Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hell, Hull and Halifax

From Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us!” That memorable farewell phrase employed by 16th century thieves was quoted at me just two weeks ago when I told a friend that I planned to take a day trip to Hull. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked, forgetting that “there” is the nominated City of Culture for 2017 (or he may have been simply incredulous of the nomination). The point is that Hull’s reputation has been sullied in perpetuity by the fact that it once had a notoriously nasty gaol – and a wickedly good catchline with which to advertise it: there must have been other towns with equally awful gaols at the time but who remembers them?
Hull, or King’s Town upon Hull as it was originally named in the 13th century (such was its importance as an international trading port), has seen its fortunes wax and wane over time. In recent decades the decline of its once prosperous fishing industry has been the cause of unemployment and deprivation. Civic pride was also bruised by the subsequent loss of identity and the impression of Hull as a miserable place thus perpetuated. The idea of a day-trip would not have sprung readily to my mind then. Like so many other cities, it has discovered the need to rejuvenate itself by establishing new industries for its economic base: and cultural tourism may turn out to be an important part of that. After all, history oozes from the Georgian bricks of the Old Town, as it does from the grand architecture of the late 19th century buildings sitting gracefully in the wide streets of the adjacent City Centre, where they accommodate  some of the numerous museums.
And what of Halifax? It too has impressive city-centre architecture and, most remarkably, the magnificent Piece Hall, the famed market place built in 1779 by its cloth merchants and manufacturers and now a monument to 800 years of hand-woven textile production in the area. However, the part of Halifax to which thieves referred was the public square in which was erected a gibbet, an early form of guillotine, for the purpose of beheading those who stole more than 13 pennies worth of the precious textiles produced thereabouts. I suppose clever thieves would have taken care to steal less valuable lengths of cloth but, since the gibbet was operational for more than a hundred years, it seems there were not many attentive learners. Cromwell eventually put a stop to its use, though a replica is still in situ – more a curiosity than a deterrent, I suppose. I haven’t been to Halifax lately but the Piece Hall, having undergone restoration, is soon to open as a visitor attraction containing boutiques, cafes etc. From little acorns...
Reputations are difficult to shake off: the passage of time does not necessarily erode them. Sometimes they just become entrenched in the psyche and nothing will dislodge them. Manchester, for example, is known as Rainy City despite the fact that there are seven other British cities with higher average rainfall. Some people like to believe what suits them, regardless of fact, as the recent election of Donald Trump seems to show: and a catchy slogan, such as make America great again, as has been demonstrated, only helps to reinforce their belief. I guess it’s a lazy substitute for thinking.
Where there is evidence of change, we ought to look again at our preconceptions. Hull and Halifax have changed and their reputations deserve serious re-calibration, especially given their historical importance to the commercial foundations of modern Britain. As for Hell, however, there is no evidence that it even exists, so I am quite happy to leave its dreadful reputation in the hands of the believers.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Reclaim Your Life

My document-shredder conked out the other day so I had to get a new one. Did I say “had to”? Since when did shredders become indispensable items of household equipment? It seems they have insinuated themselves into our homes and – like washing machines – become indispensable household tools. I suppose I could live without one, but the constant threat of identity theft is a powerful incentive not to: and who has the patience to tear documents into illegible fragments by hand?
Some people go to great lengths to avoid accumulating the things that define their lives so narrowly. For example, there’s the couple I saw on a TV show who emigrated from Britain to a remote Indonesian island where they bought a piece of pristine seashore and built themselves a home. They had the gumption to tailor their lifestyle from scratch – a life without document-shredders. But while they were explaining this to camera I caught a glimpse of an HP Sauce bottle glinting incongruously in the sunlight filtering through the palm trees onto their al-fresco dining table. It caused me to speculate whether they had brought it with them or bartered it at a Spar shop on a neighbouring island. Either way, it sowed a seed of doubt in my mind concerning the extent of their commitment to a radical new lifestyle.
One of my PCs had also been playing up so I took it to the shop when I went to get my new shredder. The man (never a woman, I notice) asked me to leave it with him for a while – as I had anticipated – so I took myself off for a walk. I had been watching a TED talk about walkable cities and wanted to test some of the ideas on the ground. (The main proposition is that we reclaim our streets from the tyranny of motor vehicles and tailor them instead to the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists. The benefits are undeniable: they include the encouragement of physical exercise in air which is less-polluted as a result of a reduction in the number of car journeys; a rejuvenation of street-life and consequent raised levels of sociability; a reduction of traffic-related stress and the reduction of traffic accidents. Thus, with small but significant changes to street-management systems, we improve the well-being of citizens and curb the future cost of physical and mental healthcare. It’s not as radical as moving to a tropical island but it is a step in the right direction.)
I wandered around a nearby inner-city brownfield site that is currently being developed. Some of the industrial mills have been re-purposed, providing dwellings, small-scale offices and ground-floor shops and cafes. Elsewhere new flats, houses and a school are in construction around a series of formerly industrial canal basins and a park that has been made on reclaimed wasteland. Nearby is a Metro station and several bus routes: it seemed to me to be a perfect example of the walkable theory put into practice. Just then my reverie was interrupted by the computer repairman calling to ask for my password. I hesitated: I didn’t want to offend him by refusing and I did want the PC fixed – but the state of being temporarily shredderless combined with the possibility of having my (quite weak) password compromised induced a moment of anxiety. I gave the password reluctantly and determined to change it as soon as I could.
Later, at home, with my newly passworded PC and my new shredder I felt more comfortable. But, as I reached for the small stack of discarded envelopes that had contained my birthday cards (any document with your name and address written on it should, strictly speaking, be shredded) I did feel a little wave of paranoia lapping at the shore of my logical consciousness.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Regrets?

While queuing at the tills in Aldi I noticed a jocular exchange between a customer and a cashier. The customer, a man in his late fifties, was a bit of an extrovert. He wore his greying hair Elvis-style – long sideburns and a quiff – and spoke confidently, as if used to performing on stage. He had presented the cashier with a £50 note and she, having been obliged to check its authenticity, was handing him his change, along with a few words of apology for the personally uncomfortable moment of institutional mistrust. An older lady waiting her turn joined in. “Well,” she said, “I’ve never seen a £50 note before.” Elvis turned to her with a cheeky smile and said “You’ve obviously not met the right fellas, love.” As he pocketed his cash and swaggered off, I fancied I saw the old lady’s eyes follow him wistfully, as if contemplating regretfully the truth of his observation. Still, there’s no use in having regrets – or so they say.
That incident assumed a degree of poignancy for me, probably because my birthday is about to roll around again and contemplation of a past tinged with regret is front and centre in my consciousness, placed there either by my own fond reminiscences or by those of friends and relatives eager to recall the good old days. It’s probably not a coincidence, therefore, that I have revisited (specifically) 1974 twice in the past few days. One occasion was when I ate at the same Chinese restaurant as I first did 43 years ago. In the intervening years I may have been there once or twice, but I will not do so again: the menu has not changed at all, nor has the internal decoration which, never more than adequate, now appears neglected and grubby. Moreover the food was barely edible and what little of it I did eat gave me indigestion later. I ask myself whether The Happy Seasons was always the same and, if so, why is it still popular? (We had to wait for a table.) I conclude that the business has a winning formula catering for an unsophisticated audience and that it sees no need for change. If that is the case I can credit myself with having moved up the ladder of culinary expectation, if only by dint of age and experience.
Then there was a showing of the film The Wicker Man (which, even at a mere £3 admission, seemed costly compared with original ticket prices). I went with a male friend who, like me, was interested to see it again and who, also like me, recalled virtually nothing of the film bar Britt Eckland’s nude scenes and the closing shot of the flaming Wicker Man. What a revelation it was then to discover that the film presented not just a shocking (for the time) depiction of dark pagan practices but also a serious theological argument against the beliefs of the Christian faith (as represented by the leading character). Admittedly, by today’s slick standards of cinematography, the film felt clunky – it even raised derisive laughter from the audience at times – and the decision to cast Britt as a native of the Outer Hebrides had clearly been taken solely in the interest of box-office appeal.

But the film certainly wasn’t just about sensationalism and visual titillation, although my younger self did not see it at the time. If I had known then what I know now, I would have benefited more from the experience and, to that extent, I am regretful. Let’s just say I was a callow young man, too wrapped up in myself to see the wider picture. And, as John Ruskin observed, when a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

It's So Annoying!

The girl in the coffee shop asks, when you place your order for cappuccino, whether you would like chocolate sprinkled on top. You reply “no” but you get it anyway. “Oh it doesn’t matter,” you say, meekly, and creep away to suck it up. It’s not her fault: she’s just a young girl from Eastern Europe, doing her best to earn a living, exploited, probably, by the mega-rich coffee company paying minimum wages while charging excessively for her services. She’s under pressure to sweat the assets, work the system. You’re inclined to be sympathetic, forgiving of small human failings, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, when those unwanted sprinkles appear too frequently you may start to feel annoyed: you may even become indignant, decide to take action, protest that it’s not what you ordered and, if you’re feeling really self-righteous, accuse the girl of not paying attention to what you said. The likely outcome is that you wait in line while she makes you another coffee, the company loses its profit and the girl feels either chastened or not. In any case there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again and your annoyance amounts to no more than a waste of your emotional energy.
You may choose, on the other hand, not to be annoyed, but to adopt a fatalistic attitude – or to sidestep confrontation by taking your custom elsewhere (good luck with that). Whenever I find my tolerance tested, as is increasingly the case now that its youthful elasticity is challenged by age-related rigidity, I try to remember that I can choose not to be annoyed. It’s not easy and it requires practice: if you want or expect things to go according to your personal preference you will soon learn that life is full of obstacles. Life, if you let it, will annoy the hell out of you. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I was thinking this as I walked past yet another beggar sitting on the pavement. Begging in the streets is a relatively recent phenomenon in English cities. Its causes are various – drug addiction, the break-up of families and communities, the inadequacy of our social services safety-net etc. – but despite my knowing this I harbour a suspicion (based on hearsay) that some people choose to beg because it pays well, which is one reason why I prefer to give money indirectly, i.e. to charities that provide facilities for the homeless. Explaining my policy to each and every supplicant is impractical (although I did so on one occasion when my refusal to give prompted a sneering protest) hence I get annoyed at having to step over so many characters who sit on the street smoking, drinking, petting their dogs and demanding a share of my loose change (who carries loose change in this cashless economy?) and the slumped, inert characters who, too zonked even to ask for money, rely on it being tossed into their awkwardly positioned receptacles.
There are beggars who offer something in return – a joke, a tune or a smile. I particularly liked the approach of one Irishman who asked me for a couple of quid so that he could get drunk. “I promise not to waste it on food or shelter,” he said with admirable candour. He got his couple of quid but I wish now that I had taken him to the pub instead; I might have got a few more laughs. And there was another chap who cut straight to the chase by asking whether I had a spare room and a job to offer him.
So when I feel annoyed by beggars I remind myself that they are a symptom of our dysfunctional society and I channel my emotional energy into a more useful force-field – anger: anger, that is, at society’s failure to absorb them.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Glory Days

I had reason to go to Bolton last week. (For those of you who may be geographically challenged in this respect, Bolton is a town about 15 miles northwest of Manchester (the original Manchester, that is, not the one by the sea currently featured in an excellent movie). At the height of the region’s global dominance of cotton production, Bolton would have been described as one of Manchester’s ‘satellite’ manufacturing towns, though I am aware that Boltonians themselves believe – and not without reason – that their municipality could have been top of the premier league of industrialised towns had it not been for the customary appropriation of their wealth by southerners – in this case Mancunians. I suspect that a consequent grudge persists deep in their collective psyche.
 Yet I encountered no rancour in my interactions with the good folk of Bolton: quite the opposite, in fact. When I found myself stranded in a desolate car park without the means to pay-and-display (banknotes and credit cards not accepted, phone-pay beyond my comprehension) two people offered to give me the £1.50 I needed. The first offer I declined, embarrassed. But, seeing no other option, I swallowed my pride and accepted the second one gratefully. Cynicism obliges me to assume that things might have gone differently if my accent had been Mancunian, but my way of speaking is regionally non-specific so I will never know whether I experienced the innate and indiscriminate generosity of Boltonians. In any case, I was then free to walk around and admire the splendid architecture at the centre of a town evidently determined, at the end of the 19th century, to express pride in its industrial success by spending lavishly on civic buildings. They may be fraying around the edges but their symbolism remains powerful.
Later I drove to the outskirts to see for myself a much earlier monument to that industrial legacy, a 16th century manor known as The Hall i’ th’ Wood (try listening to your sat-nav speak that if you want a laugh). The Hall is no longer in the Wood – in fact it sits in a sliver of parkland wedged between a housing estate and the A58 – but it is evocatively ancient despite that. Its real significance, however, is that it was here that Samuel Crompton, around 1775, invented, developed and operated his spinning mule, a machine which kick-started the automation of textile production and caused rioting amongst those who foresaw the consequent demise of their livelihoods. The building and its contents would have disappeared a century ago, subsumed into urban expansion, but for the thoughtfulness and generosity of another Bolton man, Lord Leverhulme.
Born William Lever, he made his fortune by pioneering the second stage of industrialisation, i.e. marketing. He took an every-day commodity, soap, which was at that time retailed by chopping pieces off large blocks, pre-packaged and branded it. His technique was wildly successful (his business lives on in the form of Unilever) and it paved the way for the whole industry of advertising and marketing in which, to this day, Britain is a world leader. Lever, it appears, was a fairly modest man who, despite his wealth, lived locally and remained proud of his home town and its history. He bought the Hall in 1900, renovated it, filled it with museum pieces, and donated the whole lot to the municipality, thereby honouring his predecessor.
But municipal Councils, given that they have more pressing, everyday obligations, are not ideal custodians. The Hall is under-funded and, therefore, open to visitors only a few days per week. Yet, during the two hours I was there, no one came. The Council might regard such apparent lack of interest as a reason to close the place altogether but, on the contrary, I think it should be rummaging in its legacy locker for ways to revive the innovation, confidence and marketing nous it was once famous for.

The Hall i' th' Wood