Friday, 17 November 2017

Sculpture Blazes a Trail

The train journey back from London, which was pleasant enough already, became more so when the buffet-bar operator announced his wares over the speakers. He had devised a poem and, although it was rudimentary – rhyming “snack” with “track” and “the price is nifty at three pounds fifty” – it was a welcome act of creativity in a situation where none was expected. Moreover, if you agree with Marianne Moore that poetry is “the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads,” the job was well done: there are toads aplenty in Virgin Trains’ buffet bars, however wonderful poetry may imagine them.
Reality hit us, however, when we arrived home to find that our broadband was broken. The subsequent tedious procedure will be familiar, no doubt, to many of you. In this case it comprised the ISP trying to prove that we had unplugged something until, eventually – after two hours on the phone – it conceded that the router was faulty: which left us with the prospect of a weekend (at least) of cadging free wi-fi around town. “Not the end of the world,” I said, “just a return to life as it was Before Broadband, let’s says BB minus10.” And so it was, in this rediscovered spirit of freedom from the shackles of the PC, that we decided to take a Sunday hike from our front door northwards to Bury, following the river Irwell and the Irwell Sculpture Trail.
Old-fashioned luck was on our side, delivering a cloudless sky and a stiff headwind from the Arctic to keep us alert. We packed a picnic and set off early, the days being short at this time of year. The first point of interest, a pictorial mosaic panel set into the footpath of a tiny park in Salford, was in a state of disintegration, despite having been renovated not long ago. Across the road, however, a bronze representation of a giant sycamore seed stood proud and intact, possibly because of its situation in a small square overlooked by a cluster of smart new town houses. Such are the challenges that face public art installations in the urban environment. Further on, we came to the historic Peel Park, established by public subscription in 1846. It had since fallen into disrepair – and disrepute – but, in 2015, acquired a new lease of life with a £1.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This money enabled not only the renovation of the park but also the recruitment of a (single) park-keeper. It did not run, however, to the upkeep of the sculptures, one of which had been tarmacked over, the other missing-presumed-stolen, it having been made of steel.
Further upriver, however, the landscape becomes less populated and the sculptures show fewer signs of violation by vandals. Perhaps it is too far off their beat. In places rough woodlands stand where once there were industrial works or small-holdings; there are extensive playing fields at Kearsley; and, at Clifton, a ‘Country Park’ occupies former coal fields. In fact, there were times during the walk when the sights and sounds of the city conurbation were almost absent and where we were at risk of getting lost in the bush. “Keep the sun on your left shoulder and the wind in your face,” I had to remind myself.
We never made it as far as Bury: the way was winding and took longer than expected, and tiredness began to take precedence over diversions to sculptures that were off the beaten track. When we spotted a station at Radcliffe, we called it a day and hopped aboard a tram amid the throngs of people heading for the Christmas markets in the City Centre. There are 25 more miles of the Trail to explore and, while it may not be an idyll of objets d’art positioned tastefully in landscapes of unaffected natural grace, it does engage the mind and senses with the historic impacts – both destructive and creative – of humans on the landscape. In this respect, there is a kind of poetry to be found in this garden of toads.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


According to the philosopher John Locke, the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts. I agree and that is how I explain my decision to ignore Halloween and everything to do with it. Since I have no truck with its religio-superstitious origins and don’t like the nonsensical capers that those traditions have morphed into, I will have none of it. I am not, however, totalitarian about my preference. For example, when my partner brought home a small pumpkin and set it on the sideboard I did not object: instead, I admired its colour and form. “We can eat it later,” she said, acknowledging my largesse while magnanimously providing me with a logical reason for its presence in the household. Still, it stood there for a week, challenging me to soften my insistence on empiricism in respect of the supposed existence of the spirit world.
During the run-up to Halloween, I endured the freakishly costumed staff in bars, restaurants and shops with a degree of tolerance and forbearance that Scrooge would never have countenanced. On the night itself, however, I stayed in, shut down the TV and resumed my reading of AtThe Existentialist CafĂ© in the hope that I might better understand the subject. However, too much time had elapsed since I first picked up the book and I had to start again to get a grip of the philosophical definitions. Despite my efforts, I went to bed with only a vague notion that existentialism is a way of life that seems to involve a lot of smoke (preferably Gauloises) and mirrors. By way of distraction, I listened to a podcast that featured a discussion on insomnia, its causes and cures. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
The next morning, stepping over the discarded detritus of cheap ghoul costumes, I made my way across the road to the coffee shop, where I pondered – briefly – my understanding of philosophy. When Locke, for example, spoke of actions, would he have included non-actions, such as my ignoring Halloween? Or is that a separate strand of philosophy which might be described as Head-in-the-Sandism ? I didn’t have time to work this out – I had more existentialist things to be getting on with – so I left it hanging for the time being.
Lunch that day was an intriguing experience and one that Locke may well have approved of. I went to a restaurant called Real Junk Food (“feed bellies not bins”), where the ingredients for the meals are all “intercepted” i.e. donated by the commercial supply chain before they get thrown away as waste. Operating as a not-for-profit organisation, the restaurant is run by people who are determined to do something about food waste. Moreover, while they are at it, they are also tackling social exclusion by opening the doors to everyone who wants to come and eat, whether or not they can afford to. In this restaurant, there is no price list: instead, an envelope is placed on the table with an invitation to pay as much or little as you wish or can afford. In this way, the workers on lunch break can sit down with the unemployed and everyone feels good not only about shunning profligate consumption but also about embracing benign socialism. This is truly a case of people committing their thoughts to action.
Arriving home that evening I was greeted by the savoury aroma of good cooking.
“I made a stew.” said my partner.
“Smells great,” I said. “What is it?”
“Pumpkin and chickpeas with harissa,” she said.
So we ate the ornament. How very existentialist. It tasted great, by the way, and the recipe is available on request to anyone who still has a redundant pumpkin and an appetite for empiricism.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Not All There

I have been fascinated by the documentary series The Vietnam War on BBC, watching open-mouthed as the scale of destruction and the ultimate futility of the war are revealed. Especially jaw-dropping was the revelation of the depths of duplicity plumbed by President Nixon, who committed his own troops and subjected millions of Indo-Chinese to bombing in order to ensure his re-election. While in America last month, I saw a recording of the 1960 Presidential election debate between JFK and Nixon and commented afterwards on how polite, well-spoken and civilised they both seemed compared with those in the last election debates – which goes to show how gullible I am. If the evidence of his duplicity as presented by Vietnam is reliable, Nixon ought to have been too ashamed ever to appear in public again. Compared with him, President Trump seems a harmless bumbler.
To a somewhat lesser degree I bear a burden of shame myself: shame that I took little or no notice of the Vietnam War at the time, even though in 1965, when the Americans first piled in, I was the same age as the youngest US recruits. The lack of interest on my part can be explained, of course: it was someone else’s war in a distant part of the world; the information we received was thin and/or manipulated; my education was too limited to enable me to comprehend the enormity of the events; I was simply preoccupied with looking towards my own future. Any and all of the above might apply, but my conscience remains troubled and is worsened by a failed attempt to exonerate myself. I once told someone that, in October1968, having finally seen the light, I joined the anti-war demonstrators in Grosvenor Square. However, on checking the few scraps of archived material I retain from the period, I see that I was actually in a remote part of the Sudan at the time. I have heard it said that people forget years and remember moments or, as in this case, mis-remember them. My shame may be mitigated only by one small act of solidarity – the sheltering of a US draft-dodger at our London flat between 1972-4 (a fact that is verifiable by third party collaborators), at which point I moved to Manchester.
The Vietnam War was over by the time I had settled into my new home, though I am sure that dreadful wars, of which I took no notice, raged in other parts of the world. Here in Manchester, meanwhile, conflict took a more parochial form. The bulldozing of old housing stock in Moss Side disrupted communities and exacerbated both racial tensions and gang rivalries. My engagement with the process was purely tangential. These were the dark days of alcohol licensing when pubs closed early and the only way to get another drink was to go to clubs, some of which were of dubious legality and located in Moss Side. It was advisable to be on best behaviour at such venues, respectful and even grateful, but the edge of danger lent them some excitement. The eventual relaxation of licensing hours led to their closure, though by that time I had outgrown the use for them. There is news, however, of a sort of resurrection: one of them, The Reno, which was demolished in 1986 and has lain undisturbed since, is now being excavated by a group of former frequenters and archaeologists. They obtained permission to excavate the site, arguing that such places are as important to social history studies as are those of any former era. They have found a few interesting items – a pair of flares, a record sleeve and a block of Red Leb(anese) marijuana. The flares and the record sleeve are definitely not mine.

Comparing Apples

I went recently – and for the first time – to New England, so named by the English Puritans who colonised that part of America in 1620. When they landed, they found the natives friendly – but that was before immigration was tightened: these days, visitors are allowed only after having their hand-prints recorded and their retinas scanned. Still, they let me in and I set about looking for comparisons with the original England. I found few, which is unsurprising considering that almost 400 years that have elapsed since the settlers pitched their tents. There are, however, some indelible traces of the old country: the map appears to have had most of England’s place-names scattered randomly over its surface. It includes a Manchester, as well as a Manchester-by-the-Sea, which, having seen the film, one simply had to visit. The first few days, however, were spent in Boston, where I discovered that Harvard University is in Cambridge.
In part I was reminded of Australia, where the scale of the land is similarly at odds with the imported traditions of its colonists and huge vehicles ply vast distances to connect people with facilities. There are, however, some things the two Englands hold in common, one of which is the apple season. Just before my trip, I was at an old estate in Worcestershire, attracted by the opportunity to try and to buy some of its many rare varieties of apple and, my appetite whetted, I did the same when I reached a farmers’ market in Vermont. The choice was not as extensive, but my perception that American apples are all just shiny, pumped-up globes of blandness was blown away. My prejudices against American food generally were further corrected by experiences such as a wholesome breakfast of kale fried with garlic and queso fresco (whatever that is), topped with poached eggs and accompanied by toasted sourdough. Delicious – but let down, unfortunately, by the pot of tea which, I suspect, all Americans refuse to make properly out of spite following the unpleasantness which took place in Boston Harbour in 1773.
A friend of mine once said that her ideal home would be a flat in Manchester with a sea view. I laughed but, as it turns out, this is possible – in the New World. If she moved there, however, she might be disappointed to find that Manchester-by-the-Sea is merely one of the dormitory suburbs that extend from Boston along the north shore of Massachusetts Bay and not the buzzing metropolis she would like to inhabit. The North Shore feels like a refuge, not only from the city but also from the grosser aspects of Trump’s selfish, rapacious neo-liberalism. Unsurprisingly, Trump supporters are thin on the ground in this wealthy-seeming haven of liberal overspill from Harvard, MIT and the teaching hospitals.
Returning home after my brief foray into America, I was on a train the next day to Plymouth in order to attend a family funeral. I picked up a paper to catch up on the latest in the Brexit debacle but an article concerning a revival of interest in our apple heritage seemed more interesting. Apparently, there is growing enthusiasm amongst amateurs for the resurrection and preservation of our apple varieties, determined as they are to repair the damage done by supermarkets and intensive farming. There are, incredibly, 2,200 varieties of apple already on the National Register and they estimate that a thousand more could be added. Even I flinched at the thought of tasting them all.
I arrived in Plymouth with time to spare and took a walk to the Barbican where, at the Mayflower steps, I thought of those Puritan emigrants. They must have been mightily desperate to cross the ocean in that tiny ship. My ‘long-haul’ flight dwindled to a mere jaunt in comparison.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Is No Deal Better Than a Bad Deal?

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda that ended the second Anglo Dutch war, England kept Manhattan, which it had seized from the Netherlands three years earlier, while the Dutch gained the island of Run, which had been the only English outpost in the Indonesian Spice Islands. It seems crazy that the Dutch should have relinquished part-ownership of a continent in order to gain full control of a small island. However, at the time it was seen as a good deal, for it enabled the Dutch to realise their dream of a nutmeg monopoly, since the ten Banda Islands were home to all the world’s nutmeg trees. I don’t know how valuable the nutmeg crop is these days but, since I have had a jar of the spice in my cupboard for at least 20 years, I guess it is not the fastest-moving of commodities. Manhattan, on the other hand, has turned out to be a hot piece of real estate (despite being originally a swamp) and a global financial centre. It seems it is all about location after all.
Of course it is a pity for the Brits that they were unable to hold on to Manhattan long enough to get the real benefit of its subsequent development. They need not have lost it in 1783, since independence was not the preferred option of all colonists. However, their clumsy and unsympathetic governance led to a war they were bound to lose and, ever since, Manhattan and London have been rivals in the real-estate and finance sectors. It was small consolation, I suspect, that the British finally figured out how to cultivate nutmeg trees in Malaysia in the 19th century.
There is no doubt that Britain’s economic strength is a mere shadow of its former self, yet the fact seems to be taking a while to sink in to the consciousness of some natives, notably those who are cushioned by private wealth against the reality of public poverty. Speaking of whom, these last few days have seen central Manchester heavily guarded by police, as the governing Conservative Party holds its annual conference here. The city is a Labour Party stronghold, so the Conservatives’ choice of location is not easily explained: it could be a tactical – if vain – move to win the hearts and minds of Northerners; or it may be that they were offered cheap, off-season room rates; it could even be that Mancunians encouraged them to come here so that they could ridicule them at close-quarters; whatever the reason for their presence, it is tolerated rather than welcomed. Our severely depleted police force has drafted in reinforcements from around the region, making it a good time for burglars and other petty criminals to operate without fear of being nicked.
On Sunday there was a big rally organised by Trades Unions and associated organisations to demonstrate opposition to the Government’s policy of continuing austerity in the provision of public services. The speeches at the rally went down well – as may be expected when preaching to the converted – and everyone set off to march through the streets to the conference centre where they intended to make a great deal of noise so that the Conservatives would feel even more uncomfortable than they probably already did. The idea was a good one, except that the distance between the delegates in the hall and the police perimeter around it was so great as to nullify the effect.
Meanwhile, anti-Brexiteers were also demonstrating nearby in the hope of persuading their few Conservative sympathisers to pressure the Government into changing direction. However, while it attempts to “negotiate” its way out of thousands of laws, treaties and obligations and ignores the real business of government, we remain on course to ‘go Dutch’ and relinquish our part-share in a continent in order to gain full control of a small – and fragmenting – island.