Saturday, 31 December 2011

Northern Wonders

My life began in the Mediterranean, despite which I am drawn inexorably northward. Over time I have acquired a fondness for the landscape and culture of northern Britain - and a corresponding aversion to those of the Home Counties. Fortunately my partner shares some of my preferences and so joined me on a recent northern excursion which included hikes along part of Hadrian’s Wall and the Northumberland coast, a visit to the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel and a peek at the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Hadrian’s Wall (true to the fate of all such artificial barriers to human migration) was ultimately ineffective and, as soon as the Romans went home, it became a source of free, ready-cut stone for local building projects. In this respect at least the wall brought some benefit to the locals – unlike its modern-day equivalents made of massive concrete slabs. What remains of the ancient wall, however, certainly demonstrates the Romans’ remarkable engineering skills and their appetite for grand projects. It is also testament to their human endurance for, when we were there, in that remote and hilly place, the weather was so hostile that it was difficult to imagine how they could have accomplished such a work without the benefit of Goretex.

The outdoor-clothing industry would have us believe that there is no such thing as bad weather so long as you have appropriate clothing - but the next hike, along the coast, called this principle into question: the prevailing gale-force wind battered us into submission and, within a few hours, we were obliged to bring forward the ‘indoor’ section of our tour.

Rosslyn Chapel, a symphony of carved sandstone, was built about 1000 years after the Romans had left Britain and about 600 years before the next significant event – the invention of waterproof, windproof, breatheable, hi-tech fabrics. Its myriad carvings are not only extraordinary but also fascinating because the meaning and significance of many of them is now obscure. Were it otherwise the chapel would hold less mystery, the legends that surround it would not exist and Dan Brown would have had to find some other setting for the denouement of The da Vinci Code.

Whereas the interior decoration of Rosslyn Chapel was accomplished entirely by stone-carving, that of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was achieved by the application of colourful murals and skilfully crafted woodwork, rendering the interior itself a thing of wonder - especially if compared with the stark, neutral interiors of many contemporary exhibition spaces. This building holds no mystery; it is a hall of fame containing a well-documented, pictorial record of those who feature in the nation’s history and, traditionally, the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful who could afford to commission portrait painters. But egalitarianism and photography have combined to level the ground so that, on these walls, a much broader section of society is represented and the historical record is more comprehensive.

But early Scottish history had not the benefit of contemporary painters and so has been visualised here in retrospectively painted murals. One of these represents St. Columba brandishing a wooden cross as he preaches to a group of Pictish warriors who are paying (incredibly) polite attention to his message.  Others depict imagined scenes of battle in which muscular natives repel fearsome invaders. They are romantic interpretations and I am inclined to question their authenticity, especially given the inadequacy of the characters’ clothing, which appears to have been modelled on the Mediterranean style circa 2000 B.C. – and there’s not a thread of tartan to be seen!

Driving back (without let or hindrance) across the border and through the remains of Hadrian’s Wall I pondered the fact that people nowadays may well be more suitably dressed for the weather but many are nevertheless still employed in the futile building of walls.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Little Worlds

There is a small scrap of grassy land near the back entrance of the Town Hall. I never really noticed it before because it is sunken and hidden by bushes but, when the ‘Occupy’ protesters set up camp there, I discovered that it has an official name - the Peace Garden.
“So why exactly are you here?” I asked one of the more approachable campers. “It’s a public space so we have every right to be here” he answered. “Yes but you’ve now made it into a private space. You’ve appropriated it for yourselves” I said. I considered this to be a valid point but he sidestepped this argument by inviting me to come and join them. A lively discussion ensued, during which he revealed that he had no home of his own and had been consigned to a hostel full of thieving smackheads and so he preferred to live in a tent in the Peace Garden. He then started to question me about my circumstances: did I have a home, an income etc? After a while we parted - on friendly terms, but not as friends: our worlds, regardless of their geographical proximity, were too far apart for us to mingle with social ease.
A few streets further on and now feeling in the mood for random inter-planetary dialogue, I bumped into a lone canvasser who urged me to take one of his leaflets.  “Thanks” I said, sensing proselytising, “but if it’s about religion I have no interest”. “No” he said, “it’s not about religion, it’s about Jesus and salvation”. I took the leaflet anyway but decided, on this occasion, not to pursue an argument. Instead I steered a course well out of his orbit.
During that brief time, within those few streets, my little world had collided with two other little worlds - each with its own set of values, priorities and boundaries. How many more little worlds must there be out there?
I travelled somewhat farther to encounter the next one, driving through the rush hour one dark, rainy evening to get to the Lake District. The haloed lights of the traffic advancing and receding in the blackness lent the feel of a Star Trek galactic mission to my journey and, when I turned off the main road onto the last few, unlit, lonely miles of winding, single-track up the valley to Wasdale Head, there was a sensation of being drawn into a black hole. But gradually the rain ceased and the cloud parted to reveal a full moon which, in turn, illuminated snow-dusted mountains looming all around - as if they had been lying in wait - their presence betrayed at last by the silver light. I stepped out of my spaceship at the head of the valley where, but for the lazy drift of the dispersing clouds, the motionless mountains bathed in eerie light looked like an artfully painted theatrical backdrop. Had I really landed on another planet this time?
In the morning the mountains were still beautiful but the illusion of other-worldliness had vanished with the moonlight. I was back on more familiar territory and set out to locate a farm where cheese is made and sold. I found it tucked away at the end of a gated track. My approach was undetected until I knocked at a door which was opened by a sixty-something man in corduroy trousers and a nice cardigan. He seemed surprised that I wanted to buy cheese but recovered his composure as he led me to the outhouse where his wife was busy cutting it into portions and sealing it in wax. This pair of mild-mannered, softly-spoken southerners might have been retired teachers who had decided on a change of lifestyle. The cheese was weighed, packaged and paid for while we tried some awkward conversation but I felt they were relieved when I said goodbye and left them to their solitude. Another collision of tiny worlds, another awkward moment: it’s not so easy communicating with beings from another planet.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Stranded with an mp3 Player

I had just learned something that I should have known but didn’t: Rod Stewart’s monster hit ‘Maggie May’ has no chorus! So what? Well, this is extraordinary because, according to the experts, a pop-song without a chorus is a certain flop. So how could it have been so successful? I wanted to hear it again to assess its magical qualities (and, while I was at it, find out whether John Peel really had played the famous mandolin solo when the band appeared on Top of the Pops back in 1971, or whether I had been a little ‘confused’ at the time). Not possessing a copy of the record, I turned to the internet for fulfilment; which is where my trials began.
I decided to get myself a music-streaming account so that I could access “all of the music, all of the time”. Setting up an internet account involves a security procedure which requires answers to questions such as: What was the name of the first street you lived in? What was your first school? What was your first pet’s name? Producing answers is straightforward provided that you lived in a house, on a street, went to school and had a pet. Whoever compiled these questions obviously had a ‘normal’ upbringing and assumes that everyone else did.
But it’s not an insurmountable problem for the determined applicant whose early lifestyle was a bit ‘alternative’: these facts can be invented and noted down for later reference. What I found more difficult was the other set of questions: What is your favourite film/book/song? Suddenly I was expected to make instant value judgments on vast tracts of cultural output. Not so fast! First of all I needed to categorise everything into genres - possibly even sub-genres - and, especially in the case of songs, factor-in time, place and mood. Besides, how is it possible to have favourites before having seen all the films, read all the books and heard all the songs?
Pedantry of this order would make me an awkward guest for Desert Island Discs – a programme which I long to be invited on. I guess I would need about six months notice to come up with my shortlist, even though I have already given it considerable thought in anticipation of my invitation. I will divide my selection into two categories: nostalgic and inspirational. The nostalgic would indulge my need to reflect on the past and the inspirational would provide hope for an otherwise bleak outlook.
But it could be some time before my invitation arrives so meanwhile, back on the website, I came across a major obstacle: the sound is delivered in mp3 format - which is disappointing; all of the music, all of the time, but compressed, distorted and with some frequencies missing. I spent an hour or two reading on-line forums about the great ‘bit-rate’ controversy and was comforted to discover that there are people who are even more particular than I but, as one of them concluded, “There is no way out so get your head around the message and stop fretting about the medium”.
In the case of ‘Maggie May’ he may have a point. Researchers claim that the drummer’s bass pedal was not working properly during the recording session, yet this had no perceived effect on the sound quality and certainly did not diminish its popularity then or since. Nevertheless, when I am asked by the presenter of Desert Island Discs which luxury I would like to take with me I will ask for a super hi-fi system.
But I suppose that, by then, it will have become ‘Desert Island mp3s’ and I will have to make do with 260 kbit/s sound-quality. At least Maggie May will sound OK and I will have plenty of time to rake through my memory for evidence of John Peel’s mandolin solo.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Clock This!

I have often wondered why the City of Manchester labelled its principal civic building the Town Hall. The only convincing explanation I have heard is that, by so doing, it kept the peace between the supporters of its two main football teams, one of which (for the uninitiated) is called Manchester City F.C. In any case it’s a remarkable building and I recently joined a guided tour of its huge clock tower. I was curious about why so much effort and expense had gone into building a giant clock.

A dozen of us gathered in the lobby for the inevitable Health & Safety briefing and ritual signing of the disclaimer form. We were a group of strangers, mostly middle- aged and with the earnest look of amateur historians, except for a mother and her teenage daughter who looked as though they had strayed too far from the department store on Deansgate. Perhaps they had won their tickets in a raffle. Nevertheless, undeterred by our guide’s warning of hundreds of steps to climb and no toilet or retail opportunities, they followed as he led the way and told the story.

The building was completed in 1887 when Manchester had become the world’s first industrial city and its inhabitants were wage-slaves whose working lives were strictly ruled by the routine of clocking in and out of the mills. Despite industry’s reliance on measured time, it was apparent that the wage-slaves were too poor to own clocks and watches so the City obliged by building this giant, four-faced clock located 250 feet above Albert Square. In case anyone should miss it (visibility was poor in those days of coal-fired mill engines) they endowed it with an eight-ton bronze bell to strike the hours and a set of smaller bells to chime the halves and quarters.

Half a mile away is the original passenger rail station which, when it opened in 1832, highlighted the fact that there was no standard time in England - which made it impossible to compile train timetables. So there was an international convention to standardise time and Greenwich (after a fight with the French) was appointed as the prime meridian. Our clock was originally regulated by telegraph signal from Greenwich but now has a digital reference from the International Earth Rotation and Reference Service whose boss has the grand title of Director of Time.

By now we had reached the open gallery housing the main bell and were looking down on the city and its historic sites. The mother and daughter spotted the department store and began to look agitated but our guide had more to tell us concerning the architecture:
Not only the clock tower but the entire Town Hall building is, and was intended to be, a lavish statement of power and wealth. Everywhere the details of its design and decoration symbolise the ethics, religion and perceived history of the period. And, in ultimate praise of mammon, the very tip of the Gothic tower was topped with a golden sculpture representing the cotton boll – the blessed source of all Manchester’s wealth.

When the glorious building was complete Queen Victoria was invited to come and cut the ribbon. She however, sulking because of the slights she had been dealt by the politically radical inhabitants of Manchester (its mayor in particular), sent a minion in her stead. Rumour has it that, in retaliation for the snub, a plan was conceived to replace the golden boll with two fingers in a V sign. But for the fact that such an act of treason could have resulted in incarceration in that other Tower (of London), we might have inherited a unique monument to political freedom rather than one to fleeting prosperity – on top of a clock that no one really needs anymore.