s the act of making a list of 101 goals and trying to complete them all in 1001 days. Which is 2.75 years or 143 weeks or about 33 months if you prefer.

And in case anyone was wondering: I haven’t forgotten or discarded my plans to start 101 goals this year, they just got a little waylaid while I was deciding some Big Scary Life Stuff. It was impossible to lock down my goals while I was trying to decide whether to pursue studying with the Open University or apply for an MA, when I wasn’t sure which city or country I was going to be in for the next couple of years. :)

All of that is now decided though (I’ll write up my OU experiences in a separate post) and I’ve made my decisions, I know where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. And I’m running my new 101 goals list from 01MAR2015-25NOV2017.

So the last couple of days have been a happy, creative mess of mind maps, ideas written on index cards and stacked up in various piles around my bed and working out a good balance of goals on a white board.

There has been much caffeine consumption.

And a lot of reflection too.

One of the things I’ve actually been thinking about is the differences between starting in March vs. starting in January actually. When I started my last 101 goals list, back on 01JAN2009, it made sense to start it on 01JAN. I’d come out of a messy relationship at the end of 2006 and spent most of 2007 recovering from it and figuring out what next. In 2008 the travel I was doing for work ramped up and I started pursuing new hobbies and friendships. So by the end of 2008 I had much clearer ideas of what I wanted from the next 1001 days and I was ready that winter to really focus in on my list and get it ready to start in 2009.

This time it’s been a bit different. There’s been the balancing of goals and relationships, trying to decide what to do with study options and Big Scary Life Stuff to sort out. I wasn’t starting from such a solid, free position when I was thinking about goals this November and December as I was at the end of 2008. Which is why it’s taken longer to untangle the threads of what I want from the next 1001 days and make a coherent list that isn’t going to pull me in a dozen different, impossible-to-combine directions.

I must confess, there’s also a sense of it being right to start this list on 01MAR. I love the idea of starting it with the spring. When I started in January 2009 there was a sense of the first couple of months being about getting the snowball rolling – starting the daily goals, planning what I could do in better weather etc. But I know what I’m doing with 101 goals this time around and the more I think about it, the more I love the fact that starting in March means I can truly start from Day 0001.

So yes, I now have my list of 101 goals completed. I’ve got a draft post of it here on the blog already. Over the rest of February I’ll start posting the details of the individual goals here and then finally, the complete list with links to all the separate goals on it. And from 01MAR2015, the adventure begins. I won’t be flying a plane this time (or trying to jump out of one either!) but I will be travelling, exploring, tackling some fun reading goals and working to make each of the 1001 days just a little bit more magical and valued. I really do hope you’ll join me for the ride. :)


Review: Aerotropolis by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay

Kasarda and Lindsay - Aerotropolis

Full Title: Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next

Category: Non-Fiction, Futurology/Geography/Architecture – Paperback: 466 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2011

I wasn’t sure whether to review Aerotropolis here and, once I had decided to write about it, I really wasn’t sure about it being my first review of the year… but here’s the thing, while I read books I enjoyed far, far more last month, this is the one I have talked about and waved my hands over most. It’s the one that sticks in my mind, the one that got under my skin. And I think that means it has to be included here.

So, here’s the book’s premise: The smart way to design cities now and in the future is as transport hubs centered around a vast airport at the heart with an inner circle of businesses that need instant access for shipping/warehousing around it. Where the flight routes go, the money and the jobs go next. It looks something like this:

Aerotropolis Plan

It’s the idea sold by John Kasarda, a North Carolina professor who now serves as a guru to various cities, businesses and governments keen to try and control particular markets or trade routes. However, while Kasarda’s ideas and words are littered through this book he didn’t actively take part in the writing of it – this is journalist Lindsay’s vastly expanded version of an article he wrote on Kasarda for Fast Company. By following Kasarda’s projects and examining case studies in the US, UAE and China Lindsay tries to build a case for ‘aerotropolis’ hubs being what the book’s sub-title proclaims, ‘The way we’ll live next’.

It makes for a frustrating, unrealistic read for several reasons.

In the book’s defence, there are genuinely fascinating facts included here. Did you know there is a National Eyebank Center next to the airport in Memphis, the so-called ‘hub of eyeballs’ and it serves as a way station for 3500 human corneas every year? They’re all being routed from deceased donors to blinded recipients around the US via the hub’s ‘cool chain’ to make sure they arrive in perfect transplant-ready condition. Or how about the fact that between 1969-78 there were 75,000 hijacked flight passengers worldwide? Which is astonishing when you start wondering what percentage that was of all passengers who flew…

And there are a few valid questions asked here, even if they are poorly handled. For example: who’s going to tell 100 million Chinese folks that they can’t enjoy weekend city breaks because the rest of the world wants to cut emissions?

The case studies make for eye-opening reading too: the town of Wilmington where the DHL hub provided 7000 of the town’s 12,000 jobs until the company moved elsewhere, the logistics of how the Netherlands has managed to keep control of the flower trade by controlling the air routes and supply chain from hot houses in Africa to the massive auction house in Amsterdam, the speed at which China is building cities with little (or none) of the hand-wringing about creating communities we’d see in the West.

But the book suffers from two fatal flaws: the author has got far, far too close to his subject and both the author and subject lack the ability to consider the implications of their worldview.

For a start, it’s 100 pages too long. There are rambling sentences and the structure seems lost under poor signposting to the reader and research that has been poorly melded together. Then there’s the fact that Lindsay refuses to respect or engage with Kasarda’s critics – those who object to any airport being built are NIMBYs regardless of their reasons – and there’s no real discussion of the fact that for all Kasarda’s work and consultancy (and that of others like him) it has led to the building of not one true aerotropolis so far, anywhere in the world even though he’s been at it since the early 1980s.

My hand-waving and inability to quickly forget the book have come from something else though, the implications of the future these two authors want to create. It chills me and, more infuriatingly, it neglects to consider any of the social issues caused by such re-shaping of urban environments.

What are the consequences of helping totalitarian governments and regimes like China and the UAE design cities for maximum efficiency and zero humanity? What are the ethics of helping the wholesale physical restructuring of foreign societies with limited or near non-existent democratic mechanisms to debate or revise those designs? Apparently neither Kasarda or Lindsay ever think about it.

What about the environmental impact of building all this infrastructure for a specific mode of transport? The book opens with the argument that cities have been based around ports, canals, railways and motorways in the past so airports are the logical next step. Why then can’t the authors see that air travel might have a life-span too? They do consider the argument that flight is fuel intensive and a luxury and rightly counter it with the fact that air fuel these days is much greener and only accounts for 2-4% of global emissions. But this is a little disingenuous when you are proposing the rebuilding and re-purposing of huge cities across the world and fail to factor the impact such rebuilding might have into your calculations for whether aerotropolii are green or efficient.

‘The airport leaves the city.
The city follows the airport.
The airport becomes a city.’

But ultimately it’s the social questions that interest me more and they are glaringly absent from this book. Who gets to fly? What does it do to the social dynamics of a nation or a region? If people are routinely living and working a lifestyle that resembles the one portrayed in Up In The Air, what does it mean for relationships, class divisions and race issues? What happens to cities when they specialise and become hubs to the extent that Kasarda advocates? How fragile does that city’s security become if it spends all that money on infrastructure and gambles on becoming a hub? How many hubs does any nation need?

The more people travel, the more small-scale issues seen in every city become huge issues in specific cities. It’s an inevitable consequence of globalisation that has become more and more visible in the last decade or so. Gentrified neighbourhoods that price out the original locals on one hand (San Francisco, Istanbul, London), entire cities being seen as a ghetto on the other (Newcastle in the UK, Detroit in the US). Press attention has been more focused on these issues in the four years since the book was written but it’s not like they were invisible when Kasarda and Lindsay were working on it. But you’d never know it. Apart from pointing out that Michigan was great at educating its youth but the brain drain from Detroit was huge, there’s no mention of these ideas or how the aerotropolis deals with them.

Finally there’s the relationship angle. Again, as I am sure you have guessed, this is never mentioned in the book either.

Long distance relationships are on the increase, both from the increase in possibility (people meeting online and then realising a plane ticket is cheap) and the increase in necessity (those who have to move from their partner for work or study). There’s even a term for the specific situation of a couple where they are both highly trained or work in niche industries and can’t get a job in the same city – the ‘two body problem’. An example might be two academics who can’t find one university to employ them both or two scientists working in fields where their specialisms both have hubs… and the hubs are at opposite ends of the US. The financial, property and social implications of such split couples and families is a pretty big issue but Kasarda and Lindsay have a world view that entirely disregards it. They envisage male ‘road warriors’ going off to the office on Monday by plane and a sort of updated 1950s suburbia.

(Lest you think I am exaggerating: there’s a mention of a generous grandmother flying from one city to a neighbouring one to babysit for her busy daughter. That’s it. That is the only use of the air transport network by a woman included in the whole book. When Lindsay talks (finally) about the possibilities of the aerotropolis bringing him closer to his family… it is via him catching a flight so the menfolk can go to a baseball game in another city while the women stay home.)

What more aerotropolii might mean for fragmented families flying to and fro across the country and juggling different geographic needs along with everything else or what increased business travel by air might mean for sexual or racial equality in employment are just more of those interesting questions completely disregarded by the authors. (Anecdotally, having worked through two recessions in jobs that required frequent air travel in Europe and the US, every time the economy dipped the passenger mix on my flights got noticeably less diverse, more male and more firmly in the 40-50 age range.)

There are fascinating facts in here. There are interesting case studies to consider. But they are buried in a book that is too long and poorly edited, written by a journalist who has gotten to close to his subject and lost his objectivity. More importantly, it’s a book and premise that rarely, if ever, considers what it is like to actually live in the kind of cities Kasarda would like to cover the world in if you are not a (very) privileged, middle class man. Ultimately the questions it didn’t ask were far, far more interesting than the ones it did. Perhaps that’s why I’ve struggled to let it go so much…

Further Reading: Rowan Moore’s review of the book for The Guardian, Will Self’s review for The London Review of Books

List of books read in 2015 / Index of Non-Fiction


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