Saturday, 26 May 2012

In Denial

At last The Eurovision Song Contest has a serious reason to be: it has focused the spotlight of publicity on the brutal dictatorship that runs Azerbaijan, this year’s host country, making it clear that we, the masses, have yet another fight on our hands to free our fellows from the tyranny of oligarchy.

Not that I have much scope for helping them out right now: I am busy trying to empty my in-tray so that I can escape to Scotland for two weeks of trekking and whisky-sampling. But as fast as I empty it more stuff lands and demands my attention. During my sleep I dream about tasks unfulfilled and, on waking, am disinclined to approach the desk for fear they have multiplied. One may argue that the tyranny of my in-tray is a self-inflicted misery which could be resolved by the dispatch of each item as soon as it lands. But this would be no less a tyranny since it would demand instant action regardless of my inclination. The only way I can see to dodge all this stress is to live the life of a Buddhist monk.

Instead of which I might just buy a stack of 3 trays. It would work like this: the top tier would contain things that must be done urgently - such as the payment of a tax bill - in order to avoid imprisonment or dire financial penalty. The second tier would be for things that ought to be done urgently - such as sponsoring nephews doing sporting challenges - but which incur softer, social penalties. The bottom tier would be the repository for things I would really like to do - such as see all the films, plays and gigs whose reviews I have cut out and collected hopefully. This would be the tray of dreams and the penalty for ignoring it, regret, only become payable at some time in the distant future. Any life-coach guru worth their salt would absolutely reverse this running order.

As a prelude to the Scottish trip I went walking with friends on the sodden peat moorlands of the so-called “Forest” of Bowland where it became evident that my cracked and leaking trekking boots were beyond repair and that their replacements should be given the same top priority status as paying off HMRC. Buying new boots is a pleasingly straightforward process because they are among the few items of clothing which are not in thrall to fashion (unless they are made in Italy). Nor can buying them sensibly be done on the internet: a perfect fit is all-important and a visit to a specialist shop essential.

And specialist shops are staffed by experts: in this case a young woman whose knowledge of boots and trekking shone like a beacon through the haze of indecision that overcame me as I confronted the massive display of footwear. She measured my feet, offered me a choice of two pairs and within 15 minutes had me paying top whack for an indestructible pair of Austrians. Good boots are expensive but there is satisfaction to be had in paying for quality rather than branding - or so I assured myself.

I felt a little foolish wearing these big boots at home - for that is what she advised to resolve any lingering doubts about the fit (they won’t take them back if they have been worn outdoors) - but I am convinced they do fit and must now decide on the best place to file the “caring for your boots” leaflet which I have dumped into the in-tray. I will deal with it when I return from Scotland - but I do hope they will have sorted out that trouble in Azerbaijan by then.

Friday, 18 May 2012


Don’t worry, public libraries aren’t closing down: they’re just migrating to cyber-space. If, however, you don’t know where cyber-space is you are doomed - for neither do they. I tried to borrow an ebook from the City Library the other day and found out that it’s not quite as slick a process as the Kindle/Amazon model. For a start they only have one (1) copy available to borrow - just like printed books. Perhaps it was my incomprehension of this fact that confused my attempt to navigate the website and resulted in a failed download.

The next day I walked to the remains of the City Library to seek assistance and found that the ladies there were willing but unable to help. None of the three I spoke to knew how to download ebooks from the collection in their charge. They did try to phone Janet, their expert on the subject, who works somewhere in cyber-space three days a week, but she finishes early on Thursdays and I had missed her. They promised Janet would email me (tech-wizz that she is) and sort it out. Before I left one of them confided to me that the library service is now staffed with “generic workers” - the definition of which appears to be “people who are paid to know nothing about the job”.

But out in the low-tech world nice things still happen. Last week a rare concatenation of events - a rain-free, sunny day and a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield - reminded me of how joyful it can be to experience art. The visit included the services of a specialist (non-generic) curator who took us through a tour of the recently installed Joan Miró exhibition - an excellent, if lazy, way to acquire the background information which usefully contextualises abstract art. Something that occurred to me was that Miró, whether he intended to or not, developed a very successful brand. His pieces became easily recognisable and, good branding being good business, his subsequent commercial success brought him a big, modern studio and the resources to make ever-larger sculptures.

After the YSP we visited The Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield where we enjoyed another learned tour in the charge of an expert curator. I began to be aware that Barbara Hepworth's sculptures have something in common with those of Miró - distinctive branding. Moreover, they too got bigger as she became richer. But our curator was particularly pleased to point out two small, early pieces positioned side by side. One - the famous, iconic Pelagos which she described as “the cover shot model” for catalogues - and another, less familiar work recently discovered in the headmistress’ study at Wakefield Girls’ High School. It was called Quiet Form which, with a little imaginative punctuation, might aptly have been re-named Quiet, form!

Back at home, art a distant, fond memory, my frustrations with technology resumed. While waiting for my PC to install 58 unrequested updates (it having stuck for three hours on number 17) I filled my time with some ironical reading on the subject of  technological advances. An article which caught my attention concerned three-dimensional printing which, for the uninitiated, is the conversion of computer-generated 3D visualisations into solid forms via ‘printers’ which exude tiny granules of matter in very thin layers to build up solid forms. I was just musing that, if I were a sculptor, I might be seduced by this labour-saving technology when my phone pinged and I opened an email from Janet at the library. It had no content.

I look forward optimistically to the day when those of us with 3D printers will be able to download sculptures from cyber-space libraries.

Friday, 11 May 2012

It's Been a Busy Week

It’s been a busy week. Included in its highlights were a film about Bob Marley, an octogenarian birthday party, a Blues gig, an intimate supper with friends, a software upgrade and a bloody encounter with a cauliflower. They are not related to each other except insofar as I experienced them all but perhaps they will strike a chord.

Bob Marley and the Wailers captivated thousands, me included, when they toured England in the mid ‘70s. I remember loving the music and the whole colourful, dreadlocked spectacle. This week I watched Kevin MacDonald’s biographical film ‘Marley’ rapt, not because of nostalgia, but because it provided the history and cultural context of Jamaica that I had been unaware of at the time. Marijuana may have heightened my musical experience way back but it didn’t do much for my perception of what was going on in the world otherwise. But that is in the past: later in the week I was to get a taste of the future in the form of an octogenarian birthday party...

I suppose I have a residual memory (which by now I ought to have shed) of parties where the guests are all bright young things intent on dancing, getting high and making liaisons. But with advancing age the party format surely changes to reflect a more diverse life-agenda. The guest list is likely to include extended families and various circles of friends and acquaintances who meet only occasionally, if at all, and may well prefer to keep it that way. New conversational strategies are required to deal with this format and it is the mastering of these that drives the ‘senior’ party. Getting high, dancing and flirting are off the agenda. A nice lunch and an early finish are preferred...

Woke up this morning... (as they say) intent on going to a Blues gig. My friend declined an invitation to accompany me. He knows what I should know by now: that The Blues does not really have what it takes to sustain musical interest for more than a couple of consecutive numbers – notwithstanding my convivial company. I was a little early arriving at the gig and dismayed to see that there were more instruments standing ready on the stage than there were people sitting in the hall. The tiny audience inhibited me from leaving discreetly so I bought a beer and dug in. The performance turned out to be terrific but, even so, the limitations of the format left me unsatisfied so I dropped into a jazz venue on the way home. There the same combination of guitar, bass and drums (minus the vocals) made music which was more adventurous and satisfying. I must phone my friend with an alternative suggestion next time...

An intimate supper at home with close friends is not easy to get just right: If you go to a lot of trouble with fancy recipes it takes the fun and spontaneity out of it - and might even embarrass your guests. Minimal effort is easier - but lazy and a little insulting. Preparations for this particular supper began a week in advance with the concoction of an ideal menu i.e. one which would not leave us frazzled and exhausted while our friends arrive scrubbed-up and relaxed. But the ideal menu is an elusive concept: and then there is the execution which, this time, was left to me. My partner arrived just as our guests were draining their first glasses and I was beginning to fret about how I would cope solo with front-of-house, cooking and entertaining. I like to think that our friends would have helped me out rather than see our carefully laid plans turn to farce. The point of an intimate supper is to relax and enjoy - but one does so want to get it just right...

One thing I did get right was a d.i.y. software upgrade which I achieved without losing any data, functionality or cool. I must have been lucky. Although I followed the instructions assiduously we all know this to be no guarantee of success. The workings of computers, unlike those of mechanical or electrical contraptions, are not easily observed so, when they go wrong, the logic of their failure is opaque. Nothing is more infuriating...         
...except for being injured by a cauliflower. Somehow, while preparing dinner last evening, I managed to get a splinter of cauliflower-stem jammed under my thumbnail. Pain and bleeding ensued, which made me feel aggressive towards the vegetable. The very next day I opened a magazine and spotted a recipe, Creme Dubarry, which involves liquidising cauliflowers. I will do it to the next one I come across.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Eat While You May

As a student I once went with a group of my fellows to an ‘eat-all-you-can’, fixed price, buffet-style restaurant. Being students, naturally, we recognised an opportunity to feed copiously at modest cost but we also saw it as a challenge. Although it was long ago, I can remember the stony expression on the proprietor’s face as we left having destroyed his hopes of a profit for that evening. Since those early, innovative days of the eat-all-you-can business model they have introduced some measures to safeguard against loss. Nothing as crass as the banning of students - just a few subtleties such as smaller plates, overpriced drinks and cheaply-produced dishes. Oh, and the general adoption of the less challenging ‘eat-all-you-like’ slogan.

Nevertheless such restaurants may still be seen as offering good value and, in these times of dire economic hardship, they might reasonably be expected to do well. The theory known as “squeezing the middle” should apply: eateries in Mayfair will be totally immune to recession but middle ranking restaurants will lose their impoverished customers to cheaper establishments. Some anecdotal evidence, however, suggests this is not happening. On the street next to mine two of the four eat-all-you-like establishments have just closed down. Have even they become unaffordable? Are people buying ready-made takeaway meals instead? Have they resorted to cooking at home, finally making use of those celebrity cook-books they bought and stashed, unopened, on their shelves? Perhaps the extremely hard-up are contemplating war-time recipes for making soup from potato peelings. The level of desperation can be gauged by this sign seen outside a Chinese restaurant:

Eat all you like buffet.
Not mean all day buffet.
You no come stay 4 hours.
You eat - you go home.

While it is widely  accepted that we in Britain owe a debt of gratitude to immigrants for spicing up our culture with their cuisines, I wonder when the same level of recognition will be accorded to their musical input. Last week I was at a gig with a Middle Eastern bias. The musicians were two oud players and two percussionists (known as Double Duo), virtuosi with a repertoire nicely balanced between the traditional and the contemporary. The audience was very small yet that did not dishearten them nor cause them to play with any less enthusiasm. When I spoke to the performers afterwards I discovered that three of them are exiles from their homelands, hence the sublty internationalised appeal of their sound. We discussed how they might attract larger audiences and I suggested they might include a Mediterranean mezze feast in the ticket price.

A few days later, on a grey and blustery morning, I was about to turn the corner into one of the city’s squares when my nostrils detected a hint of  something familiar yet unexpected. Our sense of smell may be considered the least useful or essential of the five, yet it has an almost mysterious power to evoke people, events and places and, that morning, it evoked for me the Grand Bazaar of Marrakesh. Sure enough, when I rounded the corner I walked straight into a Moroccan souk. It wasn’t quite as bustling as they generally are on home ground but it was fully stocked with all the usual colourful rugs and scarves, malodorous leatherware, hand-beaten metalwork and carved wooden boxes. The stall holders, however, were untypically restrained. Either they had taken a short course in English reticence before coming over or they were dispirited by the dearth of customers.

I can think of only one reason why they are over here: it’s because we are not over there. The recession, combined with tourists’ fear of ‘unstable’ Arab countries, has left them bereft of customers so they have resorted to bringing their slippers, rugs, bags and trinkets to us. It’s a pity they didn’t bring some of their food as well.