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Alan Powers taking a canal boat to Utopia

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In what might otherwise have been seen as simply a rather nostalgic evocation of a more leisurely past era, Alan Powers' talk on the history of the British canal system offered an interesting perspective on the origins of the British High-Tech tradition. Citing the work of Hopkins as a prime example, he suggested that the canals and their associated structures provided an exemplar of the functional tradition, in terms of form and construction, while the internal design of the narrow boats themselves offers a prototype for 'functionalism as it might have been' on the domestic stage: 'The world of the minimal dwelling, but with colour and decoration.'

Towards the end of the 1940s, the Architectural Review ran a series of articles on the canals, for which the photographer Eric de Mare spent a summer on a narrow boat. His pictures and observations were published to illustrate a set of principles for the design of public spaces in general, using concepts such as 'space netted', but also to raise awareness of the potential of the canal system 'as part of a future of leisure.' Powers suggests that the impetus for these features came largely from Hubert Cronin Hastings, proprietor of the AR, and a political philosopher who 'thought architects needed jolting into awareness of the political possibilities of the environment'. The articles advised on the need for canals to be 'visually right', and the role of architects in achieving that, especially in towns, where they could often become an eyesore.

However, the nationalisation of the canals at that time, along with the railways, led to a period of neglect and decline which was not addressed until the British Waterways Board took over responsibility in 1962, and an energetic volunteer movement (including Powers himself ) set about cleaning up the canals and restoring them. Powers suggests that the whole issue of the canals became at that point 'part of the nascent green movement'.

Powers' talk provided an interesting insight into the social and political dimensions of a phenomenon which is often seen as irrelevant to modern life and even a bit of a joke. For J S Nettlefold, author of Garden Cities and Canals, they represented a solution to 'the unstoppable growth of big cities'. For A P Herbert, who opposed legislation to force the children of boatmen to attend school regularly, the whole way of life on the canals represented an alternative to the highly ordered modern machine age; and for L T C Rolt, the canals resolved the troubling conflict between the natural and industrial worlds. His book Narrow Boat, published in 1944, was an immediate success. The New Statesman's review, suggesting that, fundamentally, 'the idea of speed leaves a deposit of disgust in the English system', perhaps throws some light on our current transport problems, and highlights the significant advantage that the canals have over the railways which originally displaced them.

Alan Powers' talk, 'Slow Boat to Utopia', was part of a new lecture series on transport, organised by the 20th Century Society at Swedenborg Hall in Bloomsbury, London vital statistics Visitor numbers to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London have fallen by 13 per cent in the past year, during which time the government has awarded it £30 million in grant aid - a subsidy of £24 for each visitor.

Men in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire, live on average 10 years longer than men in Glasgow, figures from the Office for National Statistics have revealed.

Bucks men live until 78.4, while their Glaswegian counterparts make it to 68.4.

Across the UKwomen expect to live to 79.8 on average, five years longer than men.

One in eight seven to 11 year olds has a mobile phone, rising to almost two thirds of children at secondary school.

London has dropped from 35th to 40th in the world rankings of quality of life and its place has been taken by Dublin. Zurich and Vancouver came equal first in the survey of 215 cities, while, Brazzaville, the capital of Congo-Brazzaville, came last.

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