Howard Davies: The MT Diary

Howard Davies jets off to the Iceberg Capital of the World, also known as Twillingate, and enjoys Schubert and schnapps in Salzburg.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Regular readers of this column (and I know both your names) will recall that last month my wife and I were left marooned on an uninhabited island off Newfoundland, having obeyed Transport for London's stern instruction to get out of town for the Olympics.

Two boat trips later, we were back on terra firma, and a 400-mile road trip took us to the Iceberg Capital of the World, also known as Twillingate. Sadly, the icebergs had melted, and there was just one whale, which I suspect was tethered to a rock to keep the whale-watching boat in business for the rest of the season.

The other entertainment in the Iceberg Capital was a dinner theatre where the cast served dinner and then performed what they called 'skits', a word I hadn't heard since I took part in a Wolf Cub gang show in 1959. Newfoundland is like that, an island set in freezing aspic, preserving long-forgotten language and customs.

The first skit was a reading of the Twillingate news: 'Last night a single-engine Cessna made an emergency landing in the cemetery. Rescue teams were quickly on the scene, and by lunchtime today 492 bodies had been recovered.'

That is the last aviation joke to appear in this diary for the next three years. For I returned home to find that the Government was asking me to chair an enquiry into aviation policy. The editorialists unkindly described this as 'kicking the Heathrow problem into the long grass'. It's an odd phrase, when you think about it. There's no merit in kicking the ball into the long grass in either football or rugby, while in cricket the batsman is trying to do just that, and is very pleased when he succeeds.

I have already discovered that everyone except me has a firm view on what should or should not be done. Even the wicketkeeper behind me when I last stood at the wicket in an Indian Summer game had an interesting plan. So to preserve my objectivity, I decided to vacate the crease quickly by playing all round the first straight delivery I received.

There would be room for a new airport of a Boris Island kind in the Venice lagoon, though that isn't currently on the agenda there. The gondoliers wouldn't like it, and their union is more powerful than the TUC.

We popped over to have a look at the architectural Biennale, which turned out not to be as good an idea as we had hoped. The British pavilion took as its theme a quote from Einstein, to the effect that 'if we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?'. Which just goes to show that even a genius can have an off day. The contents lived up to the banality of the thought - a random collection of schemes from around the world.

But in architecture, just as in cricket, our team looked serious by comparison with the Australians. Their pavilion incorporated a number of table football games, whose link to the rest of the display was unclear. I suppose the idea was that no one would go in unless there was something else interesting to do. But unlike the Poms, the Aussies were crystal-clear about their purposes. Our 'practice is understood as an imperative to action and through the deeply contingent and relational nature of architecture to forces beyond its control'.

Next time you have trouble with the bloke designing your garage extension, throw that in his face.

It is sad to relate that the best exhibit was in the US pavilion. The Americans displayed a detailed inventory of imaginative schemes to address the challenges of urban living. The content was achingly green, with more than a bow to the Occupy movement. In inner cities with excess parking spaces (a problem in much of the US, it seems), architects dig strips across unused sections of the lots and plant vegetables.

There were photos of hand or cycle-powered mobile phone chargers set up in city streets, of disused phone booths adapted to become book-share depositories, of pop-up lunch rooms with nifty gadgets turning fire hydrants or parking meters into tables. I especially enjoyed the guerrilla gardeners, who graft edible fruit branches onto sterile street trees (apparently councils hate planting real fruit trees because they worry about dropping fruit). It's not Einstein, but you could see the fun, and indeed the points they were trying to make.

Salzburg, our last late summer destination before the shades of autumn began to close around us, was less frivolous. Guerrilla gardeners are not welcome in the Eastern Reich. Everything is 'in ordnung', with no need for improvement.

It's not far from the truth. The music festival is a treat. Watching Daniel Barenboim playing Schubert at close hand is about as good an experience as life offers with your clothes on. And the reverential crowd marches out into the town square for some serious drinking of beer and exotically flavoured schnapps into the night.

Returning home to rain and cold and a stumbling economy was a shock to the system. The eurozone may be in crisis, but the crisis seems well hidden in Austria, while here the mood remains sombre. We knew that the recovery would take time: crises that start in the financial sector are resistant to the usual remedies. But it is taking longer than even the pessimists suspected. Over the winter, the talk will be of plans B, C and on to Z. Maybe it will be better to be lost at the end of a runway, hiding in the long grass.

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