Friday, 14 July 2017

Public Poverty

Needing to fix a shelf to the wall, I dug out my cordless drill from the toolbox, only to find that the battery would no longer take a charge. The drill is so old that replacement parts are not available but, even if they were, I would have been unable to resist buying the nifty new drill I already had my eye on. At the almost disposable price of twenty quid, it comes complete with a little LED spotlight and a tiny, lithium-ion battery – the same technology as is deployed by Elon Musk in his electric cars and (on a much larger scale) the back-up system he is about to build for the South Australia power grid. Elon Musk appears to belong to a rare breed of billionaires who want to save the planet.
I am so pleased with the new drill that, with the zeal of a demented hobbyist, I have been seeking more home-improvement projects. Meanwhile, I had to dispose of the old drill and, although I felt guilty about the eco-ethics of throwing it in the bin, where else was it to go? The bin-store is in the narrow street behind our block where, three weeks ago, a cavity opened in the Victorian-era road. The Council came and put a plastic fence around it but have not been back since. I was inspecting the cavity to gauge whether it had deepened, when a scruffy-looking old bloke shambled up to me and we had a brief exchange. When I told him the Council had informed me that they were short of funds for road repairs, he launched into a ranting exposé of Council corruption, which included allegations of the misappropriation of £50 million of National Lottery funds, the Tory conspiracy to impoverish us all and a lot of other stuff that was, frankly, unintelligible. Perhaps he had evidence to back up his case, however I was not inclined to engage him for fear of being stuck there for hours in the company of someone who might have been an erudite but eccentric specialist on the subject, but looked more like a fanatical conspiracy theorist with a grudge. I uttered a polite platitude and he shuffled off, scanning the pavement for cigarette butts. Later, however, I had cause to ponder his point of view.
I was at the Town Hall, a Grade 1 listed building in the “fabulously gothic” style. I went there to listen to a piece of recorded music, one of several site-specific compositions commissioned as part of the Manchester International Festival. The music is ambient and plays throughout the vaulted, lavishly-ornamented corridors. It’s a short piece, but atmospheric and long enough to cause the listener to linger and marvel at the architecture, the like of which will never be built again. I got aesthetic pleasure from the experience, but the man I had encountered earlier would surely have objected to the allocation of public funds to such frivolity and pointed out that The Council has a statutory duty to repair roads, not fund art installations.
Actually, the shortage of funding in local government is affecting much more than minor road maintenance: environmental degradation on a larger scale looms with the neglect and in some cases selling-off of parks. Extrapolated to a global scale, there is news that the Brazilian Government has withdrawn so much funding for the agency that protects its rainforest that deforestation is again in full swing. Whereas the USA’s Republicans have publicly trashed the notion of ecological responsibility in their determination to transpose democracy into plutocracy, the Brazilian Government is not so brazen: apparently, it pays lip service to conservation while favouring the big business lobby.
It remains to be seen whether the band of billionaires who benefit from such politics will act philanthropically to save the planet; or whether developing technology can or will be deployed to the same end. Meanwhile Elon Musk appears to be hedging his bets: he has a plan to colonise Mars as a retreat from ruined Earth and is already selling places to those who can afford them.


  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Disrupting Classes

This year’s opening event of the Manchester International Festival was one in which professional performers played no part. Instead, the spotlight was on a selection of citizens from various walks of life, strutting their stuff, one-by-one, along a raised catwalk, while information about them was projected onto huge screens. It was an open-air event, free to view and therefore socially inclusive in all respects. The participants – whether established, public figures or homeless individuals struggling to put a life together – all got a cheer from the crowd, simply for being who they were. The genius of the event lay in its egalitarian intention: nobody was presented as more special than anyone else.
When they all left that stage, however, the reality of social inequality would surely re-establish itself. The homeless man would still be homeless, the recovering addict would revert to spending her days seeking support from diminished social services and the well-paid professional would still be well-paid and professional. So was this a performance, or was it another of those political expressions for which the city has been notorious ever since Queen Victoria declared it a hotbed of troublesome anti-establishment activists? I hope it was the latter. For, despite the earnest wish harboured by so many for integration, society persists as a collection of bubbles bumping in to one another.
It was interesting to see this in another context: the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, which features the works of Otto Dix and the photographer August Sander, both of whom made images of their contemporaries in the various social strata. Sander’s approach took was to show his subjects in the specific context of their social standing and occupations. There were, for example, tradesmen standing proudly in their work-wear and doctors, sombre-looking, moustachioed gents, trussed up in three-piece tweed suits to indicate their gravitas and high standing in the middle classes. Sander’s body of work reveals a Western European social model that still exists, in essence.
However, as the mighty Bob revealed as far back as 1968, “the times they are a’changing” and a project such as Sander’s, if it were to be attempted today, would turn up some very different images. At the local Health Centre last week, the doctor who saw me was a very young woman of African descent, friendly, personable, and impeccably middle-class-English in her manner. (I assume she is also a capable doctor, though her skills were not stretched on this occasion.) In encountering her, I was delighted to see some evidence of social mobility that was perhaps unthinkable a generation ago.
Nevertheless, those who aspire to upward social mobility face challenges that they may not have factored in to their plans: the profession of doctor is just one of many that are losing ground in terms of prestige and consequent earning-power because of the rise of computing power and the development of robotics. Anecdotally, a friend told me that a surgeon had advised him to postpone proposed knee surgery for a few years until the procedure has been programmed in to a robot. The outcome of such a delicate operation should not be entrusted to an unreliable human unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, the writing is on the wall for GPs in respect of their diagnostic function: an individual doctor will have a limited amount of knowledge at their disposal, whereas a robot could, theoretically, have all of human knowledge available within seconds, thereby making diagnosis more of a science and less of a guessing game.
As artificial intelligence becomes more widely available, the currency of knowledge, as banked by specialists, will devalue, while qualities such as humanity and compassion will attract a premium: perhaps that is when we will see big pay rises for nurses and carers.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Photographic Memory

This past week has been tinged with nostalgia (an insinuatingly pervasive condition), though I’m not sure it was that or fear-of-missing-out that induced me to tune in to Glastonbury on the TV. It certainly wasn’t the acts themselves, none of which is on my list of favourites, past or present. I sampled the Foo Fighters, but ten minutes of the singer’s unintelligible screaming was all I could endure. I tried again, with Ed Sheeran and, although he accomplished a lot more with a lot less, even his talent turned tedious after half an hour. Maybe you have to be there to get it. In any case, the music belongs to a younger generation – and one that likes to capture everything on phones.
Shunning the TV I went to a live gig more attuned to my vintage – the Steely Dan copy-band called Nearly Dan, which is pleasingly faithful to the original, especially when you close your eyes. The audience comprised enthusiastic, mature fans, most of whom were able to remain standing, at least until the interval. However, a younger chap immediately in front of me hoisted a phone above his head and proceeded to film the act. After a while, I objected that he was blocking my view and distracting me from the performance. He desisted without protest and, soon afterwards, slunk off elsewhere, but what had he hoped to gain by recording thus?
Now that everyone has a video recorder in their pocket, filming is no longer the exclusive realm of professionals: the next day, at the cinema, I watched a ‘film’ which, apart from one short sequence, was shot entirely on phones – and not very well, at that. It was Andrew Kotting’s Edith Walks, an unscripted, unstructured video-journal of him and a few friends walking, in fancy dress, from Waltham Abbey, where some of King Harold’s body-parts are said to be interred, to St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a statue of Harold dying in the embrace of his wife/lover, Edith Swan-Neck. I could have done that, I thought, (except that I didn’t) and if Kotting can persuade people to pay to see his videos in cinemas, as opposed to airing them on YouTube, perhaps there are commercial opportunities awaiting swathes of hibernating content embedded in billions of SD cards around the world. Maybe there will be a release soon of Nearly Dan Live: Uncut and Rudely Interrupted.
I tried once more with Glastonbury but the music interested me much less than the presence of contemporaries – celebrities such as John Snow and Jeremy Corbyn – men who might be expected not to share the musical taste of their children and grandchildren. But they may have attended for other reasons: Glastonbury is not an exclusively musical event whereas (cue nostalgia) Woodstock and the Isle of Wight most certainly were. It was at the end of August 1969 that I took the ferry from Portsmouth to join 150,000 other music fans on the IOW. A major draw, for me, was Bob Dylan who, until then, had been missing-rumoured-dead following a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, he re-surfaced and chose to play IOW rather than Woodstock. (I know all this now because of the internet: at the time I was clueless.) I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix and Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well but, thanks again to the internet, I know that they weren’t there until the following year – which is strange because I don’t recall going then.
My presence in 1969, however, is not in doubt. I was the only one of my crew who possessed a camera and, among the few shots I took (they were expensive, remember), there is one of the distant stage and, with the aid of a magnifying glass, you can make out 2nd Isle of Wight Festival of Music 1969 written on the proscenium arch. I must have run out of film at the 1970 Festival. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Air-Con Discomfort

In Manchester, the heatwave continues and I have availed myself of the air-con in a new coffee-bar that has opened in the lobby of the hotel across the road. It’s a good place to cool down, quiet and comfortable, with a friendly barista who is ‘passionate’ about coffee. Nevertheless, somewhere in the back of my conscience lurks a qualm. It has to do with the state of the environment and a statistic I read recently: in 2015, the power consumed by air-con units in the USA exceeded that used in the whole of Africa for everything. Air-con is essentially selfish: not only does it consume power, but it also dumps the heat extracted from interior spaces to the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming. It was partly guilt at my participation in this ecologically questionable technology that drove me to find a natural method of cooling off: I took the campervan out to the hills of Derbyshire where, for a few days, I lived in a field where breezes blew, trees provided shade and refreshing dew formed on the lush, green grass overnight.
The site was close to the village of Eyam, famous for its grim history. (When the Great Plague of 1665 reached Eyam, the villagers voluntarily isolated themselves from surrounding populations to minimise contagion.) While there, I visited Eyam Hall, the home of a rich family, which is now open to the public. Built six years after the plague, it is of interest for reasons other than morbidity, i.e. architectural, horticultural and historical. Sitting in the middle of the village the double-fronted manor house is isolated from others by a courtyard, outbuildings and extensive grounds. Strolling around the handsome house and beautiful-but-modest gardens caused me to reflect on social inequality and the ways in which it is manifest. Here, in a 17th century English village, rich and poor lived on the same few streets, in differing states of comfort, but with one thing shared: the unpolluted environment. How different from what was to come!
Industrialisation caused the movement of people to centres of manufacturing, where the combination of pollution and inadequate housing separated rich from poor in ways that persist to this day. Those who could afford to built their houses away from the filth, while those who could not were obliged to huddle together wherever was cheapest. Friedrich Engels, in the 1880s, was appalled by the “teeming cellars” inhabited by Manchester’s workers. He also reflected on the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as applied to the physical separation of the classes, which made it less likely that empathy might play a part in stimulating compassionate social reform.
Meanwhile modern cities such as New York and Chicago were building upwards rather than outwards and those who could afford to would leave the squalor of the streets for the clean air, light and security of skyscraper apartment blocks. In Britain’s low-rise cities, residential towers gained currency post 1945, albeit translated into low-cost units for the workers and, although they provided access to cleaner air and light, they have generally been a failed experiment in social engineering and worse, cost many lives through deficient construction, unlike the more recently built ‘luxury’ apartment towers in some city centres. Meanwhile, another phenomenon has occurred: those who own valuable houses in cities are resorting to digging out their basements to increase their living space. It is, apparently, less expensive than buying land on the surface or up in the air.
As for the old advice to “buy land, they ain’t making it any more”, it no longer applies – to the rich, at least. In Dubai they are sucking up sand from the seabed and depositing it to form ‘new’ land. Then they import sand from Australia to mix the concrete to build skyscrapers, which are uninhabitable without air-con. It’s enough to make you choke on your cappuccino.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Presence of Absence?

I had arranged to stay in London for a while, to catch up with friends and relatives that I don’t see as often as I would like. As the train passed Watford, there was the customary announcement over the speakers of the imminent closure of the on-board shop. Unlike many of the announcements, this one is not spoken by a pre-recorded voice, which means that there is scope for some unscripted, human communication – entertainment even – which on this occasion was delivered by a man in laid-back Jamaican style. It went like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the shop will be closing in (pause) about, er, (pause) ten minutes. No, (pause) er, about five minutes (pause) or something like that. (pause) Anyway, I’m closing soon, so if you want any drinks or anything, you better be quick.” It came across as a laconic, mocking rejection of the corporate robo-speak of the Virgin Trains manufactured persona. I only wish that all those passengers insulated by earphones, listening to their own pre-recorded material, could have heard and appreciated that unique human moment in an otherwise predictably mechanical two-hour journey. Perhaps it would have made them smile too.
The time in London was packed, as intended, with socialising but I did find chinks in the schedule to indulge myself in some solitary pursuits: when people surround you, a little time to yourself is precious, to be savoured or made use of, not frittered away like an interval in the drama that is your life. It could be a restorative walk along the riverside, seeking out a coffee-bar to sit in and read the paper, perhaps with a fresh, flaky croissant, returning to the social whirl stimulated and ready to relish the company of others. One day I went to the Geffrye Museum of the Home where a succession of period room-sets illustrates the progressing fashions in British domestic interiors since the Middle Ages. Afterwards I concluded that I have missed my time and that I should have been most at home in a modernist bachelor apartment circa 1932. There I would have sat in a deep, streamlined armchair, puffing on a pipe while reading the paper and listening to a huge wooden wireless set; although I suppose that, after half an hour or so, I would have picked up the Bakelite telephone and sought the company of friends.
Another day I spent an hour (or was it two?) at the National Portrait Gallery, driven by curiosity to see how Howard Hodgkin – whose paintings appear to be entirely abstract – rendered his portraits of friends and acquaintances without resorting to the figurative method. (I was also curious to see whether my proposal to fix mirrors to the wall in the restaurant had yet been implemented – but that’s another story.)  All I knew about Hodgkin’s paintings was that they are gorgeously colourful and intriguingly abstract. Was this exhibition of his portraits, Absent Friends, some sort of artistic hoax? A re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes? However, the labelling and interpretive information provided by the curator explained that the artist sought to “evoke a human presence” rather than depict a physical likeness and, once I understood this, I had my explanation as to why the work intrigued me. (I had long ago been seduced by the colours.)
Hodgkin, apparently, worked his memories of his subjects and the places they inhabited into those portraits, thereby immortalising his experience. Most of us make do with reminiscing from time to time – perhaps at occasional gatherings, maybe after a few drinks – and when we die, so do our memories. Nevertheless, the experience sharpened my purpose and I returned to my social calendar determined to continue celebrating those who have influenced me over the years and building my store of memories, even if I shan’t be handing them on to posterity.