Saturday, 28 December 2013

Mid-Winter Party Time

It's Christmas Day and it seems that we two are the only ones left in City Heights. The block is deserted - as are the blocks in the adjoining streets. City-centre living around here is a relatively new phenomenon and most residents are transient - either foreign academics or young, single people. My theory is that they have all gone "home". My other theory is that it won't always be this way.

Our situation highlights the question of what to make of Christmastime if you are not amenable to the ‘traditional’ forms of celebration. Purists bemoan the fact that it has become too secular, too commercialised and excessive in its manifestations but the fact of its continuing popularity, even in our increasingly diverse society, is testament to its multi-faceted appeal. Christmas is becoming more inclusive. Prior to extensive post-war immigration, non-Christians in Britain might have felt inclined to keep a low profile on the grounds that it had nothing to do with them. But the loosening of religion's monopoly on the event has enabled the pagan aspects to flourish and for it to become more of a general holiday in celebration of mid-winter and the roll-over to the new year. Some, at least, of the festive activities can be enjoyed by those of any faith or none at all.

This is clearly reflected in the variety of greeting-card designs, which can be found to suit every sensibility: nativity scenes for the traditionally religious; Santa on a sleigh for those who prefer gifts and jolliness; snowy winter scenes for those whose focus is on the seasonal aesthetic; or non-specific, stylish graphics for those who do not acknowledge any of this stuff. Of course, any greeting card is welcome in one's letterbox, no matter what the style, but there is a type that will soon become quaintly, impossibly outdated: that most traditional of English scenes, the picture of a secluded, snow-covered country cottage with Santa, reindeer and sleigh perched magically on the roof. The carbon footprint of such a rural idyll is too heavy for it to be sustainable.

Most of the world's population now lives in cities and the trend is for that to increase. In less developed economies, moving to a city is the only hope that billions of people have of escaping rural poverty - cities are places where they can find opportunities for employment. In developed countries such as the U.K. the problem is not so acute, although it does exist. The case for city living here is predicated more on the efficient use of resources such as land, less reliance on carbon-producing cars and the fact that successful cities are crucial to the economic well-being of the whole population.

In order to be successful they need copious, affordable housing, efficient services and infrastructure, plentiful, diverse employment opportunities and pleasant, walkable streets by which to get to work. Examples include Vancouver and Singapore, neither of which has been hampered by historical precedent. In the 'old world' New York and London are economically successful but have continuing struggles with housing supply, the maintenance of old infrastructure and the balancing of historical conservation with new development.

There are many cities in decline because the industries they were built upon became extinct. The key to their rejuvenation is new industries - not the big factories of yesteryear, but a multiplicity of enterprises fostered by the energy of a thriving population. And how do we get a thriving population? Provide plentiful housing and a high-quality education system within a relatively small geographic area, light the touch-paper, stand back and watch it take off.

Next Christmas send me not your images of logs burning ineffectually in the hearths of draughty old houses. A high-rise condo topped with tinsel will do it for me. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Real Life Stories

In the aftermath of the death of Nelson Mandela there has been much deserved eulogising. After all, the story of his life is astonishing: a man who endured so much oppression, injustice and abuse yet maintained his principles without compromise and, by so doing, ultimately displaced his oppressors. It may not be a unique story but it does have a happy ending. Or does it?

When you consider just how many stories, real or imagined, have been told in films, plays, novels, songs, folklore and so on, it can come as a surprise to learn that the number of possible plotlines is actually limited to three. The basis for this assertion is that all plots derive from some sort of conflict, after which the story is just a variation on the theme of resolution, or ending. According to this principle there are three readily identifiable types of story: the first is the happy ending,  Cinderella gets to marry the Prince; the second is the unhappy ending,  Cinderella doesn't get to marry the Prince; the third is the never-ending,  Cinderella gets to go to marry the Prince but that's only part of the story.

As you may have guessed, I have been to the panto (oh yes I have). Some of you might think that I have taken the first steps on my journey back to childhood, but be assured that this panto is a very adult affair, not a traditional one but a "boutique" production titled Buttons: Another Cinderella Story by the Charles Court Opera. Most of the gags and musical references require the audience to have a degree of maturity and/or experience as well as a willingness to accept that pantomime has licence to mock everything and everyone in the cause of exposing truth. Even Cinderella herself is not taken seriously in this production for - let's face it - she, with her guileless and forgiving nature, is just too good to be true. I am giving nothing away by saying that the story ends happily - or at least it did for me, since it left my cheeks streaked with tears of laughter.

Cinderella had to endure oppression, injustice and abuse but she got lucky and was rescued. But what if hers had been the 'never-ending' story type? In such a version some gallant at the ball would have spiked her drink, causing her to become  indiscreet and get caught in flagrante delicto in a broom cupboard by one of the catering staff on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, who tells Prince Charming's sister, who promises not to tell the Prince as long as Cinderella favours her when she becomes Queen. Alternatively, Cinderella marries the handsome prince and assumes the throne whereupon, corrupted by power, she becomes vindictive and proceeds to wreak vengeance on her ugly sisters and imprison anyone who might pose a threat to her dominance.

Storylines such as these would more closely reflect the real world as experienced by, for example, Nelson Mandela who, like Cinderella, was forgiving but, unlike her, didn't get lucky. By his own efforts he succeeded in the struggle to overthrow the evil, pernicious system of apartheid and, having succeeded, won not only power but also the moral high ground, which his refusal to contemplate revenge has made unassailable. His principle, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy - then he becomes your partner”, is lofty but achievable.

But in a way Mandela's story did not have a happy ending: it is only a part of the evolving plot. It remains to be seen whether the pantomime baddies waiting in the wings who covet power for the sake of self-aggrandisement will get their comeuppance from the audience.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Free Stuff

On Wednesday I stopped for lunch at a Bangladeshi cafe in the 'bohemian' quarter. There was a leaflet on the table - an offer from 'Quarantine' to pay for lunch "in exchange for a conversation." While puzzling over this I watched two people come into the cafe who turned out to be Quarantine, an experimental theatre company. I decided, as a diversion from my solitary dining experience, to engage with one of them. Asking her the purpose of the offer, her answer was elusive: "We'll just see where it goes," she said. There was to be no audience, no recording, no taking of notes with a view to using the material in a future production, no promise of further contact.

She showed me a 'menu' of conversational topics  from which to choose - starters, mains and afters - and allotted us 30 minutes. The menu made it easy to get started but the conversation was stilted and a little self-conscious, perhaps because of the artificial constraints. Nevertheless, it was a cordial exchange between two strangers talking about Christmas and other celebrations. As we shook hands in conclusion I explained that I had already paid for my lunch at the counter. She didn't offer to reimburse me (perhaps she thought I had given poor value) but it was such a small sum of money that I was embarrassed to press the point: besides, experimental theatre is lamentably under-funded.

I don't know what Quarantine gained from the experience but it left me thinking about the nature of conversation (which may have been their intention). Conversation at its best can be a stimulating and rewarding experience involving wit, intimacy and humour: but it so often isn't. Many times have I endured monologues from people who mistake the sound of their own voice for interactive communication; many times have I sat in company listening to the same point being made repeatedly by a dull round of predictable anecdotes; and many times have I been present (even complicit) when conversations degenerate into emotion-fuelled ranting.

Quarantine call this event No Such Thing , thereby making the point that a lunch may be free of charge will certainly not be free of obligation. But later in the week I did get free beer and free music. I attended the launch of the Modernist Society's revamped magazine, an unstructured event, just a melee of interested people, but it gave me another opportunity to engage in conversation with strangers. My sketchy knowledge of Modernism is a handicap but, thanks partly to the supply of free beer, I succeeded in bluffing through several exchanges without being openly denounced.

When I moved on afterwards to a gig, the free beer had put me in a good enough humour to shrug off the hefty ticket price. I had been lured there by a sales pitch which promised the "much talked about" Hidden Orchestra plus Mind On Fire DJ in a "new live show," a "highly emotive, celluloid-inspired journey through one of the greatest films never made", with special light-projections by Lumen. In the event I was unmoved by the turgid, repetitive, electronically generated music which relied heavily on two drummers to give it life.

I stuck it out until the interval when I decided to cut my losses and go to another venue where, in contrast, free entry gave me access to a more satisfying experience - acoustic gypsy jazz - enthusiastically played and sung by three smiling, engaging and skilled performers. Measured by my 'quality of conversation' criteria, the first gig was a monotonous monologue, the second an uplifting interaction.

Of course I don't claim that all free music is good music, and it is evident that all conversation is free but not necessarily good, but I have yet to find the downside to free beer.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Living by the Law

Question: which technological innovation has given us more individual freedom than any other?  Could it be the mobile phone? How about the internal combustion engine? It has to be the PC, right? Wrong: it's the washing machine. Quite how this has been calculated I do not know but, as always, one has the choice of either studying the research or taking it on trust. Let's just say I am prepared to believe it - although, in the particular case of my own liberation, I am sure the washing machine has played a very minor part.

Nevertheless the effect must be noticeable: only last week a friend of mine told me that I had "too much time" on my hands. Whether or not his accusation was justified (I suspect that he was rather envious of my leisurely schedule, what with him being so busy all the time) is a moot point. In any case I am moved to retort (belatedly) that if he finds himself with insufficient time on his hands, he might do well to examine the underlying cause of his busyness.

He could start by considering the Pareto principle (80% of profit is derived from a mere 20% of activities) which has been used in fields such as economics and business to demonstrate that that a lot of time and effort (80% to be precise) is wasted. I advise my friend to apply the principle to a study of his time-management system - if indeed he has one - so that he may consider the fruitfulness of his activities. He may well find that by dropping the 80% of activity that is pointless he could join me occasionally in browsing Aldi's Special Buys, prior to spending an hour or two in the City Arms.

Time-rich as I may appear to be, there are certain things that I just can't seem to fit into my schedule: writing Christmas cards is one of them. The truth is that I don't fancy all that business of fiddling with address books and envelopes. Of course I do like to receive Christmas cards - so that I can hang them on a string across the wall to serve as decoration and impress visitors with the number of card-friends I have - so I am prepared to accept that, in order to receive, one must give. Perhaps my inability to knuckle down can be explained by Parkinson's Law (work fills the time available in which to complete it). Christmas is ages away so there is plenty of time to do the job. Besides, now that Royal Mail is a privately owned company, surely posting deadlines are no longer an issue? Its systems must be quicker and more efficient than before - even if they are a tad more expensive.

E-cards could be the answer, considering the ease and economy with which they can be sent, but I wouldn't want to receive them since they cannot be displayed on the wall to the same effect. As well as which, there is the Jevons Paradox to consider (increased efficiency brought about by technological innovation produces rising consumption of the resource being used). In other words I would be even longer employed in generating even more of them. Sending them indiscriminately via one's contacts list is just too tempting an option to resist and, although it is feasible to trawl carefully through one's list and be selective, one is suddenly back in fiddly territory. As well as which there is always the possibility of pressing 'send' when one didn't mean to, so that an elderly aunt gets the risqué card intended for someone less easily offended - an eventuality which is reliably predicted by the ubiquitous Sod's Law.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Nostalgic for Nostalgia

Now that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are about to acquire the right to roam throughout the European Union, protectionists fear that hordes of them will board overnight buses to the U.K. where, as soon as the offices open, they will present themselves for social security handouts. Yes, the controversy over the pros and cons of immigration is in the news again. Do immigrants help to grow our economy and enrich the culture or do they drain our resources and exacerbate social division?

It is difficult to come to a rational conclusion on this question because, as with most evidence-based arguments, the "facts" are not verifiable unless you are an expert: you must take them on trust and, in this post-Snowden era, who can we trust? If you are unemployed and stuck on a council-house waiting list and see immigrants employed and housed before you it is understandable that you may take a negative view of the outcome, irrespective of rational argument.

But for most people the negative impact of immigration is less to do with tangible loss and more to do with nostalgia - a longing for something past. The Lincolnshire market town of Boston is an example of how an influx of foreign workers has changed the nature of a place in just 20 years. Some of the indigenous folk yearn for Boston to be the way it was before the immigrants arrived, but the realists among them could point out that Boston was not in a good way even then. Taking into account the Great Depression, World Wars 1 & 2 and rationing, you would need a misty-eyed return to the 1950's to see the place in its supposed heyday. Nostalgia is not all it's cracked up to be.

I discovered this when I decided on impulse to re-visit some of the music I had liked back in the early 1970s. I went along to a Band of Friends of Rory Gallagher gig (where, alongside the usual suspects, I was surprised to see quite a few people too young to have been fans first time around). The musicians were exceptionally talented and devoted to the spirit of the original material and, by the second set, they had the audience so enthused that even some of the grizzled old geezers were (sort of) dancing and/or playing air-guitar. Although I did not share their exuberance I stayed until the end, fascinated more by the audience and the technique of the performers than the music itself. What I had once found exciting now sounded repetitive and one-dimensional: a small dose of nostalgic indulgence, like a homeopathic medicine, had cured me of longing for the something past.

Rory Gallagher was inspired by the Blues, a non-native musical form and a well established example of benefit resulting from the cross-fertilisation of cultures. I'm sure there are others, high-brow and otherwise, but one of the most popular - and one which comes most readily to mind - is the availability of good foreign food. I have lately discovered a local takeaway that specialises in falafel and I made a point yesterday of going there. My favourite is the falafel wrap (medium) with salad and tahini sauce which, at £2.95, is not only good value but also proof that vegetarian food can be delicious.

Thank you, Mr. Falafel, for migrating to our country. Each time I buy a falafel wrap from you it reminds me of where and when I first fell in love with the delicacy: the remote Egyptian port of Taba where, after coming down from the ancient, mysterious monastery of St. Catherine, I had time to kill while waiting for the ferry to cross the biblical Red Sea to the exotic Jordanian port of Aqaba. On reflection, perhaps nostalgia is a recurrent, non-curable condition.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dressing the Part

There is currently an exhibition at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery which features some of David Hockney's earliest work. Alongside the images there is information concerning the context in which they were made, which is helpful in explaining the artist's choice of subject matter. Even from the start his work was very distinctive, but he also adopted for himself an unusual personal appearance which helped to publicise and promote his 'brand'. In this respect I would liken him to Andy Warhol.

But the Hockney images were too familiar to detain me for long and I wandered into another room where, alongside the works of art, there are artefacts - manufactured 'real world' objects. Seeing them together focuses the attention on the overlap between art and craft (it's probably more than a lexicographical coincidence that the words 'art' and 'artefact' have a common first syllable but I'll leave it for other pedants to research). Perhaps the best works of either kind have one thing in common: they require skill in execution. In this respect I could only marvel at the astronomical clock made in 1787 by Thomas Barry. It has three faces which, between them, give simultaneous readings for time and phases of the moon; varying length of day and night; date and perpetual calendar (which automatically adjusts for leap years); positions of the stars, orbits of the moon and all the planets which were known at the time. If not art, it is a work of artistry.

I was briefly preoccupied with the distinction between art and craft in respect of my current project - writing a novel -  although, after minimal research, I concluded that craft is of the essence. Mindful of Samuel Johnson's dictum "What we hope ever to achieve with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence", I have adopted a methodical, craft-like approach to its execution, identifying the obstacles and tackling them, one-by-one.

The first (not ranked by importance) is ignorance: the fact that I have not read very many novels is not an advantageous starting point. To rectify this I have re-prioritised my reading list so that all the histories and biographies are now at the bottom. But despite my intensive effort, there is a lot of reading yet to do.

Next, having attended writing courses so that I can get guidance and encouragement from those who know, I have found that you get exactly that - guidance and encouragement - which leaves a lot of work still to be done. I have supplemented this by studying the ways in which novelists approach their work and learned only that these are many and various. Last week I attended an event at which Donna Tartt described to us her "tricks of the trade". Some were potentially useful but she is extremely meticulous - writing at the rate of one novel every ten years - which is similar to the rate at which I used to read them.

And now, with the abrupt arrival of winter, comes another, unforeseen obstacle - the cold. Sitting around for hours - as one must - musing about, mulling over and composing coherent sentences, is not an activity conducive to staying warm. Turning up the heating doesn't help: it induces sleep and stifles inspiration. What is the answer? It came to me in a flash: appropriate clothing; something warm and woolly; something comfortable and comforting; something - writerly; in short, a cardigan. Yes, the cardy is crucial kit for the writer. Maybe they do a suitably tatty-looking, pre-worn range at M&S?

At the book launch, of course, I will need something smarter, something carefully considerate of my brand: but there's plenty of time to worry about that.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Seductive Technology

New technology is so seductive. This week I was persuaded that it would be a wonderful experience to go and watch Gravity - the recently released film about space exploration - in IMAX 3D. I should have known better. The film is a triumph of presentation over content: the special effects are amazing but the story is not at all credible, the schmaltz factor is high and the dialogue comes straight out of the Hollywood Blockbuster Writers’ Training Manual. Those of you who may still be interested are advised to see it in IMAX 3D in order to get some sort of return on your investment. When it ended I had just enough time (skipping the credits) to hoof across town for a one-off showing of the classic Sunset Boulevard. I had hoped to find solace in old-style technology but, unfortunately for me, it was sold out:  such is the demand for nostalgia.
But technology and nostalgia can make good bed-fellows - as this week's good-news story illustrates. An old pal, last seen in 1974, tracked me down by asking Google if it had seen me around lately. It (Google) was able to trace the limited online information about me and point him in the right direction. Now we are back in touch and planning to drink beer together. These reunions - or continuations as I prefer to think of them - can be very satisfying. They allow us to reignite relationships that were extinguished, either by circumstances or carelessness. Another friend I am reconnected with in this way has contributed much to the back-story of my life with his own memories and connections. We share so many cultural markers (although his enthusiasm for The Grateful Dead is not one of them) that picking up where we left off has come naturally.
Reconnecting with old friends in the days before the internet, unless it happened by chance, was painstaking and time-consuming. Although this is no longer the case, there is possibly a downside to the ease with which it may now be accomplished: unwanted solicitation. Given that no effort is required, some people may now type your name into a search engine simply out of curiosity and, when they get a result, make inappropriate or unwanted contact. They may be someone you would rather not remember because you treated them badly; or someone you "went off" because they treated you badly; or someone who imagined they had a close relationship with you but for whom you never cared; or someone who is just too dangerous or nasty to be around. In such cases we may not thank technology for being so accessible.
Still, we can use our human sensitivities to shield us from these situations - or we can rely on the development of sophisticated screening software: law-enforcement authorities already monitor much of the traffic, and I hear that the police are developing a specialised search engine called Whodunnit? to harness the power of electronic social connectivity to the purpose of crime-busting.
Technology in itself is less interesting than its interplay with life on Earth - and beyond. The creators of Gravity must be given credit for the fact that, for all the digital trickery at their disposal, they understood the need to tell a human story with it. Technology must be made to serve. Which is why, this week, I took down the halogen spotlights installed in our bathroom back when they were all the rage. They have been casting their harsh, unflattering glare for too long. In their place is now an old-style glass globe which diffuses light in a way which is soothing to one's eyes - and reassuring to one's vanity.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Voices Off

Despite Lou Reed having just died, it was a perfect day: the sky was blue, the air was fresh and crisp and I was catching a train to the ancient city of Lancaster to meet an old friend with whom I share not only some personal history but also an interest in things historical.

Waiting for a train I had time for coffee in a cafe that has a view of the station entrance - perfect for people-watching. But, as it turned out, the day was to be more about people-listening, beginning in the cafe where two young men were in conference. One of them, with his volume control jammed on max, spoke in a strangulated, monotonous drone.  The other spoke (whenever he could) so quietly as to be almost inaudible. They were experts on the management of soil erosion, water tables and capillary fringes - a worthy and interesting subject, though here badly presented: the effect was like listening to one end of a phone call.

In the train carriage most people were solo and silently engaged in reading or social networking but there was one loud voice talking on the phone - a man in late middle-age with a rich, deep voice, slightly ragged from smoking but soothing to the ear. His accent was Lancashire, which was appropriate to his subject - a guide to rail destinations in the North West of England. It might have made for interesting listening but for the fact that it came with much repetition and that his evaluations of places were limited to either “nice” or “boring” - a sort of Trip Advisor for the undiscerning.

But at Lancaster Castle we were lucky to have a tour-guide who was blessed with a pleasing tone of voice, a carefully modulated volume control, sensitivity to his audience, a sense of humour - and fascinating subject matter: proof that information can be packaged and communicated agreeably.

Lancaster Castle has always been the embodiment of aristocratic power and de facto oppression of the people. From as early as 1196 until as recently as 2011 it has housed, among other institutions, a prison - and this continuity provides a reminder that English law is founded on nothing more than the protection of property. Of the 200 executions carried out at Lancaster, only 43 were for the crime of murder: the remainder were for theft of various kinds. The original holding cells - still intact – are dark, airless holes in the wall which served merely as accommodation for prisoners awaiting either hanging or transportation.

Later, when custodial sentences were introduced, habitable cells had to be provided to ensure the prisoners did not actually die in captivity. Consequently, in 1815, a new prison block was built along the lines of Bentham's panopticon design. It was still in use when the place closed in 2011. The Castle is a part of the Duchy of Lancaster, an estate owned by the Monarch for the purpose of generating an income, but now that it is no longer rented to the Home Office as a prison, HM’s advisors are canvassing for new ways to squeeze rent out of the property.

After the tour we took our lunch in a pub on Lancaster's now defunct dock-side (the river silted up long ago). The landlady was welcoming - perhaps because there were so few other customers - and we dined well on moules marinieres and burgers. But, as the beer went down, our discussions became a little heated and naturally attracted an audience. When, after a while, the landlady came over to ask whether we were scheduled to speak in the debate to be held at the nearby museum that evening, we got the message. Perhaps our own voices are not always as mellifluous and modulated as we imagine.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Marking Time

"The nights are drawing in": it’s one of those expressions we inherit from our parents. It doesn't make literal sense - nights can't actually do anything - but we know that it means nights are becoming longer at the expense of days and that clocks must be set back an hour to compensate. In my childhood this simply involved father re-setting the clock on the mantelpiece and the watch on his wrist. Later it became more complicated and involved everybody in the house fiddling with the digital displays on a host of electrical appliances. Nowadays the internet takes care of them all - except for that old VCR that we no longer use.

Whereas the re-setting of clocks is an adopted practice which has its origins in the industrialisation of society, nights have got longer ever since Earth first orbited the Sun. In any case there are benefits which, in our household, boil down to being free to watch more TV without feeling guilty. In the last ten days we have watched the first 15 episodes of Breaking Bad - and we have been to the cinema a couple of times. As a consequence I now appreciate two things in particular: one is the extent to which made-for-TV series have successfully borrowed techniques from cinematography; the other is the advantage they have in being able tease out stories and develop characters over an indefinite period of time.

But they should be careful not to squander such an advantage, given the quality of competition in the cinema. One film in particular, The Selfish Giant, is a paragon of what can be accomplished in the 90 minutes format. To say that it is a story of a few days in the lives of a couple of pre-pubescent boys from poor families in a northern British town is merely to outline the structure. That it is a powerful commentary on the social consequences of capitalism and industrialisation is closer to a description of its scope and ambition.

Coincidentally there is an exhibition at the City Gallery, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which resonates with the film. Jeremy Deller's assemblage of art and artefacts is essentially an exploration of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on popular culture. It reminds us of the origins of our present-day circumstances but it also comments implicitly on capitalism and industrialisation.  One exhibit is a poster displaying the rules of an early cotton mill which, shockingly, is no more than a tariff of fines payable by the workers in the event that any of them should happen to disrupt, in any way, the process of making profit for the employer. And just around the corner is an old clocking-in machine, the symbol of lifetimes sold.

But is this art? Consult Grayson Perry who, in the current series of Reith lectures, is addressing this very question imaginatively, amusingly and with an open-mind. Coincidentally (again) his work The Vanity of Small Differences hangs in the next gallery. It comprises a series of large tapestries which depict social mobility and the influence of class on aesthetic tastes - further evidence of our lives having been shaped by capitalism and industrialisation.

At the end of the week I visited Blackpool, a one-time village which the mill-owners of Lancashire developed into a holiday resort for their workers - not out of altruism, mind you. They built and owned the attractions which their workers paid to enjoy; they organised their mill shut-downs consecutively so that holidays were staggered. As a holiday destination it became fabulously successful but, now that its block of captive customers has disintegrated, it looks and feels like just another post-industrial town desperate for the clock to turn back.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Unforeseen or Unforeseeable?

Ever since I learned that exercising on a treadmill generates ten times more energy than it consumes I have become obsessed with the idea of feeding all that excess gym-power into the National Grid: I just need someone to do it. If Thomas Edison were still alive, I am sure he would sort it out. He was a prolific inventor but, more to the point, he understood the commercial importance of delivering new inventions to the world. For example, not content with his part in the invention of the electric light bulb, he went a stage further and invented power generation and distribution systems which enabled us all to use it - since when we have been eagerly burning all available fossil fuels in order to generate ever more gigawatts of electricity.

In doing so we have created the problems of global climate change and increasingly expensive electricity and, unless we resolve them, future generations will be living in a retro stone-age. Meanwhile, in modern-day Britain, the benefits of Edison's invention are already unaffordable for the least well-off whose current dilemma is whether to heat or eat.

One of our prominent politicians last week made an ill-advised attempt to help the poor by promising that, if his party wins the next election, energy companies will be obliged to fix their prices. Within days the inevitable happened: one by one, the energy companies raised their prices. This clearly demonstrates the folly of showing one's hand - a tactic which the politician in question will no doubt avoid in future.

More importantly, however, it demonstrates the rise of 'retail politics', whereby ideology-based policies are eschewed in favour of populist measures aimed at winning votes in the short term. Votes must be won, but the net effect of this behaviour is that governments are reluctant to commit to long-term planning, especially in respect of controversial or "difficult" issues. Short-term political expediency trumps the more noble purpose of long-term governance for the benefit of society as a whole.

Power generation is a case in point. It is an infrastructural necessity which society has come to depend on, yet there is an ambivalent approach to providing for it. Politicians, shy of the high-cost, long-term commitment required, look to the private sector to take it on, but the acknowledged necessity for reducing carbon emissions is a crucial part of the equation and the corporations have too much invested in the present fossil-fuel system to be entrusted with its demise.

Cleaner, renewable energy sources are feasible but, having failed either to commit significant public funds or to encourage private investment in developing the technology required for delivery, Britain's government has been backed into a corner. It has just announced an eleventh-hour decision to return to nuclear generation - a technology which we pioneered in the 1950's but which, due to circumstances entirely within our control, we have since lost. Consequently we are obliged to offer generous inducements to others to provide it for us.

And so it comes to pass that our nuclear stations will be built and operated courtesy of the sovereign investment funds of other countries. Our government has absolved its responsibility for the nation's infrastructure; corporate profits will determine price and availability; renewable alternatives will wither for lack of investment and we will accumulate a pile of nuclear waste which will be someone else's problem in the future. It's a worrying example of party politics at its least effective.

What a pity that Thomas Edison is no longer around. He died in 1931 but before he went he said:

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

Saturday, 19 October 2013


Having just spent the best part of two days trying to figure out software and computer networking 'issues', I have cut my losses and made a call to an expert. He is coming tomorrow to sort it all out. Those who work from home will be familiar with this dilemma: whether to spend time in order to save money or to spend money in order to save time. Those in salaried employment, meanwhile, will be more familiar with the concept of taking a coffee break while the IT department gets to work.

Of course it has never been necessary to understand how technology works in order to use it. Most of us drive cars, operate computers, make phone calls etc. without an inkling of the underlying electro-mechanical principles on which the technology functions. We accept the fact that someone, somewhere has invented a device which makes life easier for us and, if it goes wrong, there is someone, somewhere who knows how to fix it. Advice in this matter is offered in this pithy, early-industrial-era rhyme:
Lord Skinflint tried to fix his electric light
It struck him dead - and serves him right
It is the duty of the nobleman
To provide employment for the artisan
...which is also an unflinching endorsement of the economic theory known as "trickle-down".

But the accelerating pace of technological advance is so rapid that we are challenged simply to keep up with its inventions. There was a time - not so long ago - when we had fixed-line telephones and communication was simple, if limited. When the bell inside the handset rang you would say "I wonder who that can be?", pick it up and respond politely to whoever was on the other end (of a very long cable). Nowadays, if the landline rings, it is easy to guess who is calling: during the week it will be a marketing call; on a Sunday evening it will be an ancient relative who is still under the impression that landlines are owned by the Post Office and that it is cheaper to use them after six pm.

I am never intentionally rude to elderly relatives who call, but pre-recorded marketing pitches are fair game: since machines have no feelings I usually say something nasty and slam the phone down. But the other day I did pick up in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon because I was expecting a pre-arranged call. I said "Hello" in my friendliest tone, only to be answered by a brief silence and a recorded "Goodbye" which, eerily, had about it the unmistakable smirk of 'Gotchca!'

I think technology was trying to tell me something about etiquette for, while we may pride ourselves on being quick to adopt all the devices it offers, there is a degree of uncertainty about what constitutes polite behaviour in their use, especially concerning phones. When, for example, is it more appropriate to send a text than to make a phone call? Is it socially acceptable to respond to email and texts when in company? It has been argued that these questions will be resolved in due course: etiquette takes time to develop and become adopted because it is a complex amalgam of social interactions. There is no downloadable app for it. Or perhaps there is? If so, it is surely based on the principle that etiquette is nothing more than manners, and what defines manners is a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.

But there is another thing that lags behind technological advance: vocabulary. Phones, for example, now make all kinds of alerting sounds but we still say that they ring. It's about time we found a new verb for that so, if you have any suggestions, I would love to hear from you. Just give me a bell.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Painting by Numbers Never Worked.

Last week, at Tate Liverpool, I saw the exhibition Chagall, Modern Master. Chagall’s paintings are recognisable by their dream-like qualities: people and animals float above landscapes; perspectives are distorted; colours evoke mood and there are visual references to his home town, Vitebsk, Russia. His images are varied but his style is so constant and distinctive that it has become a successful ‘brand’. (Witness its ubiquity in the gallery shop where it shifts the merchandise: mugs, place-mats and tea-towels are all given the dreamy makeover - and the designer price-tag).

Although I have always been attracted to his paintings as objects of beauty, I have been flummoxed when it comes to interpreting their meaning. I found it helpful, therefore, to have been given some background information about the man and his times. I learned that his Hasidic ancestry had left a profound mark upon his work, that he travelled to Paris where he was exposed to the influences of Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Orphism, Simultanism and, most sinister of all, Suprematism. For me, however, it boiled down to the gratification of discovering that the romantically involved, gravity-defying couple depicted in one of his better-known paintings represents the artist and his wife, Bella.

On the wall in front of me is one of my brother’s paintings - one which needs no explaining to me. It’s a landscape – a view from where he once lived, high up on the side of a valley in West Yorkshire. It shows the buildings down in the valley petering out into the fields above on the opposite hill, all painted in tones of green, brown and grey - except for an intriguing and apparently random sliver of red in between a chimney and a wall.
I mean to ask him about that sometime. Why is it there? Is it a painterly device which works on the viewer in a subliminal way? Or is it simply a smudge of background colour that escaped his attention in the finishing?

Assuming the latter is unlikely, the painting benefits from its presence in a way that defies layman’s logic. A seemingly misplaced splash of colour contributes to the imaginative evocation of the landscape, not a precise depiction of it and, in doing so, demonstrates the artist’s ability to interpret a scene while eschewing logic.

But artists, as we know, are licensed; and as I look up at it now I am conscious that I cannot employ any such license in the process of writing. I write not to make an impression, nor even to make myself understood. I write to make sure that I am not misunderstood. Choosing the precise word, the right phrasing and timing are all critical to ensure the elimination of ambiguity. The written equivalent of a random sliver of red is likely to alter the meaning of a piece - as in “eats, shoots and leaves”.

I am not suggesting that the process of painting does not involve rational thinking (I have no experience to call upon) but, if it does, it is trumped by creative visual expression. On the other hand, I am not so sure that the process of writing should rely entirely on thinking, remembering Niels Bohrs’ famous admonition “No no you’re not thinking, you’re just being logical”.

Chagall lived through troubled times – the First World War and the Russian Revolution - but, by judicious migration, avoided harm and continued to work as an artist into the 1960’s. He lived and worked in St. Petersburg, Paris, Moscow, America and the south of France but, after all that, his paintings consistently bear his stamp: evidently you can take the man out of Vitebsk, but you can’t take Vitebsk out of the man and his ‘brand’ will endure.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Let's Change The System!

We were having lunch with old friends in a city-centre restaurant when 50,000 people marched past the window waving banners and chanting slogans. It wasn't unexpected: the marchers were left-wing people taking the opportunity to make their views known to the right-wing people who were staging their annual party conference here. If the right wing's choice of venue - this city which has always been a bastion of The Left - was an attempt to convince us of their credentials in respect of inclusive democracy, it missed the mark: they may comprise the majority of our coalition government but their agenda is widely regarded as being elitist. Their stated "policies" are transparently cynical ploys to capture votes so as to strengthen their grip on power: which is, unfortunately, par for the course with the party political system.

Later, while sweating out my lunch-time indulgence with 30 minutes on the cross-trainer, I convinced myself that the proprietors of the gym ought to devise a way to harness my energy by wiring the machine to an electricity-generating turbine. That way they could help save the planet - or at least refund part of my membership fee as a Kwh credit. But, to be realistic, that would be beyond the remit of a business which exists not to benefit humanity generally but to make profit for its shareholders specifically. Which is, unfortunately, par for the course with the capitalist system.

It is an endemic problem: that factions, interest groups and cliques seek to run things for their own benefit, often at the expense of others. On a small scale things can be made to work fairly: the family business, the parish council, the cricket club and so on may be persuaded - or prevailed upon - to get along with their neighbours. But when we scale the entities up the stakes get higher and neighbourliness disappears in a mist of greed-fuelled rivalry.

Two recent events illustrate the argument. On Monday Silvio Berlusconi, a convicted tax-fraudster and megalomaniac, attempted to bring down the government of Italy, not in order to rid his beloved nation of an evil, repressive government, but simply in order to further his personal, political aims. And the next day the Federal Government of the USA was shut down by a Republican faction that refuses to accept legislation that will allow 20 million fellow Americans access to health insurance. Such attempts by political interest groups to wield power, regardless of the cost to society as a whole, should alert us to the fact that the current system of democratically elected national government is in need of revision.

When I first heard of the concept "global village" I was enthused with idealistic dreams of international understanding and co-operation, free interchange of people, goods and ideas and the end of war. It seems I was too hopeful. What we actually have is a "global market", control of which is the ultimate goal of trans-national corporate entities. The efforts of national governments to regulate this process are increasingly ineffectual. Given this, and the fact that the pursuit of factional interests renders national governments unfit even for the purpose of representing the interests of their populations as a whole, it is surely time to revise the role of national government.

Here's a start: more than half of the world's  people now live in cities, many of which depend not on the economy of their host nations but on the global market. These cities would be better served if they were freed from the shackles of party politics and allowed a meaningful degree of self-governance.  Their transport systems need to be efficient, their housing needs to be adequate, healthcare, welfare and policing need to be provided. These are not matters of party politics. These are neighbourly necessities, best taken care of by consensus.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Time Warp

My friend, who is in his sixties, just had his hair re-styled. I think it looks fab but a much younger acquaintance of his used the word "awesome" when complimenting him on the new look. My friend and I are not inclined to use that word in that way - if at all. It's not that we are averse to embracing change, but we already have a vocabulary which, when we first adopted it, probably sounded just as outlandish to our grandparents.
But the fact that language moves inexorably onwards is cause for celebration: if it didn't move, it would be dead - and it gets hard to communicate subtleties of meaning with dead language. When younger generation speaks to older generation we are bound to see the asynchronism of change, but we are still able to interpret meaning because there is the context of human interaction: “awesome” = “fab”, obvs. And there is a funny side to the juxtaposition of old phrases still in use alongside new ones: yesterday I spotted the signs Funeral Parlour and Body Shop above adjoining premises - which is the sort of irony you are not as likely to notice when you are speeding along in a car as you are when walking by at a leisurely pace.
More leisurely still is the prospect of floating along a canal in a narrow-boat - or so I thought when we were invited by old friends to spend a day cruising with them. They had come over from Canada specifically to pootle around the canal system for a few weeks and, if you think that's unusual, the first people we met at the first lock we negotiated had come all the way from Brooklyn, NYC for exactly the same purpose. I had looked forward to a relaxing day: the weather was warm and fair and we were equipped with a picnic and a bottle of dusky pink Côtes de Provence.  I'm still not sure whether it was by design or coincidence that the seven mile stretch of canal we travelled boasted 23 locks, but the experience certainly wasn't leisurely. It was hard work, involving winding gigantic gears, pushing heavy lock-gates and walking most of the way. It even included an altercation with another boat-person whom we had managed to upset by failing to follow some obscure but time-honoured procedure.
But, for those who don't like change, life on a narrow boat could be just the thing. On the canals change appears to be unwanted, which is just as well because the scope for it is severely limited: the shape and size of the boats will always be determined by the dimensions of the locks; the maximum speed at which they can go is determined by the mass of water they displace; the choice of destinations is unlikely ever to vary and, if you really don't want to adopt modern figures of speech, you can just float on by with a cheery smile and a nautical salute.
The paradox of the canal network is that it persists alongside the road, rail and airway networks, not because it is a useful addition to the infrastructure, but because it is a useless distraction from it. From time to time there may have been talk of incorporating it into the system for the purpose of carrying freight, but it has never happened because the system is un-modernisable and therefore un-economic.
And therein lies its attraction: this one-time marvel of modern engineering has become a refuge from progress, a place to go when you can't take any more change; a place where the phrase "go with the flow" will never sound dated.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Real-Life Drama?

I saw one of those classic films - Double Indemnity - not on TV but in a cinema, where you get closer to the original 'feel' of the production. The lights went down and the screen changed shape to the aspect ratio used in 1944. The scratched celluloid started to roll and I surrendered my senses to the monochrome entertainment of a bygone age - insofar as I was able.

For I was distracted from the magic by the details that distinguish past from present: such as the fashion of the time which required all men to wear hats out of doors; the primitive voice-recorder used in the office scenes; the way that everybody smoked - anywhere; the fact that all the people were thin and all their cars were fat.
And what must it have been like to experience this American film, in Britain, just after WW2 had finished? Americans appeared affluent, confident in their culture and years ahead in their material lifestyle. They had telephones, cars and supermarkets with fully stacked shelves. This level of affluence, and the social change that went with it, would be a long time coming in tired old Britain. It’s a great film but, given that the accurately detailed social backdrop came ready-made, and that the direction was top-of-the-range Hollywood, what really distinguishes it from others is the cunning, imaginatively conceived plot.

Within days I was making comparisons with a modern film, Rush, the story of the rivalry between racing drivers Nikki Lauder and James Hunt. In this case ‘plot’ is replaced by a dramatised account of actual events. It was made last year but is set in 1976 - which means that much of the production work went into replicating the costume, speech, behaviour and technology of the period in order to establish credibility with an audience who saw the events themselves and are still alive and kicking. And yes, I did spot one or two discrepancies – some only recently coined figures of speech, and the drinking of beer from bottles which, I am sure, was never done at the time – but, I wasn’t unduly distracted from the main point: the story.

So, which is the more difficult to achieve: inventing a dramatic story or dramatising a real-life story? I was pondering this in relation to my own experience one Monday morning during my recent solitary stay in London. I had woken up with a fuzzy head - the effect of over-enthusiastic socialising - and devised a simple plan to bring myself round to full operating capacity. It involved taking a walk to buy some of the particular bread I like, replenishing my pockets with cash and reviving my senses with coffee.

But I was too early: the shop had no bread. I bought some bananas so that I could get cash-back from the till but they didn't have enough money in it. I found an ATM half a mile away but it had been emptied over the weekend. I made my way towards my favourite coffee stall, a mobile unit set up to service the local office workers, but realised they would probably require cash payment and so made a lengthy diversion to find another ATM. When I finally got back to the coffee stall there was an ill-tempered queue and the two barristas were bickering.

My turn came eventually and they handed me the flat white I had been longing for. I walked to the park where I had planned to savour it in the sun but, with the first sip, I tasted the sugar they had put in by mistake. I couldn’t drink it and, lacking the will to go back, threw it in the bin.

Man Fails to Buy Coffee may not sound like much of a drama: but you couldn't make it up, I thought as I headed home, eating a banana.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

I have been trying to kick-start a book-writing project for some time now and, since popular wisdom prescribes solitary confinement for such a task, I have taken up my relative's generous offer of residence in his apartment while he is away for a couple of weeks. Now, as I pack my bag to return home, I can evaluate what I have managed to achieve.

I shall be sorry to leave this temporary refuge, a comfortable, spacious pad overlooking the river Thames at Wapping, but perhaps it hasn't been as conducive to creativity as I had hoped. The busy river is a killer distraction for a writer whose ability to concentrate for more than half an hour without a break is already in question. The window onto the watery world has tempted me too often to 'stretch my legs', leaving the keyboard for the kettle or (according to the time of day) the bottle.

At first, the sound of a foghorn or an especially powerful wake lapping the river bank would have me curious to see what was passing and, although the novelty of the moving tableau did wear off, it was always a temptation. I may have become accustomed to the wafting sounds of the tour-boat commentaries, the waxing and waning disco beats from the numerous party boats and the smack and thump of speedboats full of squealing passengers but, one Saturday morning, the sound of cheering voices drove me once more to the window.

I watched as hundreds of rowing boats, of all shapes and sizes, passed by in a riverine equivalent of a fun-run. Some of the rigs in the vanguard looked like serious contenders - sleek craft full of Lycra-clad muscle-men with determined expressions. But the ones which followed looked less serious, reflecting perhaps their modest expectations of winning. I was impressed by the imaginative branding of many of these teams, from the crew who wore identical chicken-head helmets, to the louche Battle-of-Britain pilots dressed in bits of RAF uniform, as if they hadn't enough to go around. There was a big, heavy boat manned by a dozen monks dressed in brown habits and, bobbing in its wake, a flimsy craft womanned by half a dozen ladies dressed in dayglo tutus and flying the flag of the Sugar Plum Fairies. The procession was followed up by a large vessel crammed with supporters and a brass band playing Michael Jackson's Beat It. As a land lubber I was amazed by the sight of so many people having so much fun in boats – and without life-vests.

But I needed to get down to serious work on my project and there was another distraction: I had offered, as part of a reciprocal arrangement, to help out for a day on my friend's project - painting the external facade of his three-story Victorian pub. The job required climbing scaffolding and embracing a machismo disdain for PPE (personal protection equipment): which was all very well until the bloke working on the level above me twice dropped objects (accidentally) onto my head. Not to worry though: the first was just a balled-up rubber glove and the second was merely the blade of a Stanley knife (minus its heavy handle). In future I will wear a hard hat whenever there is a bloke working above me. And, if I ever get to fun-row, I shall be wearing a life vest over my monk's habit.

Meanwhile, back at the writing desk, there is much to do and I see that my 'Quote of the Day' calendar has Balzac telling me "It is as easy to dream a book as it is hard to write one". I know.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Dis-united Nations

Last week I spent a couple of days in Worcestershire, a part of the country that likes to be known as the “Heart of England” because of its geographical centrality. But there is also an unspoken implication that it is England’s heart in the emotional sense: that in this place, as in no other, beats the healthy, resolute heart of the Nation. It’s not hard to understand why. The fecund farmland basking in the warmth of late summer sunshine looks, smells and sounds like the epitome of wealthy, pastoral England. And the locals, proprietors of all this splendour, also seem to be basking – in smug complacency. Their exchanges were friendly, yet confident, and imbued with a tone that expressed a kind of pity for us visitors, burdened as we are with the misfortune of living elsewhere.

Right now I am staying in the geographical and historical heart of London, where the feeling is not so much ‘centre of country’ as ‘centre of universe’; where the heartbeat is not steady and regular but high-paced and likely to result in stress-related disease, and where England is often regarded as another country. In my experience, England comprises many different countries, each of them laying its own claim to being that special place - the quintessential England.

Definitions of nationhood are problematic, which may be why we oversimplify them: the French eat frogs’ legs, the Germans eat sausages, the English eat roast beef etc. These popular definitions belittle cultures which are rich and mature but, as simplistic caricatures, they comfort us in our belief that each nation has its own, secure and eternally defined identity. But it’s not really true, for we still live within our beloved national boundaries like separate tribes, factions and classes bound in loose alliance with others.

The division of peoples into nations is not necessarily a good idea – as any nomadic tribe will tell you. International borders are often randomly drawn, forcibly imposed or both. The motivation is always economic gain - though it may be presented as “in the interests of national security” - and is effective only for as long as the inhabitants agree on common cause or can be coerced into doing so. Borders are disputed every day, sometimes farcically – as in Spain’s outrage over Gibraltar whilst it continues to hold on to its enclaves in North Africa, sometimes tragically – as in the Middle East.

Syria, regarded as a strong and united nation for the past generation, is now mired in civil war. Some of its factions believe they represent the true Syria, some fight for a more inclusive state, while others want to abolish Western imposed boundaries altogether and establish a pan-Islamic caliphate in the region. The resulting mayhem is un-containable: and the cause can be traced back to artificially imposed boundaries.

England’s last civil war ended in 1651, since when a parliamentary system has evolved to regulate the claims of the various factions and build a semblance of national unity. But it’s a fragile alliance: social classes are diverging and polarising, the current movement for Scottish independence is heightening the debate over devolution of power to the English regions and, all the while, amoral corporations are mocking our borders with their tax-evading tactics.

I was not born in England: my mother was foreign and the family lived abroad for years. I reside in Manchester through circumstance and choice; it’s not my home-town, which means I have no relatives nearby and no allegiance to a football team. On the other hand I'm not a refugee; I'm a privileged migrant with a duly acquired scepticism of nationality. I can happily say “I'm not from ‘round here”: which, to the millions of people around the world who have been forcibly displaced by border warfare, probably sounds like smug complacency.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Argument or Bluster?

"A timid question will always receive a confident answer". I have occasionally tested the truth of this adage and it seems to hold up. Timid questions result either from the questioner’s lack of knowledge about the subject or their deference to the person being questioned - classic examples can be seen in 1950s film clips of interviews with those figures of authority whose privileged backgrounds and exclusive access to information enabled them to steamroller any potential argument.
The rise of mass media in recent times has eroded such advantage by enabling more people to keep abreast of events and form their own opinions. Good interviewers nowadays are confident and skilled in probing defences and pressing for answers. But to no avail: a counter-measure has been widely adopted. Known as ‘media training’ it involves not answering questions but ignoring them in favour of spouting one’s views regardless. This technique threatens to kill the art of argument (as in ‘discussion’) stone dead and is also responsible, in our household at least, for a great deal of shouting at the radio and TV.
But this last, long weekend brought a temporary respite from such intellectual frustrations as we ventured into Yorkshire for some hiking on the moors, a little quiet reading and several good dinners. Actually the main motivation for leaving town was the onset of the annual Gay Pride celebration, a laudable and popular event, but one which entails three days and nights of exhibitionism and an awful lot of passé disco music, much of which takes place on our doorstep. The Yorkshire moors proved to be the perfect antidote to this excess: during one memorable five-hour hike, in exceptionally fine weather, we met only one other couple.
My first morning back in the city, however, was a sharp contrast. Within 15 minutes of walking I had two near collisions with miscreant cyclists, one whom was riding at speed on the pavement, ignoring the cycle lane provided alongside it and the other of whom was riding in the wrong direction up the one-way street which I was about to cross. Where is respect for the social compact that enables us to live together amicably? Where is law enforcement when you need it? Listening to a news item later that day concerning Detroit’s bankruptcy and its inability to afford an adequate police force, I began to fear that, given the recent cut-backs at home, we may soon be in the same position.
There was also an item on the protests against culling our native badger population as a means of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Government has made a decision to proceed, although there is some vociferous dissent. I would like to be able to make up my mind about it but to do so would involve mastering all the facts put forward by various experts. Whether those who have decided which side they are on have done so rationally or emotionally is questionable.
An interview with one anti-cull supporter was a case in point. She was set to oppose the legislated cull by whatever means – including the harassment of individuals involved – but refused to reveal her name for fear she might herself be harassed. The interviewer asked her how she could justify unlawfully opposing legally sanctioned activity - but she ignored the question. Did she not understand the argument or was she yet another media-trained spokesperson? It was difficult to tell, but it had me shouting at the radio once more.
If you were to ask me whether culling badgers is an effective means of controlling bovine tuberculosis, I would be unable to give you an answer which is based on consideration of all the facts. If you were to ask me whether culling cyclists would be an effective way to enforce traffic regulations, I could make a pretty strong case for it.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


It's August and the place feels empty. Ten thousand students have left the city: people who have children and/or regular jobs have gone away on holiday for a "well-earned" break. Those of us who are not students, parents or employees are now experiencing the peculiar side-effects of their exodus: traffic is calm; the place feels more casual; "out of office" is the default response to emails and no one calls you back.

Whether holidays are well-earned or not is a subjective judgement, although back in the days when the concept was invented - when holy days were celebrated by granting the peasants a few hours respite from their otherwise ceaseless toil in the fields - they surely were deserved. Maybe it's time for our vocabulary to move on and to reflect modern circumstances more accurately. I'm in favour of dropping the word 'holiday', on the grounds that holiness is no longer part of the equation, and adopting in its place the American 'vacation', which seems nicely to evoke just the kind of evacuation we are currently experiencing.

Those of us who remain at home can enjoy the novelty of an un-crowded city - an opportunity not to be squandered. Yet there is also a sense of having been left behind, waiting for postcards from foreign parts. As a precaution against the onset of ennui it is best to keep oneself busy: and so I have indulged in an orgy of films, books, DIY and museums.

Watching four films in one week has put me in danger of overdose but it has also been a useful exercise in critical comparison. Here's what I saw: Only God Forgives,  a big name, big budget Hollywood production with a rich, painterly quality to the photography and a squalid little plot full of nasty, selfish, violent characters; Frances Ha, a low-cost, monochrome American indie, with a wittily scripted story of credible, likeable characters of the 'everyday' kind; Beyond the Hills, a sub-titled, Romanian production sensitively depicting the bleak lives of its characters set in a suitably bleak environment; and 13 Assassins (seen on TV), a sub-titled Japanese example of the trashy, Hollywood action genre which tells the story, one more time, of the good guy prevailing against evil by means of spectacularly gratuitous carnage.

I have also engaged with two novels: Infinite Jest, a modern classic so long and so dense that I can only bear to read it for 30 minutes at a time; and Lexicon, a nonsensical story written so obviously with a view to selling the film rights to Hollywood that I can see Carey Mulligan playing the main character even as I read. I would put it to one side but I have been trapped into finishing it by the authorial device of creating a mystery which will only be revealed on the last page. And I cannot cheat.

DIY, derided by cynics (and the cack-handed) as Damage It Yourself or, as a particular friend of mine prefers, Don't Involve Yourself, is actually something I enjoy. It affords me the satisfying pleasures of skilled manual labour which, once completed, really does entitle you to that "well-earned" reward - not necessarily a holiday, but perhaps a satisfying flagon of cider with which to wash down your ploughman's lunch. And so I tackled, with relish, the laying of a floor in a small bathroom, taking special pleasure in the skill with which I executed the curved cut around the base of the W.C.

And finally, a visit to the local Jewish Museum with a friend: we were keen to see their modest but promising exhibition of the Paris School of émigré painters - Chagall, Soutine et al. We decided to go on Friday afternoon but had to change our plan. Friday afternoon, it seems, is still regarded by some as a holy day.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Permanence:a thing of the past.

Having spent a week in London I am now back in Manchester contemplating the differences between the two places. They are superficially similar (scale aside) insofar as they are both densely populated urban areas, but each is really defined by its underlying raison d'être. London evolved from Roman times as England's centre of wealth and power and has since augmented its position as a super-wealthy, international metropolis. Manchester sprang from the loins of the industrial revolution and has had to learn to cope with its change of fortune post-industrialisation. In its heyday Manchester was at the forefront of social, economic and scientific innovation - universal suffrage, the free trade movement and the splitting of the atom are just a few examples - but those were the glory days.

In the last two weeks I have met up with two separate sets of Australian friends visiting the UK: perhaps they are taking advantage of our heat-wave to escape their winter down under? Whatever their reasons, it is gratifying that our friendships persist despite their distant migration. Last week I spent time with Australian#1 in London, where we had once lived; this week Australians#2&3, a couple, were in Manchester, their old home town: they wanted me to show them aspects of the city that have changed since their time here.

Actually quite a lot has changed: there are bars and restaurant chains everywhere, some of which look exactly the same as they do in Sydney or Melbourne. To be fair to these omni-present, indentikit establishments, they must have started life as the kind of independent businesses that bring vibrancy to the streets. Now commoditised, however, they overwhelm the individuality of whichever neighbourhood they choose to inhabit.

I had to look off the beaten track for something more uniquely Mancunian. Our first stop was a newly-built square which, although it contains all the said chains, has at its centre a novelty - a couple of temporary, pop-up bars. Quite how this works commercially I don't understand. Does their presence not diminish business for the surrounding permanent establishments? Or does it, conversely, attract more footfall to the benefit of all businesses? In any case it is an idea imported from London where the combination of high rents and shortage of ready capital gave birth to this alternative business model which, perversely, is becoming so successful that it is starting to show signs of emergent chain-itis.

In London, high property values have obliged the young, creative population to locate eastwards towards places like Shoreditch where they can find a compromise between cost and convenience. This has created new hotspots of cultural cool and hip activity. In Manchester there has been a similar effect, albeit on a smaller scale, where the Northern Quarter of the city centre does service as the bohemian part of town, its Victorian warehouses, workshops, shops and houses being re-cycled rather than re-developed. My friends were impressed when they saw this change although, again, it is not a uniquely Mancunian idea. But then we came across an unexpected thing: a pop-up cathedral.

I immediately grasped the potential for this concept. Traditional, big stone-built churches are generally under-utilised, their dwindling congregations struggling to justify their upkeep. By abandoning them in favour of pop-ups they could free up the existing, permanent buildings for use as social centres, schools, youth clubs, market halls etc. And the advantage that portable places of worship would have is that they could follow demographic changes in the population, re-locating to suit their audience. It's a viable new model for changing times, providing convenient places of worship at minimal cost. Manchester's pioneering days may not be over just yet.