Saturday, 17 February 2018


One evening last week I was reading David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men when, realising eventually that my power of concentration was no longer equal to the complexities of his imaginative and inventive prose, I gave up. I closed the book and picked up instead one that I had previously read and knew to be less taxing – Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. It’s an especially easy read for me because I have an affinity with the notion of travelling around Britain savouring the peculiarities of its varied parts. In fact, as it happened, I was due to set off the next morning on just such an expedition.
The destination was Barnard Castle, a classic market town on the upper reaches of the River Tees. I say classic because, like Appleby 30 miles to the west, its core is recognisably intact: it straddles a river, has a castle, a broad main street for the market stalls and numerous pubs, all of which are still trading. My visit did not coincide with market day but the shops compensated for that: many are owner-managed and are stocked therefore with local produce and specialities offered by friendly – sometimes eccentric – characters. Consequently, I am now the happy possessor of a hand-brush made of wood and bristle and a bag of small, brown, dried peas known as carlins which, although normally used as animal feed, are eaten by locals on a particular day in the ritual run-up to Easter. The brush will certainly find a purpose in the campervan but the carlins will probably remain in the back of a cupboard long after Easter has been and gone.
Dried peas apart, the food available in Castle Barnard is mouthwatering, especially for those who, like me, have a fondness for old-fashioned delicacies such as hazlet, pressed tongue, black pudding, pease pudding, faggots, pork pies, farmhouse cheese and artisan bread. With two butchers’ shops, three bakers and four grocers all on the same street, the ratio of outlets for fresh, locally sourced produce to density of population exceeds the wildest dreams of a foodie resident in central Manchester. I embarked on an orgy of stocking-up before we left the area, afraid that, if I did not support them, the shopkeepers would go out of business. I was mindful of the recent news headline that half of all the food now bought in Britain has been “processed” – which is to say that someone has added to it that which would be better left out i.e. sugar, palm oil, various chemicals and excessive quantities of salt and fat. This morning’s headlines were no surprise to me, therefore: the consumption of processed food contributes not only to obesity, but also the likelihood of contracting cancer. I hate to say “I told you so” but we hippies ( I was loosely associated) knew back in the day that ingesting food additives was unlikely to be good for one’s health, hence the popularity of our ‘fads’ such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, vegetarianism, macrobiotics etc. Not so much notice was taken of the medical advice concerning the ingestion of mind-bending chemicals, but no one is perfect. Nor did we hippies diet in vain: we sowed the seeds so that, alongside the rise of processed food, there is now a growing band of vegans determined to save the planet from excess, animals from harm and their digestive systems from contamination.
But the excursion was not all about food. One day was devoted to a walk up and down Teesdale, following the fast-flowing river that attracts daring canoeists in helmets and rubber onesies. Another was spent following the river Wear through nearby Durham, where the water is slow and wide and competitive rowing is the preferred sport. Durham is rightly famous for its history, its cathedral, its castle and its university, the library of which is named for one of its ex-chancellors - Bill Bryson.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

How Very Civilised

In 1969 the BBC aired its “landmark” 13-part series Civilisation. There was – and still is – controversy over the title, given that the scope of the programme was confined to an appreciation of a limited range of western art, though in fairness to the producers, its remit was qualified by the subtitle A Personal View by Kenneth Clarke. This week the BBC announced the imminent broadcast of a similar “landmark” series, the nine-part Civilisations (note the plural.) The stated focus of the series is on art and creativity, though I suspect that the underlying question of what constitutes the civilised will be in play throughout. If, however, we believe that civilisation started with cave paintings 40,000 years ago, then perhaps it makes sense to see art as an index of its development.
Wiser men than me have baulked at the prospect of trying to come up with a definitive description of what civilisation is, as their frequent recourse to humour on the subject seems to indicate. Oscar Wilde once quipped, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation between” – though we should bear in mind that he died in 1900 and much has happened since. Others have come up with definitions that, notably, do not mention art. They include: Arnold Toynbee, “Civilisation is a movement and not a condition”; Samuel Johnson, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation”; H.G. Wells, “Civilisation is a race between disaster and education”; and Emile Zola, “Civilisation will not attain to its perfection until the last stone of the last church falls on the last priest”. And let us not forget Ghandi’s withering riposte when asked what he thought of western civilisation: “I think it would be a good idea.”
The elusiveness of the essence of civilisation seemed to permeate two films that I saw this week. The first, Makala, a documentary about the life of a Congolese charcoal maker, was tough to watch. His precarious, hand-to-mouth existence – trying to earn a living by making and selling charcoal in a war-ravaged country that has no infrastructure and with no support outside of family – seemed unimaginable, though true. The very absence of civilisation was palpable. The second, Phantom Threads, portrays an opposite extreme – the life of a fashionable London couturier circa 1955. It’s a love story, ultimately, but the pampering environment in which it is set – all frocks, flounces and tantrums – led me to question whether this facet of civilisation is, in fact, civilised at all. Decadent seems more apt.
However we might choose to define it, civilisation is always in the process of development, absorbing and incorporating diverse elements along the way – the more the better, for diversity builds resilience. Civilisations built on monocultures have all peaked and declined– Egyptian, Greek, Roman, to name a few. They were ousted by more powerful rivals, which suggests that more of the same would be futile in the long term. The sooner we get used to the idea of a global – but inclusive – civilisation, the better. That is why I was encouraged by other news this week. The village of Cheddar, which already punches above its weight in the fame stakes, has now come up with another knock-out. Eponymous Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old skeleton, has provided scientists with DNA that reveals his skin was black – or dark brown – and that he had blue eyes. People of white British ancestry alive today are his descendents, which means that the connection between Britishness and whiteness is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are probably some of us who may not like the idea, but to them I have to say “hard cheese.”

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Come Rain, Come Shine

It was a gruesome start to the day. I had checked my phone for new messages and found attached to the first one an unappealing photo of a friend’s sore foot. The next, from my sister, was worse: a photo of a gory wound on her leg. I really should take heed of the latest advice – to limit screen time – at least until after breakfast. However, I recovered my equanimity and, the weather forecast being fine, set off for a walk. (Lately we have had daily variations in our weather: cold and bright; cold and overcast; or cold and wet. I prefer the first but don’t mind the other types because I have a strategy for making the best of them: indoor activities.)
This fine day, I took a walk around the northern fringe of the city centre, dodging the homeless people on the pavements, to check progress on the housing developments that might, one day, give them shelter. The good news is that there are plenty of units being built. Less good, however, is the prospect that they will not be cheap. Moreover, in the inevitable compromise between density and quality, density appears to have gained the upper hand. In the euphemistically named neighbourhood of Angel Meadows, for example, identikit blocks of flats crowd each other out as they loom over narrow Victorian streets. And, despite our acquired wisdom of the social value of creating inter-active neighbourhoods, there seems to be no provision for communal facilities or open spaces. But my walk was not completely soured by disappointment: further along, in the quarter called New Islington, the buildings are more varied and set to make the most of the old canal basins and the small but thoughtfully created park. There is hope.
Turning to indoor activities – apart from an excellent lunch hosted by a friend, which drifted boozily into the early evening – good chunks of my time were spent at the cinema. I went to see Nick Parks’ Early Man, despite it being a ‘family entertainment,’ because it is set “near Manchester, around lunchtime” in the Pleistocene era. Sure enough, there were actual children in the audience, though I doubt they got the metaphor about sustainable economic growth that the storyline conveyed (a primitive tribe is ousted from its habitat by the forces of profiteering capitalism). Actually, toward the end of the film, in spite of the gripping football match, small children started to wander the aisles in search of something more interesting, while adults sat rapt.
Again, despite misgivings, I then went to see The Post. I am reluctant to pay money to encourage Stephen Spielberg because, although his films are undeniably well made, they are invariably tainted with his trademark insertion of at least one unnecessary and extremely schmaltzy scene. However, the cinema beckoned, offering shelter from the elements, and the story of The Post – the fight for the freedom of the press – is a noble one and, worryingly, of recurring topicality. Everything was as expected – the film was well made, the actors were terrific and the schmaltzy scene came in on cue – but there was one thing about the story I had not previously realised: that the owner of the newspaper and, as such, the person who defied the President’s injunction, was a woman. In the light of this and other facts, it seems to me that now is a particularly good time to celebrate her principled stance.
100 years after women fought for and gained suffrage, 50 years since women at Ford’s Dagenham plant made a stand for equal pay, and amidst current revelations that gender pay inequality remains rife (lent force by the high-profile publicity afforded it by the BBC cases) it appears that there is a convergence of forces, like some rare astronomical event. Perhaps last night’s Blue Moon was an auspicious omen for gender equality; it’s a pity the sky was overcast and we all stayed indoors.

Saturday, 27 January 2018


I was sitting at my customary table in the hotel across the road, sipping Sencha green tea. I had been challenged by the barista to try it instead of my usual cappuccino but, really, I was not being adventurous: I was procrastinating, indulging in displacement activity, avoiding getting to grips with some forward financial planning which prudence required yet indulgence abhorred. I had known for some time that there was work to be done on this project – research to be undertaken, decisions to be made, intentions to be implemented – but I was daunted by the detail and confounded by the complications. MaƱana had become my mantra.
Reading the newspaper that morning, however, provided me with a call to action. The agglomeration of stories concerning the ills of our society seemed to be reaching a crescendo: prisoners committing suicide because of inhumane conditions in our jails; young men stabbing each other to death in our streets; the NHS crumbling under the weight of patients; the education system continuing to fail the poor. All of these problems – and more – ought to be addressed by tackling their causes rather than their symptoms. Yet national government is more inclined to focus on the 5-year election cycle than the long-term well-being of society and, in so doing, fails to implement policies that might minimise social ills in the future. Well, I thought, I had better get on with it, lest I become a burden on a state that has insufficiently provided for my future decrepitude. I drank up, went to my desk and fired up my computer.
Just when you need it most, however, technology can let you down. The computer insisted on a “critical update” and, since I was aware of the recent scare over hackable processors, I allowed it to do its thing. During the process, however, complications arose that I lacked the competence to resolve and which, for the ensuing 24 hours, tied me up in finding someone who could: all of which prevented me from making progress on my project. Meanwhile, my attention drifted and I began to indulge in activities that are of questionable priority. I had previously been seduced by the notion of getting a new cover for my phone, the kind that incorporates little pockets for credit cards and a place for the nifty little flat reading specs I had recently purchased. My logic went thus: instead of the usual exit check of four items – wallet, phone, specs and keys – I could reduce it to just two. “What?” said my partner, “So now you could lose your wallet and phone together?” She had a point and. In the event, once I had the whole combo assembled, the package became so unwieldy that I am now considering reverting to carrying the items separately.  
I attempted a “restart” on my planning project a few days later but did not get very far. My partner phoned to tell me that she was stuck in the suburbs with a flat tyre and no time to sort it out because of meetings. I admit that I was not reluctant to go and fix it: first, it gave me a valid excuse to put off the dreaded project; second, it gave me an opportunity to show off – I may not know much about hard drives but at least I do know how to change a wheel. Alas, half a day later, I returned home a humiliated man. The release bolts for the spare wheel had corroded so badly I could not shift them and was obliged to call out the roadside rescue service.
So now, with everything fixed, I am ready to set an example for government by getting started on some serious future-proofing. Just as soon as I have found the files, that is.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Facts Of The Matter

Researchers have recently revealed some surprising statistics: the percentage of England’s total landmass that has been “concreted over” (or built on), is a mere 2.27%. When asked to guess the figure, however, most people imagine it to be closer to 50%. The reason for our collective misconception could be that 80% of us actually live in urban environments so we see a lot of concrete every day. Notwithstanding that, I have just been to Lincolnshire, a county renowned for its vast, flat expanses of sparsely populated farmland. My brother-in-law, who has lived there all his life, was driving us across this landscape when I decided to ask him the question: “What percentage of England’s landmass has been built on?” He thought for a moment before replying, “I would say, about 60%.” Perception, it seems, outflanks reality – a lesson we need to re-learn constantly.
Later, I left Lincolnshire by a very small train from a quite big village and, while waiting on the station’s windswept platform, concluded that rural trains are used only by people who either cannot or will not drive the long distances between amenities. My theory was soon validated by interaction with the two other passengers waiting. One of them, a young man I had previously encountered and know to be mentally disturbed, is not licensed to drive. The other, a young woman who smiled and said hello, explained to me that she was travelling by train because her car was broken. She also told me a lot of other stuff: her occupation, her qualifications, where she lives, her boyfriend’s details, where he lives, where she was going, what her hopes were for the future etc. (A new car was on her list). I had thought, at first, she wanted just to pass the time in polite conversation while waiting for the train but, by the time it arrived, I was more than ready to wish her bon voyage and seek a seat on my own. There I pondered whether she was a genuinely open and friendly person, an unfortunate patient on prescribed happiness medication, or a plain, old-fashion speed-freak.
At the next stop, she disembarked (to meet her mother, who was leaving work early so they could go shopping together...) and my thoughts were distracted by a newcomer to the carriage – a transvestite. I was a little surprised: I am used to seeing transvestites in the city but assume they are rarer on rural public transport. It would have been interesting to find out more about this person but, unfortunately, they reeked so badly of urine that the voluntary proximity which might have led to a conversation was out of the question. Instead, I opened the window and resorted to speculation until we reached the mainline station and I transferred to the London train.
In London, the 50% estimate seems very low – even allowing for the gardens and parks that compensate for the concrete. But I had little time for statistical evaluation: mine was a brief visit, though it did include a visit to Tate Britain to see Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures. I have long been intrigued by her work – solid castings of the spaces inside buildings and underneath objects such as chairs – though seeing so much of it in one place did break the spell. I liked more her project of placing castings of garden sheds in the great outdoors, where they seem to sit well in their ramshackle glory. I do have reservations about the one in the Mojave Desert, however. What if some desperate, lost wanderer should spy it from a distance and mistake it for shelter? The last thing they would want to see would be an art installation that confounds reality with perception.