‘The art of the pivot’: RMIT’s 2014 Web Conference

Storey Hall. Photo: courtesy RMIT University.

Originally published on RMIT Blog Central, 7 July 2014.

This year RMIT hosted its second annual web conference at Storey Hall, the University’s iconic lecture theatre/conference centre. It was the perfect venue, with its harmonious blend of 19th-century structural strength and radical postmodern restoration. Remember, that new facade and interior was controversial with the media and public when completed in 1995. Storey Hall, then, reminds us that change can be integrated with tradition, and that, over time, what was once disruptive can become fully accepted.

What better metaphor for RMIT’s Web Transformation Program, which the conference promotes? The Program introduces radical change to RMIT’s web presence, delivering a new content management system (CMS) and distributed content model (DCM). Naturally, this might seem disruptive to people used to a particular way of working, but ultimately it’s a positive addition to the online RMIT universe. RMIT’s web transformation blends the ‘structural strength’ of the main RMIT website – content showcasing the University’s global reputation in technology and design – with a ‘radical restoration’: the CMS and DCM. The result: design and content that reaches the widest possible audience.

In 2013, the conference introduced the new CMS and the changes it would bring – to workflow, content management, cross-channel curation. This year, it was all about digital trends in the wider world and how RMIT might prepare for a projected tsunami of change in the near future.

Jeremy Hodgson, RMIT’s Director of Web Services and Information Policy, opened the event. He spoke about the primacy of platforms, focusing on the YouTube phenomenon and how the aura of the platform frequently surpasses content posted on it. His message: content must be more adaptable than ever before if it is to ride this new power dynamic.

It’s a timely point, especially in light of a recent article by David Hepworth on digital distribution. Hepworth used Beyoncé’s new album as a case study to show how new advances in digital distribution have become far more significant to consumers than the actual content being distributed – even if that content is produced by a megastar like Beyoncé, let alone a higher education providers. The speakers following elaborated various ways of delivering ‘radical’ content that could overcome this type of scenario.

Keynote speaker John Barnes, RMIT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Engagement and Vocational Education, focused on digital marketing strategy and the need for businesses to be in sync with user preferences. Metrics are the key for Barnes. It’s all very well having a superb, fully operational CMS, but where’s the value if the effectiveness of content isn’t measured accurately? Other presenters would return to this theme, which, along with the notion of ‘digital disruption’, seemed to sum up the tenor of the event.

Brett Maishman, National Sales Manager for Fuji Zerox Australia, warned of the dangers of ‘channel proliferation’. With a multitude of channel options available and 1-billion-plus connected devices pinging one another worldwide, how can organisations maintain consistent messaging? His answer: personalisation. Customers today demand a new relationship based on their specific needs. In Maishman’s words, ‘If you don’t know them, you’ll lose them’.

Yet unspoken in his talk was the downside of such a relationship. Get the balance wrong and you run the risk of stalking your audience. Many businesses trip themselves up in an effort to stay relevant on social media. A recent high-profile case involved McDonald’s and its attempts to ingratiate itself into its customers’ lives with a ‘heart-warming’, tell-all hashtag, only to watch in horror as it turned into a ‘bashtag’. Let’s add to Maishman’s message, then. It’s important to be nimble in a time of change, but also to retain a strategic approach: plan, create, listen, measure.

Cameron Owens, CEO of Symplicit, among Australia’s largest customer experience consultancies, introduced the concept of ‘digital disruption’. This is the threat businesses face when their market share is eroded by newer digital competitors. Banking, publishing and education are facing this, he warned, but the solution is relatively simple: ‘Be curious and strong when responding to change.’

He presented a few core tactics. ‘Whatever connection people have with your business,’ he said, ‘they also have with 300 other people.’ Given this, social media must naturally be at the heart of any marketing strategy, but in a way that embodies differentiation: focusing on customer experience and service to set a business apart from the pack. Owens reiterated how RMIT has invested materially in different channels – web, mobile, video, social – but that in itself is not enough. The challenge is to ‘sweat the assets’, extracting full value from optimised digital channels. That can only be done through regular and rigorous review of analytics and metrics, analysing and assessing user journeys and behaviours.

John Riccio lays down the law. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

John Riccio, National Digital Change Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia, spoke about ‘digital maturity’: the point at which an organisation moves from being a novice in the digital space to becoming a trusted expert. Digital maturity is a journey with peaks and troughs; a business doesn’t reach it overnight, and it involves much testing, re-testing and re-planning.

For Riccio, web policies are an enabler in that, but only if designed a certain way. In a digital environment, no one wants freedom of speech curtailed, so policies should be a ‘bumper on either side of the journey so that people don’t go off the rails’. Then, if the policy framework is adaptable enough, you reach a point where use of a particular technology has become mature enough that you don’t need the policies front and centre.

Policy then drops away to become a guide, implicit as a kind of background hum, but in order for that happen, it must be designed so it’s responsive to new devices and new ways of working. That’s not to say that governance isn’t important. In fact, Riccio believes it’s necessary to avoid what he terms the ‘minestrone effect’: silos doing their own thing on their own terms, without a centralised strategy or oversight in place, creating a soup of conflicting strategies that dilutes a brand. It’s how governance is implemented, packaged and delivered that is important. That’s a message RMIT’s own web policy awareness campaign also endorses, with its central theme of empowering people to build an online presence and use it with confidence, resulting in that desired end state: robust digital maturity.

Shefik Bey, Managing Director of the U1 Group, explored the challenge RMIT faces in its plans to develop a responsive design for its mobile site. He highlighted the ‘deep structures’ within the RMIT desktop site and the difficulties in boiling this down to a responsive mobile template. He made the salient point that there are currently no best-practice principles for responsive design. By the time there are, he suggests, with the rate technology is progressing, a different technique – even a different delivery system – will have replaced it. ‘If mobile is today,’ he speculated, ‘wearables are the future’. Google Glass, anyone?

Still, he offered a few handy tips for managing today’s challenges. Reiterating points from earlier speakers, what’s needed in any digital transformation, he reckons, is flexibility; in his words, learning ‘the art of the pivot’. As did the other speakers, he emphasised the importance of ‘success metrics’ and ‘success reporting’. Make sure your metrics are robust enough to ride the ever-shifting waves of the digital sea. Go back to core principles. Encourage experimentation through innovation. Bring silos together.

Importantly, keep your written content succinct. Make sure it translates from desktop to mobile. For Bey, the channel is not important; good content will endure, no matter the platform.

Shefik Bey faces the future. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

On that note, we’ll end this wrap-up of the first half of the conference. Follow us to PART TWO, where we review the second half of the event. We discuss the importance of user research, the art of writing great online content the art of writing great online content … and nothing less than the web’s apocalyptic future.

More information:

Lonely Planet Online: Haystack

For Lonely Planet’s new online accommodation-booking service, called Haystack, I was initially employed as a consultant. I was involved with developing the shape and structure of the project from an author’s point of view, and contributed to the structure of the templates that are used today for authors employed to wrote Haystack reviews.

Later, I wrote Haystack reviews for my home town of Melbourne and for Palau, Yap and Guam. You can find them scattered in among here somewhere.

Here’s a sample review of mine:

The Pathways Hotel is a special little place – a warm, welcoming and beautiful eco-resort. The hotel is a collection of free-standing cottages perched up in Colonia’s jungle-covered hills, balancing modern comforts with traditional Yapese aesthetics.

Each thatched cottage, built with native materials, features pleasant sitting verandas, many with a clear view of Chamorro Bay. The cottages are surrounded by lush greenery and are connected by elevated pathways that allow you to command all you survey; they also feature screened windows and have a pervading rustic appeal. The resort was knocked around by Supertyphoon Sudal in 2004 but has proved to be remarkably resilient, something for which we can all be thankful. The cottages have been restored to their former glory and only the traditional Yapese meeting house remains to be resurrected. Otherwise, all is shipshape for your travelling pleasure. There’s a wonderful courtyard restaurant and bar, as atmospheric as you might expect and full of bonhomie and wellbeing.

Housing Is A Human Right: An Interview with Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur

interview by Simon Sellars

Simon Sellars

‘Housing Is A Human Right: An Interview with Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur’ was originally published in Subterrain magazine #2, July 2007.

Simon Sellars

In August 2006, the PILCH Homeless Person’s Legal Clinic held a consumer forum for people who are homeless or who have experienced homelessness. The idea was to invite this particular demographic to share their thoughts and experiences with regards to housing with Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. Mr Kothari was visiting Melbourne as part of his Australian tour, the purpose of which is to examine the situation on the ground in relation to safe and adequate housing, and to compile a subsequent report to the UN Human Rights Commission on whether Australia’s commonwealth, state and territory governments are meeting their national and international obligations.

Subterrain attended the forum and afterwards interviewed Mr Kothari about the day’s events.

Simon Sellars

A rapporteur investigates a particular area and reports to a higher committee. Can you elaborate a bit more on your role?

Well, I’m a rapporteur on housing with the UN Consulate of Human Rights. It’s an honorary position but it’s a global mandate, in an independent capacity, where I have to look at the obstacles people are facing all around the world on issues such as access to housing, land, civic services and the effects of eviction. I report annually to the consulate on specific themes and I do two or three missions a year. This Australian trip is one of those missions, and after that we’ll prepare a mission report. The work involves communication with governments and we also do a lot of collaborative work with agencies across a range of different issues.

What were your impressions of the forum?

I think it was an excellent opportunity for me to hear directly from the people who are affected by homelessness in Australia, and to learn about the complex nature of the problem: how it affects people in many different ways, and also how the state isn’t able to respond to crisis, because all the systems that are in place are not enough and there are lots of people falling out of the system. I think that the overwhelming sense of the testimonies was that people really feel that if they get a service, or access to a service or shelter, then the state is doing them a favour. There’s something terribly wrong with that. There should be a relationship between the government and people who are deprived of housing, because housing is a human right – it’s a right and an entitlement first.

Is it the obligation of the state to create the right conditions and to provide the right opportunities?

Absolutely. I think that the Australian government is not doing enough. I’ve seen that all over the country: thousands of people are being left out of the system, and when you look at the problems like we heard today – involving single women with children, the elderly, youth, people who are disabled or have mental illness, people who are leaving prisons and detention centres – then you see there’s a range of particularly vulnerable groups that are not being catered to. There’s a problem in the whole approach to housing because you create a situation where there is a finite number of housing units available, both with social public housing and with the private market, and that number is getting less and less but the need is growing. I don’t think the home ownership and the probability ideology that seems to be governing a lot of housing issues in Australia is conducive to helping those that are poor. In fact it’s creating a squeeze in the market, whereby you’re going to have more and more people relying on less-available social housing. And when you have land prices, home prices and rental prices going up, even places where you do have public housing, or boarding homes or shelters, will be reduced because there is a demand on the market – especially in parts of cities where people have access to services and employment.

Last year the Howard government said that the responsibility for funding solutions to homelessness should be shared with corporations. Do you think that’s a shirking of responsibility?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think that has worked anywhere in the world. The primary responsibility has to remain with the state. Businesses are primarily interested in profit – it’s not in the interest of business to do this, and so there is a great deal of discrimination because they’re actually against people who are homeless or against indigenous people in their neighbourhoods. They think that actually having public housing in your neighbourhood or having low-income earners lowers, or depresses, the value of the land. The discrimination is at many, many different levels.

Actually, I’m quite distressed to hear that the Victorian Human Rights Charter does not condone economic, social and cultural rights. That’s something that has to be remedied because it’s inconsistent with Australia’s international human-rights obligations, which recognises economic, social and cultural rights including housing and food. If that is remedied, then the situation on the ground will change and there will be more opportunities available for people. And that was very useful to hear in the forum today, because there aren’t actually many avenues for people to complain – or if there is an avenue, then the process takes too long. I’ll try to capture this in my report and in my recommendations – I’m meeting with senior housing officials, housing ministers and federal ministers, and I’ll be raising these issues with them.

Can Australia’s homeless situation be readily compared with anywhere else in the world?

I think you have a similar situation here to the United States and Canada, where you have a dominant, liberal, economic model geared toward – and based on – home ownership that does not have enough safety-net provisions, or that does not look at the structural issues that cause homelessness. It’s as shocking to see here as it is in the US and Canada, because they’re all very wealthy countries. The other common feature in all three countries is that there is a reduction in subsidies and a reduction in the amount of social housing units available, partly related to pressure from the market, and perhaps from a squeeze using available resources for other areas and not social issues. I think, again, in all those countries it comes back to the issue of governments not recognising issues like housing as a human right. I think if they did that – if they based their policies and laws and programmes on that recognition – then the first step would be to look after the most vulnerable. You cannot have a situation where the most vulnerable people are left out, and where, in fact, the numbers are growing.

Are governments generally responsive to your reports?

It’s mixed: some are, some aren’t. In Australia’s case I’m hoping for a positive response, because I’m here on invitation and that indicates an opening. They also have to respond to my report formerly at the human-rights consulate in Geneva, and I’m hoping that whatever we can come up with will be useful for the kind of groups we met today, as well as for the state, territory and commonwealth.

Music Is Not A Bloody Race

Simon Sellars

interview by Simon Sellars & Anna Krien

Simon Sellars

‘Music Is Not A Bloody Race’ was originally published in Subterrain magazine #2, July 2007.

Simon Sellars

There are two music groups for the benefit of clients at the Ozanam Community Centre. There’s one on Mondays, run by Alan Pavlikas, which is more of a rock-band affair, and one on Tuesdays, run by Helen Begley, a professional musician who’s also part of the ‘pub folk’ band Milk. Helen’s group has more of a focus on singing and lyric writing, and it was Subterrain’s great pleasure to drop in one Tuesday to have a chat with Helen and two of the participants, Reggie and Robin. Also present was muso George Butrumlis, arguably Australia’s finest piano accordionist, who was recording the group for the soundtrack to the Ozanam shadow-puppet show, Some Faces You Know.

Simon Sellars

SIMON: So, how are you finding the music group?

ROBIN: I really enjoy coming here. I’d love to be here every single day. Helen’s teaching me to sing and play the piano.

REG: This has saved my life, this place. Three years I been coming here. I dunno where I’d be. I got head injuries and I’d like to stress to psychologists that programs like this are very important for people with head injuries. It’s calming, like meditation.

ANNA: What type of music do you like?

REG: The Beatles, the Eagles. I play bass – Paul McCartney’s me favourite bass player.

HELEN: Robin’s an aficionado of the blues. She’s an expert on lots of bands.

ROBIN: I wouldn’t say ‘expert’! I appreciate the music, yeah. I see all the good bands at the pub – at the Lomond.

SIMON: What were your aims when you started the group?

HELEN: We were rehearsing for a ‘Sing for Water’ project, learning songs to be part of a 500-voice choir. That was really exciting. Then we introduced song writing – this group’s got a real focus on writing songs.

SIMON: What approach do you take?

HELEN: We just sit down and say, ‘OK, today we’re going to write a song’. We talk about how our week’s been, and sometimes we come up with a theme – there might be a relationship break up, or something to do with anger. And we just brainstorm that, and what that feels like for people in the group. Out of the brainstorm comes the lyrics and then we just jam on some chords. Everyone writes really good melodies in this group, so it’s quite an organic process.

ANNA: Can you give us some examples?

HELEN: We’ve done a travelling song. We’ve done a song about a jilted lover – that’s a really cool song. We’ve done a country song. We found that all the women in the group had grown up in the city and all the blokes had grown up in the country, so we did a couple of verses: one about the city, one about the country, comparing the two. Another song was about standing up and…

ROBIN: …being yourself, looking after yourself.

ANNA: What’s your involvement in this year’s Spring Fling?

HELEN: We’ve been asked to write a sing for Errol’s Angels, a 30-voice choir. We’ve also been asked to write some words for Some Faces You Know, so we’re kind of guns for hire!

ANNA: Do you get nervous before you get up on stage?

ROBIN: No. We don’t know what nervous is!

REG: Nah, of course we do. Robin does, too. Not Helen, though, she’s a pro, mate – a pro!

HELEN: It’s been amazing for me to watch how these guys have blossomed. These two have been in the group for the last 12 months now, and just to watch how they’ve opened up and become more confident in themselves is really exciting for all of us. Robin, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but when you first came to the group, you were really quiet and wouldn’t say a word. You didn’t sing, either. Now you’re learning keyboards…

ROBIN: …and singing…

HELEN: …and writing songs. She’s become an integral part of the group. And Reg is the same. He’s really grown as a performer – he’s very charming.

REG: But she won’t go out with me.

HELEN: No, I won’t go out with you, Reg. He keeps asking me!

REG: I don’t blame her, mate. I wouldn’t wanna go out with me, either!

HELEN: Trish, who’s not here today, has been great, too. She’s really grown in confidence. It’s really interesting how music, and the arts generally, can give people confidence.

REG: I get satisfaction from it. I live in this aged care and disabled place, and I’m the only healthy one there. And I have me problems, obviously, but I’m not sitting there all day like a fucken statue smoking cigarettes, and that’s all they do. I come here to get away from the place, mate, because I feel so sorry for those people!

SIMON: There should be more funding for arts, then. That seems obvious, given the beneficial outcomes.

GEORGE: It’s broader than that, though. Arts and creativity in Australia, as a society, is a really low priority. A much higher priority is sport, and motor racing, and making money, and corporate takeovers. I mean, how much of the news every night is taken up by the finance report? Where are the separate sections devoted to arts, or to performance?

ANNA: It’s all about place getting, isn’t it? It’s a competition, so if you’re not into being Number One, or you can’t be Number One, then you tend to drop out.

GEORGE: That’s true. Just last week I was up on the Gold Coast as the adjudicator for the National Piano Accordion Championships. I do it because there are a lot of kids there and it’s good to encourage them, but part of me finds it very difficult because I don’t like the competitive nature of playing music. It’s not a bloody race! Music and art and creativity – it’s a very different thing. In other countries – in Europe – the situation is really the opposite, so I just find it amusing, and interesting, and even a little bit frightening, when the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader start talking about Australian values, because they place arts and creativity very low down on that list. People are much more concerned with renovating their kitchen or bathroom. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but it’s those very narrow, self-focused pursuits that take precedence.

HELEN: That’s why you’ve got to hand it to the Community Centre for giving people a chance to be involved with artistic projects, because the arts can be quite expensive, as well as being exclusive.

SIMON: Well, kudos for keeping it going. What else do you hope to achieve with the group?

HELEN: We’re looking at recording maybe next year. What else? Reg wants to be a rock star.

REG: I’ll take you out for pizza. Fuck the Chinese food, mate!

HELEN: Jeez, every bloody week…

REG: Nah, just mucking around. We’re all one big family.

Whatever Goes into the Mix

Simon Sellarsinterview by Simon Sellars

Simon Sellars

‘Whatever Goes into the Mix’ was originally published in Subterrain magazine #2, July 2007.

Simon Sellars

Alan Pavlikas manages the Ozanam Community Centre’s band, Shallow Rabbit, which has released one CD and has had a documentary made about it (see Subetrrain #1). intrigued, I crashed one of their jam sessions and collared Alan, guitarist Keith and bassist A.J. and submitted them to a time-honoured ritual grilling.

Simon Sellars

How did you end up at the Centre?

KEITH: At one stage I was homeless, and I saw these guys on stage in North Melbourne, without a lead guitarist. And I thought, ‘They need me, and they’re doing the sort of material I love’. So I came out of 15 years’ retirement as a guitar player, and now they can’t make me stop again. It just won’t happen!

AJ: About 10 years ago, when I moved to Melbourne, I ended up on the street through circumstances beyond my control. And one of the people I met on the street brought me here for a meal and a coffee and I started off volunteering in the kitchen. But it’s always come back to the music for me. Over the last six or seven years it’s evolved and changed, and we’ve ended up with a great band out of it, because the Centre is a place where people can belong – as a community. The music program helps morale. We’ve got an energy happening between us and that translates to the rest of the Centre.

You did a gig recently at the O’Donnell Gardens in St Kilda. How did that go?

AJ: Ah, it flew by! Felt like we were on speed for 10 seconds.

KEITH: Yeah, it went smoothly except I stepped on my guitar lead and broke a string. But the band didn’t fall apart – it was fabulous! We only played 25 minutes, but we could have done three hours quite happily.

ALAN: And that’s apart of the work within the group. It’s not just about music, it’s also about working as a team. As things go wrong, we fix them on the run, because it’s all about how to support each other and how we canto translate that into everyday life.

What are your musical influences?

KEITH: Steve Marriott, the Small Faces, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd – all the good stuff. Elvis Costello.

Obviously, you think today’s music is pretty crap.

KEITH: It’s absolute shit!

AJ: I’m trying to turn Keith onto a few heavy bands: Metallica, Disturbed, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Nirvana. I’m bringing him slowly around to the ways of the dark side.

Don’t you think Metallica have lost it, though? You can’t beat those first three albums.

AJ: Ah, no. People criticise them, but they just need to put the strainer back on the snare drum. But really, it’s an evolving, ever-changing sound. And that’s the sign of a bunch of true musicians, when they can change the sound as they grow older, and get away from their roots, and start exploring new and wonderful areas.

How did you get into music?

AJ: I’ve been performing as a clown for many, many years – doing magic tricks, juggling. But I’ve always felt most at home playing an instrument. I started off on keyboards when I was a little tiny tacker, and took up guitar shortly after, and then went onto bass. When I’m on stage it just feels like home.

KEITH: I went to school with a lot of Pommie immigrants, and of course they were all mad into the Stones and the Beatles. Anything that was British rock absolutely ruled, although they liked Hendrix, too, but that was alright because he made his name in England. And then the Small Faces put out a song called ‘Tin Soldier’ and I just had to get a guitar and learn how to play it. I begged the fuck out of me father until he bought me one!

What about you, Alan?

ALAN: I’m a full-time musician so my influences are very wide – everything from Shriekback to Tool, System of A Down, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Gabriel – because I have to work in many different styles. Same as the guys here. We’ve been doing a song-writing workshop, and we’ve ended up with a blues song out of it, something like the Masters’ Apprentices; another song that’s like Kraftwerk; and another one that’s like classic rock. It’s just whatever goes into the mix: we throw something in and it gets painted with the colour these guys provide. I mean, we could be doing country songs next week.

AJ: Hey, I doubt it!

UFOpunk: Mac Tonnies’ Strange Blue World

Ballardian: Mac Tonnies Mac Tonnies is a Kansas-based writer of post-cyberpunk science fiction (recently published by the redoubtable Rudy Rucker). He’s also the author of the book After the Martian Apocalypse, a speculative search for life on the Red Planet, as well as the originator of a ‘cryptoterrestrial’ philosophy that ambitiously seeks to explain (with ‘balanced skepticism’) a phenomenon — UFOs — that’s been around at least as long as religion. He’s also the owner/operator of Posthuman Blues, an irreverent yet entirely serious blog examining, how shall we put it, ‘weird science’, imprinted with endorsements from Bruce Sterling and John Shirley.

A Ballardian philosophy ties it all together. Mac’s existential probing into the nature of the interface between man and machine, an analysis of the posthumanism which we have blundered into (the ‘blues’ part, it seems, derives from the fact that we’re not quite there yet), is based on respect for the work of J.G. Ballard.

It’s one of the more provocative excavations of a meme that remains largely unexplored in comparison to the more well-trodden trails in Ballard’s strange fictional jungle.

Simon Sellars

Originally published on ballardian.com, 3 July 2007.


So, Mac, exactly how does a cryptoterrestrial ufologist pursuing transcendence of the flesh become interested in Ballard?

I guess my pat answer on this one is that I’ve never been comfortable with the veneer we’re asked to accept as ‘real’ because, ultimately, it’s a very shallow façade. So I’m open to subversion and transgression, whether literary, esoteric or in between. Ballard’s books nail that interzone between reality — our world of endless parking lots and fast cars — and the more primal, mythic substrate just underneath. I think Ballard, like William Gibson, is a literary shaman of our time. I’m just waiting to meet a character like Vaughan, a death angel of the cul-de-sacs and strip-malls who’s suffered some terminal breach.

Can you single out the Ballards that have had the greatest impact on you?

The short story ‘The Voices of Time’ is one of my favourites. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who professes to live in the 21st century. Ballard has the ability to take mundane scenery and make it seem prescient; he’s consciously reinvented the touchstones of the collective unconscious. When I encountered that for the first time I immediately knew I wanted more. ‘The Voices of Time’ was a sort of primer for me, a guidebook.

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‘Magisterial, Precise, Unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on the Ballard Connection

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds Simon Reynolds is one of the most recognisable music critics around — or at least his style is, not least for its willingness to tackle pop music as an art form worthy of sustained intellectual discourse rather than as a fleeting moment of adolescent flash. Reynolds breaks new ground, melding unbridled enthusiasm with a robust theoretical framework in a body of work that is thrilling for its eclecticism alone: he’s never less than compelling writing about hip hop, Britney or rave, as he is about grunge, prog or grime.

Reynolds reached a peak of sorts with the publication of Rip It Up and Start Again, a deliriously good excavation of the postpunk era, the generation of musicians that broke immediately after punk: Cabaret Voltaire, PiL, Magazine and so on. What’s more, J.G. Ballard was a thread throughout the book, as Reynolds charted the influence of JGB — and The Atrocity Exhibition, especially — on this particular era.

Reynolds has also invoked Ballard in past interviews regarding his own formative influences, so the stage seemed set for Simon to appear here on Ballardian. I wanted to chat to Reynolds when Rip It Up was published, but the moment slipped away for various reasons. But now, with the release of Simon’s latest collection, Bring the Noise, here’s a chance to put that right.

Simon Sellars.

Originally published on ballardian.com, 7 June 2007.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds LEFT: Ballard (photo courtesy Fine Line Features).

SS: You were into Ballard before you were into music. What attracted you to his writing?

SR: A better emphasis would be to say I was into science fiction before I was into rock music, and that Ballard was one of my favourite SF writers. Obviously I always loved music but it was things my parents had introduced me to, like Beethoven, or Hollywood musicals, plus stray things I’d heard on the radio like the Beatles. And then aged fifteen or so I was inducted into that whole rockist apparatus of taking music – pop culture, youth culture, rock criticism – seriously. And the thing I was into on a fanatical level immediately before entering rock culture was science fiction; the new fanaticism displaced the prior fanaticism — not immediately, there was an overlap — but eventually totally. At one point I wanted to be a SF writer and then the next major ambition I had was to be a music journalist. Which is where I stuck!

I kinda half-forgot about Ballard along with other SF writers that were key for me: Frederick Pohl & CM Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, John Brunner, Philip K. Dick, to name just a few. Ironically this was at a time, the very end of the 70s and the early 80s, when Ballard’s influence was as strong as it’s ever been in music, with postpunk.

SS: Are you still sweet on Ballard today?

SR: It’s quite a common syndrome for people to grow out of SF and suddenly drop it as juvenile, and I’d always swore I’d not be one of those, but it happened. Really though it was because a whole set of other obsessions crowded SF out: music, rock journalism, politics and philosophy, critical theory. It’s really in the last decade or so that I rediscovered an interest in SF and particularly in Ballard, who now seemed to me to be clearly the most advanced writer and thinker in that field. I also read more of his critical thinking, his interviews and journalism, and become more and more impressed by him. He seems a much more towering figure now than he did when I first read him as a teenager.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds
The coveted Penguin editions (designer David Pelham).

SS: Which of his books rocked your world?

SR: In some ways the one that grabbed me most and has yet to relinquish its hold was the first one I read, The Drowned World. Penguin used to do these great paperback editions of SF and they had one series with really evocative paintings – glossy, garish, almost hyper-realist – on the covers. The Drowned World, The Drought and The Wind From Nowhere were all in that series and looked particularly good [ The Terminal Beach was in there too; SS ]. But with The Drowned World, the severity and fixatedness of Ballard imagination was what hooked me, and just the idea of the protagonist who – as with all the Ballard cataclysm novels – is perversely drawn towards the heart of the catastrophe, goes the opposite direction to everybody else, and really finds his true self in the transformed landscape. That really grabbed me. Also, the whole idea of the world you knew being drastically transformed… I lived near London, in a commuter town thirty miles north of the capital, and went up to the city quite frequently, so to imagine it submerged was exciting.

SS: Has he influenced your work in any way — as a cultural critic, say, rather than stylistically?

SR: Not really. The influences on my writing and thinking come from a totally different place, although there’s certain affinities maybe. A sense of the power of the irrational, these atavistic drives pulsing inside culture. I’ve long felt that pop music is driven by some pretty ambivalent, sometimes outright antisocial or malevolent energies. But I’ve probably derived that more from various French thinkers and Nietzsche, also from certain rock writers. And also just listening closely and honestly to my own responses to music. Still you could see that idea of music as fitting a Ballardian worldview to some degree. The idea of human culture as fundamentally perverse.

There’s another parallel actually, which applies to SF in general as well as Ballard in particular: that’s the extreme degree of self-reflexivity that you get within rock criticism. Or at least the zone I move within and which has now broken out into the blog world. It’s very similar to SF, or at least how SF was when I started reading it, which would have been in the years coming out of the whole New Wave of SF. SF writers seemed to have been really into analysing the genre, talking about what defined it as a field of writing and how that related to other forms. And that was largely because – just like rock criticism – its status was contested, it was very much an underdog genre that didn’t get the respect or acceptance from the literary establishment, give or take a Kingsley Amis or an Anthony Burgess who talked about being SF fans and had a go at the genre themselves now and then.

Ballardian: New Worlds LEFT: New Worlds; new wave.

So SF, like rock writing, had this mixture of inferiority complex and superiority complex. SF writers loved to see SF as the one really crucial, relevant, truly contemporary form of literature. A literature of ideas, which was exactly what drew me to, the element of speculation, as well as the estrangement effect. Rock critics are just the same: they both crave that validation from the mainstream of arts criticism but they also kinda like being the renegade form. As well as novels and story collections, I would sometimes read books of critical essays by SF writers. It seemed like an exciting little subculture, especially the New Wave writers who always seemed to be having workshops and conferences! Ballard exemplifies that meta aspect of SF, although he goes beyond it to be just a great cultural critic.

SS: You’ve remarked elsewhere that his short stories have more appeal to you than the novels.

SR: After the disaster novels I think I read the mid-Seventies urban breakdown ones like Concrete Island and High-Rise, both of which I liked a lot, and also a couple of collections of short stories. And it’s the Ballard shorts that, with my critic’s hat on, I think are his supreme achievement – so magisterial, so distilled and precise and atmospheric and unsettling. In fact, my getting back into Ballard came about through a collection originally published in 1978 but reissued by Picador USA in 2001, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. My wife was working as a book reviews editor and it turned up in her mail and I was like, ‘I’m having that’. So many of the classic Ballard short stories are in there, some I’d read before in The Terminal Beach and similar collections I’d have got out of Berkhamsted Library as a teenager. There was one called Low-Flying Aircraft I particularly liked, especially the first long story in it, almost a novella [ ‘The Ultimate City’ ], about a young man who lives in a near-future where it’s very green-conscious and placid and dull so he goes to the deserted city and starts up urban life again, gets the generators going, and misfits start to flock in from the eco-communes and garden towns, but of course it all goes haywire.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Best Short Stories.

The Best Short Stories collection has a few things from the Atrocity Exhibition era, and writing and reading them as a thirty-something I appreciated them more. But it wasn’t so much the experimental Atrocity-era stuff as the stories he did that are quite close to conventional hard-science SF, but with that extra dimension of interiority and the collective unconscious – all the inner space, psychological aspects that you associate with the New Wave of SF. Back in the day, I didn’t really get on with the experimental writing side of Ballard. I still haven’t read all of The Atrocity Exhibition I’m ashamed to admit, and only a few years ago finally read Crash all the way through. I’d had a go as a teenager but failed. The impetus to finally read it came from doing the book on postpunk, Rip It Up and Start Again, wanting to understand why it was such a big influence on certain bands. And for sure, it’s fantastic writing, and fantastic as thought, too.

There’s certain SF writers I can’t get on with, like Samuel Delaney, often the ones who are doing overtly experimental writing. Nor am I that crazy for the side of Philip K. Dick that’s all about multiple levels of reality, what is real and what’s hallucination. So similarly I prefer Ballard’s post-cataclysm novels and his short stories to the Atrocity Exhibition type stuff. I think maybe it’s that I like that thing where realism as a literary mode is applied to something with a SF or alternate history premise. In a way, I prefer the side of Ballard that relates to a writer like John Wyndham than the side that relates to Burroughs. I like that dour, flat Britishness confronted by something alien or catastrophic.

SS: You mention the influence of Ballard on postpunk. As someone who grew up with this music, Ballard was always a vague referent on the edge of my consciousness, glimpsed through obscure Cabaret Voltaire or Ultravox! interviews, so I appreciated the way Rip It Up took the time to unpack the connection. But what about today’s crop?

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds SR: Ballard allusions had become a bit of a cliché by the time I started writing about music professionally in the mid-80s – I did a piece on this post-Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield outfit called Chakk and gave the singer a slightly hard time for overdoing the Ballardisms. Since then I’m hard pressed to think of Ballardisms coming through in music, although this very year The Klaxons put out an album called Myths of the Near Future [ also the title of a Ballard short-story collection ]. But the Ballard homage seems fairly cosmetic in this case.

SS: But there’s also kode9 and Burial, right? Every second review I read of their albums last year seemed to invoke the dreaded word ‘Ballardian’ – it seemed to become as much a cliché as it was during the postpunk period.

SR: That relates more to Spaceape’s contribution to the Kode 9 album, Memories of the Future. His lyrics and delivery – they’re a bit like Linton Kwesi Johnson reading excerpts from The Atrocity Exhibition. With Burial, the connection is that his album is supposed to be a concept record about South London becoming flooded when the Thames Barrier breaks in the global warmed near future. I think Katrina and New Orleans is more likely to be the inspiration, but there’s an obvious parallel there with The Drowned World.

Ballardian: kode9 and the Spaceape LEFT: Spaceape and kode9 (photo via 3Voor12).

There is also an urban psychogeography thing going in Burial’s music (and dubstep generally) that recalls Ballard in Crash. The album draws a lot from South London, this interzone of semi-suburbia between Brixton, where the tube line stops and Croydon which is on the periphery of London, maybe a dozen miles from the centre. So it’s a hinterland probably not unlike the outer London areas near Heathrow where Ballard situated Crash. A real anomie zone, but possessed of a certain desolate beauty. Burial has also talked of putting his tunes through ‘the Car Test’, driving around South London playing the music in his car to see if it has the atmosphere he wants, the ‘distance’ in the music he’s looking for.

People have also compared Burial to Joy Division in terms of that bleak urbanism thing, and Martin Hannett, their producer, used to do a similar thing: drive around Manchester’s most brutally industrialised zones in his car, stoned, listening to Joy Division, PiL, Pere Ubu.

SS: You casually injected something interesting into our correspondence — that you see Ballard and Brian Eno as ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century.’ I’m now going to pin you down and ask you to elaborate.

SR: That’s slightly over the top, isn’t it? I wonder if it really stands up. Then again,
as thinkers specifically about culture, in the British context, I can’t honestly think of too many rivals. Certainly as people who came out of the Sixties but came into their prime – as artists and as influences – in the Seventies, they are these towering figures, I think.

One of my fantasy projects that I toyed with for a while was a book on Ballard and Eno. They do seem of a type in some ways and they are patron saints of postpunk to an extent. But the project founders immediately owing to the fact that they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better. They know what they are doing. I suppose you could historicize them, contextualise them. Ballard with the milieu he emerged out of in the Sixties, which was based around the ICA, right? And Eno with the UK art schools.

In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything ideas-based. There’s this wonderful Englishness. You imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky and soda in the Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except much better because he’s a far better writer, and a better thinker too – more original, more convincing. Eno is almost like a British Barthes, in some ways.

SS: Explaining his collage method in The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard said he wanted to produce ‘crossovers and linkages between unexpected and previously totally unrelated things, events, elements of the narration, ideas that in themselves begin to generate new matter.’ To me this seems strikingly similar to Eno’s formulation of generative music.

SR: I’m not sure about that. It seems more related to Burroughs and perhaps also to Ballard’s artistic debt to Surrealism, which I really appreciated a few years ago when I read him talk about it in that RE/Search collection of interviews. I liked the fact that J.G. would stick up for Dali and the rest. Surrealism and Dada is big teenage impact thing for a lot of us I think, until we learn to say ‘ooh Chagall, so much better than Dali.’

Eno’s generative music is much more cybernetics meets Zen, emptying out the authorial ego, setting up a process and then withdrawing. I don’t think with Ballard there’s that Eastern mystical aspect. With Ballard’s there’s always more of a violence bubbling up from below aspect, even though the writing is cold and controlled. Actually if Eno is a British Barthes, a languid sensualist, I’d say that Ballard is a British Bataille. I can also imagine Ballard enjoying Camille Paglia’s writing, which I can’t imagine Eno doing – it would be too passionate for him.

Ballardian: Brian Eno LEFT: One Brain (Eno portrait by Paris Rebel Richens).

SS: Alright, then, try this: both Ballard and Eno inverted, retooled, then abandoned the genre they started out in. As Richard Sutherland wrote, ‘to call Ballard’s work SF is a bit like describing Brian Eno’s music as rock ‘n’ roll.’

SR: Yes and no. Eno is like the culmination or extension of certain ideas within rock to the point where they verge on un-rock. But when he started out there were obvious debts to Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, a certain English kind of psychedelia. And he could do the ‘idiot energy’ thing with ‘Third Uncle’. I think he shifts the emphasis so it’s the noise or the mechanistic insistence of rock that’s retained and amplified, but he sheds the passion, the ego drama, the theatre of rebellion. Later there is the entropy of ambient, which as much as it’s un-rock is also the furthest extension of the psychedelic principle.

As for Ballard and SF – I see him having lots in common with the best people in the genre. I mentioned John Wyndham, who’s under-rated I think, and then people like Dick, Bester, Pohl. But really there are lots of SF people, especially in the Sixties and Seventies, who weren’t doing corny pulp nonsense. To elevate Ballard by divorcing him from his genre is unnecessary. The methodology in the disaster stories and the bulk of the short stories is totally SF.

SS: Spoken like a true SF fanboy! OK, as you said earlier, people tend to drop SF as ‘juvenile’; similarly, people often say that writers should grow out of writing about music. How do you maintain your interest?

SR: It doesn’t take any effort! It’s a compulsion, nothing I can do about it. Although there are lull years – and indeed the last few years have been slimmer pickings than for a long while. The Nineties were an insanely exciting time and that spilled over into the early part of this decade but now it feels like a number of sonic-cultural narratives have petered out. Hip hop in particular seems to be in deadlock. But still I can’t shake this gut belief that popular music is the place where the most exciting cultural energies and ideas get played out.

But maybe this feeling is just a hangover from having grown up during the postpunk era and then living through the hip hop Eighties and rave Nineties. Maybe that conviction can no longer be substantiated by what music is coming up with. It could be the ‘vibe’ has moved elsewhere. Certainly the art world seems to have resurged as a place where there’s a lot of energy and a lot of really interesting conversations are taking place. And television I think still has that function where it is where the society examines itself and talks about the issues. It generates an insane amount of rubbish but it’s always interesting, revealing rubbish. And the quality television is really our modern high culture I think, stuff that nearly everybody is plugged into and where a collective conversation goes on.

But if this is the case – that pop music is no longer where it’s at – I would be saddened because I think it’s a much more democratic zone than the art world or films or TV. The start-up costs are so much lower.

SS: You mentioned the blog world earlier; all-pervasive connectivity means that everyone’s a critic, these days. Any thoughts on that?

SR: Blogging’s too huge a subject really, because it goes into the whole nature of what music criticism is and what it’s for, and also the whole scarily transforming nature of the media, the future of magazines. But I was very excited about the music blogging scene when it emerged in the first years of this decade, and got even more excited when I joined in – there was some really great energy flowing back and forth in this circuit of blogs that I participated in, which is really just one small ‘hood in the universe of music blogs, itself a modest galaxy in the vast blogosphere.

Now I’m significantly less excited, while still finding more to read and be inspired by in the non-professional blog world than in music magazines. What I enjoy most, and what has dimmed quite a bit since ‘the golden age’ a few years ago, is the conversational aspect – people riffing on other people’s riffs, that whole argumentative side. But with a few exceptions people seem to have retreated back into a more solitary, monologue-like thing.

SS: As someone who has successfully integrated critical theory with writing on music, what do you think of the growing incursion of theory into blog-based music criticism?

SR: Is it growing? The only music blogs I can think of that go for real hardcore theory are k-punk and… that’s it really. There are blogs that are primarily philosophy and/or art blogs who also deal with music now and then, like Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy or Poetix, but I don’t think people would think of them as music blogs. Actually k-punk isn’t just a music blog either, although music is a privileged area of culture for Mark. You get music blogs that do music criticism in a high-powered form or go deeply into the minutiae of subgenres and esoteric knowledge. But I can’t think of that many who are applying concepts from critical theory.

I’d make a distinction here between theorising about music and using critical theory and applying it to music. The former goes on a lot, obviously – and you could argue that any critical position is at some level theoretical, it relates to an idea of what music should be and how it works. But there is plenty of theorisation about music going on. What I don’t see a lot of is people using ideas from critical theory or philosophy and so forth and using them to explicate pop music. Even I don’t do nearly as much as I used to. But I certainly still generate theorems and analytical ideas that go beyond the thumbs up/thumbs down consumer guidance aspect.

Ballardian: Ghost Box

SS: OK, but it wasn’t so long ago that if you mentioned the word ‘scopophilia’ in a film review, for example, people would have thought you were referring to what Richard Gere allegedly did to some unfortunate gerbils (this actually happened to me — the misunderstanding, not the gerbil abuse). Now, if you drop it in a review, people groan because they’ve heard it all before; the word’s become such a cliché that you’re automatically a bit of a poser for using it. In music criticism, ‘hauntology’ seems to be gaining similar mass. But you were there from the start. So, what is hauntology, in musical terms, and why has it lit up the blogosphere the way it has?

SR: Well I think it was me who first broached the idea of ‘hauntology’ as a rubric for this loose network of contemporary bands who were playing with the cultural imagery of ghosts, spectres, the uncanny, the return of the cultural repressed, memory, and so forth, while also trying to make genuinely eerie music. But I didn’t particularly intend for there to be a tight correlation between Derrida’s concept of hauntology and what these bands were trying to do. It was just a convenient and cute term, ‘haunt’ referencing ghosts and ‘-ology’ suggesting the image of crackpot scientists working in the sound laboratory. There are certain affinities with Derrida’s ideas as elaborated in Spectres of Marx.

Ballardian: Ghost Box LEFT: Mordant logo.

Some of the groups – specifically The Focus Group and Belbury Poly of the Ghost Box label, and Mordant Music – are concerned with ideas of a lost futurism, a spirit of utopian idealism that seems to have faded away in recent decades but which they associate with post-WW2 modernism in architecture, the early days of electronic music, grand public works of amelioration and edification. So there’s a kind of radical nostalgia, a looking back to looking forward. But Spectres of Marx was a very specific intervention in a tradition of philosophy and political thought, and I feel there’s nothing to be gained by aligning what these groups are doing with Derrida’s ideas in some tight doctrinal way. Especially as none of them have read Derrida as far as I can tell!

The word ‘hauntology’ has got a lot of traction, though, because it chimes in with things that are going on in modern art (the trend for work based around the concept of the archive and dealing with questions of collective memory) and in academia (with the boom of studies related to the spectral and uncanny, work on ruins, remains and rubbish, mourning and memory work, nostalgia for the future). Even just on the level of the word ghost or its homonyms popping up across popular culture in countless band names, album titles, novels and non-fiction books, et al – something is going on.

With the ghostified bands specifically, I think what has grabbed some of us (apart from the music, which is fantastic) is that these are musicians who have tons of ideas both musical and non-musical. They tend to be very well read and thoughtful, real autodidacts with a passion for esoteric knowledge and bizarre historical arcana. They are making connections between music, film, books, TV, the occult, history, design… and their records also have a highly developed visual aesthetic. For me personally, a big thing is the Britishness of Ghost Box and Mordant Music, the way they are plumbing the nation’s collective unconscious. I’m become very interested in nationality, which is not to be confused with nationalism.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds SS: To close, let’s discuss your latest collection, Bring the Noise, which has just been released. It collects your writings on alternative rock and hip hop — why did you bring these disparate musical enclaves together?

SR: I felt it was time to do a collection of all this stuff I’ve been writing for the last 20 years, but there was a problem in that Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, which is an essay collection published in 1990, corralled a lot of the late-80s stuff I did, and then Energy Flash (aka Generation Ecstasy), while not a collection, is based on the rave and electronic music journalism I did in the Nineties, there’s a lot of remixing and sampling from my own pieces. So I didn’t want to overlap too much with Blissed Out or Energy Flash, and what was left was all the writing I did on alternative rock and on hip hop, which I wrote about almost the moment I started out professionally in 1986 – I wrote about Schoolly D, interviewed LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and so forth. And then a theme leap out at me, looking at the relationship between bohemian rock and black street music — this alternately fraught and fertile relationship, with the white underground sometimes trying to catch up with or incorporate ideas from hip hop, and sometimes going its own way. And hip hop referring to not just rap but the whole spectrum of street sounds: dancehall, R&B, grime. There are some pieces on rave in there but usually where it relates to the black/white theme. So it’s Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop. The ‘hip’ before ‘rock’ is kinda jokey but also accurate, in a way, since nearly all the rock bands in the book are or were hip in some sense, like Nirvana or PJ Harvey. Whereas I’ve nothing on, say, Bon Jovi in there!

It’s actually longer than 20 years since the first piece is from Monitor in 1985 and the last is from 2006. I have been around for ever, churning the stuff out. This book is 400 pages long and it is truly a tiny fraction of my output. But this particular slice through the corpus tells a story; it does work as a kind of history of the last couple of decades of pop culture. I’ve brought out the narrative and the theme by having little commentaries after the pieces that make connections and thread things together. So I think you could read it and get a pretty good picture of what happened in music, starting from when Rip It Up and Start Again ends, 1985, and going up to the present.

Thank you, Simon Reynolds.

+ blissblog: Simon’s blog
+ Simon’s Rip It Up blog
+ Simon’s Bring the Noise blog
+ Blissout, Simon’s dance-music archive

+ Bruce Sterling on J.G. Ballard
+ John Foxx on J.G. Ballard
+ Iain Sinclair on J.G. Ballard
+ Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

‘The Stuff of Now’: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

Interview by Gwyn Richards & Simon Sellars

Ballardian: Toby Litt on J.G. Ballard

Originally published on ballardian.com, 2 May 2007.

Toby Litt is an English novelist who published his first book, Adventures in Capitalism (a volume of short stories), in 1996, when he was 28. He’s since won praise for the dark inventiveness of his writing, a combination of cinematic prose, apocalyptic imagery and sharp wit that freely dissects contemporary relationships and the sociopathic glue that binds them. Litt’s latest book, Hospital, was released in April, and was likened in a recent review to ‘Stephen King, in his gory horror phase, scripting a feature-length episode of Holby City.’

Given that he’s one of the special guests at this weekend’s J.G. Ballard Conference at the University of East Anglia, we thought we’d quiz Toby on his relationship to Ballard’s writing.

G.R. & S.S.

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Lonely Planet: More Netherlands

Simon Sellars

Simon Sellars

In May 2006 I returned to the Netherlands to update the Dutch chapters I’d previously written for the Europe On A Shoestring and Western Europe guidebooks. This time, I was also co-author of the Netherlands country guide with Neal Bedford: I wrote the Amsterdam, Zuid Holland & Zeeland, Overijssel & Gelderland, and Utrecht chapters. This meant loads more work (67,000 words) and a longer stay in the land of the Dutch. But it was fun. I also condensed the work I did for the Netherlands book into the Dutch chapters for the Western Europe (Feb 2007) and Europe On A Shoestring (Mar 2007) guides.

Simon Sellars

Selected material from the Amsterdam chapter, by Simon Sellars, published in Netherlands 3, Lonely Planet Publications, March 2007.

Simon Sellars

Amsterdam’s always been a liberal place, ever since the Golden Age, when it led European art and trade. Centuries later, in the 1960s, it again led the pack – this time in the principles of tolerance, with broad-minded views on drugs and same-sex relationships taking centre stage. Today the cannabis coffeeshops and the Red Light district are still the city’s top drawcards, even if that can sometimes wear thin for the locals. But Amsterdam’s more than just an X-rated theme park for Weekend Warriors and Hooray Henrys.

Quite simply, it’s among the most distinctive of all European cities (it’s certainly one of the most eccentric). And it may well be the most beautiful, with its breathtakingly scenic, heritage-protected 17th-century housing and ubiquitous canals. Other cities in Europe’s Premier League are nothing if not monumental, but Amsterdam by contrast is irreverent, intimate and accessible: you can walk across the city centre in around 30 minutes, less by bike, and it has enough sensory delights to keep the shortest attention spans occupied. All of the major sights are found in or near the city centre: some of the continent’s best museums and galleries nestle among attractions that are just plain quirky, silly or dumb – but always fun.

Walk or bike around the canal grid, down the historic lanes of the Jordaan district, or through the Plantage and bask in the many worlds-within-worlds that make the ‘Dam so thoroughly addictive.

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