Friday, 19 May 2017

A Confluence of Coincindences

Although I am back from Cyprus physically, my mind will not disengage readily from the place and the way that its combination of deeply-rooted ethnic traditions and more recent ‘global village’ trends can produce interesting variants on what we are accustomed to. There is, for example, a shaded restaurant courtyard in Nicosia where delicious mezze are served by the urbane proprietor to a soundtrack of his favourite Blues and Gospel music, while his caged canary sings along to BB King’s guitar-licks and twitters ecstatically in sympathy with the backing singers. Much as I was amazed and amused by the novelty, I am unsympathetic to the practice of caging creatures and, really,  hope it dies out soon.
 Returning home is comforting despite the fact that, seen from a perspective refreshed by travelling, there are aspects of one’s life that could benefit from re-evaluation: one of these is our duvet cover. Perhaps it’s the recent memory of all those exuberantly foreign fabrics but, despite its excellent quality, it does appear dull. Its drab colour does nothing to lift the spirits and it is time to give up on the idea that because it ‘tones’ with the decor it qualifies as a suitable furnishing. My partner readily agreed that life is too precious to share with a dismal duvet, so I took it on myself to find a brighter one.
On the brief walk to the shops I encountered a couple of friends who have been living abroad these past few years. They had just arrived in town and, had I left the house seconds earlier or later, our paths would not have crossed. Such coincidences, we agreed over coffee, are quite rare. Or are they? After we parted company, I bumped into someone else I had not seen for a while. I began to feel it might be a lucky day to place a bet. And then I found a pleasing duvet cover at the very first shop! I headed triumphantly for home but was stopped on Market Street by a polite young man with a clipboard who asked if I had time to answer a few questions about socks. It so happens that I have strong views on socks and was therefore willing to share them. However, all he wanted to know was how many pairs I owned, whether I ever wore odd socks, whether I had any “lucky” ones, my age and email address. I was miffed not to have been given the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for the hygienic properties of bamboo-fibre and merino wool compared with synthetics, but it was my first disappointment of the day and, incredibly, was mitigated moments later by my bumping into yet another acquaintance I had not seen in years.
The duvet cover gained the full approval of my partner and I went off to meet a friend for an early dinner followed by a concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio. I was telling him about the day of coincidental meetings as we made our way from restaurant to concert hall when – as if to prove my point – my partner stepped out of the doorway we were passing. She was leaving the gym and on her way home to make up the bed and was just as surprised by the encounter as we were. By now, both my friend and I were convinced that supernatural forces were in play and that, in the concert-hall foyer, some long-lost friend or lover would step over and buy me a drink for old time’s sake. However, despite the fact that the place was heaving, I saw nobody even vaguely familiar. It was my second disappointment of the day – and a practical demonstration of the fact that you can’t anticipate a coincidence. Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t place any bets.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Cultural Mash-ups

Here in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) there is a mosque in every hamlet and every suburb of every town yet, after two weeks, I am still not sure when to expect the five-a-day Call to Prayer. This can be inconvenient, as when I chose to have lunch in a quiet, leafy courtyard next to a mosque and the loudspeakers burst into action as I was about to place my order, drowning me out and reducing me to pointing at the menu. The waiter was unfazed.
The Call itself, when executed by an accomplished singer, is exquisitely musical, although it represents a dogma with which I have no sympathy and is, in that sense, unwelcome. It is a reminder of deeply-rooted cultural differences. After last week’s ramble around the archaeological ruins I was inclined to the view that history is all explained by geography but, apropos cultural differences, I now appreciate the point made by the writer Robert Lynd, that history may be read as the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity. I look everywhere for proof of his hypothesis and here, in the TRNC, I am somewhat encouraged: I have yet to see anyone flock to a mosque.
In Cyprus, where East has mingled with West for centuries, some dilution of traditions, even some cross-fertilisation is to be expected. Colonisation started the process and tourism continues to push it, albeit informally. But the process is haphazard. This region, despite its dependence on tourism, does not appear to have grasped how the industry has segmented and become more sophisticated. The coastline is littered with unfinished ‘developments’ – holiday villages, villas and huge hotels – which sit between a host of established facilities already catering to that market. Meanwhile the many sites of cultural and historic interest are neglected by the authorities and treated as if they are of no consequence. Evidently, they have failed to count the coach-loads of older, cultural tourists to be seen on the car parks of Salamis and the other accessible antiquities. This is a growing market and, if they need help, the National Trust could teach them valuable lessons in how to monetise it.
The same can be said of the many restaurants where the only offering is kebab, salad and chips. After a couple of meals one pines for home cooking. One restaurant I went to offered a partial remedy for this with a menu comprising a mash-up of British and Turkish staples. I was attracted by the possibilities – and its perfect sea-front location – but I had reason later to regret my choice. The interior was decked out cheaply, like a French-style Soho joint circa 1975, and I ordered kleftiko which came not in a pot, but dried up on a plate and with a dish of buttered vegetables – back again to Britain in the ‘70s. The clientele comprised ex-pats – apart from a party of Cypriots for whom this was an exotic location for a birthday celebration. The experience was cross-cultural, but at a low level of accomplishment.
There is, however, an emerging awareness of the value of eco-tourism, not only in terms of revenue but also of preserving the environment. Its development is confined – inevitably – to the remote eastern peninsula where the roads are basic. I stayed for a couple of nights there in a small eco-hotel owned and run by an earnest husband and wife team. She cooked kleftiko for dinner and it was the real thing – Turkish to the marrow. It was so delicious I forgave our hosts the background music – a slow passage of Vivaldi – certain they were only trying to please their European guests. Then, after a few mouthfuls, the Call to Prayer wafted across the veranda and the two soundtracks met, the Arab singing intertwining perfectly with the European violins. East and West in harmony, sort of, for a few moments at least.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Castles in The Sky

Having just arrived in Larnaca on the south coast of Cyprus, I found a beach bar where, at the dimming of the day, I sat outside and took that first sip of Keo beer. Is it possible, I asked myself, that it tastes the same as it did 50 years ago? Probably not: it’s more likely that the familiar-yet-foreign tang, combined with the place itself, was causing me to reminisce. I lived here as a young teenager – part of the ‘camp-following’ of the occupying British Armed Forces – and have returned from time to time to explore aspects of the island’s culture in which young teenagers are not ordinarily interested. The next day I travelled to the north coast, crossing the border created after 1974 when troops landed from Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Turkish population from the violence that had erupted between them and the Greek Cypriots.
The two ethnic groups used to be quite jumbled up on the island but since the invasion there has been much relocation, resulting in a Muslim culture separated from an Orthodox Christian one and, although tempered by years of proximity and mutuality, the two are determinedly distinct. Reunification talks are on the table but they are, inevitably, tortuous and protracted. Meanwhile there is considerable military posturing in the north compared with the relatively free-wheeling, EU-centric south. I am dismayed by the number of army garrisons everywhere I go, by the paranoia-driven unavailability of up-to-date road-maps, the fact that sat-nav is “unavailable” and that Wikipedia is blocked. I sense the dead hand of the authoritarian Turkish regime and its undeclared preference for annexation to the mainland. Nevertheless, the people are friendly – at least to tourists, which is what I am. After descending from a mountain hike (something I am not used to doing without a detailed OS map) I walked through a picnic spot where an extended family was feasting. They waved hellos and ran over with a bowl of stuffed vine leaves, insisting I eat my fill. They were much better than the tinned ones we get at home.
History is all explained by geography, if what we mean by history is the ongoing story of powers jostling for control of territory, and the evidence is plain to see in Cyprus, an island which, because of its strategic location, has been fought over for millennia. The mountains along the northern coast are topped by a string of castles, established by one dynasty or another and augmented by those succeeding. The castles, precariously perched on precipitous peaks, are astonishing in their ruined state and must have been even more so in their heyday. Just contemplating the effort that went into building them and the constant to-and-fro up and down the mountains to keep their occupants supplied makes me feel fatigued. In the end, however, the castles proved ineffective against sea-borne Arab raiders and when the Venetians took over they sensibly abandoned them in favour of coastal forts.
The mountains were also the favoured location for abbeys and monasteries built by the religious orders and subsequently sacked by the Arabs. The ruins are an important part of the tourist trail, though seeing them always makes me feel sad that once-magnificent buildings are reduced to a few stone arches, bashed-up pillars and shattered mosaic floors. Sadly, this kind of destruction is not limited to bygone ages. In many of the villages hereabouts stands the windowless, doorless hulk of an abandoned church, its interior stripped and vandalised: usually, there is a pristine mosque close by. At one such church there was, unusually, a caretaker, a friendly, loquacious, 82-year-old ex-policeman who had served under British rule. We swapped reminiscences, he lamented the division of the island and when it was time to go, we shook hands warmly. In that moment I felt the approving presence of my long-deceased dad.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ode to Alexa

At the last gathering of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, our host for the evening presented his chosen subject in a hi-tech, multi-media tour de force. He dazzled us with DVD, CD, Sonos, Youtube clips on a ‘smart-TV’ controlled via a dedicated iPhone app and – most wonderful of all – Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant, Alexa. Considering our host had quite recently professed ignorance of “streaming” and other modern media mysteries, it all went swimmingly well (barring the glitch with the iPhone app – which would have gone un-noticed had he not mentioned it). We all were particularly taken with Alexa and the possibilities she presents, among them being the elimination of the bother of finding one’s specs.
Days later I saw the film The Sense of an Ending which is set in the present but is really about the past. The protagonist – a man of the HMJAS generation – is consumed by the memory of an unrequited teenage love but has otherwise adjusted to his present life. Like most of us, he uses a smart phone and a computer – up to a point – but the flashbacks to his schooldays show us a time when the most advanced form of personal technology was the transistor radio, a valued piece of kit among teenagers in those days, despite the dearth of cool material being broadcast. The best that one could hope for back then was a steady signal from Radio Luxembourg in the evenings and some private time on Sunday afternoons, ears glued to The Top Twenty in anticipation of hearing the very few decent tracks that made it into the chart. All this was part of getting to grips with the world in general and romantic love in particular. Today’s teenagers don’t have it any easier, despite their possession of superior technology and many more channels of cool content. They still have to contend with the awkwardness of learning about love, the subtleties of which no dating app can mimic. Hi-tech, lo-tech: sometimes no-tech is what works best.
A particular no-tech pleasure I have re-connected with recently is poetry. I have some poetry books but they have lain, unopened, on my shelves for years. I always intended to read them, but very rarely did so. Now, however, my partner and I have come to an arrangement to resolve this issue: we undertake to read one poem a day – to each other. The catalyst for this resolution was my partner, whose enthusiastic appetite for reading has expanded in the poetry department since we went to see the film, Paterson.  Our routine readings are certainly making inroads into the mass of material that lurks in the books: pages that have languished in darkness since they were bound together now are suddenly exposed to the light in all their virgin whiteness, examined briefly for suitable content and either closed again forever or marked out for performance.
And therein lies the rub: which poems should I pick out? The choice of sentiment is important because it can make or break the atmosphere between us. Nothing good, for example, is likely to come from declaiming the woes of unrequited loves past. Better to extol the joys of present union or, better still, avoid all possibility of contention by going down the humorous route.
Then there is one’s performance to consider.  Getting the tone, pace, enunciation, pauses and exclamations just right can make the difference between a reading being properly appreciated or slipping past the audience unheeded or, worse still, completely un-comprehended. So, here is where I thought Alexa might help me. I could just ask and she would oblige by playing back some professionally recorded readings. Call it ‘passing the buck’ but isn’t that what assistants are for?

Friday, 21 April 2017

Good Old Days?

Last week I went to Westward Ho! It’s a nice enough seaside town, a little tatty and run down – as they often are – but undergoing a modest revival thanks to surfers and tourists with a penchant for nostalgia. There is no denying, however, that its name is what mainly distinguishes it: how many place-names include an exclamation mark? Not many, I suspect, although there is a municipality in Quebec that has two!! Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
My visit was part of a trip down Memory Lane – or I should say Lanes, those comprising the web of routes that connect the towns and hamlets around the coast, combes and valleys of North Devon. Having spent happy times there in my younger days I had great expectations of this latest return tempered, of course, by the knowledge that memory is an unreliable, fawning companion, often obliging with the kind of pleasant associations it knows you prefer and obscuring those which do not fit your idyll. And the places themselves will have changed as ‘progress’ makes its indelible marks. North Devon pre-1988 was relatively inaccessible and its unique cultural identity persisted a little longer than it might otherwise have done. That ended when the A361 trunk road opened, giving expedited access to commerce, industry and the growing number of motorised tourists and commuters encouraged by the easier journey.
But this is not a disaster story: the friends who anchor me to the place are still there and they have not changed. They might sometimes express wistfulness for the time when they felt less pressure from incomers but they are sufficiently well “dug-in” to be philosophical about it. The tourist industry feeds them via the local economy and they want high-speed broadband, good road access and supermarkets like the rest of us. Their children face the problem of expensive housing due to incomers, second-homers and the scarcity of new-build, but this is the same for their contemporaries born and bred in other desirable parts of Britain.
For visitors there are fundamental attractions that are constant: the countryside is pretty, even with the addition of a few wind-turbines; quaint village and town centres are preserved as assets; there is pollock to be had on the menus, pasties in the bakers and dark green laver in the fishmongers. And you can sometimes hear the glorious local accent, with its vowels thick as clotted cream, spoken confidently and proprietorially in contrast to the nondescript babble of incomers. Away from the hubbub is the footpath that makes its way along the Atlantic coast. I walked a section from the estuary at Lynmouth, climbing steeply up and down the sides of a series of combes on the way to Minehead before cutting back inland to Watersmeet where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join forces in a narrow, densely wooded valley.
All very beautiful, but for a taste of how life used to be in this part of the world it is useful to visit Arlington Court, former seat of local landowners the Chichesters, now owned and run by the National Trust. The estate typifies the way rural life was lived before the First World War: wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few people, social mobility was limited and rural poverty was the norm. The small scale of the “quaint” cottages in the former fishing ports, many of which are now holiday accommodation, reiterates the point. The inhabitants of North Devon have an easier life now than they did back then and Westward Ho! is partly responsible. Built specifically as a holiday resort in 1863, it established a new source of income for the locals; and, if its current revival persists, it might just do the same trick again and earn itself a second exclamation mark!

Up-market seafood trailer at Westward Ho!