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.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Elvis Presley's Legacy

Recently, I stayed a couple of nights at an hotel where, at the breakfast buffet, I opted for a childhood favourite that I had not indulged in for some time – hard-boiled eggs. Unfortunately, I discovered I had lost the knack of peeling them (insofar as a brittle, rigid skin can be peeled) and small fragments of shell subsequently turned up in my tea, on my toast and up my sleeve. Later, I thought to look up egg-peeling techniques using my phone and, although the results were enlightening, they were also impractical for a hotel dining room, as they involved either adding something to the water during the boiling or plunging the cooked eggs in cold water and shaking them about. Nevertheless, I am delighted that folksy household tips such as these are now accessible universally and that I no longer need my ancient copy of Mrs Beeton, which I don’t always have handy.
Bearing in mind this acquired dependence on the phone and knowing that my ageing Windows device – which even Microsoft has now forsaken – is no longer up to the job, this week I bought an Android-powered replacement. Of course, I had anticipated that the migration from one system to another might be bothersome so I did some elementary research beforehand. “No problem,” was the invariable answer from those I canvassed and, for the most part, that turned out to be true, though familiarising myself with the new system has taken a little time. (Software can be intuitive but it depends on your starting point: if you have ever questioned why older people stare so fixedly at their screens, the reason could be bafflement.) Still, as they say, “no pain, no gain” and, to be fair to Android, the system seems to work well, except for one problem – migrating a particular Microsoft Oultook account, which has necessitated my reading a lot of difficult-to follow ‘knowledge-base’ articles and, eventually, contacting Microsoft help-lines.
I have to say that I feel sorry for people on the other end of help-lines: a lot of their time must be spent dealing not so much with customers’ technical issues as with their ignorance and frustration, as I can attest. They certainly deserve respect for maintaining their civility, though not all of them have the degree of patience required for the job. One exchange I experienced turned sour when the operator clearly implied that I should simply follow her instructions, stop asking awkward questions and – especially – stop making helpful suggestions. The fact that I had spent hours discussing the issue with her colleagues and had been elevated to this third level of technical assistance did not, in her view, entitle me to have an opinion on either the cause or the resolution of the problem. I felt quite relieved – and a little smug – when she gave up and passed me on to a fourth-level expert who quickly pinned it down. He admitted, apologetically, that the two systems are not fully compatible and that the problem is, therefore, insoluble. Now, I thought, I can get some sleep.
Or at least I could have done, but for the fact that, outside in the street, someone was whistling a tune. It was familiar but the words and title eluded me until the third chorus, when I realised it was Elvis Presley’s Wooden Heart. From my window, I could see the perpetrator, a man of about 60, standing on the street corner. His whistling was of professional standard but he was not busking – he had no collection bowl – and appeared to be just passing the time. He began another tune that, again, was familiar but elusive. I reached for my new phone to see if it had an app that recognises whistled tunes but I was too slow: he began to wander nonchalantly away from my view and out of earshot, leaving me fretting about the allure of artificial intelligence and the fading memory of that melody.

Saturday, 6 January 2018


Yesterday morning we had coffee at a local cafĂ© on the edge of the small harbour at Syracuse. The turquoise, mirror-calm Med sparkled in the warm, winter sunshine and hypnotised us into lingering for longer than usual – to the point, in fact, where lingering became malingering (a habit that one can observe in a certain sector of the local male population). By the time we finally left, I was feeling so dozy that I forgot to pay. When, later in the day, I realised this and returned to settle the account, a different barista – one who spoke no English – was on duty and, in order to explain myself, I had to look up the verb “I forgot”: it translates as ho dimenticato, which sounds uncomfortably like an admission of dementia.
This instance of the shared roots of language (in this case, Latin) illustrates just one of the things that make me feel at home in Europe and frustrated by the Brexiteers’ determination to distance us from it: our cultures are more homogenous and our histories more intertwined than many a Little Englander would care to admit. That which appears to them ‘foreign’ is merely a variation of an over-arching theme – and Sicily is a good place to get a sense of this. Linguistic similarities apart, the sense of shared history is evident in many of its buildings. The Cathedral of Syracuse, for example, incorporates the original Doric columns of the Greek temple that preceded it. They look familiar, which is not surprising since Greek classical architecture was widely imitated in Britain and elsewhere. These particular columns, however, are 2500 year-old originals that have served Pagans, Christians, Moslems, Byzantines, and then Christians again. They are visible proof that Sicilians were not always Italian – any more than Britons were always British. They are also a reminder that the incumbent Roman Catholic Church is a relative newcomer to the worshiping business.
Syracuse around 400 BC was not only Greek but also just as prosperous as Athens and, by way of demonstration, the authorities built a huge theatre. It was hewn out of a rocky hillside, had a seating capacity of 16,000, is known to have staged the last tragedies of Aeschylus and is still in use as a setting for theatrical productions today. However, stage drama is not to everyone’s taste and, when the Romans took over the place 600 years later, they made alterations to the performance area so as to accommodate their more plebeian entertainments i.e. gladiatorial events.  As it turned out, that was a good move: re-purposing is a practical and economic use of resources that saved it – and many other historic edifices – from obliteration.
The centres of Sicily’s old towns are stuffed with historically interesting houses and palazzi that are barely standing, but the economics of rescue are difficult to resolve and they may all fall down eventually. Elsewhere, however, buildings of another sort are being re-purposed. In Catania, a 20th century sulphur factory has been converted to house workspaces and several small-scale museums, one of which, the Museum of the Cinema, I went to visit. I would like to report that the museum is a rip-roaring success, that it is stuffed with valuable memorabilia and that the interactive displays are ingenious, engaging and all in working order; but, unfortunately, I cannot. Which is not to say it is devoid of interest or charm: the old publicity posters are nostalgic and the period room-sets – especially Don Corleone’s study – are eerily evocative. More importantly, however, the project is an imaginative attempt to preserve the region’s heritage that, without support from the EU, would not have happened. Every region’s past deserves recognition for its contribution to present European culture: and that’s one thing I won’t forget.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Coffee, Campari and Cash

We were packing up to leave our apartment in Palermo when the sound of a brass band, crisp and tight, wafted in through the shutters with the morning sunbeams. Down in the narrow streets, an itinerant band of around a dozen smartly uniformed musicians were playing seasonal tunes in what I imagined to be a personal sending-off ceremony. But it was a fond imagining and, besides, we didn’t want to leave. A week in Palermo is barely enough to visit all the sites of historical interest, especially when numerous coffee and/or Campari breaks are factored in to the schedule.
I have not yet adopted the Italian way of standing at the bar to knock back espresso, preferring to sit comfortably and savour cappuccino. Nor have I the fondness for sweet pasticceri that seem to be a national obsession though I was persuaded, on one occasion, to try a little specialita, a cake filled with ricotta. I imagined it would taste of cheese but, in fact, it was so heavily laced with sugar that I had to put it aside and order more coffee to cleanse my palate. I have since noticed that ricotta – a versatile substance – is used universally in all manner of recipes. I suspect it even comprises the main component in the stucco that is applied to most building exteriors – which would explain why it is always falling off.
There are many grand historic buildings in Palermo, so many that it is evidently quite a job to utilise and maintain them all: even some of the enormous churches are closed up. As for the abandoned palazzi built by wealthy families in years gone by, private enterprise has stepped into a few, converting them to hotels, while others await their fate. One of them, Palazzo Mori, remains fully furnished and open to the paying public, in the manner of a British National Trust project, though it is apparently under-funded and could do with a little State aid. But, as an Italian acquaintance once told me, “Italy is a poor country, full of wealthy people” and so it falls to the EU to step in and re-distribute some of its massive wealth to the poorer regions on its fringes. (Wales, Cornwall and other deprived parts of the UK, eat your heart out.)
The museums and galleries that we have visited bear the EU plaques that tell where the money for their establishment came from, as well as those other hallmarks of kick-starter funding – lavish and perfectly executed renovations, staffed by disinterested jobsworths for whom there is no on-going revenue to pay for training. One exception to this was the Galleria d’Arte Moderne, where there is a shop, a cafe and – unusually – a card payment facility. Elsewhere, the typical experience is that admission fees have to be paid in cash – whether or not credit card logos are displayed – and, mysteriously, there is never any change. Payment in cash is a practice so alien now to daily life at home, that I am out of the habit. Nevertheless, even I can work out that if cash is common currency, change should be readily available.
We may go back to Palermo, though it won’t be to look at any more grim paintings of religious devotion and suffering: there is no joy that I can detect in that art form. The glittering gold mosaic interiors of the Palatine Chapel and La Matorana, however, are an exception: they tell the same religious story in an exuberant and visually stimulating fashion that transcends the misery. For now, however, we are in Syracuse, having driven through the mountains on the futuristic autostrada-on-stilts (part-funded by the EU). Our host ushered us into our rental apartment and presented us with a welcome gift – a ricotta cake large enough for a family gathering. “Thank you so much,” I said. “We look forward to eating it later.” 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Club Rules? What Club Rules?

The ruling party in Poland – the shamelessly named Freedom and Justice Party – is in the process of curtailing both freedom and justice by politicising the country’s judiciary and taking other steps to ensure it gets re-elected, such as silencing dissenters and attempting to control the country’s electoral commission. Listening to this on the news at breakfast, I was already choking on my toast when a British Conservative politician popped up to defend the Polish government with platitudes such as “important trading partner”, “local democracy” and “taking back control”. He sidestepped the real issue – that yet another national government is taking those first steps along the road to totalitarianism – with such blatant disregard that he must think we are uncomprehending idiots; which, to be fair to him, many of us are. Nevertheless, the plain fact is that nobbling one’s judiciary is wrong. It is also against the rules of the EU, of which Poland is a member, yet its government presses ahead, outraged that the EU should presume to have a say in the matter.
We have spent this last week in Sicily where, because my Italian is so rudimentary, I can detect no discussion of EU politics except by tuning in to BBC Radio 4 via the internet. To be honest, however, I am not presently all-consumed by the issues, since we are here mainly to savour the food, drink and history of the island. In order to cover as much ground as possible, we hired a car, pre-dented so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and fitted with a sat-nav to de-stress the experience of driving through unfamiliar, sprawling towns. Unfortunately, the hire firm did not alert us to the fact that the sat-nav was programmed in Italian and knew only one destination – The Vatican. Maybe it’s a joke they inflict on tourists, but I had to execute a factory re-set to get the device to recognise the rest of Italy. As for getting it to speak English, we chose the voice of an Australian called Ken who has a ‘sense of humour’ and a vocabulary to match, in preference to Janet from the Home Counties, whose po-faced delivery is somehow at odds with the unruly traffic hereabouts.
Arriving in Catania and, later, Palermo, we were relieved to park the car and walk. Historic city-centres such as these were not built for cars, but the locals who live in them have little choice but to squeeze their minis through the streets and thread their teetering motorbikes around the pedestrians, which they do with consummate skill and consideration for each other. Road rage is reserved only for other drivers, in particular those who dare to proceed more slowly than the permitted norm, i.e. ‘full speed ahead’ at all times.
Ancient city centres may be frustrating for drivers, but they are otherwise the saviour of a way of life that does not work elsewhere. The historic centre of Palermo, for example, has four areas of street markets, operating all day, every day and sustained by the population that lives immediately above and around them. Everything they need for everyday life is there and, with competition intense, prices are keen. At least they are for the locals: they can see us coming, so we have learned to buy only from the stalls with clearly marked pricing. And, away from the markets, many of the streets are dedicated to individual trades, as they used to be in medieval London. One afternoon we walked past a line of jewellers, then coffin-makers, then – surprisingly – underpants wholesalers.
Walking the streets during rush hour is less of a pleasure: the fumes from all those ill-maintained, bashed-up vehicles are overpowering. Still, with the traffic jammed-up, there is an opportunity to count the number of drivers wearing seat belts: one in ten is average, despite the fact that, under EU rules, it is mandatory for everybody to belt up. The Poles, it seems, are not the only ones flouting the club rules.