Saturday, 29 September 2012


After a few, uncomfortable seconds of staring at each other she realised the need to prompt me: “It’s Amanda” she said.  “Sorry, Amanda, I've been out of the loop for a while”. I stalled while I searched my memory fruitlessly and, I am sure, visibly for some clue as to who she was. Our conversation didn't go any further. She took offence and disappeared deliberately into the conference-hall crowd.

Later, with the help of a colleague who had witnessed the encounter, I was able to recall who she was and set about justifying why I had failed to remember her: a few years previously I had known her but in a different context; we had met a few times in the course of business but communicated usually by phone; she was the sort of person who gave nothing away; we never really hit it off - and so on to excuse my lapse and to ease my embarrassment. “Never mind her, see you for a beer soon” said my colleague as we parted company. But I am still concerned about the incident.

I am also concerned about my colleague’s promise of “beer soon” which resonated with lack of commitment. It sounded too much like one of those well-intentioned but unfulfilled half-promises that we all experience, the classic being “you must come to dinner sometime” uttered by an acquaintance in the course of an occasional, unplanned encounter. Enough! Get your diary out, I say. Things don’t happen unless they are written down by at least two parties, thereby constituting an informal but nevertheless binding, contractual arrangement.

Actually I need a similarly binding method for my solo diary entries which comprise forthcoming events that I would like to attend – such as concerts, exhibitions, gigs, lectures and political meetings – so that I won’t get distracted and forget to go to them. I have too often missed an interesting or stimulating event for want of a simple aide memoire. But it is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and, if we substitute the word ‘disappointment’ for ‘hell’, the proverb describes my predicament. A solo diary entry does not constitute a contract with oneself: positive commitment is required, pre-purchased tickets or, better still, a willing companion. My reluctance to commit to either puts me in the same category as the casual acquaintance with his half-hearted invitation.

Nor does it stop there: alongside my diary of unattended events I keep a notebook in which I list all the books that I intend to read. Like my diary, however, it has very few ticks next to the entries. The obvious solution would be actually to buy the books rather than list them but I fear that would leave me with an unread pile on the table - and in the e-reader - testing my time-management skills to breaking point
Add into this the demands of the media, in all their modern, electronic forms, which clamour for attention 24-7, tempting me to explore stuff I didn’t know I needed to know and I have to ask myself if it’s time to start hacking away the undergrowth of superfluous information and set my mind on a single, identifiable goal.
At times like this I almost envy the lives portrayed in Downton Abbey where a simpler, less questioning approach is the default, thanks to the limited availability of information, and a good education might be acquired simply by reading a few ‘classic’ books.

Since, however, a return to the lifestyle of yesteryear is out of the question I might take the advice of the business guru who coined the aphorism KISS – keep it simple, stupid. If I harboured fewer ambitions I might even achieve one or two of them and if there were fewer people in my life I might be able to remember who they are.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Anxious French

The prospect of having to speak French makes me feel uncomfortable. In the case of any other language I might happily shrug my shoulders and admit to ignorance but with French it’s different: I harbour expectations of myself because I “learned” it at school. Unfortunately the rudiments which remain lodged in my brain are neither scant enough to pretend ignorance nor robust enough to see me through a conversation; and occasional visits to France over the years have been too brief to progress me beyond the ‘startled rabbit’ phase.

So it proved when my partner and I spent a few days in Marseille recently. After checking in at the hotel (late and without baggage due to missed connections) we went directly in search of an authentic French bar for our first dose of linguistic-cultural humiliation. From my very first utterance the patronne could tell I was never going to manage a conversation so she, acknowledging no English, resorted immediately to sign language in order to facilitate our requirements. It was done with a smile (we were valued customers as the place was not busy) but the transaction left me feeling like a boy buying drinks in a bar for the first time. Meanwhile three unsmiling, smoking men seated on the other side of the room glanced away from the TV and towards us a few times, as if hopeful of alternative entertainment: I like to think they were disappointed. Their smoking indoors was a bit of a surprise but, given Marseille’s reputation as a haunt of gangsters, I didn’t want to make a fuss about it.

The city is, of course, noted for more than its lowlife: there is its long history, its contribution to the Revolution, its multicultural population and its bouillabase. Nevertheless tourists are relatively few and many of them, disgorged from stop-over cruise ships, congregate around Vieux-Port which is consequently a place where some English is spoken. It was here we decided to treat ourselves to a slap-up dinner in the hope of avoiding embarrassing menu misunderstandings. But, contrary to our expectation, the restaurant we chose turned out to be a very traditional, family-run establishment where maman ran front of house without concession to any foreign ways. The consequent pantomime involved her bringing to our table whole fishes on silver platters, with price tags, so that we could make our choice merely by pointing and nodding.

For a little light relief afterwards we sought a bar en route to our hotel. Outside of Vieux-Port the bars were either deserted or closing up for the night – except for the ‘Bar Friendly’ - through the window of which we spied a dozen lively looking people. We stepped into a Harley Davidson themed interior where a middle-aged man, with ear rings, tattoos and thin, grey hair tied in a pony tail, was cheerfully serving the tables. But we soon discovered that, like the restaurant, this was very French territory. Fortunately there was one English-speaking customer who did us the favour of explaining that we had just crashed a party of old friends congregated for one of their regular evenings of poetry reading and folk songs. They had just finished their supper break and were about to recommence recitals.

There was no suggestion that we should leave and, besides, having just bought a bottle of wine we were not inclined to. Serious students of the French language could not have had a better practical lesson in vernacular French but at our level the experience was confined to a polite appreciation of the spirit of the event and its unique cultural tone. But at least we left feeling just a little less British.

Thus, little by little, my fear of French is receding. One thing I did eventually deduce was that the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is not as famous amongst Marseillais as I had at first thought: I had, for a while, been fooled by their peculiar pronunciation of the phrase Aye oui, oui. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Questioning History

My relatives, who have lived most of their lives in the Lincolnshire village of Tattershall, were quite unaware that it is also home to one of England’s most important colonies of newt, the rare Great Crested species, whose environment is actually more protected than their own. So why did they not know this?
It’s because of location-complacency syndrome (LCS), a condition I have identified through occasional observation that we are inclined to become so comfortable in our surroundings that eventually we accept them unquestioningly. Familiarity - with our neighbours, our circumstances and the day-to-day politics of our existence - leads us to a preoccupation with the here-and-now and a corresponding lack of curiosity for the substrata of history upon which our places are built.
For a small village, stranded in the middle of seemingly endless, flat fenlands, Tattershall has unexpected historical substrata. For example, alongside its unremarkable domestic buildings stands the 130 foot-high castle tower – built by Ralph, 3rd Lord Cromwell, Treasurer of England from 1433 to 1443 - considered by some to be the finest piece of medieval brickwork in England. Local residents may well take this exquisite building for granted but first-time visitors will be astonished when, after miles of architecture-free driving, they see a structure more than two storeys high looming at the side of the road. From the top of the tower, on a clear day, it is possible to see in the distance Lincolnshire’s two other tall buildings, Lincoln Cathedral and Boston Stump.
The defensive walls of the castle were eventually pulled down so as to remove any possible threat to Parliamentary rule - despite the fact that they were never built to withstand determined invasion. Nor was the location important strategically - until the 20th Century when the Royal Air Force claimed the surrounding land for airfields. Now the castle sits at the heart of a military defensive system and squadrons of latest generation Eurofighter Typhoon jets roar around its tower and quaint jousting-ground.
But why did Ralph Cromwell - who was, for a time, the second most powerful man in England - build such a magnificent, fortified residence in such an unlikely location, thinly populated as it was and surrounded by marshland? This, after all, was no weekend retreat, no holiday home or retirement idyll. This was a monumental statement of wealth and influence far away from London - the seat of his power. That was one of the questions I came away with despite listening attentively to the audio-guide. But you can’t ask questions of an audio-guide – and it’s no use asking the locals: they’ve got LCS.
The day after my visit to the castle I woke up to the sound of World War Two - the thrum of Spitfire engines, so familiar to schoolboys of my era. I imagined that the TV was tuned to a history channel showing monotone movies of the Battle of Britain but the reality was startling. I drew back the curtain and flinched as an actual, real-life Spitfire sped by, rolling over close enough for me to give the thumbs-up sign to the crew.
As I walked out that day, Spitfires and Typhoons criss-crossing the sky, I passed the remains of a college that Cromwell built, now tucked behind a bungalow, off the main road, beyond the 15th Century stone cross which marks the 12th Century charter given for the market. I was on my way to visit the huge collegiate church, with its important medieval features and the gravestone of celebrated local resident, Tom Thumb.
No-one famous, powerful or important lives in Tattershall now - unless you count those privileged newts who have taken up residence in the castle moat; but, given its intriguing history and its significant present, the place deserves some respect – especially from the locals.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Open or Shut?

I boarded a fairly empty bus on a warm, sunny day and, all the windows being shut, I opened two of them – one on each side of the vehicle. It was a decisive and, to my mind, reasonable action given the circumstances as I perceived them: the interior was stuffy but the passengers were too inhibited to do anything about it. But come the hour, cometh the man and so I dutifully rescued all of us from suffocation. Nobody said anything at the time but as we alighted at the terminal stop one of them, an old lady, asked me politely whether I didn’t think I had acted inconsiderately.

I conceded that she had a point insofar as I hadn’t conducted an opinion poll before opening the windows but countered that I hadn’t considered my action to be anti-social. She demurred and I apologised for the offence although this failed to assuage her indignation: it seemed she had already made up her mind to lump me into the category of “people these days” who have no consideration for others – which was unsettling because I just don’t see myself that way.

Maybe I was due a bit of correction in that respect but, if we accept that it can be  therapeutic to see yourself as others perceive you, it would also be very enlightening to be able to see others as they perceive themselves. Mind-reading is not one of my skills but my critic on this occasion did reveal one or two clues as to her self-perceived position. As I attempted to channel our exchange into a sociological discussion it became clear that she was unwilling to be persuaded: she was right and I was wrong. Her ultimate statement was that she suffered from arthritis in the neck which could be set off by draughts. I hadn’t thought of that, had I? No, I hadn’t, but how could I be sure it was true? I could see that she would not concede a single point. It was then I noticed the gold crucifix dangling from her neck and gave up on my hopes for a rational argument.

The next day the media were full of those fascinating old photos of mass weddings conducted by the Unification Church. Headlines proclaimed that its founder and leader, Sun Myung Moon, billionaire media owner, sometime political power-broker and enemy of independent thinkers (well, that’s how I see him), had died before I got around to making his acquaintance - thereby denying me a chance to ascertain how he saw himself. And so I can only speculate.

I would have liked to ask him, for a start, how he knew for certain that “There is one living, eternal and true God, a Person beyond space and time, who possesses perfect intellect, emotion and will, whose deepest nature is heart and love, who combines both masculinity and femininity, who is the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness, and who is the creator and sustainer of man and the universe and of all things visible and invisible” because this statement is both an article of faith and an unsubstantiated story which usefully eliminates the need to think rationally about a difficult concept. Did he believe the former and exploit the latter?

I can only see Mr. Moon through the lens of his legacy which leads me to conclude that he was a megalomaniac who, by succeeding in persuading others to regard him as the saviour of mankind, may even have convinced himself that he actually was. He would probably have seen me as no more than a potential donor to his coffers (or, euphemistically, a lost soul in need of salvation).

If it were possible for us to see ourselves as others see us - and for us to see others as they see themselves - we might have a chance of making honest dialogue work towards vanquishing stifling dogmas. I just wanted to open a few windows.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Ring, Ring. Who's There?

I have lately been making use of the excellent Overground line to travel around East London and have been fascinated by how its passengers reflect the ethnic and social diversity of the population it serves. My optional pastimes during these journeys are reading, snoozing, people-watching and - courtesy of mobile phones - eavesdropping. The delicious practice of assessing people by their dress, demeanour and habit, without directly engaging them, has become more seductive now that phone conversations are in such abundance. It is one thing to sit opposite a person and try to guess from outward appearance what their life comprises but the experience is enhanced by the availability of these audible clues as to the state of their finances, their relationships, their work, their pleasures and their frustrations.

I am surprised by the extent to which some people are willing to proclaim the details of their own and others’ lives to strangers although I suppose this may be characteristic of more extrovert types - with or without the aid of mobile phones. One young woman on a rush-hour train had a lengthy and very public phone conversation with her father about her first day in a new job (temporary, while she considered her options to study architecture further) at a private clinic. She listed some of the famous clients, who included Helen Bonham Carter, but - because it was her first day - was unable to provide us with details of their ailments. Her new employers should have checked her Facebook pages before engaging her: there they might have discovered that she is the kind of person given to indiscretion.

But the last train of the day is the best source of such entertainment. Many of the travellers are loose-tongued as a result of drinking and there is often a congenial, relaxed atmosphere in the carriages. One night I was listening to a couple of foreigners discussing the spelling of the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and what possible reason there might be for including the letter ‘w’ in one but not the other. I was tempted to intervene with an etymological explanation but was distracted by the girl sitting next to me who phoned her bank to report that her bag had been stolen in a pub. During the course of her call she revealed to all within earshot the details of her identity - name, address, date of birth, mother’s maiden name etc. I became concerned about her indiscretion, since stalking and identity theft are known issues and one is best advised to be careful.

At the opposite end of the scale are the reticent people who don’t make calls and are reluctant even to answer them. They will silence the ringing promptly, look abashed, whisper in monosyllables and hang up having revealed nothing of interest to their prurient audience: nothing, that is, except for that ringtone which, in itself, comprises a clue. Take the familiar Nokia tune which signifies an unfashionable old handset - or an unfashionable old person; or one of the stock tones chosen from the menu of a smartphone which defines someone with the latest gadget but neither the will nor the wit to customise it; or a downloaded fragment of music chosen for its personal meaning which marks out a tech-savvy but sentimental person; and then there is the novelty sound-effect which was amusing at the time but now is a bit of an embarrassment. There but for...

One such ringtone I heard on a train to Stoke went like this: it was the sound of a mullah calling the faithful to prayer, the whistling of an incoming shell and the finality of an explosion. I reckon that one sounding out on the last train through London E1 would be way beyond embarrassing for its owner.