Gallery: "scotland"


05/05/22 21:33

I never tire of seeing graffiti. When you see the same tag all over the city, it makes you wonder about who wrote it, and why? I like the fact that you never really know the answer.

For a while, the tag BF (Brain Freeze) was ubiquitous in Dundee. It takes guts, cheek and cunning to tag up a whole city, but also a special kind of cleverness to reach the inaccessible gable ends, retaining walls, gas holders and advertising placards. Another one is Shite – who self-deprecatingly spray-painted his tag "Shite" everywhere in Glasgow. He may be shite, but you have to respect the drive, and that on its own makes him an artist.

Graffiti of one sort or another has been with us since the days of the Picts, but the line between art and vandalism remains a matter of taste. Kids will always tag, it’s one of the few ways they can (to use the current jargon) gain “agency” over their environment and feel “empowered”. Tagging, when executed well, is in essence calligraphy with an aerosol can.

As Banksy pointed out, corporations are allowed to give their message anywhere they can afford. Big business and politics pollute the city with banners, slogans and images which aim to brainwash the public into consumerist oblivion. It’s intimidating and depressing. Bill Hicks had a great take on that: “I’m just trying to rid the world of all these fevered egos that are tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we can imagine.”

As individuals we’re not supposed to put our own message up in response but some try. Of course, what gets Banksy off the hook is that someone influential decided his work is art, then developed a celebrity following and carries a political message and is deemed artistic. That people turned this into an art movement was an interesting development, then the movement was co-opted by the Art Establishment. Tough luck for anyone who doesn't fall under that banner. You're just a vandal.

As Sverre Fehn said in 1997, “In the suburbs, people have developed an animal rationality. That’s why they hang themselves about with chains, dress in leather and put rings in their noses. And they start getting tattoos. Even the buildings are tattooed, by graffiti. The buildings give no answer, offer no resistance, they have no face. So people have to put a face on them.”

Graffiti writers make their mark on buildings in an attempt to make their mark on the city as a whole, and perhaps also to humanise it – yet graffiti’s critics think that tagging de-humanises it. That’s a serious philosophical divide.

Graffiti artists fall into two camps. There are those like Futura 2000 who cultivate their creativity and those like Tox who crave ubiquity. Just like the OG (original gangster) graffiti writers in New York in the late 70’s, Tox aimed to get his name up as much as he could, and go “All City”. He achieved that by bombing the Tube trains and tracks in London, before the BTP caught up with him…  Futura on the other hand, developed his craft on New York’s subways and eventually ended up with his work being shown in galleries and also on record sleeves, like UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction. His cone-headed aliens are instantly recognisable, just like Rammellzee’s panzer calligraphy.

In recent years, graff writers have had to simplify their work on tracks and trains because the security is tighter and the yards are patrolled regularly by security staff. It's still possible to produce interesting work at high speed, which is probably why Banksy and others switched to stencils. The idea reportedly came to him while hiding from the 5-0 after being interrupted painting a massive mural…

In another reaction to law enforcement, in recent years graff has gone legit. The Open/Close street art trail in Dundee, like the NuArt project in Aberdeen and City Centre Mural Trail in Glasgow, has commissioned fine artists and graffiti writers to create artworks on blank walls. Yet ten years ago Glasgow City Council commissioned Smug to paint murals over all the walls that used to be legal. Fellow graffiti writers felt this was a step in the wrong direction since there were six well-known legal walls at that point. Now there are none…

Maybe that's part of the high psychic price which Bill Hicks had in mind.

By • Galleries: ghosts, scotland

I noticed with interest recently that Drum Property have made moves to wash their hands of Drum Income Plus real estate investment trust, which rejoiced under the code of DRIP. Drum is a property development group based in Edinburgh and in theory, the real estate investment trust or REIT was a good way to raise money on capital markets from institutional and private investors, by selling shares in a company which holds property. 

If the property is fully let, you make money from that, and from the appreciating value of your shares in the investment trust too. It may be that the banks won't lend you money on good enough terms, or that you think you can make more money from the investment trust than you would solely from the property itself, in this case by using the rental income and value realised by selling property to generate a dividend yield...

The successful REIT's may grow to hundreds of millions or even a billion pounds in value - for example Tritax Big Box REIT has been a success particularly in the past couple of years, thanks to the demand for warehousing. But stock markets are often driven by fear and greed. Time and again, poor results cause fear and investors flee. The resulting buying opportunity will sometimes cause greed and the price will recover … or the stock falls flat.

REIT's are just one example of the financial engineering used to promote and back property development – there are others. Scotland, and in particular Dundee, was a breeding ground for investment trusts, on the back of the jute boom which generated such huge profits that the mill owners began searching for new places to invest them. That’s why so many trusts have Dundee names, such as Mid Wynd International and Fleming (now JP Morgan) Claverhouse.

In 1873, Dundee businessman Robert Fleming launched the Scottish American Investment Trust (now called Dunedin Income Growth) to finance the building of the American trans-continental railway network.  Alliance Trust, launched in Dundee in 1888, was originally founded as a mortgage bank, raising capital from Scottish investors and lending it to pioneer farmers in the north-western United States.  

Nowadays the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust has nothing to do with property mortgages, preferring instead to invest in companies like Tesla, but it began to offer mortgages to Malaysian rubber plantation owners in 1909. So the real estate investment trust goes back to its Victorian roots when it invests in land and property.

DRIP, which was launched in 2015, had persistently traded at a significant discount to net asset value (NAV), having not reached a scale that makes its shares attractive to a wider group of investors. That means the value of the company was actually less than the market value of the property, so in theory you could buy it up at a discount.

According to financial analyst Quoted Data, Drum gave up on DRIP when their board realised that there were no short or medium term prospects that the company would be able to grow organically. It probably didn't help that DRIP was partly invested in retail property. 

Having given up on schemes like the REIT, there are ever more esoteric ways to raise money, the most infamous of which was the Tontine.  I wrote at length about tontines in Leopard Magazine a few years ago, and was amazed when they made a reappearance in the US recently.  One more sign, beside cryptocurrencies, that the financial markets have begun overheating in the early years of the 2020's.

The Wall Street hedge fund manager Bill Ackman launched a 21st century tontine, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, as a "special purpose" vehicle to raise money to buy shares in an another company.  Although his potential deal unwound itself, according to the financial press, it goes to show that there literally is nothing new under the sun.

Traditionally, investors who subscribed in something like a special purpose vehicle received shares and options in return (the Americans call it a SPAC, but the principle is the same).  They could redeem their shares once the target had been acquired, and hold onto the options meantime.  If the shares perform well in the public markets, the sponsors could convert the options into shares and make even more profit.  If the share price did badly, they had already redeemed their shares, so had pocketed some profit.

Pershing Square’s Tontine was structured differently.  Sponsors can still sell the shares upon acquisition of a target company.  However, if they exercise the put option as it’s called, they forfeit two-thirds of the options they were given, so those who redeem shares have a smaller opportunity than those who hold onto their shares.

The “tontine” part of the structure derives from the fact that the forfeited warrants are re-allocated to those who kept their shares.  This is similar to how a classic tontine life insurance policy works: interest in the pooled fund is re-allocated to the surviving policyholders every time one of them dies, until the last one standing runs off with all the spoils.

The fact that tontine owners benefit when one of their cohort dies is why tontines have traditionally been so controversial. It encourages them to behave like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, who dream up subtle ways of bumping each other off.  For that reason, tontine life insurance was outlawed in many countries, although there are still quite a few Tontine Inns and Tontine Hotels dotted around Scotland which were paid for by subscriptions to tontine schemes.

While Drum Property's DRIP is nowhere near as complex as Bill Ackman's tontine, it does demonstrate that bricks and mortar investments aren't necessarily as "safe as houses" to quote that old cliche from the financial pages of the Mail and the Express.  Commercial property deals have countless more moving parts than buying a house on a mortgage, and employ some complex financial engineering.

However, some investments never escape the steady drip drip drip of bad news.

By • Galleries: scotland

A brief excursion from architecture for everyone who loves poetry, and also for ilka body that loves their haggis. Of course, Burns Night is also a chance to reflect on what’s changed and what remains. 
Forget myth and legend, the traditional Scots ballad is laced with food and drink.  Alongside the Skye Boat Song (I remember a mournful version from primary school for all the wrong reasons), Aiken Drum was much more upbeat.  Its lyrics were a cheerful rendition of what we had for our tea three centuries ago: cream cheese, roast beef, penny loaves and bawbee baps, crust pies and haggis.
Underlying that is a link to the ’15 and the ’45.  The version of Aiken Drum we sang had bairn-like lyrics which appealed to wee folk through their stomachs.  But the original lyrics referred to blood and glory on the battlefield of Sheriffmuir in 1715, just as the Skye Boat Song relates to the prince’s escape after the Second Rising faltered at Culloden.  These are links to the old country, and they cut through the generations.
Burns is another strong connection to that time.  His best known songs such as Auld Lang Syne, My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose and Ye Banks and Braes are wistful and sentimental but with an edge.  Burns saw that the country was changing, and the rate of change has accelerated since then by orders of magnitude, yet the times he lived in have startling parallels with our own. 
The devaluation of the Scots pound after the speculation at Darien is exactly the same as the current unwinding of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.  As I write, they’ve halved in value over the past few weeks.  Yet there’s been currency speculation for as long as we’ve had gold, silver and promissory notes, with folk talking up new assets even as they quietly sell out on the uptrend created as others buy in.
Burns’ generation also went through a climate crisis, and his was totally outwith Man’s control (as the current one may prove to be, too, regardless of whose fault it was).  The poet complained frequently about the cold weather, and the period from 1550 to 1850 is sometimes called “The Little Ice Age”. In Burns’ day, the winters of the 1780’s were especially severe.

To make things worse, in 1783 the Icelandic volcano known as Laki spewed up 15 cubic kilometres of lava, the third biggest lava eruption since the end of the last Ice Age. It engulfed 600 square miles, releasing eight million tonnes of fluorine gas and 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, which reacted with atmospheric water to form a continental-sized sulphuric acid cloud. Acid rain was the result, and a haze which covered a quarter of the planet's surface. Parallels with the volcano called Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, except Laki is easier to pronounce.
As Aiken Drum proves, we all like a good feed and Burns underlines that we like a good drink, too, with none of that Dry January stuff either.  The 25th is breaking point for many New Year Resolutions, and a good dram toasts their hellward trajectory along with crash diets, attempts to quit the baccy and other self-denials.
It’s always been difficult to make a living out of writing, unless you’re Walter Scott or Ian Rankin.  Burns, perennially hard up, would probably be writing on Substack now rather than Blackwoods magazine.  He wouldn’t be impressed to have Dominic Cummings as a fellow author, but his subject matter – how you figure out how to live in the world and get along with your fellow travellers – would be just the same.
Other things will stand forever.  Human nature, the landscape and of course architecture.  The medieval hearts of our towns and cities would still be recognisable to Burns; the faces of the people on the streets, too.  Take away our smartphones, strip off our Levi cords, Puffa jackets and Adidas trainers, and in essence we’re the same people we were centuries ago and will be in a few centuries’ time. That’s why the toast to Robbie Burns is called “The Immortal Memory”.
I never had much interest in history at high school: I couldn’t see its relevance.  It took architecture school, where we began to study precedents for what we were designing, for the penny to drop.  Now I realise it’s not the dry subject I took it for, but a catalogue of things we can learn from – plus a few crumbs of wisdom from folk who’ve already been there and lived to tell the tale.
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He'll make it whissle…
Happy Burns Night, and thank you Mr MacSween.

By • Galleries: scotland