Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Changi Chapel in Canberra

I've been in Canberra for two weeks now as an artist-in-residence with the Australian War Memorial; walking and exploring all around Canberra, as well as looking into its vast archives. Over the weekend, whilst looking around Google Maps for directions around Canberra I saw something very interesting...

The Changi Chapel.



I was very puzzled: why hadn't I heard that the original structure of the Changi Chapel was in Australia?.... Not once did I read in any book, pamphlet or material in Singapore that the "original" Changi Chapel was in Canberra! (and mind you, as a "completer-finisher" type of person, I thought I had read every single caption there was to read...)

Just a few weeks ago, me and Angela visited the replica of the Changi Chapel in Singapore, a simple and modest wooden chapel that sits within the courtyard of the Changi Museum. At the Changi Museum, the informational signboards do write clearly that it is a replica - but I have to admit that I blithely assumed we were seeing a replica because it had to be moved from its former Changi Prison site - and not because the original had been relocated elsewhere!

Outside the Changi Museum, Singapore

The Replica of the Changi Chapel inside the Changi Museum, Singapore

According to the Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture (by the Australian Institute of Architects), the Changi Chapel (RSTCA No: R055I) is a "rare surviving structure built by Allied prisoners of war from World War 2. A feature of the simple but refined chapel, which reflects the adverse circumstances of its construction, is the use of scrounged building materials."

More from the Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture:

In October 1945 the War Graves Unit, including Corporal Max Lee, spent a few days by chance in the Changi Camp, en route to Sumatra. Corporal Lee made a request to the British to save the chapel, which was one of the few structures that had not been destroyed by fire. Permission was granted and after extensive photographs were taken and measured drawings and sketches were made by Lee, the Chapel was dismantled by a working party of surrendered Japanese personnel. It was crated to Australia in 1947, with the intention that the Chapel be reconstructed as a fitting memorial for “prisoners of war who had little recognition for the extreme adversity under which many had lived and died” (attributed to Lee).

The crates were stored in the Australian War Memorial where they remained for 40 years. The chapel was finally offered to the Australian Defence Force Academy and in 1987 reconstruction work commenced. The work was undertaken by the Royal Australian Engineer Corps. Following an unsuccessful application for Bicentennial funding, the Army launched a nation-wide public appeal for funds. In consultation with the Australian Heritage Commission, a site at Duntroon was chosen in the centre of small parkland close to the ANZAC Memorial Chapel.

It seems that I was confused because in 1988, two things occurred: (1) on the bicentenary year of Australia (1788-1988), the original Changi Chapel was reconstructed and dedicated as a National Memorial (to all Australian prisoners of war) in Duntroon, Canberra on the anniversary of the end of World War II (15 August 1945-15 August 1988), and (2) the replica of the Changi Chapel was constructed by the inmates of Changi Prison, as part of the Changi Museum built by the Singapore Tourism Board, situated outside of of the Changi Prison grounds. (The Changi Museum in Singapore was built in February 1988, according to this page containing research by Kevin Blackburn).

What a coincidence! Why was the Changi Chapel replica built in 1988 in the same year that the original was put back together in Duntroon? Was the decision to build the replica triggered by the reconstruction efforts of the original Changi Chapel over in Duntroon in 1988? Or of course a simple answer could be that 1988 was simply chosen precisely because of the significance of the year 1988 to Australian war veterans who would have wanted a memorial site to be constructed in Changi. But later again, the Changi Museum had to be moved because of the expansion of Changi Prison (as a prison for serious criminal offenders), so it was yet again moved to its present-day site at 1000 Upper Changi Rd North on 15 February 2001.

Standing on an area of 3.6m by 4.8m in Duntroon, the "original" Changi Chapel is clearly much larger than its "replica" in Changi - but then no one said it was going to be an exact replica. I suppose the main point is that there is indeed a transnational memorial at which people can come together to pay their respects and remember those who suffered or lost their lives during World War II.

I was thinking that another easy misconception to make if one just skims over all the material is that one might assume that the Changi Murals painted by Stanley Warren were in THAT original outdoor Changi Chapel, when actually the Changi Murals had been at the ground floor of Block 151 in Roberts Barracks - which had been converted into a chapel dedicated to St Luke the physician. I suppose its not very useful to call everything "Changi", since Changi Gaol had been pretty large actually.

There had been 3 army barracks within Changi Gaol, namely Selarang Barracks, Kitchener Barracks, and Roberts Barracks. The Australians were sent to Selarang Barracks, and the British to Roberts Barracks and Kitchener Barracks. Roberts Barracks was later converted into Roberts Hospital. Stanley Warren was suffering from a severe renal disorder complicated by amoebic dysentery and was recovering in the dysentery wing of the hospital at Block 151, close to where St Luke's Chapel was set up at, and he began painting the murals soon after the Selarang Barracks Incident.

This photograph taken during the Selarang Barracks Incident gives a sense of the sheer scale of Changi Gaol (which might come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with how huge it had been):

Source: Australian War Memorial
Photo Taken: September 1942
ID number: 042307
Description: Photograph taken during the Selarang Barracks Square Incident when Japanese General Fukuye concentrated 13350 British and 2050 Australian prisoners of war because of their refusal to sign a promise not to escape. The picture shows external excavations for latrines made necessary because of overcrowding in the barracks.

The Changi Chapel in a black and white photo, taken October 1945
Source: Australian War Memorial
ID: 043124

Source: Australian War Memorial
Murray Griffin
Second World War, official war artist
St Andrew’s chapel
pen and ink and wash over pencil on paper
drawn in Changi, Singapore, in 1945
acquired under official war art scheme in 1946
ID: ART26460

Australia! You win at the collecting of Things! Not only do you have the Table, you somehow also have the Chapel too! But then again, I suppose that without the lobbying of Australian politicians, even the last bits of the original Changi prison wall would have probably disappeared (See also: ABC News (2004) - Singapore to preserve Changi prison wall)...

So the question that comes to my mind is... what is a country to do with a "transnational" memorial like the Changi Chapel - or Changi Gaol as a whole for that matter? If we think of World War II as a thread that has deeply entwined and shaped both Singapore's and Australia's individual histories and national identities, Changi Chapel and Changi Gaol is always going to be a part of Singapore's history because it happened right here in Singapore, and as a former British Commonwealth army garrison and British Commonwealth PoW camp, it is deeply embedded in the memories of all of the 15,000 Australians soldiers who were forced into the PoW camp. Yet to describe it straight-up as a site of "shared memory" without any caveat seems wildly inaccurate; the Changi Gaol is really not a part of the Singaporean civilian's personal wartime story. (also: I don't know but can someone tell me what shorthand term I can use to call "the Singaporean" before WWII and before Singapore's independence?).

I mean, before I began this residency I never even realised there was actually a whole thing, an entire pilgrimage tour wherein many British and Australians (war veterans/survivors/families of survivors/families of those who died in WWII) make this pilgrimage to visit the various WWII/PoW sites in Singapore... with the #1 site on the list being the replica of the Changi Chapel (in Singapore) which is confusingly not built to the original scale or design, and even twice removed from its original site!


The Changi Chapel in Duntroon, Canberra

It seems to me the Changi Chapel exists so vividly in the memories of the Australians to the point that the original has finally been brought back "home" and resurrected here in the nation's capital, Canberra.(And perhaps that is why there has been no need for anyone in Singapore to mention that the original Changi Chapel is in Canberra...)

Also I should say at this point that I first saw the above images and photos in The Changi Book which I am reading right now. I could have slapped myself for not reading the whole Changi Book earlier - its big! and contains tons of stuff! and was seventy years in the making! - it has been amazingly edited by Lachlan Grant and contains the writings, drawings, paintings, and photographs created by prisoners of war in Changi - as well as lots of other essays by contributors from the Australian War Memorial. Many of those random questions I have asked out loud over the last few days have been answered in the book!

Eg: "Why was there a yeast production centre in Changi??"(Answer: Yeast contains vitamin B1 which was in short supply because of the POW diet of milled white rice which often resulted in vitamin B1 deficiency aka beri beri! So a yeast centre was built at Selarang to produce yeast from rice polishings, sweet potatoes, sugar and hops, which was then issued out to internees) "Then why did they knowingly build a rice mill and continue to polish all their white rice whilst in Changi?" (Answer: Because that was the only way they could get the rice to keep longer...)

On the issue of becoming obsessed with Rice whilst interned at the PoW camp: I don't often like to quote the Daily Mail as a credible source of information but in this one respect I remember how they did carry a story about a couple who were both Changi Prisoners of War, Donald and Isobel Grist, and how Donald Grist "later became world authority on rice after becoming fascinated by how it could sustain humans for so long". Reading the Changi Book I can now see why people became obsessed with food and rice. Grist's name is also so apt, considering how the word GRIST refers to grain that has been separated from the chaff...

On the issue of becoming obsessed with food whilst interned at the PoW camp: IN THE NEXT POST...

Note: As I have a lot of notes to push out I'll be backdating my posts to the approximate date of my visits to various sites and places, because I think it would be more useful to date my posts to when something happened rather than when I finished writing the posts in the random future... However, in case you are wondering, I did visit the Changi Chapel in Canberra today on 9 May 2017! And actually it is just a mere 9 minute drive from the Australian War Memorial!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The many names of acrylic glass: Perspex, Plexiglas and Lucite



Recently, whilst on a visit to the Australian War Memorial's storage facility in Mitchell, I had the opportunity to get up close with one of the Boeing CH47 Chinooks, or "chooks" to the Australians. The Chinook is surely also a familiar plane to most Singaporeans as two chinooks are used every year to fly the Singapore Flag during the National Anthem on the televised National Day Parade. I was admiring the round windows when I was told they were made of.... plastic! A hollow tap confirmed it! I was surprised to see that the window were all made of something akin to Perspex! Well, I said Perspex, but then being unsure of what the Australians called acrylic glass here, I felt obliged to rattle off a series of possible plastic names! Perspex? Plexiglas? Acrylic sheet? Polymethyl methacrylate?? Perspex?! What do you call it!

Later in the week the question of where perspex got its name from came up again in a random conversation. Indeed, Perspex is such a wonderful name when you think of it - it reminds us of perspective, or spectacles, and has the futuristic letter X at the end! So why don't we use the term "perspex" as often these days to refer to acrylic glass?.... so I duly went and googled it.

It turns out that "Perspex" itself is a registered trademark of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries (The "ICI" of popular Dulux paints), which is possibly why the use of the term may have fallen out of fashion - since the use of the trademarked term "perspex" would have its legal constraints. However, in America the same type of acrylic glass (Polymethyl methacrylate) product is sold as "Plexiglas", which has also been trademarked and produced by another company.

Running the words through Google Ngram viewer (which allows you to compare the 'yearly count' of any Ngrams/words/phrases from the Google text corpus of 1500-2008), this confirms that in British English "perspex" is by far the most commonly used word, but in American English then it is more popular to call it "plexiglas"!

British English

graphing the terms: perspex,plexiglass,plexiglas,lucite,acrylic glass

American English

graphing the terms: perspex,plexiglass,plexiglas,lucite,acrylic glass

You'll notice that interestingly for the American English ngram chart, "lucite" is revealed to have been the most popular term once upon a time, peaking in 1951.

Lucite is the trademarked term by the American company DuPont - which does a lot of material science development and also developed neoprene, nylon, teflon, mylar, kevlar, kapton, tyvek, lycra, and even Freon (the CFCs used in fridges).

If we had to trace the origin of Polymethylmethacrylate/PMMA/lucite/plexiglas/perpex, they were first used on a large scale in WWII for military applications such as aircraft windshields and submarine periscopes - in both the Allied and Axis sides! Wartime contracts boosted the R&D of new plastics. Materials like PMMA was lightweight, durable, and resistant to wind, water, and UV rays. Another consideration was that flying shards of PMMA (as opposed to flying glass shards!) was less likely to blind or cause serious eye injuries to airplane pilots.

And in the postwar period, the task for all these companies producing acrylic glass were to find everyday uses through which these plastics could be marketed to the wider consumer market...


Today the Chinook's windows are made with another proprietary special aerospace acrylic glass that is made to withstand bird-impact and ballistic impact.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Exotic Mushrooms and Trees of Canberra: Fly Agaric, Death Cap, and London Plane

On my first week in Canberra, as I was running to the National Gallery of Australia to get to the first guided tour of the day, I was greeted by the most astounding sight of several Fly Agarics (Amanita muscaria) growing right on King Edward Terrace, magically lit in a spot of sun. Alas I only took one picture of this classic fairytale toadstool as I was running late...


I used to be in Brownies when I was in primary school, which had all of its patrols named after fantastical (and decidedly Victorian/European) fairytale creatures such as PIXIES and ELVES (with all of these after-school activities naturally being european/british imports). Naturally everyone wanted to be a goddamned fairy, but when it came to the draw, I was designated to be in the GNOME PATROL. A wizened, landbound, garden gnome. Me and the rest of GNOME PATROL met every week to decide what 'Fun Thing' we would learn that week, like how to do ironing, how to sew a button, how to tie a round-turn-and-two-half-hitches, or recite the national anthem in Malay or something like that. For some reason my memory holds that we even sat around an actual model of a fairy toadstool that was plonked in the middle of our circle, although NO SUCH MUSHROOMS EVER EXIST IN SINGAPORE (CAN YOU UNDERSTAND HOW EXCITED I AM TO SEE ONE IN REAL LIFE).

As a young child unimpressed by the mundaneness of garden gnomes, on one of the first meetings after being assigned as GNOME I asked, "WHAT DO GNOMES DO? WHAT FANTASTICAL MAGIC POWERS DO GNOMES HAVE?". I was given the answer that "Gnomes come in and happily clean the house whilst you're not in". Ignoring the part where the poor gnome is mysteriously compelled to perform hard domestic labour for no remuneration, I remember then asking "But where do the Gnomes live if they don't live inside the house?" The teacher clearly struggled to invent an answer and eventually gestured towards the mushroom in front of us. "The gnomes live under the fairy toadstool?..." (Ah the fairytale origins of the English notion of the "mushroom hall"...)

Source: Forest Mushroom Woodgnome (Public Domain image)

Its worth noting that this predominantly northern hemisphere toadstool was actually first introduced to Australia together with the pine trees which had been imported over from Europe, so they always grow alongside the pine trees which are technically exotic to Australia.

Later, I returned to the same spot in hopes of sighting more of these delightful mushrooms in a less harried fashion, but I strangely could not find them despite combing the stretch for at least 20 minutes. Instead I found a load of boring mushrooms which resembled shiny, slightly greenish potatoes.

PICTURE DOES NOT REFLECT ACTUAL COLOUR, which was very distinctly greenish yellow and shiny

Not to be deterred by the boringness of the mushrooms, when I got back home I fired up the ol' Google machine to try to identify these mushrooms and to my horror...

...which explains all the overbearing DON'T EAT WILD MUSHROOM flyers found at tourist information points, as it appears some foragers with a passion for fresh food have even died... IN THIS SAME AREA IN CANBERRA!!! When viewed in person, the mushrooms in the picture above totally match the images in this article about death caps.

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria notes that the Death Caps (Amanita phalloides) are "always under exotic trees, especially Oak (Quercus), including broad-leaved and cut-leaved oaks. There are reports of Amanita phalloides growing under Eucalyptus in Algeria and Tanzania, but there are no confirmed sightings of the Death Cap away from exotic trees in Australia."

How curious to describe the oaks that basically dominate many of the streets of Canberra civic as 'exotic' - but I guess likewise despite years of living in London and getting to know oak trees, the oak is possibly always going to be exciting and FOREVER EXOTIC to me, since I never grew up with oak trees.

And speaking of "exotic" trees, I noticed some of the seed balls of what I thought to be London Plane Trees were so big (exceeding 3cm) that I couldn't imagine they could be the same as the London Planes I had seen in London. So I had to read up on the whole Plane tree family...


It turns out that the humble London Plane is doubly exotic to Australia! A hybrid tree produced by the combination of oriental plane (P. orientalis) and American Sycamore (P. occidentalis) being brought together in the same place in the 17th century (location disputed: spain? london?) and reciprocal pollination occurred when the trees were next to each other... and then this hybrid being spread all over the world since it was found to be efficient in filtering out small particulate pollutants. Today it has surely become one of the most ubiquitous trees in many parts of London, and I've been observing it all over Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne...

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Difficulties of Walking


Mysterious Fevers

It is funny that once upon a time I complained that it was the cold that stopped me from walking in London. Now that I've managed to get over the cold of the UK, it is the heat and other environmental factors that are stopping me from walking in Singapore!

The first problem is the weather in Singapore. The unbearable heat! The sweat running into one's eyes! The tissues one must carry to stop one's glasses from fogging up during a walk. The sudden rain, or even passing thunderstorm that is sure to follow after a spell of intense hot weather. But the heat and unpredictable weather, to be honest, is but a trifling matter. The second and more pressing issue is... unexplained fever!

Upon my return to Singapore I had heartily jumped back into walking all over the place, poking around for snails and termites, observing waterfowl and early morning joggers, encircling all of Bedok Reservoir and merrily trotting all up and around Fort Canning. And then I was unexpectedly felled by a high fever that lasted for a ridiculous seven days...

The primary symptoms were debilitating joint and body pains and a high fever that kept returning even after panadol or ibuprofen. The body aches reminded me of the time I had contracted dengue around 2005 (wherein there was a dengue cluster at the block of the uni hall I was staying at), and I really didn't want to jump to conclusions just because I was misdiagnosed repeatedly the last time I had dengue - BUT THEN DATA.GOV.SG SAID WE LIVED IN BEDOK NORTH #1 DENGUE HOTSPOT OF SINGAPORE, and then all manner of wild conclusions were instantly jumped to.

"But I had only been in Singapore for 5 DAYS!" I whined, looking at my mildly bug-bitten legs. "How could I have contracted dengue so quickly??"

Fortunately as it turned out, after a trip to the A&E it was confirmed I did not have any of the three particular strains of dengue which are currently trending on this island. Which was great but still very mysterious. My final diagnosis was suspected 'tonsillitis', but I could not see any reason to begin a protracted 7-day course of antibiotics for an extremely mild (and basically non-existent) sore throat. As mysteriously as the high fever had come, it slipped away quietly a week later...

Well. And there went an entire week of my life. Without any reason or explanation...

The "Obscure Disease", Beri Beri

See: British India and the “Beriberi Problem”, 1798–1942

Whilst holed up in bed it seemed apt to begin reading up on the disease of beri-beri, the vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency which has retained its oddly exotic name through the ages. Every account of life in the early 1900s as well as WWII and the Battle of Singapore will invariably mention the problem of beri-beri, a disease which had great socio-economic and political impact, incapacitating and killing citizens, soldiers, workers, everyone alike in the rice-eating countries throughout Southeast Asia.

Most narratives of diseases in the early 20th century tend to read as a narrative of man's discovery and victory over disease - but arguably the story of beri-beri in these parts reads more as a story of a disease introduced by colonial technologies - unnecessarily prolonged by complex commercial interests and colonial shortsightedness. Somehow what annoys me is that to retain the exotic sounding name seems to suggest that the tropics or far east was the dangerous place or climate manufacturing the 'beri-beri', justifying the intervention of western medicine.

Its frustrating to read that the affliction of beri-beri was necessarily prolonged by complex commercial interests (rice exports!) and such shortsightedness, as seen through the continued misconceptions of beri-beri being a 'tropical disease' or 'place disease' and refusal to believe it was nutritional, exacerbated by logistical problems during the war years. What seems tragic is that by 1911 the cause of beri-beri is already established as a diet of overmilled white rice, yet helplessly little is done to dissuade or stop people from subsisting entirely on overmilled white rice and other foods which are deficient in vit B1 or worse, thiaminases that leech thiamine from one's diet...

Opisthotonic death pose / Star-gazing

Studies on beri-beri were often done on birds and I realised that pictures of the symptom of beri beri in animals were... rather alarming. As a human, you'll be glad to know that humans don't exhibit this symptom, but as for my pigeon and avian readers, the following pictures may be quite disturbing. In certain animals like birds especially, thiamine deficiency tends to produce a star gazing effect - a retraction of the head known as opisthotonus.

Source: David A Bender's page notes that in Peters RA's Biochemical lesions and lethal synthesis (Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1963), pigeons "show a characteristic head retraction when they are fed on a high carbohydrate diet with no thiamin, and restoration of the vitamin leads to rapid normalisation."

The internet also has no lack of stargazing chickens, pigeons, and other unfortunate poultry:

The opisthotonus caused by thiamine deficiency extends also to other livestocks. The following book on animal nutrition has a table listing the different symptoms of thiamine deficiency in different animals.

"Sheep with thiamin deficiency. characteristics of condition are head bent backwards (opisthotonos), cramp-like muscular contractions, disturbance of balance, and aggressiveness." Source: Vitamins in Animal Nutrition: Comparative Aspects to Human Nutrition By Lee Russell McDowell

Interestingly, you'll notice this 'star-gazing' pose is quite like the pose in which most dinosaurs are found. An article in NewScientist ("Watery secret of the dinosaur death pose") mentions studies in which a lot of quails and dead birds were dipped in cold water to see if they too would adopt the dramatic dinosaur death pose. Results were mixed but it was believed it was the water that did it...

Either way, a head pointed perpetually skywards would make movement and walking very difficult...

Casadastraphobia / fear of falling into the sky

...which brings me to a new bizarre symptom that has been mildly impeding my enjoyment of long distance walking, which also has something to do with looking up into the sky...

Ever since I can remember, I've always been unable to lie down on the ground outdoors and look up into the sky for the fear of falling into the sky. As irrational as it might sound, I always refused to do situps during PE class because the teacher would ask us to do it in the school field (such that we would be forced to face the sky!) and god forbid the gravity should turn off and we'd all fall into the sky! Even the school hall was no better. School camps in the school hall and having to sleep facing the high ceiling? Forget about it!


A new troubling symptom emerged as I was warming up for my Capital Ring walk. Whilst walking alone on a disused, empty path near the Angel Road Superstores, hearing the distant roar of the North Circular, I was genuinely enjoying a delightful walk in what felt almost like wilderness when I suddenly realised I was in a big open area with nothing else to hold on to! I blame the pylons for leading me to look upwards into the sky, alerting me to the desertedness of the spot, a true attack of the triffids horror moment!

Struck by sudden and urgent panic, I felt like taking off my shoes and even looked for any grass to hold on to but was forced to run back and take cover under a nearby bridge. Unfortunately, the rest of my walk home involved walking several miles along the River Lea towpath completely exposed without any cover, which felt quite traumatising at the time. Now, snug and safe in a house with a solid roof, we can sit back clutching the solid furniture laughing about it. But it is almost the definition of madness I tell you! Even a momentary glance skywards that lasts a moment too long is enough to provoke terror, although I know it's physically impossible to fall into the sky! AH!

Fortunately (or unfortunately), most of urban London and Singapore do not have open landscapes which trigger this irrational fear so I have rarely had to deal with it before...

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Back in the Loop

I'm alive!

This blog is alive!!

I've quite enjoyed being completely out of the loop for the last few months, but I've finally come back into orbit now. Over the next few weeks I'm going to try to push out a huge backlog of old notes and documentation of various journeys in London and Singapore - the first draft of my working notes for what I hope will develop into a more cohesive documentation of my long-distance walking adventures. As I write them, I will link them up to this 'catch-up' page...

Capital Ring

I decided to walk the supposedly 78 mile Capital Ring over 6 consecutive days. I say "supposedly", for Debbie does not go "as the crow flies" but rather haphazardly in a squiggly line all over the map, and according to other mapping devices it seems I may have walked more than 150 miles in total. Rather than starting with the traditional route as listed in TFL's maps and David Sharp's guide book to the Capital Ring, I decided to start and end my journey at Stoke Newington's Rochester Castle.

Day 1: Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick
Day 1: Hackney Wick to Beckton District Park
Day 1: Beckton District Park to Woolwich Foot Tunnel
Day 2: Woolwich Foot Tunnel to Falconwood
Day 2: Falconwood to Grove Park
Day 3: Grove Park to Crystal Palace
Day 3: Crystal Palace to Streatham Common
Day 4: Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park
Day 4: Wimbledon Park to Richmond
Day 5: Richmond to Osterley Lock
Day 5: Osterley Lock to Greenford
Day 5: Greenford to South Kenton
Day 6: South Kenton to Hendon Park
Day 6: Hendon Park to Highgate
Day 6: Highgate to Stoke Newington

Hertford Loop

I've been living next to one of the Hertford Loop Line stations which run from Moorgate to Stevenage and other parts of Hertfordshire. Having been used to sitting on so many new trains in Singapore (where a new train line with completely brand new trains seem to roll out every other year) I was initially shocked by the advanced and worn state of the Herts Loop trains. The windows are warped with age, the cabins are stained with mud, and there are no additional passenger facilities or station announcements on board this train - so at night, you end up fitfully peering out of the dirt streaked and heavily scratched windows to see if you can see any signs on the deserted platform. In fact, the trains used on this line (British Rail Class 313) are supposed to be some of the very oldest still in regular use in Britain and would have been built somewhere between 1976 and 1977 (over 40 years old!).

Finsbury Park, Gillespie, and Highbury Fields
Arnos Grove, Groveland Park, and Winchmore Hill
Enfield Chase, Trent Park, Cockfosters
Gordon Hill, Lavender Hill Cemetery, Strayfield Road Cemetery, Hillyfields Park
Pymmes Brook, Oakleigh Park, Oak Hill Park, Brunswick Park, New Southgate
Hadley Wood, Salmon Brook, Stagg Hill
New Southgate, Hidden River, Alexandra Palace
Welwyn Garden City
Letchworth Garden City
A Special Note about Drayton Park

Assorted London Journeys

I devised a foolhardy plan to visit many historical Wetherspoons in one day, visited the "doppelganger" of my North London street (N4) in South London (SE25), re-discovered that I actually have a devastating phobia of falling into the sky when in an open field (which I must confess is quite bizarre), and found the plaque which marks where Raffles is buried. And other walks...

An All Day Spoons Tour!!!
Burgoyne Road (North London) to Burgoyne Road (South London)
Angel Road Superstores, Lea Valley, Tottenham Marshes, Blackhorse Lane
Dollis Valley during Storm Doris
St Mary Hendon and Raffles' Burial site
Gospel Oak, Lismore Circus, Primrose Hill, Regent's Park
Willesden Junction, Camden, Primrose Hill
Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest
Woodberry Wetlands, New River Path
Pubs in Harringay
Notes on footwear, footcare, and sun protection for long-distance walking

Outside of London

Margate to Ramsgate
Eastbourne to Beachy Head


Long overdue documentation of work process in 2016

Shelter at Singapore Biennale
Emotional Departure
Here the River lies 2.0
A Blender workshop I conducted at Fabcafe
A computational poetry workshop I conducted at Sch of Uncommon Knowledge

WWII Sites in Singapore

Changi Museum
Former Ford Factory
Fort Canning Battlebox
Reflections at Bukit Chandu
National Museum Singapore - Surviving Syonan
National Gallery Singapore - Supreme Court Wing


Australian War Memorial - Last Post
National Museum of Australia
National Capital Exhibition
Changi Chapel in Duntroon

Writing out this list alone took so long that I'm going to have to take a rest before I embark on all of this...

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Capital Ring #1: Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick

Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick
Distance: 4 miles / 6.4 km
Feels like: a breeze through the marshes
Date: 14 March 2017

A Return to the Rochester Castle - Springfield Park - Wilsons Hill - Avroplane crash landing site - Hackney Henge - Wick Woodland - Giant dogs with headphones and hoodies - Approaching Olympic territory

This is the start of 15 posts about how I did the Capital Ring in 6 days...




The walk usually begins in Woolwich, but I decided to start my loop in Stoke Newington. The first time that I came to the UK, the first area that I landed in happened to be Stoke Newington, and the first establishment I went to was also the splendid Rochester Castle which has the distinct honour of being the oldest Spoon, with its skylights, carpets, strange paintings, and wooden box seating. The familiar red-wine-and-pepper stained carpets of the humble Spoon! The extremely reasonable prices! So it seemed only fitting to begin my walk here with a hearty hot (kid-sized!) breakfast...

THE START! THE START! Why do I always make this unfortunate face on camera.

Most of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is already intimately familiar to me, having lived around those parts over the years. These parts of Hackney are scattered with these large rocks embedded into the pavement at junctions, and lots of community scribblings engraved into the pavement. At certain hours one also sees a lot of the Hasidic Jews with their distinctive hats (and secretive lives) quietly crossing from building to building.


Ducks of Springfield Park


The first significant stop on this walk is Springfield Park, which I personally always seem to forget the name of, until I am there, because its name sounds so generic. Springfield is one of those words like Sunnyvale (SEE ALSO: TRAILER PARK BOYS, HOUSOS). I'm not sure if the name Stamford Hill refers to any particular hill really, but if it were to be a hill this is the point at which Upper Clapton riseth-upper to a peak, thus it involves what some would say is an open slope down into the valley of River Lea. But of course in Debbie's world this hill is a potentially vertiginous tumble that reminds me of that one time I got on a bike in this park, instantly almost fell off it, and concluded that combination of said bicycle and hill was most certainly a DEATH TRAP.


The most prominent part of the hill, also known as Wilsons Hill, has existed here for at least 200 years in this singularly sloped form.



From the northern end of Springfield Park, there's a gate and footbridge leads out into the Lea Valley's Walthamstow Marshes. Variously spelt LEY, LEE and LEA, its original name was Ley, but it was more commonly written as Lea on maps, whilst Acts of Parliament referred to it as Lee. Ultimately it was decided that natural elements of the river would be spelt as LEA and man-made features would be spelt as LEE. As the natural river winds through here, it is spelt as LEA.

As there is very little to hold on to, this part of the Lea Valley, as with other parts of the Lea Valley I've walked along is vertigo territory for me. But I'll get back to that later.




The open sandy track goes under a railway arch under which Aliot Verdon-Roe rented in 1909 to build his "Avroplane", the first all-british tri-plane. He used the soft marshes of Walthamstow for his flight and crash landings. If you've ever seen one of these early experimental airplanes up close, it consists of wooden sticks and control cables and flaps and its one of my favourite eras of airplane building since it was so much so a prototype in progress and its an absolute marvel these precarious contraptions ever flew...

Kings Head bridge



Middlesex Filter Beds

Continuing on via the heavy black "Kings Head" footbridge to the canalised section of the Lee Navigation, one eventually passes the Middlesex Filter Beds on the left, more commonly known as the Hackneyhenge because huge blocks of granite formerly used as the foundations of the engine house have been converted into a mini Stonehenge.





The canalway follows on for quite some distance, passing quite a lot of plane trees (including a giant dead plane tree cracked into two).


As recent as 1995 all of these woodlands did not exist; beyond the trees, the Hackney Marsh once were the site of WWII gun emplacements and bunkers. After the war its vast open space were used as football pitches, until the 90s when it was decided that part of the space would be converted back to woodland. The success of the woodland has been due to planting programmes as well an episode of accidental flooding in 1997 (water mains burst!) which attracted ducks and other waterfowl to move in on their own accord.

Wick Woodland


Further down there is Wick Woodland - from a distance I saw some splotches of bright pink and could not resist walking towards it until I found the magic spot where one could see the message...


This segment of the walk ends at White Post Lane, just after a well-graffitied bridge and several giant murals of urban dogs, and we're entering into Stratford Olympic territory proper...




The visible change in the landscape says we're entering Stratford!

Monday, 3 October 2016

That Black Box on Kensington Gore

I'm currently working on an "index" or documentation of 10 years of the Design Interactions Department (Royal College of Art) which I hope to finish soon (ie: before December). Much gratitude goes to Nina Pope who was the one who suggested it in the first place and allowed me to retrieve whatever flotsam and ephemera was left in the studio. I still have many people I want to write to and I confess that I originally meant to finish it by September, but it has taken me more time than expected and I am also now in Singapore working on other things. But since this is already coming after the graduation and there are no real deadlines except the one where I throw in the towel - I thought I should exercise due diligence, and do a little more digging into the wider history of design education as well as other courses which have since ceased to be, such as the Environmental Media course which was intrigued about some time back (but found not very much information about it online)...

I had never been to the Special Collections prior to this, nor was I particularly enthused about the College Library with its considerably short opening hours whilst I was studying (Imperial's library was very close by and I had access to it 24-hours). I suppose the thing is that I wanted a more general library at the time but the RCA Library collection does seem quite... idiosyncratic, as is likely to become the case with any modest-sized library of about 70,000+ books (in comparison with an extreme example, the British Library holds 170 million books). As a result, I've always felt that the RCA Library is more like a kind of place you wander into and encounter some pictures in an old book that you've never seen before - rather than a comprehensive place you could go to find any specific book in a university course reading list.

With the present difficulty of entering the college outside of term time without a pass (now becoming a real schlep with all the signing-ins, waiting to be collected, etc - despite ostensibly working on/for the college in some capacity!), I was determined to MAXIMISE MY LIBRARY EXPERIENCE! FIND ALL THE MATERIALS! SEE ALL THE BOOKS! And so scoured its lending shelves quite thoroughly for interesting, rare or antiquarian finds! (In this one respect, I recommend the very first section to the right on the ground floor. One usually might not think to go there as there are no books on the right wall which is the only wall you can see, but the left wall does hold what are probably some of the most expensive books which are hidden out of view. That one wall seems to be holding the bulk of the variously large and oversize books - where you will find gems such as an ORIGINAL 1904 edition of Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur).

Never did I think that one day I would actually read a book about the Royal College of Art from the context of a former student looking at its history. Several years ago, when I first entertained the thought of further studies, I began copying the statements issued by universities and departments to potential students into my wiki. Don't laugh, but I was so serious about applying to RCA that I actually pasted a statement from the RCA prospectus onto the front page of my wiki: "The criteria for acceptance by the Royal College of Art are talent and potential, along with the commitment and the ambition to make a difference within an art or design discipline".

If this is the statement issued by the university to the student, then what is the equivalent of the statement issued by the monarch to the institution which seeks to be a royal university? I mean, what makes the college so "royal"? There is in fact the Royal Charter that the RCA received in 1967 which made it a university (which I must admit I had not read before):

Royal Charter: Our objectives are 'to advance learning, knowledge and professional competence particularly in the fields of fine arts, in the principles and practice of art and design in their relation to industrial and commercial processes and social developments and other subjects relating thereto, through teaching, research and collaboration with industry and commerce’.

Emphasis above is mine, but what is interesting is the repeated mention of industry and commerce in the charter. No such mention of industry and commerce is in the call to students, but I suppose the state of industry and commerce in the country is less the prerogative of the individual student and more that of those who are steering the college.

In former Rector Christopher Frayling's book on the History of the Royal College of Art, Frayling writes that "it was clear in late 1970s that college was becoming test-case pour encourager les autres" - with the Undersecretary for Higher Education threatening that it might receive "less recurrent grant" in the future if the RCA did not respond enough to National needs and priorities as per its Royal Charter. In Spring 1981 a visiting committee also reported that although the RCA may be "thriving", "it was neglecting its duty enshrined in Royal Charter" by not having enough links to industry and not making the revitalisation of the British economy its ultimate priority.

In a way I feel like the dissolution of avant-garde courses such as Environmental Media in the mid 1980s foreshadows that of the present day situation. Of course, these are two different situations, but the point to be made of both is that there has always posed a great difficulty in quantifying the value of art and design education. I suppose this is why a design school prospectus is always sure to have lists of graduates who have made it big in the industry or with their own commercial success stories or commercial companies. And an art school prospectus is going to write of the big international museums, fairs, and prestigious galleries their graduates have gone on to show and sell work at. How else do you quantify success? With significant HEFCE education funding cuts in the UK, the pressure is definitely on to "prove" that funding education is still a good investment.

For example, the strategic plan 2010-2016 by current Rector Paul Thompson stated outright a goal of "Expand(ing) the programme of Master’s courses to advance new developments in design and art, ensuring twenty-first century relevance". As to the metric used to determine the success of this particular goal, the intended outcome was to be "a 50% increase in student numbers to approximately 1,500 by October 2014; this will be caused by additional recruitment to existing courses, combined with recruitment to new courses that have been successfully validated". Strategic plan 2016-2021 envisions four new research centres and ten new postgraduate taught programmes and the student body will consequently have increased to between 2,300–3,000 by 2021. [You can read the strategic plans here on the list of RCA's Corporate Publications]

Personally I would have expected "increase in student body" to have been classed under "Finance" goals from the beginning - instead of under the goal of "Relevance"; it comes across a little disingenuous when phrased as such. Only 5 years away and an expected 200% increase in the student body from 2011? I really don't see how massive increases in student numbers will directly ensure twenty-first century relevance; it will instead increase the college's income from tuition fees and reduce its dependence on HEFCE funding - which is a perfectly legitimate goal for the college.

Also, I find it problematic when I see statements like "unified, customer-focused approach to the delivery of academic and operational services" and "value-for-money" bandied about. Is this how one must write or speak in order to be understood by funding bodies? But what happened to the human poetry of intellectual curiosity that should be the foremost driving factor behind art and design research excellence today? I'm not really comfortable seeing a document that is being disseminated to students and stakeholders entirely wrapped up in jargon that may not be universally understood.

And it is not just this issue of quantifying value, which we see when a document is expressed entirely in business jargon. To speak of terminologies, I suppose the bottom line of programmes like Environmental Media and Design Interactions was to some extent, an insistence on ambiguity. Ambiguity in its materiality in the former, and ambiguity through its materiality in the latter.

An account from Frayling's "The Royal College of Art: 150 Years of Art and Design": "One reason why conceptualism, minimalism and performance art never developed solid roots within the existing Fine Art schools was that from 1975 onwards, the Department of Environmental Media had been created to teach the more avant-garde students who were emerging from post-Coldstream painting, Sculpture, and Film courses. This catch-all Department started life as "the Light Transmission and Projection unit" under Bob Hyde, rather uneasily sharing studios with Hugh Casson's interior designers. But as the unit came of age - and in particular, as it proved to be more expensive than anticipated, with increasing use of video (or rather "time-based media") - no one seemed to be sure whether it had more in common with Stained Glass (coloured light) or Sculpture (spatial art)."

[...] "In which case," yelled the Glaswegian, "you're like a surrealist painter trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture... If you're not a dialectical materialist you're not in the picture at all." At that point he stormed out of the room, muttering about the secret police."

At Design Interactions, the goal as I understand it, was that tutors were trying to guide us towards the production of a work that might only be partially contextualised within our world, presenting itself ambiguously as a physical object from another world within our world, simultaneously juxtaposing multiple 'realities' but crucially never allowing total escape from remembering that we are still from our own reality. Doing so would allow the work to transcend plain commentary into something more uncanny? More perturbing? Something supposedly more effective in stimulating the audience into a deeper engagement with the work and issues at hand.

The issue of ambiguity lies not only in the reception of the work but also each individual artist/designer/technologist who produces the work. How confusing that must be for anyone working OUTSIDE of the discipline looking at it, especially if the confusion arises for those trying to determine an institutionalised metric for calculating the efficacy of the works. Equally confusing it must be for artists or designers with a more malleable 'voice' - it is certainly not for all. My issue with the production of works (particularly in the case of student works, if I may be honest) was that sometimes as an outside viewer I simply could not read what the designer/artist's intentions were. Whether a work is capable of concealing and revealing its position at the same time may be dependent entirely on the viewer's common knowledge and shared understandings with the producer of the work, so the onus would be entirely on the viewer whom the author has no control over. In a sense then, the work doesn't really end until you see what comes out from the other end (ie: the engagement of the viewer), leaving us with the problem of the black box that we have yet to unpack...

As this is getting quite long, I'm going to stop here for now and move on to... an anecdote about another black box!

Why is the Royal College of Art black?

It never occurred to me to google for a picture of the architecture of the school until I first personally visited it for an open day, but knowing on paper that it was in the grand old Albertopolis area with a long history with the South Kensington Museum, I actually expected it to be less... harsh and BLACK. One might imagine that this was meant to make the building stand out in the area - however, it appears the truth is actually quite the opposite!

The Royal College of Art royal college of art The Royal College of Art

Images found on flickr by Chmee2, typeoneerror and Vicky Teinaki

The Darwin Building (Grade II listed) was designed in 1961, some years after the great Smog of 1952, which purportedly contributed to the demise of up to 4000 Londoners. This was also just before the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banning black smoke emissions and requiring urban residents and factory operators to use smokeless fuels. Even in 1962 there was a significant fog which killed around 750 Londoners due to the extreme levels of pollution caused by black smoke (burning of coal, etc).

So in the 60s, the other buildings in the area such as the Albert Hall and the V&A Museum's terracotta design would have been covered in decades of thick black soot. Therefore, the RCA had been specially designed to have a "black brick and black concrete fondus" (both of which were rather expensive at the time) to suit the fabric of Albertopolis!

The entry on Historic England (the public body tasked with preserving and listing historic buildings/monuments) also makes this clear: "Reinforced concrete clad in dark red-brown brick intended to complement Norman Shaw's Albert Hall Mansions, then uncleaned, on the other flank of the Royal Albert Hall." In appearance, it is so dark as to appear black or grey from certain angles.

A couple years after its construction, London decided to clean up in the 1970s, perversely leaving the Darwin Building as the only outstanding sooty black building in Kensington Gore...