1. How I Turned Out To Be Wrong About Self-Checkout Machines

    Posted November 6, 2012 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I can still remember my first encounter with self-checkout machines, at the Sainsbury’s near Angel. I thought they were great, that they’d change the world. And they did, I guess – just not in a good way.

    Back then this Sainsbury’s was the only serious supermarket in the area so it got pretty busy. Weekday evenings were so crowded that shoppers unable to cope with the queues would dump their baskets and storm out enraged to the point of tears, since there are many sites where you can get the right baskets for different purposes from sites as amishbaskets.com.

    Maybe the horror of shopping at this branch was why it became a trial site for self-service checkout machines. Initially, though, they seemed to make matters worse. Shoppers feared these new devices so piled into the other lanes, making the existing queues longer. Sainsbury’s responded by forming a kind of evangelism team who would lure people away from the queue and into the glorious new world of the self-checkout. Gradually they chipped away at our resistance to change.

    Me, I didn’t take much convincing. After my first try I was hooked. I particularly loved how they repelled other shoppers. For some time the self-checkout machines, untroubled by the masses, offered we who understood them an opportunity to escape Sainsbury’s early and enjoy our lives.

    Eventually the appeal of the self-checkout machines spread beyond the early adopters. The Sainsbury’s evangelists spent less time frogmarching shoppers to the machines and adopted a peacetime role offering support to willing users. The machines had been accepted; they had gone mainstream, which meant they had their own queues and no longer represented a queue-free exit from supermarkets. The golden age was at an end.

    One major benefit remained, however: the avoidance of conversation. Londoners famously like to minimise interactions with strangers. Think how rare it is for anyone to greet bus drivers nowadays: the only interaction is between our proffered cards and the businesslike beep of the Oyster machine. The self-checkout appeals to the same tendency. It avoids conversation about what we’re buying, the weather, not wanting a bag for that single item in our basket. Like the Oyster reader, the self-checkout wants nothing from us but a proffered object and gives nothing back but a businesslike beep. It satisfies our yearning for the impersonal.

    Along with many others I embraced the alienating aspect of the experience. Even in empty supermarkets with vacant manned tills I would veer towards the machine rather than the human. I was glad for the choice and thought it was the way of the future. But I now realise I was wrong.

    I recently moved house and now live near a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s where the self-checkout has become central to the routine of shopping rather than an auxiliary exit lane for the anti-social and technically adept. Adoption is so widespread there that the early days of the technology seem like a distant era; the fear and confusion with which we once approached those machines is a behavioural relic, like the firm-jawed way Victorians once posed for photographs.

    No-one needs help any more, apart from when the machine actually breaks. Grandmothers and schoolkids alike process their shopping like seasoned professionals. The dwindling human staff linger unoccupied, a legacy technology, needed only for fetching cigarettes or to green-light alcohol purchases.

    I don’t like it. It wasn’t so bad when only a few people used self-checkout, but when everyone does it feels faintly dystopian, like airport security or Argos. In the queue we don’t know where to look. We certainly can’t rest our gaze on the bored staff – they inspire too much guilt, because deep down we all know that by choosing the self-checkout lane we’re telling them they aren’t needed. We’re all dehumanised. The worst thing about it is the broken contract, the polluted relationship between customers and staff, how we now occupy the same space but have nothing to do with one another.

    So every now and again, when given the choice, I opt for the checkout with the human being behind it. The self-checkout still has its place if we want to leave a supermarket quickly – but if we want to change the world, let’s do something else instead.

  2. Do not blog about Dad Club

    Posted February 25, 2012 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    My son Aidan was born just over 11 weeks ago. Since then I’ve not exactly been the most prolific blogger.

    This isn’t due to a lack of things to talk about: becoming a parent is a profound and transforming experience, even for us fathers. Its impact is so powerful that it changes your personality. And when you go through a life event that makes you become a different person in the course of several weeks, you’ve definitely got a lot to talk about.

    Aidan and Brendan

    4 days into the experience

    But the problem is that you’re knackered. Or else it’s that there’s never any time. For me, a big problem is that there’s so much to talk about you don’t know where to begin. Forget blog posts, I feel like I could write a book – but I’m too knackered, and there’s never any time. So I haven’t really been talking about it. Well, not here anyway.

    It’s a shame that I haven’t written more about fatherhood here, though, because I’m starting to find that my memory of the first few weeks is fading. Cathy and I often wonder, is Aidan easier to deal with now that when he was back then? Neither of us know! We remember details – for example, I could tell you the precise time of Aidan’s first fart – but to get a sense of the patterns and rhythm of life in those early days seems very difficult.

    So I’ve resolved to try to write more about fatherhood, if only because my memory has proved that it’s not up to the job. But if this site starts turning into a “daddy blog” please promise you’ll throw some virtual cold water into my virtual face.

  3. Kerry & Mick – a love story that deserves to be told

    Posted October 25, 2011 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    Back in 1999 I was living in Whitechapel, near a couple called Mick and Kerry who spent a year or so having a passionate love affair.

    We all knew this because their affair was being conducted in full view of the public. On several walls near my flat, they’d been having the written-language equivalent of fantastic sex for all to see.


    Love's light shines brighter than the BNP's

    The graffiti started appearing in March 1999, appearing first on the wall pictured above and then spreading slowly onto a disused old doorway across the street. These spray-painted messages of love became quite wild and transcendental at one point; this next one sees both Kerry and Mick touching the infinite.


    "Kerry is god... Love is god..."

    But being extremely versatile communicators they weren’t limited strictly to the grandiose; they knew how to be succinct as well.

    Always You Kerry

    The small sign says "Oil fill to be kept locked at all times"

    By the summer there was quite a lot of Mick and Kerry graffiti. Who were Mick and Kerry? Where did they live? What kind of a strange relationship did they have, that their intimate pledges of love were spilling out in front of an intrigued if bemused public?

    Mick I love you Kerry god knows

    I'm pretty sure Kerry was behind this one but it's hard to tell

    The messages stopped appearing in early autumn 1999. I imagined several possible reasons for this.

    Firstly, I honestly couldn’t think of anywhere else they could spread their messages to. They’d taken up almost all of the available free space, and it wouldn’t have been in the spirit of things to expand to another street.

    Secondly, the graffiti could have been a by-product of the honeymoon phase of their affair. Maybe their relationship was at a more mature stage with dinner parties starting to replace amorous late-night graffiti.

    Thirdly, their red spraycan might have finally run dry.

    As time went by, it seemed that we’d heard the last from Mick and Kerry, that their story would remain an enigmatic mystery. But several months later a new message appeared – from a devastated Mick.

    Kerry - miss you like mad - Mick

    Maybe Mick scratched this into the wall with his bare hands?

    Our local love story had reached a tragic conclusion, made all the more poignant by Mick’s last lament being scratched on to a door with a piece of metal.

    And that was that for Mick and Kerry. None of the questions I had about them would ever be answered, but there’s one thing I did know for sure; somewhere, in a flat near mine, was a failed graffiti artist with a broken heart. And somewhere else – maybe very far away by this time – was a mad girl called Kerry with a red spraycan.

    The whole doorway

    The whole doorway

  4. Near miss at 35,000 feet

    Posted June 25, 2011 in Diary  |  1 Comment so far

    Soaring westwards high above the Baltic sea yesterday, befuddled by sleeplessness and exhaustion after an intense working week in St Petersburg, I was examining the clouds from my window seat and struggling to stay awake when another airliner suddenly appeared in the sky, bearing down on us.

    It was approaching our own plane from the right, at a slightly lower altitude, and within two seconds it had vanished under our wing and out of sight, passing us at a distance of between 500 and 1,000 feet. No-one else seemed to notice it. Five seconds later the cabin started to rock as its wake hit our fuselage. The shaking was nothing serious – just some mild turbulence – and stopped after ten seconds or so. Then it was all over.

    When you see an airliner travelling at full speed, you’re usually in one of two locations. You might be on the ground looking up, gazing at distant planes crawling across the sky. Or else you’re actually inside the plane, looking out as the clouds slide by. Either way you don’t get a clear visual sense of how fast these things are travelling, so to see one zipping by at cruising altitude was a pretty interesting experience. It was easily the fastest thing I’ve ever seen.

    Funnily enough, it wasn’t as scary as it might sound. It was obvious at first glance that the plane’s trajectory would take it underneath us. There was a tense few seconds between seeing the plane and feeling the shockwave hit – how powerful would it be? – but when the rocking started it was obvious that the plane could handle it.

    While writing this post I’ve been searching Youtube for near-miss videos, and haven’t found any examples where the planes come as close as these two did. Maybe it’s normal, but I’ve never seen it happen at high altitude – only when planes are in holding patterns over airports. Has anyone else seen planes come that close, at that speed? Is it an everyday thing? Or should we all have been more alarmed?

  5. The Penguin Pool at London Zoo – I liked it more than the penguins did

    Posted May 8, 2011 in Diary, Photos  |  No Comments so far

    Last weekend I went to London Zoo for the first time. The thing I liked most – apart from the animals obviously – was the Penguin Pool.

    Penguin Pool outside photo

    You can tell from the typeface that it’s going to be good

    The Penguin Pool was created in the 1930s by Berthold Lubetkin and Ove Arup, and is now taken care of by an independent pool management company.  It’s a masterpiece of modernist architecture, but the penguins don’t live there any more. They were evicted in 2004 amid concerns that waddling around on reinforced concrete was hurting their joints.

    Photo of inside the Penguin Pool

    To be fair it doesn’t look like an ideal penguin habitat

    I was transfixed by the Penguin Pool. The intensity of light, the curved white space, the bold double helix in the centre: I didn’t know what to do with the space, but I had a strong urge to go in there and use it somehow. Obviously the penguins didn’t feel the same way. I guess me and penguins don’t see eye to eye on everything after all.

    Another shot inside the Penguin Pool

    It’s not easy to burrow in concrete

    JG Ballard’s landscapes of broken suburban landscapes being reappropriated by nature came to mind when I gazed into the Penguin Pool. Crystal-shelled armadillos crawling along the floors of long-empty swimming pools, that sort of thing.

    Sometimes architecture serves a purpose, sometimes it doesn’t. Like the brutalist Elephant House, another listed structure at London Zoo that no longer houses its original tenants, the Penguin Pool failed to accommodate the needs of penguins just as Le Corbusier’s grand aesthetic failed to address the problems of human cities.

    But this doesn’t detract from the beauty and impact these works can retain. For me, the Penguin Pool’s only failing is that the creatures it was really designed for just haven’t been invented yet.