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Glee 2007 - A Review - Page 1 of 4
There's summat not right, and I don't know what it is. Normally, I start work on writing up my review of Glee (or any of the other shows I visit) within hours of getting back to the big city of Culcheth, mainly because opinion and thoughts are coursing through my veins, spewing forth from my untrammelled gob, and there's a danger that if I don't commit these pearls to paper (well, to screen, then) as quickly as possible, they'll evaporate or turn to dust and their admittedly limited value will be lost forever.
However, since the show closed at 5pm on Tuesday, those thoughts and opinions have just been swirling around and around and around, like fag ends in a rain-drenched gully, refusing to settle into some semblance of order, and even now it's taking an almost Herculean effort to sit down and type them into a document. Why? What is it about Glee 07 that's proving so hard to fix?
The most noticeable thing about this year's jamboree is a new venue. No: it's still at Birmingham's very own cartographic enigma, the NEC, but instead of being stretched over Halls 6-8 (which always seemed like one big hall rather than three linked locations), the landscaping sector has been re-located to Hall 4, closer to the Piazza entrance which is handy for me as the disabled car park is literally a limp, shuffle and hobble away. And being entitled the “Landscaping Hall”, hopes were raised that we might have an arena exclusive to our trade, but it was immediately apparent that the fripperies (pots, sheds and water features) had been banished to the fringes rather than exiled completely, and that most of the hard-landscaping exhibitors were literally clumped together front and centre. While this may seem, on paper, a triumph of marketing and exhibition planning, it revealed problems not normally encountered at Glee. Do you really want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with your direct competitor? More on this later.
As usual, from the moment the blue-jacketed jobsworths half-heartedly wound back the doors on Sunday morning, everyone and their aunty was asking what I thought of the show this year, and the one answer I repeated time after time was “stratification”. The over-whelming memory of Glee 07 is the uncanny way in which all of the exhibitors seem to have settled into a self-appointed niche in one of four identifiable categories or strata. Like the archetypal pyramid model, the lowest level covers the most ground and included a wide range of landscape-associated products and services within its remit, from drainage channels to a training group. Working upwards, the next level would be what I'll refer to as the “Garden Centre Suppliers”, those companies that seem to have adopted the supermarket philosophy of pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap, particularly in regard to decorative aggregates and low-to-mid price paving units. As we near the apex of the pyramid, we come to the lavish displays, largely hosted by well-known brand names, and, as will become clearer in time, reaching a whole new level of sophistication and design. Finally, the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle, the capstone, and its name is Marshalls.
Now, I wouldn't want this antiquarian analogy to give the impression that Marshalls , as a company or as an exhibitor, are head-and-shoulders above the rest. It's just that nobody, absolutely nobody, does the things that Marshalls do at this show. They are out there on their own, a one-off, unique, unparalleled and somewhat unreal. Returning to the pyramid metaphor, there are plenty of face blocks: they're found on all four sides, and there's plenty of rubble, filling the big void in the middle, but there's only one capstone. It's the only stone on the whole structure with that shape, that appearance, just as Marshalls are the only exhibitor at this exhibition to put on a show like this.
Regular readers and those present at the bacchanalian revelry that was Glee 2006 will doubtlessly recall (will probably have burned into the neural circuitry) the showstopper that the Marshallettes put on for our benefit at that event. It was, without question, the number one talking point of the entire shindig. Just how do you follow that?
Well, with a tongue-in-cheek homage to one of those awful "you-know-it's-shite-but-you-buy-it-anyway" TV channels, of course! A certain channel with a name consisting of just three letters was mentioned, but the banks of telly screens continuously playing a looped series of cheesy mantras hosted by some anodyne presenter brought to mind those bloody annoying “JML” tellies that are making the weekly trip to our local $upermarket even more unbearable.
The large stand featured separate plasma screens, split screens, projector screens and more all spouting some message or other under the aegis of “Marshalls Trade TV” or MTTV. So: one bank of nine flat screens played a disjointed piece about block paving while a plasma screen within the inner sanctum promised “exciting news” for contractors. One particularly busy corner featured a competition to win a comedy car by completing a variation of the old wire loop game – touch the wire with the loop gizmo and a buzzer sounds, imposing a time penalty; best time over the three days wins the car. As an attraction, it's not wildly exciting, but it is genuine interactivity, and despite the fact that no-one in their right mind would be seen dead in one of those farty bubble cars, there was hardly a moment when the stand wasn't buzzing - literally!
The whole point of the car was to emphasise the company's newly-enhanced green credentials. By having a car with emissions lower than those of your typical student existing on a diet of beans–on-toast and Not Poodles parked on a permeable pavement of the re-launched GrassGuard, the message was straightforward if not subtle: Marshalls is good for the environment.
But what about new products I hear you cry: was it all cars and games and tellies, or was there any of yer actual paving on show? Well, yes, but it was, for want of a better phrase, thin on the ground. There's a new colour for the ever-popular Driveline blocks: a multi-grey that I personally like enormously because the neutral tones will harmonise with almost any situation. There's a new extra-dark "Graphite" option with the superb Argent products that will make them even more appealing, and what was claimed to be a new colour in the enduring Saxon range: Mocha, except you couldn't see it at all under those damned hall lights.
The new sawn and honed Haworth-istan Moor paving, with which we were teased at Chelsea Flower Show back in May, is very attractive, and available in a reasonably wide range. Unlike some of the sawn'n'honed products on show elsewhere, there was no greasy sheen to this stone, just a smooth yet non-slippery surface. Whether this honing will address some of the problems of “algaefication” that has blighted much of the imported stone remains to be seen. I'd rather see untreated honed stone than shiny sealed surfaces which look so unnatural to my eye, but I suspect the honing will, at best, merely impede the inevitable arrival of the algae.
While not as arresting as last year's stand, Paul Hill and his team at Southowram achieved an intriguing and interesting follow-up. It's akin to the “difficult second album” syndrome that faces new bands: just how do you respond to a stunning first outing?
While I remain unconvinced by the plasma screens – I don't believe people want to stand there and watch telly at this sort of show - the overall layout was clever, with all the new products and interactivity out at the edges and two quiet(ish) inner areas for deeper discussion. As ever, all of the Marshallettes were impeccably turned-out, friendly without being pushy, and exceptionally well-briefed. I'm much happier for someone to say to me “I don't know, but I'll get someone that does..” rather than have them enter BS-mode and try to wing it.
What worries me, though, is the limb on which Marshalls seem to be intent on going out. Just how many people will actually use the online tool to calculate the carbon footprint of their new patio? Carbon Trust, Ethical Trading Initiative, reduced footprints are all well and good, but the message on this stand was confused. If the company's CO 2 e has been reduced, why are give away a car? If there is increased environmental awareness, why have a dozen tellies blaring away all day long? Any why hand out literature in totally unnecessary plastic carrier bags? While I fully accept their actions can't be labelled as " Greenwashing ", it is incredibly easy to pick holes in the environmental claims made by any manufacturer of any products and the cynical nature of the general public is such that, if you present yourself as greener than others, then you shouldn't be surprised when your message is forked over and examined for bovine organic material. Corporate Social Responsibility (as it's called) is eminently commendable, but if you blow the trumpet too loudly, someone will start to probe a little more deeply into where all that wind is coming from.
OK – let's take a small step down the pyramid, and take a look at the more traditional displays. Over the last couple of years, Leighton Powell at Ability Garden Company , pet designer for the Bradstonites, has pushed stand design and fabrication to new levels of sophistication and has won this website's award for best-in-show for a record two years running. While his work has done undoubted wonders for Bradstone's image and sales, it's noticeable that this year, a good number of other companies have seriously raised their game in response, and were revelling on stands that were unimaginable just a few shows back.
I suppose it makes sense to start with Bradstone , as they are the undisputed role model for the rest of this stratum. And I suppose I might as well mention the car right at the outset. I wasn't present during the build-up, but what must the faces have been like when Big Company number 1 saw a car almost identical to the one featured on their stand being wheeled in by Big Company number 2? Was it serendipity or sod's law that saw both decide to feature a farty car within their displays? While marketing maestro Paul Wagstaff swears blind that the Bradstone car was there solely to emphasise the driveway potential of their block paving, I couldn't help wondering if there had, at some point, been the vestige of a smidgen of a hint of an idea to use the farty car to promote Bradstone's new membership of the Carbon Trust, an idea possibly abandoned when it was spotted elsewhere. Or am I being overly cynical?
Another possible coincidence was the inclusion of “interactivity”, albeit more technologically advanced and in the form of a Wii game. I saw folk making pillocks of themselves as they leapt about doing summat or other in response to events on a projector screen, but I never figured out what the hell it had to do with hard-landscaping: maybe it was an interactive flag-laying game? No, for me, I was more interested in new products and the stand itself.
I'd been contacted by an Armadillo (I know!!) a couple of weeks before the show, and after explaining that Armadillo were/are the PR company for Bradstone at this show and making a failed attempt to tie me down to a fixed time of visiting, said Armadillo recommended that I specifically ask for an Armadillo when I eventually (and inconveniently) wandered onto the stand in my own good time, as they had a 'presentation' line up for me. So it was a dizzy sense of impending dread that I tried to battle my way onto the stand on the Monday morning. If you were the young lady I levered out of the way with my walking stick, I apologise, but the whole stand was heaving and there was very little room for an overweight cripple encumbered by a laptop bag to manoeuvre his way through and around what was yet another stunningly designed and developed creation.
And this, I think, was the biggest problem with the Bradstone stand this year. Too crowded, too intricate, not enough room to swing the proverbial cat, and certainly too cramped to fully appreciate during opening hours. I spent 20 minutes or so after closing time just lapping up the gorgeous detailing and exquisite design, but I benefited from the sheer luxury of having the entire stand to myself, the freedom to immerse myself in its charms from a dozen different angles without having some buyer from Bridgend under my feet, and that, for me, was the only way to genuinely appreciate its manifold wonders. When the great unwashed were allowed in, you just could not move, and this marred it for me.
In terms of new products, there's nothing world-shattering to report. There's no single big new product as there has been in previous years. Yes: Wetherdale has been consigned to the DIY sheds and replaced by the upstart Milldale range, but no new products on the Chelsea Cobble range, nothing added to the block pavers, and no sign at all of the CarpetStones line. If it was new at all, then it was stone, rather than concrete, and if it was stone, it had been secondary processed, either by tumbling or brushing or grit-blasting or some other way of “adding value” to basic imported products.
The standard Kotah black limestone, bedevilled with weathering problems in the soggy climate of these islands, looks stunning when "Antique Brushed" to a lustrous finish, but will that be enough to counter the real and seemingly intractable problems with discolouration? The "Azure" looks a safer bet, but both look better (under these lights, at least) than the Celestial Gold, which is described as plain and simple "brushed". This flagstone looks as though it has been sealed, even thjougfh I was assured that was not the case. The surface is too shiny, too greasy, and the colour is too strong, being reminiscent of one of the bolder travertines (which are, thankfully, few and far between this year).
I did like the "long and thin" polished sandstone. This does seem to be a developing taste: I've seen a very similar plank-like format used with Caithness stone in the centre of Belfast, and it's exceptionally effective. Bradstone offer three colours: Modac (sic) which looks better polished than riven, Fossil Buff, which is too bland, and Silver grey, the best of the lot. Very chic, very now, very different and a very poor photograph by yours truly means I'm unable to show you just how very attractive.
As part of the trend to offer secondary processed stone in preference to plain old riven, much if not all of the standard imported stone range is now being offered in the "antiqued" format, which is part-polished-part-distressed in nature. Flagstones, setts and walling are now subjected to the magic treatment, and it does improve some colours. The Autumn Green distressed walling blocks are worth looking out for, but there's nothing unexpected or bedazzling with any of the products, to be brutally honest.
As for the new "Landscape Walling" wet-cast concrete blocks, copings and Citadel edgings, well, if I'm being charitable, I'll blame it on the lighting, but these looked like products from 20 years ago. Even the move to what are regarded as 'modern' colours, namely Antique Chestnut (tan brown) and Golden sand (light buff) cannot rescue these from insipidity.
Looking back over last year's waffle , the one thing I couldn't mention at the time of writing was the imminent return to Stonemarket of MD Tom Poole, after a short sabbatical in the house-building industry. Although Tom himself had told me the news, I'd promised to keep schtum until the official announcement a few weeks later. Well, he's been back for the best part of a year now, so the question was: has there been any significant change in direction?
The short answer is “no”. The slightly longer answer is “a bit”. This seemingly contradictory pair of statements requires explanation. While Stonemarket has consolidated its identity as a premium supplier of top-notch patio and driveway landscaping materials, and fully absorbed both the Paver Systems and Classical Flagstones businesses, there has been a realisation that the TruStone range of imported paving has to offer something over and above that offered by all the other importers. Having 'variations on a theme' in the form of new polygonal feature kits or quaint artistic motifs is no longer enough to warrant a premium price. The nature of the imported stone business is such that, whatever design you come up with this week, some other bugger will have a copy of it within 3 months, and so the only way to survive is to offer something the competition are less keen to emulate: quality.
And so the decision has been taken that, from the beginning of next year, all the TruStone products will be calibrated: that is, they will all be processed to ensure a uniform thickness, thereby enabling screed bedding, which is a laying methods that's at least three times faster. The product might cost a few bob more per square metre, but the installation cost is dramatically reduced because the skill and time required in preparing an individual bed for flags of varying thickness is slashed.
This is BIG news. Calibrated paving is the next big idea for the imported stone market, but by making installation easier and reducing the level of skills required to build a half-decent patio, there's a danger the trade will become increasingly open to those with no actual ability. It's a double-edged sword: calibration makes life easier for the professional and so should improve profitability, and it's also easier for the DIYer, which should mean those pesky “small jobs”, in which no contractor is really interested, are removed from the market. But on the other hand, reducing the skill quotient even further invites more cowboys to chance their arm in the trade and undermines what some of us are trying to do in improving the image and professionalism of our industry. That Stonemarket are making a whole-hearted commitment to calibrated flagstones means that it can only be a matter of time before others follow their lead, possibly with thinner calibrated material or inferior quality stone.
Big news aside, I'm saddened to report that this was the least inspiring stand I've ever seen from Stonemarket at this show. I understood the drive towards more of what is termed "chic" styling in place of the traditional cottage garden look, but despite the futuristic storeroom structure and some yoke in one corner, the display felt glaringly two-dimensional and would have benefitted enormously from some change in height: a small flight if steps, some planters, even a disabled access ramp would have helped by breaking the prairie-like expanse of flat paving. Where was the walling? Even chic courtyards have walls. This was simply a disjointed arrangement of paving products and the lacklustre effort wasn't helped by sub-standard installation, which required emergency repairs on the Sunday evening. I was disappointed. Disappointed because I know Stonemarket are a better company than it might seem from this stand, and the products they offer are better that it might seem from this stand. A flat, uninspired stand design did justice to neither the company, nor the products, nor the personnel that have made Stonemarket such a success over recent years.
And it was doubly disappointing because they have some bloody good new products that deserve greater attention. F'rinstance, just look at that new star feature in the photo above. That is a cracking patio feature with a near-perfect balance of detail and simplicity. Look at these brushed Chinese limestone flags: gorgeous! There's an absolutely stunning partially rotated geometric feature in Arctic Granite that they've dubbed "Revolve", a luvverly dark sett (Raven) given the antiquing process, and a Kotah Blue limestone flag they're calling "Frost". There's even a new block paver colour, an autumnal multi-blend of reds, buffs, tans, browns and greys that is, as yet, unnamed. I suggested "Truffle" and they can have the name for a mere 1% royalty rate!
I get so annoyed when genuinely attractive products are not given the setting they deserve. If the idea of promoting "chic" designs had been allowed ot run a little further, this could have been a Stonemarket display to beat any previous outing. The products are there; it's the implementation that's let them down. Still; a good buyer, or even a half-decent designer, should be able to look beyond the immediate and see the potential, so there's no real harm done, probably.