Grandview, Texas

Terri and I have been on the road in the US for a couple of months now. It’s been one hell of a trip so far. America has not let us down in terms of interesting places, people and experiences. Part by luck and part by judgement, the journey has provided an even and steady succession of attractions.

Driving between Monument Valley in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona the other day I realised that between all the significant places of interest there have invariably been large stretches of relative nothingness. While a little tedious, these gaps do serve to ensure that arrival at each new attraction is a suitably dramatic and momentous event.

It does take a deliberate effort to intersperse the tedium with significant places of interest. As Bill Bryson points out in The Lost Continent it is now possible, by sticking to Interstate roads, to drive across the whole of the USA without seeing anything.

Seeking a break from an interminable Texan highway in a particularly large buffer of tedium a few weeks ago, we picked a random town to get some coffee and fuel. With not much to go on we chose a place with the enticing name of Grandview (Pop. 1325).

GrandviewTX

To be honest, I was ready for an anticlimactic view and that’s what we got. The town however, was a delightful surprise. It was a small place centred on a road junction and a railroad crossing.

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The brick buildings had a certain charm about them despite the evidence of better days past. There was an old local bank, an auto-repair shop, an obligatory Freemasons centre, and even a few picture-postcard beat-up trucks and faded signs scattered around. 

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As we’ve found with many places in America there weren’t many people out and about, but behind closed doors you never know what you might find.

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In this case we stumbled across a small coffee shop called The Grind. We were immediately struck by how thoughtfully done the interior was. Apart from the bible quotations on the wall, it wouldn’t have been out of place in Shoreditch or the Lower East Side.

The owner was wonderful and we got the whole story of how her and her husband had set the place up wanting a change from city life and how the building used to be a funeral parlour.

The biggest surprise was yet to come. As we were chatting after ordering coffee she happened to mention that it was a shame we hadn’t asked for an ice-cream. We were intrigued and it turned out that the ice-cream was made from the family’s grandmother’s old recipe and frozen with nitrogen. We had to have some. After a great deal of noise, clouds of gas, some milk and cookies, the ice-cream materialized before us and I can honestly say it was some of the best ice-cream I’ve ever had.

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In many ways, coming across places like this by accident is more rewarding than the top-billing attractions like the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty. It makes you wonder how many similarly brilliant but less obvious experiences one misses along the way.

I can’t even remember now which two planned destinations Grandview was between. I’m sure though that there was enough road between there and the next stop to make sure our eventual arrival was another great moment on our trip.

Razor rant redux

After my public statement of disappointment with the razor industry I decided to put my hands where my mouth is (or some other appropriate mixed metaphor).

So I made my own razor handle. This is a hacky first prototype but I’m going to start using it and see how it goes.

I’d love to hear what you think about it so please get in touch with me if you have anything to say. I may even be looking for beta test users sometime soon…

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Why are some products just crap?

I’ve noticed that some categories of product have a much greater tendency to be ugly than others. It’s as if there’s only a certain amount of aesthetic to go round and some things have to lose out. Two unfortunate examples of such losers are razors and Hi-Fis.

Turbo power kapow! razors

By razors I mean wet-shave razors with a handle and replaceable heads. You’ll spot these because they are typically advertised alongside sportsmen, motorbikes and explosions.

Personally, I find shaving quite a tranquil experience - first thing in the morning sound-tracked by the Today programme on Radio 4. It’s not a time when I want to be shouted at by an over-engineered, nuclear-powered piece of colourful metal and plastic

Gillete Fusion Power Gamer Razor

Gillette Fusion Power Gamer (that really is what it’s called)

Successive generations of product managers and marketers universally and reliably seem to have decided that all the experience has been lacking is an extra blade? Perhaps I’m being unfair because planned obsolescence is a key factor and by that measure they are doing a great job, but either way it leaves me unsatisfied.

         Wilkinson Sword Royale

Wilkinson Sword Royale by Kenneth Grange, 1979

It’s not impossible to design a good-looking razor. The great Kenneth Grange has designed some for Wilkinson Sword in the past, but in my opinion today’s popular models lack a certain class.

Next time you’re in the supermarket have a look at the choice for yourself. Maybe it’s just me but I find it disappointing. And that’s before you get home and have to tackle the life-threateningly sharp plastic packaging. Is this really the best a man can get?

Hi-Fis

I realise that there may be a declining market for hi-fi equipment, but their ugliness is not a new development. Indeed, these days aesthetics are arguably all the more important now that the competition is more diversified.

To make my point, see what you think of the £1,000 Cyrus CD player. Or this Parasound Halo CD1 for £5,000. Yes, that’s five thousand pounds. Really.

Parasound Halo CD1

Parasound Halo CD1

Who even listens to CDs these days, you may ask.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to ancient technologies such as CD players. Cutting-edge and critically-acclaimed models are also being dragged through the design hedge backwards.

Take the award-winning Naim UnitiLite for £2,000 or the Krell Connect, a £3,000 audio streaming box.

Krell Connect

Krell Connect

Again, counterexamples prove that there isn’t a fundamental law of acoustic engineering that limits beauty. There has been some great looking design from Dieter Rams and Braun over the years, combining form and function in perfect harmony the way they do. More recent examples exist too - like this from Yamaha.

Yahama AS2000 (Credit: Fabrice Bressy)

Yamaha A-S2000 (picture credit: http://fabricebressy.fr)

Of course, as with the razors, this is very subjective. I could find ugly examples of all sorts of products. But with hi-fi equipment ugliness seems to be endemic, and there’s an inverse correlation between price and much I’d want the product on display in my living room . See for yourself – here are What Hi-FI magazine’s top-end CD player reviews.

By the way, I think proper stereo systems are great and I still listen to CDs. It saddens me to think that a generation of kids may grow up only listening to music on YouTube and mobile phones.

Bling watches

I’m sure there are other classes of products sitting in design blind spots but razors and stereos have rankled me for a while. I wouldn’t automatically put watches in this category because there are many lovely watches out there. But many incredibly expensive watches do corroborate my argument that money doesn’t necessarily buy taste.

Watches are quite tightly constrained in terms of size and form factor. Perhaps this is why, to justify the ridiculous prices desired by people with more money than sense, watchmakers contrive to produce some truly hideous watches by adding and adding and adding.

This watch will set you back nearly £100,000. That in itself is obscene, but based on looks alone I would genuinely pay a small monthly fee to not wear it.

Stupidly expensive watch

Obscenely expensive watch by DeWitt

There are many more where that came from. Again, you can judge for yourself via this link to some watches from Harrods that are the price of a car, or even a small house.

Beards

There’s great pleasure to be had in beautiful products - even a £5 razor. I wish companies would stop over-complicating things and focus on making simple, usable products.

Maybe ugly razors are the reason why so many designers have beards.

Lean art

I’ve always enjoyed making things – from handmade birthday cards to a double bed and all sorts in between. I like the idea of creating something truly unique, but my motivation also comes from not being satisfied with what’s readily available in the market. Sometimes I make things just because I’m being cheap. One way or the other I like to channel my constructive discontent.

I should probably say that for the purists, what I talk about here may not sound like ‘art’. For me, art is a process of designing beautiful things. It is not a calling from god. I make things that I want other people to like, and will adapt what I do if I think it will make it more popular or more commercially viable. I have a great reverence for art and creativity, but I’m looking at it here from a very practical point of view.

I’ve recently taken my creativity up a level and have begun to try and make some money out of it. This is something I’ve done in the past but never in such a deliberate attempt to scale and build a sustainable enterprise. Previously, my most successful run of creativity from a financial point of view was about ten years ago when I sold some art in the form of photo collages. It seems strange to think of it now but this was pre-Facebook and many of the other tools that now make operating online so accessible. The reason for the relative success back then was mostly luck. My circumstances gave me good access to a network of customers and this meant that a couple of initial sales quickly turned into more through referrals.

Compared with then, the internet has made a profound difference to how I run my little venture now.

Rob who?

As I said, back then I was lucky in that I was able to get some of my work in front of people who had money. Other than that, I tried to get work exhibited in galleries and shops with limited success. There was also the hope that family and friends would disseminate my message widely enough to attract sales. Broadly speaking, in order to get my work in front of prospective customers, the effort required to do so increased linearly.

Now, for almost no cost I have been able to create a website. This means that absolutely anyone who takes an interest in what I do can get a good look at my work with no marginal cost to me. Of course this is only half of the equation. To generate that initial interest I have still, so far, mostly relied on word of mouth. The difference however is that social media has made the grapevine exponentially more powerful. For example, I am currently undertaking a commission with someone 6,000 miles away in South Africa who saw something a friend of mine posted about me on Facebook.

As well as my own website I have set myself up on the web selling platform Etsy. This further opens up my work to a staggering amount of potential buyers. Again the direct cost to me here is negligible. Unfortunately, there is of course no shortage of other people with the same dreams and aspirations as me, so standing out from the crowd is tricky. And I’m competing with people in America, China and the rest of Europe. As barriers to entry are lowered, such online services are perfecting the market which ultimately benefits buyers more than sellers.

Even though most of my recent business has come my way via good old fashioned word-of-mouth, I believe that my online presence not only allows people to see what I do but also adds a certain professionalism and legitimacy to my endeavours.

Talking to customers and social proof

Ten years ago pretty much the only way to assess and discuss my work was to have seen it in real life and then talk to me about it. A second-hand account or testimonial could also be had but again only in fairly limited circumstances.

Now, someone can see a picture of a piece of my work on Facebook and immediately decide to like it or share it. This not only increases my exposure but also gives me some idea about the kind of things people have an affinity with. And then if they are interested in finding out more I can be contacted at the click of a button and a dialogue can begin. Similarly, Etsy offers the same advantages.

Show me the money

Other aspects of the small creative business that have changed significantly are on the transactional and logistical side of things.

Back then it was pretty hard to do business with anyone too far way. Payments were almost universally made by cheques (remember them?). Sales could be handled by someone else, but when I had work hanging in a locally gallery, the gallery would keep a hefty 50% of the sale price.

Etsy now can handle purchases with minimal hassle and risk, and when I sell direct commissions the buyer can chose to make a simple PayPal or online bank transfer.

The primary benefit of all of these things is that they free up my time to do the core value-adding work – the fun bit. Whenever I speak to creative people, or indeed anyone, running a small business the processes of building a website, invoicing, shipping and accounting are not what they enjoy doing. They are chores that need doing but are tedious at best and at worst downright painful.

Creation and bike shops

And it’s not only the boring bits that have been helped by the internet. As well as the fact that it’s enjoyable and extremely satisfying to be appreciated and discussed on social media by complete strangers, the actual creation process has been enhanced by online tools.

I am involved in groups on Facebook and a community on Etsy where like-minded people inspire each other and share tips and ideas. The life of an artist can be a lonely one, which is partly what put me off it in the past, but the sense of camaraderie fostered by online communities goes a long way to help.

As well as providing a sense of virtual togetherness in my solitary pursuit, the sharing of knowledge can be a powerful thing. Here’s an example. I was trying to figure out good, cost-effective, ways of shipping large, framed art to customers. Tips on the best methods of postage were easy enough to find, but a gem came up that I’d never have thought of on my own. To source nice big flat cardboard for boxing up a bubble-wrapped frame, go to your local bike shop and they will likely be very grateful to get rid of the large boxes that bikes come to them in. Great advice, environmentally friendly, and a very pleasing synergy.

Obviously the internet also makes it really simple to find exactly the right pen or paintbrush required for a job. Or in my case, the specific edition of a 1961 map that I needed to complete a collage.

Lean

I generally think the whole lean start-up philosophy as espoused by Eric Rees makes sense. I don’t think it’s as revolutionary as some make it out to be, and the internet hasn’t fundamentally changed basic economics, but I do think the internet has radically changed the entrepreneurial landscape. This allows all sorts of lean principles to be applied to all sorts of fields in new ways.

Looking back at what lean originally meant in a manufacturing context half a century ago it was basically about reducing waste, whether that be materials, effort, time, etc. These things apply equally to art as they do to mass-producing cars or building web applications.

I could easily have spent hundreds or thousands of pounds on a bespoke eCommerce website, but I didn’t need to. Maybe I will one day but the point is that it’s not a requirement to get you off the ground.

I could have spent a fortune on frames and tried to get my work hung in a gallery. Now, I need only buy one frame which I can re-use in order to take photos for my website. When I sell a piece, only then do I need to buy another frame to finish the job. And then there’s the not insignificant absence of the gallery’s margin-eating commission.

It could also be the case that even if you do well enough to end up with a gallery full of your work, you may only then realise that no one really wants to buy the stuff. The lean way is to find out very quickly what people like by showing as many people as you can, as soon as you can. And you don’t even need finished pieces – it doesn’t matter if they’re held together with masking tape and a frame has been added in Photoshop. That’s the magic of the internet.

Get stuck in

Business has always been about offering people something they want at a price they’re willing to pay which is more than it cost you to produce it.

Many people I know have secret, if rather ill-defined, aspirations to become some sort of artisan. For a small-scale creative entrepreneur the power of the internet can now turn these dreams into reality.

Dreams are cheap. Follow them in the right way and it needn’t be the big, scary risk it appears. Chances are, your ambitions will end up gently crushed. But you’ll have fun along the way and, most importantly, you’ll live to fight another day.

Onwards and upwards

Do you know what the second tallest building in the world is?

I didn’t until recently. When I first saw pictures on the internet of the Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower I thought it was fake. Why do you never hear about it?

Source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/

Its architectural style may be a bit brash and it has a certain something of Las Vegas about it, but it’s no more obscene and out of context than the Shard for example.

Then I realised that they levelled an 18th Century Ottoman fortress to build it: collateral damage in the game of one-upmanship that is building giant buildings.

The contest for the next generation of skyscrapers seems to be a two-horse race between China and Arabia. Methods are changing too. Plans for the next title-holder claim it will be built in 90 days! Although interestingly, the current height/speed record (by a massive margin) is still held by the Empire State Building built in 1931.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Windows 8

I recently bought myself an 11-inch Asus VivoBook running Windows 8. Asus VivoBook

First impressions are pretty good – it’s a neat little thing. It feels solid and sturdy as if it will stand up well to being carted around a lot.

The best thing about it is the price – a penny under £400. There seems to be a massive gap in the market at this price point where the competition is either a cheap and plasticy netbook, or a very expensive ultrabook. The VivoBook seems to offer the perfect compromise.

Undoubtedly it’s not as sleek as something like an Asus ZenBook, or of course a Macbook Air. Why does almost everyone except Apple find it so hard to design beautiful hardware? There is nearly always a slightly less than perfect choice of material, or one too many colours or textures used. Learn from Apple; keep it simple!

So, the hardware is good. What about Windows 8?

Firstly, there’s that blue start screen with lots of nice coloured rectangles which you see in the adverts. In this regard, Microsoft have kept the user interface nice and simple and I think it works well, particularly with the touch-screen on the Vivobook.

After that however, Windows 8 is a bit strange. One of the magic squares on the start screen takes you through to a ‘desktop’ which is much the same as with previous versions of Windows, except without a Start button. Whilst the familiarity is comforting, it feels a bit like Microsoft ran out of time after designing the tiled start screen and had to revert back to the old user interface for much of the functionality. I’d be interested to know how much of the code is common between Windows 7 and 8 – perhaps someone could tell me?

Windows 8 Desktop
Windows 8 ‘desktop’

Being Windows the machine is obviously loaded with plenty of Microsoft apps – Bing search and maps, Skype, etc. Any apps that are designed specifically for Windows 8 open up from the start page with a nice clean transition, but all other programs seem to flick over to the desktop screen and then open from there. Perhaps this will change as developers catch up, but for now it makes it all a bit clunky.

I can’t really comment on speed and performance as I don’t really push the machine too hard, but it seems to be OK in this regard. The battery lasts for a reasonably long time – a good few hours, but doesn’t compare to something similar running an ARM-based processor. About a year ago I bought an award-winning Asus Transformer running Android and this had an incredible battery life of ten hours in a similarly sized package. However, I found the operating system incredibly frustrating rendering the thing next to useless so it went on eBay.

I think I’m just getting old but I don’t like the fact that they want you to login to the computer with a Microsoft account. I suppose we are in a much more connected world and there may be some benefits in the form of personalised services, but it all feels a bit too much like Big Brother to me.

In conclusion, putting paranoid delusions aside, I like Windows 8. I wouldn’t call it revolutionary though. I don’t have a Windows phone but can see how the concept of a common look and feel across hardware platforms is a smart move my Microsoft.

Whether the format of a laptop as we know it will be around for much longer, who knows. But Asus have done a great job with the VivoBook and the traditional laptop format, with the enhancement of a touch-screen, is serving me well.

Greeks, Romans, Moors and Christians

Earlier in the year my fiancée and I had a wonderful holiday in Andalucía, Spain. We spent a short time on the coast but were mostly inland around Granada and Ronda.

I hate to think how many British tourists go to Andalucía for the beaches and English pubs but you don’t have to get far away from all that to discover some incredible beauty.  As well as the unspoilt stretches of coast and the rugged mountains, what really impressed me was the man-made beauty. From the Greeks and Romans through to the Moors and Christians, centuries of conquest and civilisation have left a breathtaking panoply of architecture.

Many of the most beautiful historic buildings in the south of Spain are Muslim Palaces, Catholic Cathedrals or other divinely inspired edifices.  It all got me thinking about the role of religion as a source of inspiration and funding for the built environment.  There are of course exceptions such as impressive bullrings and ancient viaducts, but what would it be like had there never been religion?

In our increasingly secular societies - in the West at least - what will we leave behind for future generations?

I guess we have great museums which are essentially secular, but I find it hard to imagine anyone going to the effort or expense of carving expansive and intricate stone facades and archways without the motivation of a higher calling or a sense of a greater purpose. These days, motivation seems often to be driven by capitalist vanity and hubris.

In contrast though, religious zeal can sadly also be the motivation for the destruction of architecture, as seen over the centuries in Andalucía and much more recently in Mali and Libya.

Perhaps I’m overstating things, but whenever I’m travelling I’m very grateful for the legacies left by our pious forebears. Long may we preserve them.

Finally, if you’re a billionaire, whatever your beliefs, how about spending some of your money on a lavish and beautiful civic building for the benefit of society?

Alhambra roof

The Chamber of the Ambassadors, Alhambra, Granada

Granada cathedral

Granada Cathedral

Alhambra arch

Doorway in Alhambra, Granada

What is good design?

It’s taken me much longer than I thought it would to talk about design but here we go…

I’m typing this using a keyboard plugged into a docking station connected to my laptop. If I wanted to, I could unplug the keyboard from the docking station and plug into the side of my laptop. A second later I’d be able to continue typing. Then I could plug my phone into the same hole the keyboard was just in and download a podcast to my computer. That’s pretty amazing I reckon.

I’m old enough to remember when you had to install a driver to get a mouse to work. A plug-and-play USB connector is clearly an improvement. The U in USB stands for ‘universal’, which is great. It’s pretty incredible that you can use the same lead to connect an iPod, a camera, a games controller, or a $100,000 scientific instrument. And there are only four wires in a USB cable - only one more than an electrical plug.

Whilst undoubtedly clever technically, and a useful addition to our digital lives, is it good design?

At this point I should clarify what I mean by design. For me, the verb ‘design’ refers to the deliberate and thoughtful creation of something that is useful. All too often, design in the 21st century vernacular refers to the veneer of industrial design. Although aesthetic can be part of an object’s usefulness, for me, good design must run deeper than that. As I once heard Clive Grinyer put it, the way many companies apply design is often akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

The things that good design must address are myriad: price, robustness, usability, beauty, compatibility, etc. The challenge is in first recognising, and then balancing, all these needs.

Back to my computer cables. Good looks aren’t really a key specification here, but usability is an important requirement. One aspect of the usability has clearly been developed rather well. As I mentioned above, using multiple USB devices is so easy that we don’t pause to consider all the design effort that went in to making the experience so seamless.

However, although USB connectivity pretty much just works, there is one aspect that comes up short in my view, and it’s a fairly important one: plugging the damn things in.

There is only one way a USB plug will fit into a socket properly - yet it seems to take an average of two and half tries before it goes in. The problem arises because it almost fits in two ways. You have a 50-50 chance of getting the orientation correct first time. Sometimes it will go straight in and you’re done. Often though, even when it’s the right way first time, it won’t slide in immediately so you flip it round. Then it’s the wrong way but this time you persevere for longer until again turning it round and finally getting it in. And it’s made worse when you’re crawling on the floor trying to reach behind a computer.

(For the pedants among you I am talking about the standard Type A plug – the one used for a mouse or keyboard for example.)

Here’s the cable I use to connect my phone to my computer. You can see that I’ve painted a little white arrow on it in Tipp-Ex so I know which way round to fit it. When a user has to modify a product to make it easier to use (in design-speak, to add an affordance) then that is not a good indictment of the design.

My laptop

Looking at the other ports on the side of my laptop, they are all asymmetrical and therefore can’t be pushed in incorrectly. (Apart from the microphone and headphone sockets, but they are infinitely rotationally symmetrical so you can’t go wrong with them – even better than asymmetry, a poka-yoke device).

The USB standard is undoubtedly a significant improvement on what went before, but I wouldn’t call it great design. Every day millions, if not billions of USB insertions take place around the world. How much time do we collectively waste fiddling to get the plug in?

My point here is that truly great design is hard to get right. We read about ‘design’ awards extolling the virtues of the latest beautiful products - but some of the best designs, by definition, go mostly unnoticed.

One of the most influential books I’ve read in recent years, ever perhaps, is The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Originally published in 1988 and well before the invention of the USB plug the book is as prescient today as it must have been then.

In it, Norman highlights many frustrations that we all have with everyday objects, all of which were designed at some point, but have in some way failed to live up to our expectations.

Except that our expectations are often pretty low. We put up with not knowing whether to push or pull a door; we blame ourselves when we turn the wrong knob on the cooker; we think that the extra 30 buttons on our TV remote must be for other people smarter than us.

These things are not our fault. Companies who profit from making products and services for people should do a better job. We should expect things to be better.

Next time you’re fumbling around with a USB cable, stop and think about it for a moment. That USB cable has been made for you - the user. If you’re struggling with it then it’s not good enough. Demand better.

I wandered lonely as a satellite

Google Earth is amazing.

I was looking at an old atlas the other day and noticed this photo in it.

Atlas 1964

How incredible it must have seemed when it was published. The proud caption reads:

“Just after 11 a.m on August 31, 1964, the Nimbus A satellite photographed the British Isles and Europe as they lay in bright sunshine 400 miles below its orbit. The pictures, relayed to a meteorological station at Lannion in France, show Britain almost clear of cloud.”

We’ve certainly moved on since then.

Rather sadly, I sometimes find myself flying around Google earth like an inquisitive Superman on a quiet crime day. I’m often drawn to North Korea, a black hole on the map with no roads or other markings.

North Korea

But it doesn’t escape the gaze of the all-seeing satellites and, with one click, I’m in.

China/North Korea border

It never ceases to amaze me that from the comfort of my own home I can scrutinize the Chinese/North Korea border. North Korea may be one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t have Coca-Cola but they can’t stop me looking at their rivers and mountains. Take that, Kim Jong-un!

A colleague of mine recently returned from a business trip and I asked him to show me where it was on Google Maps. He was bemoaning the place, was thoroughly fed up with burgers by the time he left, and didn’t have much good to say about Dumas, Texas. (Apparently the F4 Phantom isn’t even there any more.) However, when I turned on my magic satellites the city (population 14,691) was surrounded by a pretty spectacular landscape. The plan view perhaps belying the featureless monotony at ground level.

Dumas on Google maps

Online satellite photos are such a powerful tool that they can almost compete with the amazing endeavours of photographers like Yann Arthus Bertrand. I’m clearly not the only who finds delight in spending my time randomly wondering the earth from above.

I showed my grandma her house online once. I think living through the war or something makes her pretty unfazed by most things. She even seemed disappointed that the satellite images weren’t live.

I wonder what my grandchildren will be showing me one day.

A home in Mumbai

I’ve recently spent a couple of weeks working in Mumbai. There’s something invigorating and stimulating about the colours, the smells and the vibrancy of the place. The smiles are warm and the food is hot – with a variety to ensure I never tired of my daily taste of curry.

One thing that struck me though is how frighteningly quickly one grows accustomed to seeing people living amongst rubbish at the side of road junctions and underneath concrete overpasses. In a city of 12 million there are an incredible number of people whose existence is incomprehensibly far away that which you or I take for granted. But in Mumbai they seem to be an accepted, maybe even necessary, part of the urban machine.
   
The reality of the impoverished Mumbaikar’s lot was very clearly brought home to me early one very early morning as I sat on an aeroplane taxiing from the domestic terminal of Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji airport. Commuting around India on the now-numerous Indian domestic airlines seems to have become a regular occurrence for a growing Indian middle class – although the notion of middle class more accurately can only refer to a very small percentage at the top of society.

At the perimeter of the airport the slums literally come right to the edge, butting up against the boundary wall. The view from an aeroplane as it rises above the runway shows a patchwork of low, ramshackle buildings interspersed with splashes of bright blue that almost make it pretty. The blue is plastic sheeting – for some, all that stands between the monsoon rains and their cramped quarters and meagre possessions.

Mumbai slums from the air

If the proximity of the international airport and the slum-dwellers isn’t enough to highlight the inequality of life and prospects in the largest city in the second most populous country in the world, one need only travel a few kilometres south to the more affluent areas of Mumbai.

Here we find what has been dubbed the most expensive house in the world. Not so much a house, more a 27-storey building, Mukesh Ambani’s family residence allegedly cost one billion dollars to build. That would be a staggering extravagance on Fifth Avenue in New York or Avenue Princesse Grace in Monaco, but to put it into a more local perspective, it would take the average Indian a million years to earn enough for such an endeavour. Seeing such extreme examples within one city of the different ways in which human beings have dealt with the basic necessity of shelter is remarkable.

Spending most of my time in air conditioned rooms and enjoying the finer sensory experiences that the city has on offer, it’s impossible to imagine the difficulties and challenges for the underclass of India’s sprawling cities. The devastating scarcity of opportunity to progress and prosper is inescapable. I’ve just finished reading the excellent Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a beautifully written account of life, hope and despair in a Mumbai slum. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the realities of existence for those trapped in their place within a society stymied by inequality and riddled with corruption.