Saturday, 16 September 2017

Leeds Man

On Radio 4’s humorous programme Have I Got News for You! I once heard a piece in which the participants were challenged to invent a headline for the Great Fire of London in 1666, as reported by their chosen newspaper. One of them came up with “The Yorkshire Post – Leeds Man’s Jacket Badly Singed.”
The lack of empathy for the plight of those outside one’s immediate circle is both the joke and the tragedy. What prompted its recall was the media coverage of the destruction caused by hurricanes in the Americas and the monsoons in the Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The tepidity of my sympathy for the victims of those events made me feel somewhat ashamed. What little empathy I did manage to summon was, in any case, overshadowed by my outrage that the coverage of the Atlantic storms was far more extensive than that of the Asian floods, despite the latter having affected millions more people and much weaker economies. And my outrage was further stoked by the sight of President Trump, Climate-Change-Denier-in-Chief, professing sympathy with his electorate’s problems while, in practical terms, conspiring with industrial leaders to exacerbate them.
However, just as I was lamenting (and making excuses for) my empathy- deficit, I heard a news item that helped me feel a little better about myself. It concerned a child who has total lack of empathy. The ensuing discussion concerned the causes of such a condition, social and/or hereditary, and the extent to which it can be rectified. The hereditary cause is not so common, which is fortunate for all of us as it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse and sociopaths are not nice people to live with. Extreme cases, such as the one featured, do not care whether their condition is fixed and may, therefore, undergo years of ineffective psychoanalysis, or end up incarcerated as criminals – or both. Social causes are easier to reverse.
Most of us, however, are socialised to the extent that we can agree to get along together most of the time. We have learned to appreciate the concept of humanity and we are, therefore, susceptible to modifying selfish behaviours accordingly. Humanity may be defined as the quality of compassion or consideration for others, but what that encompasses is not straightforward. The boundaries of your humanity depend on which moral code you are signed up for – or are co-opted into. If, for example, your ethical code is defined by adherence to a religious creed that will not countenance homosexuality as normal human behaviour, it is unlikely that you will be compassionate towards homosexuals who are ostracised.
For those whose values are secular, there is the notion of a social contract – an arrangement whereby society attempts to form a consensual agreement on what does and does not constitute behaviour that is compassionate and considerate of all its members. However, since so many diverse and evolving ideas, beliefs and biases have to be added into such an equation, this is necessarily a constant work-in-progress.
The hope of the secularist-humanitarian is that the evolution of the social contract will progress towards eliminating bias, prejudice and injustice in the interest of fostering humane systems of governance. Optimistically, one can point to the spread of these ideals – the United Nations embraces them and has four agencies devoted to delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by both man-made and natural disasters (though it is often hindered by international politics). However, institutional altruism such as this originates in the hearts of humans and, while it is said that charity begins at home, we must all be thankful that it does not always stop there. The Leeds Man story reminded me of that.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Pencil Factory

I have never been to the Pencil Museum at Keswick in the Lake District. It has always seemed too limited a concept on which to spend time, though it may well be worthy and I expect it is popular with holidaymakers committed to spending a week or so in a region where, whatever the season, rain can drive everyone indoors. We campervanners, however, have no need to hang around and wait for the sky to clear: we just ‘up-sticks’ and move on. (Although I suppose that phrase needs updating, since it originates from a time when a wanderer’s shelter comprised canvas supported by wooden poles.)
I was in the Lake District this week to rendezvous with an old friend. We don’t see each other often so we both arrived the evening before our planned hike around Langdale Pikes. After supper at the local pub, we settled in to our campsite for the night – as did the rain. The next day’s forecast, fortunately, was “brighter later” so we set off enthusiastically, our conversation ranging from nostalgia, through updates on family and mutual acquaintances, to current affairs and shared cultural interests. The walking became strenuous towards the end, especially where we lost our bearings for a while, but at its conclusion, we congratulated ourselves on having sufficiently youthful limbs to carry us through and arranged to meet again soon for another hike – in Norfolk, perhaps.
Back at camp I was ‘upping-sticks’ when a neighbouring campervanner approached me to ask whether I had a set of Allen keys. “Yes,” I said. “I have a comprehensive tool-box that I have been carrying for about thirty years and I am delighted that, at last, my prudence has paid off.” He was also delighted – on his own behalf – and explained that, like me, he normally has Allen keys to hand but, being from Australia and in a hired vehicle, was without the means to tighten his loose fitting. Men who fix things are called ‘blokes’ as opposed to ‘chaps’ or ‘lads’, neither of which categories seems to signal the inclination or ability to mend broken stuff.
With the rest of the day free, I decided to drive home via one of the visitor attractions – Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage or The World of Beatrix Potter, perhaps. However, being a bit of a bloke, I opted instead for the bobbin mill at Stott Park. It ceased production in 1971, the last of sixty such factories in the region, which sprang up because of the plentiful supply of trees for coppicing and water for powering machinery. Their ready customer base was the cotton industry of nearby Lancashire. The mill ended its days powered by electric motors, though they were – and still are – attached to the original belt and pulley system that drives all the equipment, so our tour guide was able to demonstrate bobbin-making.
From a mechanical/industrial-ingenuity perspective, the whole set-up, which began in 1835, is admirable and fascinating, but our guide was careful to remind us, from behind a retro-fitted safety-guard, of the human cost of these early industrial endeavours. Boys had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship just to qualify for a lifetime working twelve hours a day, five and a half days a week at a single, repetitive and inherently dangerous task, for which they received only subsistence wages. Things may have changed (for some of us) but vestiges of our industrial past are embedded in our language, reminding us how hard it was. For example, the mill workers were obliged to buy their own hand tools so that they would be sure to look after them. If they left the job having worked well they were given a sack to carry them away in, but if they left under a cloud of disapprobation their tools were thrown in the fire. Better to be sacked than fired. Either way, you could always try your luck at the pencil factory. They were tough times for workers – and they still are: the gig economy, with its self-employment and zero-hours contracts is proof that exploitation never went away – it just changed its image.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

History? A Walk In The Park

Learning British history is as simple as a walk in the park – or anywhere else you may happen to stretch your legs. Next week, for example, I shall be hiking in the Lake District National Park and, while admiring the picture-postcard landscape, will remind myself (and my hapless companion) that most of it is not quite as nature intended, having been modified by mankind’s economic activities. The flanks of the hills that once were clothed in trees are naked now, cleared and stripped of new growth by the sheep that are the mainstay of farming in the area. Moreover, I learned from a local barmaid (in the days before they all came from the EU) that the common place-name ending “thwaite” is Old Norse for “clearing in the woods”: deforestation has been going on for a long time. It is pointless, however, to bemoan the fact that the hills are treeless – sheep farming will persist for as long as it is economically viable. It would be more useful to recognise such phenomena as the imprints of history on our countryside.
But in our built landscapes it is, perhaps, easier to decode the stories of history. Stroll through enough suburbs and, if you are interested, you will begin to identify when they were built, which will soon prompt the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Make your way through the crowds on the High Street, where familiar liveries and logos compete to draw your attention and distract you from looking up at the architecture, and pause instead to ponder why the street layout is the way it is. The most obvious markers, however, are the monuments and statues peppered around public spaces. They may be so familiar that we become blasé and disinclined to stop and read their inscriptions, nevertheless their presence, in itself, is as much a part of our identity as the houses in which we live. The recent call for the removal of Lord Nelson’s statue from Trafalgar Square is, therefore, alarming, though it does raise the question whether we think consciously about our history or clothe ourselves in it uncritically. Nelson was a significant national figure and, like most of his contemporaries, did not embrace the moral or ethical standards that are widespread today. But rather than remove him from his column and thereby erode public awareness of our history, we would do better to place a statue of Napoleon facing him to more completely illustrate the story of Trafalgar.
Away from the grandeur of Central London, along the north bank of the Thames Estuary, I was walking with friends who pointed out the features of its layered history that make up in interest what the area lacks in visual appeal. There are ancient and barely visible remains, like the row of wooden stumps that was a medieval jetty. There is the star-shaped stone fort at Tilbury, lovingly preserved by English Heritage. (It is currently closed while being used as a set for Mike Leigh’s film of the Peterloo Massacre, a crucial event in the fight for universal suffrage, yet not well known – outside of Manchester, that is). There is industrial archaeology-in-the-making just nearby, where a redundant power station awaits its uncertain fate. As the land gets lower, we walk past a jetty where earth spoil from excavations in and around London is deposited to create arable fields which, one day in the future, passers-by will assume were always there.
We end up at East Tilbury, a small town that once was home to the headquarters of the worldwide Bata shoe-making empire. The elegant, grade II listed factories are now empty but intact and, at their entrance, stands a bronze statue of Thomas Bata himself. He once made a fortune from supplying boots for Mussolini’s army, but one hopes that the remote location will protect his effigy from a call for its removal on that account.



Saturday, 26 August 2017

Multilingual Aspirations

Lately, a persistent pain in my shoulder has been waking me in the early hours and the only way to relieve it has been to get out of bed. The pain disappears, inexplicably, but at the cost of sleep deprivation. Later in the day I find myself inclined to catch a nap, like the chap in the same row as me at the cinema who dozed off during the film Final Portrait. Of course, his slumber may have been induced by the lugubrious pace of the plot (an account of Giacometti’s method and approach to painting a portrait from life) but I envied him his repose while making an effort myself to stay awake for the sake of my partner. For the record, the film has its merits, chief among them being a depiction of the artistic life in early sixties Paris and the romantic mix of bohemian behaviour and sophisticated manners for which it was renowned.
Last week I tackled my shoulder pain by experimenting with my pillow arrangement, putting an extra one in place. I have since had seven consecutive pain-free nights (though I cannot explain why the previous pillow setup of at least three years’ standing failed me so suddenly). Feeling refreshed, I ventured to the cinema once more. This time it was to see a 1962 French production, Le Doulos. Again, the setting was Paris in the early sixties – though this time in gritty, subtitled monochrome – and the cops-and-robbers plot was pacey and complex, all of which would have been enough to keep drowsiness at bay, even if I had slept badly.
I come from a generation of English schoolchildren obliged to learn French so, in theory, I can speak and understand it (to a limited degree). Lack of practice, however, means that any hopes I might have of following film dialogue without recourse to the subtitles is optimistic. Nevertheless, French remains my automatic default language when obliged to mouth a foreign phrase – no matter which country I happen to be in. It all goes back to colonial times, when you could get by with either English or French – preferably English, bearing in mind P.G. Wodehouse’s description “Into the face of the young man...there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French”.
As it happens, it is the Italian language that is currently causing me angst. I am anticipating a trip to Sicily later this year and am keen to capitalise on the evening classes I took 25 years ago. I hope to revive my linguistic capability to a level that demonstrates my European credentials and distances me from the ghastly brigades of Brexiteers. It shouldn’t be too difficult: the past decades have seen a proliferation of all things Italian in the UK. There is now a presence on every high street of restaurants, pizza places, coffee shops and delis all sporting the colours and vocabulary of Italy. Fewer Brits than ever now confuse “espresso” with “expresso” and I even heard someone recently order a bottle of Verdicchio without hesitating over the awkward grouping of consonants.
So, I dug out an old phrasebook to brush up. I’m sure the essentials of the language are still in place since it was published but I have noticed that it contains phrases that were once considered essential but have since fallen into redundancy. Many of these are included in the section headed Post Office. Nowadays, people are far more likely to be asking for a wi-fi passcode than a stamp. I would do better, it seems, to ditch the phrase book and download a phone app which could translate almost anything – including sentences like “Could I have an extra pillow, please?”  

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Mind How You Go

LSD is back in fashion, but with a difference. Whereas we Boomers were accustomed to take it in unmeasured doses and at irregular intervals, the Millennials have adopted a systematic approach: in Silicone Valley, at least, people are ‘micro- dosing’ themselves regularly, convinced that they reap mind-enhancing benefits without the hallucinations more usually associated with it. They are using LSD to sharpen their creative and business skills, disdaining the practices of 1960’s ‘trippers’, whose random experimentation with the potentially mind-altering drug they regard as foolish and reckless. Meanwhile, those of us Boomers who survived the experience are now free to spend our dog days (with one eye on the Millennials’ progress) savouring such enhancements of the mind as we may have accumulated. In my case, this translates into spending more time in galleries, museums and gigs.
Last week’s incessant rain had put the dampers on a plan to spend the day in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so, instead, I opted for The Hepworth gallery in nearby Wakefield to see an exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s Indian Paintings, inspired by his time in Mumbai. I would happily take home any one of these paintings, so that their exuberant, colourful expression would cheer and inspire me on even the dullest day. Alas, the cost is beyond my means and, although prints are available, I have a limited amount of wall space and don’t spend that much time staring at it, so I left the gallery empty-handed but elated, passing as I did so, a group of boisterous Boomers on their way in – not unusual on a Tuesday, except that these were all dressed in traditional Indian garb. I hoped they were not expecting to see figurative paintings of their ancestral city.
A few days later I was at The Whitworth Gallery, which I enjoy because it displays both art and design. The debate over what differentiates one from the other may have been resolved long ago and by higher authorities than me, however, seeing the two disciplines mixed together certainly encourages comparison, questioning and probing into the blurry boundary. I acknowledge no hierarchy of relative importance: art may be deemed inspiring, though it serves no practical use; design might be equally uplifting insofar as it introduces aesthetics into everyday experiences. Whatever, body and mind must both be served in the interest of overall good health.
Raquib Shaw’s exhibition at The Whitworth includes artefacts from various collections displayed along with his own extraordinarily complex and colourful creations, demonstrating the cross-fertilisation of traditions, techniques and materials over time, cultures and continents. It seems appropriate that, for this show, Shaw was commissioned to create a design for wallpaper – given that The Whitworth is home to many historically important examples – and it is his wallpaper that covers the walls of the gallery. From a distance, it looks like a richly coloured pattern comprising lush, exotic foliage. Get close, however, and you see myriad mythical figures and weird faces woven into the forms. It makes a fascinating backdrop for his strange paintings, all of which glow with colour and shine with glitter.

In an adjoining gallery, there is a completely contrasting show – a display of furnishing fabrics, designed for Heals in the late sixties, by Barbara Brown. The geometric forms and simplified colour palettes she employed typify the ‘pop-art’ of the period. The patterns that she – and others like her – created, formed a literal backdrop to much of my life back then, signalling a bright, modern future stripped of fussy, overblown decoration and obscurely classical references.

Of course, I have no idea if either of them used LSD – but, if they had, I would guess that Boomer Brown discovered micro-dosing way ahead of its time, while Millennial Shaw must have gone retro and dropped a random tab.