Saturday, 30 July 2011

Summertime Stress

It’s summertime and the living is, well, frantic. The pressure is on to enjoy oneself at picnics, barbeques, early-evening-cocktails on sunny terraces, jazz festivals, literary, festivals, general-purpose culture festivals – not to mention camping, glamping, hiking, biking, tennis and cricket. Anxious as I am to make hay while the sun shines I find myself at risk of dipping into rather too many of these activities while not engaging meaningfully with any one of them. So I have decided to whittle down the list by excluding some on the grounds of waning enthusiasm (e.g. open-air theatre and music events) and others on the grounds of lack of interest in the first place (e.g. tennis and cricket).
The game of cricket has never appealed. It strikes me as having one very obvious flaw: it was devised to be played outdoors – in England. This fundamental weakness, despite all logic, seems to have become accepted as an essential part of the game and has even been reinforced by the format of international Test Matches. Not only are these matches spread over four (or is it five?) days of treacherously variable weather, they are also played out in various parts of England in order to ensure maximum risk of exposure to our capricious climate. Perhaps this was intended to demonstrate to Johnny Foreigner just how mad we are. Or was the motive more underhand- a cunning idea  to put him off his stroke? I note that the game of tennis also has similarly eccentric characteristics but at least someone has at last concluded that a roof might be a good idea.
The exclusion of sports and outdoor cultural events leaves me with a more manageable to-do list but, although the summer is yet young, I fear there is no time to lose. I have already missed a few events I fancied just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Added to this is the disappointment of time wasted due to the panic-purchase of a ticket to see a famous performance artist. I spent the first half of her show wondering just how it was possible to progress a story quite so slowly but rescued the situation at the interval by going to spend the second part, more profitably, in convivial company at the beer tent in Albert Square.
Now we are in the middle of the Manchester Jazz Festival and I am faced with the dilemma of which gigs to attend. Jazz, being a catchall title for a huge body of music, includes styles which I like and styles which I don’t so, coming back to the point of the exercise, I should have no trouble compiling a shortlist - always remembering to leave room for some horizon-expanding, experimental listening. It was during one of the experimental sessions, however, that I was reminded of this maxim: a gentleman is defined as a chap who has mastered the technique of playing the banjo but who refrains from doing so in public. The gig in question featured not the banjo but the vibraphone which, after being hammered mercilessly for twenty minutes, began to display its limited capacity as a tool for musical expression. In contrast to this I recall a later gig comprising the simple trio of piano, bass and drums whose ability to make exalted and exciting music was a reaffirmation of some classic principles of jazz.
I don’t really want to close my ears to any particular music genre in case, by doing so, I might miss a sublime musical experience.  Nevertheless, with the end of the summer season in mind, the field must be narrowed and priorities must be established somehow. I am reminded of a friend who, when asked to name her favourite music genre replied, without hesitation, “Compilations!” I think she may have hit upon an idea for the perfect, all-inclusive, time-efficient, stress-free, summer music festival.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Artsy in Arles

Lest it be perceived that, during my week in Arles, all my energy was expended in seeking pleasure in bars and cafes, I would like to make it clear that there was a higher motive for my visit. It was the opening week of the annual international photography event which hosts a multitude of exhibitions, lectures, discussions, prize-givings, launches, workshops and the like. I had been lured there by friends whose world is photography and who, over the years, had convinced me that I would enjoy the place with its historic Roman legacy, the Mediterranean climate, the craic and, perhaps, even some of the photography. 

So it was that I found myself, an outsider with inside connections, shaking hands over pink wine and canapés with photographers, technicians, critics, publishers, curators and gallery owners. I even ventured into a few of the photo exhibitions although, being something of an ingénue, I had no idea whether they were among the most critically acclaimed: I leave those value judgements to the professionals. I did, however, consider myself fully qualified to evaluate the refreshments served at the various events and it came as no surprise to find that the excellence of the canapés was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the sponsor. One evening we would be smiling politely at each other over plastic containers of cheap wine at the opening of an unknown artist and, the next evening, jostling greedily for the champagne and chef’s offerings at a prestigious prize-giving in a five-star hotel. For the hangers-on, or ‘liggers’ as we are sometimes known, each of these occasions is to be appreciated, of course, but - the better the quality the more the appreciation.
For such pleasures, however, a small price can be expected and this is usually exacted in the form of having to listen to speeches. At one small gallery the exhibition opening ceremony took place in the narrow street outside because the showroom was too small and too hot to contain a crowd. The passers-by were mostly tolerant of the crush but, just as the mayor was welcoming us, a motorcyclist wove through our throng twisting his throttle-grip intermittently as if revving up to start a race. The mayor’s speech, apart from being unintelligible to me (my French is rudimentary) was also rendered inaudible. Nevertheless a round of applause ensued which coincided nicely with the exit, from her front door, of a local resident who made a graceful half-bow in recognition of this unexpected acclaim. The curator then took a turn at speaking, competing for attention with a man on a bike, who looked as if he was on his way home from work and desperate to get to his dinner regardless of artsy inconveniences. There might have been a serious incident but timely, evasive actions ensured that only a few drinks were spilled and Gallic curses exchanged. Well before the next speaker started his address I had made up my mind to slink off and shun the free wine in favour of a safe and comfortable seat somewhere with a refreshing beer and a decent supper menu. I never did get to enter the gallery.
Nor did I get to take any photos (or ‘make any work’ as the professionals might say) of my own. I put it down to intimidation. In Arles there was a massive number of cameras – as you might expect – and, in particular, an abundance of those with retro styling: black, 35mm-styled bodies, many with massive lenses bolted on to the front, hung around the neck with serious webbing. Even the niftiest, neatest, tiniest, technology-packed, glinting jewel of a camera looked like a toy in comparison. I kept my ten-year old, clunky relic well hidden for fear of ridicule. And nobody was to be seen taking photos with their phone – at least, not in public. 

Friday, 15 July 2011

Cafe Life in Arles

There may well be statistical proof that not all young Frenchwomen smoke but it didn’t look that way during the week I spent in Arles at the beginning of July. I have heard it said (by young Englishwomen) that they smoke in order to stay thin because they  eat, without restraint, le foie gras, les glaces, les croissants, le cake and numerous other delicacies forbidden to would-be slim people. Whatever their motivation the smokers of Arles most certainly have a sympathetic environment. Every bar and cafe spills its tables and chairs out onto the street so that its customers may casually add their exhalations to the sultry, Mediterranean miasma.

Those ancient, unplanned, miniature streets play host to drinkers and diners regardless of any traffic. One day I watched an oncoming motorcyclist approach a lunch party whose tables were stretched across the street leaving barely enough room for pedestrians to pass. I expected a confrontation but was amazed by the way he and the unconcerned diners at the end of the table made an accommodation so that he was able to manoeuvre through the narrow gap without dismounting - and without a drop of vin rose being spilt. No comment was passed nor word spoken. The party resumed lunching and la patronne, seated inside, lifted her plaster-encased leg onto a stool positioned deliberately in front of an electric fan.

The centre of Arles has no familiar ‘chain’ establishments among the abundance of bars, cafes and restaurants although I did see signposts to McDonald’s pointed towards the outskirts of town – a place too far to contemplate venturing for such meagre incentive.  With such a profusion of bars and eateries in the crowded streets and squares I was faced daily by the problem of which one to choose. Every lunchtime and coffee break presented this dilemma- made no less difficult by the local entrepreneurs, who all seemed to offer the same dishes at much the same prices. Of course I could base my decisions on the appearance and ambience of the competing establishments, which was fine for the first few undiscerning days of my visit. But later in the week I began to tire of three choices of wine- red, white or rose- and basic cuisine and began to comb the side streets for more challenging menus.

This strategy didn’t always succeed in delighting – there was a memorable, over-priced disappointment in a Michelin-recommended restaurant – but, when it worked, it felt like a minor triumph. There was a ‘mom and pop’ restaurant where the waitress mimed for us the ritual method of preparation for the toasted bread accompaniment to the fish soup; there was the sheer delight of drinking a bottle of Cotes du Rhone which, for once, did not disappoint and there was the charm of being waited on by people who were friendly yet professional.

Arles, like so many places which depend on visitors to drive their local economy, has its own dilemma in maintaining a balance between being itself and becoming a caricature. One sign that it might be resisting theme-park status is the dogged determination of the majority of businesses to remain closed on Sunday and Monday regardless of the hoards of potential customers roaming the streets. But there are spectres on the horizon: on the last day there I had lunch in a very French, tourist-free restaurant where, from the first floor terrace, I spied across the road Paddy Mullins Irish Pub.

I wonder: if all the Irish pubs in the world were to incorporate would they constitute a bigger business than McDonald’s?

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Twice in One Day?

Every now and then performers try to involve their audience by, quite literally, employing their audience: for example, the singer who implores us all to clap along in time (?), the comedian who uses a punter as a butt for jokes or the theatre company which enlists unwilling “volunteers” from the front row. These may be useful techniques for performers but they are not universally appreciated by those who are caught up in them. Indeed I have found myself hauled up on stage (too timid or polite to refuse) and humiliated in front of the public for the benefit of a performance. Some people chosen thus clearly enjoy the experience; for others it can mark the onset of a life-long aversion to live performance.

Fortunately, I have been able to put the trauma of that early humiliation behind me and continue to attend all sorts of performances in search of inspiration. Recently, for example - and for the second time in short succession - I found myself at a concert of classical choral music. This is not a genre for which I claim any special fondness or expert knowledge but I was seduced by a cleverly written e-mail inviting me to attend a free lunch-time concert. The Hungarian choir, Ars Nova Sacra, was to sing at the Quaker Meeting House, in support of a collection for Amnesty International. At least, I thought, I won’t be required to clap along this time.

Although it is an amateur choir this is a very accomplished and respected ensemble with a repertoire of songs by renowned classical composers from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. To my untutored ear the singing was consistently sonorous, harmonious and effortless all the way through the programme. But, when it came to the last three songs, which were by Hungarian composers, there was a distinct enhancement of the performance - a sting in the tail, an unexpected ingredient. The introduction of the native material added a dimension of passion to the singers’ voices which brought the music alive beyond the pure technicalities of recitation. This noticeable injection of emotion caused tears to well in my eyes - as if some forgotten or neglected stop-cock had been loosened without warning.

Later that day I queued devotedly to obtain one of the scarce tickets for an unusual production of a play - a Dickensian story set in an authentically Dickensian building. The stage adaptation of Hard Times was performed not on a stage but in a disused, Victorian mill. The half-dozen sets were distributed over the spacious, emptied floor of the mill where the architecture and the smell of the oil-impregnated floorboards evoked the realities of Manchester’s 19th century manufacturing industry. We, the audience, were required to follow the actors as they progressed the action from one set to the next - thus presenting interesting challenges for all concerned. The actors had nowhere to hide between scenes and jostled with the audience to reach the next set. In this they had the advantage, in so far as they had rehearsed the moves, but people can adapt quickly and it wasn’t long before some of us began to recognise the clues and develop the techniques required to get ourselves into prime positions - pronto!

Preoccupied as I was by acquiring mastery of these cunning tactics, I was in danger of missing the point of the play, until I realised that the peculiar advantage of this type of production is that a choice of perspectives is available to the audience. Being able to observe the performance from some unusual angles I become more engrossed by the action than I might otherwise have been. It was Theatre’s answer to Cinema’s 3D.  I stood almost in-between the leading lady and her father while she passionately lamented her predicament. I could see the actors’ eyes glistening with tears and had to hold myself back from intervening.  From the back of the stalls, perhaps, I might have been more detached.

For the second time that day I searched my pockets for Kleenex and had cause to thank others for showing me the way.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Barber Shop Banter

My patience was tested recently at the barber’s where I waited my turn while a teenager hogged the chair. He seemed intent that each hair on his head should be cut individually and the result carefully assessed in mirrors before the process could be allowed to continue. I know that this kind of anxious, self-conscious behaviour is common to all adolescents but I recall that the boarding school I attended had a very special way of dealing with it: a barber was imported, periodically, to cut everyone’s hair. He worked on piece-rate and had only one style option, so the outcome was always quick and we knew in advance what we were going to get. There was no consideration for angst or vanity, nor did it matter, since we were all in the same boat – unless, of course, there was a prospect of being seen outside the school grounds by a member of the public before one’s hair had a chance to recover from the devastation he had inflicted.

Nevertheless it was a simple and efficient process and just lately I have been hankering for a return to this unburdened approach to personal grooming. I have begun by sampling some of the dozen or so barbers who operate within a few minutes’ walk of my home. The problem, each time, is that I have to explain anew what I want. When the barber asks “How would you like it, sir?” there is a short list of possible answers: one is to give a confident, technically detailed brief which can involve quoting numbers relating to clippers. Another unambiguous option is to hold up a photo of George Clooney or similar. I seem, however, always to be caught out by the question, as if it were unexpected, so I normally resort to “Just a trim, please – not too much off the back and sides” which, naturally, leaves room for interpretation. I did once try to make light of my answer but the humour fell flat. Barber: “How would you like it sir?” Me: “Oh, you know, just make me look a bit younger and trendier”. Barber: “I’m a barber – not a bleedin’ magician”. Other customers (smirking and burying their heads in Autocar, out of date copies of The Daily Mail and the free Metro): silent. I suppose barbers have heard them all before.

Starting off in the ‘budget’ price band, so as to minimise the cost of the experiment, my research last led me to a red-and-white striped pole above an entrance to a mini-cab office. It was flanked by a row of fast-food outlets, computer-repair shops and a musical instrument emporium. The doorway sheltered a couple of smoking, off-duty cabbies. Past them and upstairs the barber shared the first floor with a Thai massage-cum-aromatherapy business while, on the floor above, a tattooist offered elaborate body piercings. The barber worked alone and, since he was not busy, we got into conversation. I discovered that he had previously worked in London at Geo. F. Trumper’s (established 1855) on Curzon Street, Mayfair so, on the basis of such credentials, I sought his expert opinion on a couple of barbering matters. How frequently should a man have his haircut? Answer: every three weeks. Why don’t you offer to shave beards? Answer: too much time and money involved. I didn’t get around to asking about his methods for interpreting the preferences of customers who are unable or unwilling to communicate them but, on the evidence of the perfectly satisfactory job he did for me, he must have some way. Perhaps he is a kind of magician?

My desultory research now includes attempting to guess at other men’s propensity to be assertive in the barber’s chair by (discreetly) observing their hair. It’s an imprecise science but, in the process, I have developed a degree of empathy for those whose untamed, natural hairiness suggests that they may have given up on being barbered altogether and settled instead for a life less stressful.