Saturday, 30 March 2013

Show or Spectacle?

I love the way that chocolate remains inert until you put it into your mouth and it gradually reaches body temperature, dissolving into goo and working its eagerly anticipated magic on the taste buds. If you like the stuff you would have been delighted to come across, as we did by chance, thirty or more market stalls displaying the produce of chocolatiers from far and wide. It was a spectacular demonstration of the diversity and excellence of their skills but, unfortunately, it was outdoors and, with a sub-zero temperature and a Siberian wind whipping the canvas, customers were reluctant to linger. Although I admired the confections, I didn't buy: it was too cold to take my gloves off and fumble with banknotes and, in any case, I had begun to doubt if my own body temperature would ever return to the requisite level.

We were on London’s South Bank, en route to catch the exhibition called Light Show (a phrase I still associate with early Pink Floyd concerts). It’s a pot pourri of electric-light art installations made during the last 50 years and it’s very popular (advance booking required) but, while some of the pieces are certainly intriguing, its classification as art is debatable: the attraction seems to consist mainly in the spectacle of coloured lights. Back up North we are quite familiar with this phenomenon: the annual Blackpool Illuminations (no booking required) are a hundred times more spectacular and have been drawing millions of viewers every year since 1879. However, the one thing the Light Show did demonstrate is that advances in technology do not necessarily equate with imaginative leaps forward: those psychedelic slide projections of the 60s still shine brightly in my consciousness - although that may have something to do with the circumstances of the time.

Our next stop was the National Theatre where we watched a gritty Northern drama played out in front of an effete Southern audience. Despite the authenticity of the dialogue and the accents (I lived 20 years in the place it was set) the audience needed no explanatory sur-titles because Northern TV dramas have long since prepared the ground. Although the actors deserved the enthusiastic applause at the curtain, to my mind the production contained more grit than drama and scarcely justified our journey from the real-life setting to the staging.

The next day we set out for a stroll around central London but, with the wind so cold that it hurt our faces, shelter soon became a priority and we found it in Boca di Lupo, an Italian restaurant in Soho. The excellence of this place must be in part a consequence of the fierce competition in the area. Customers here are too sophisticated to be palmed off with pale imitations of stock dishes, pantomime Italian waiters and special offers. Consequently a breed of establishments has evolved, like this, so stylishly Italian it almost hurts. As we ate, our journey South no longer seemed so futile.

After lunch it was the strikingly handsome face of a North American Indian, rather than the promise of shelter, which attracted us into the National Portrait Gallery. His face stares down from posters and is one of a series of portraits, painted in the 1830s by George Catlin, who made several expeditions into the western United States to document all the tribes and their traditions. His work is not only an invaluable pre-photographic record but also evidence of his personal empathy with a people that, in his own words, “had been invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed and, therefore, lost to the world”.

He subsequently made his living touring the paintings, along with an entourage of Indians - and their tepees - around America and Europe. While not considered to be an A-list painter, audiences nevertheless flocked to his shows and, whilst we can’t be sure that they shared his sympathies, we can be sure that people then loved a spectacle - just as they do nowadays.


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Invisible Assets

The temporary loss of a pair of reading specs will be a familiar problem to many: having served their purpose they are often put aside thoughtlessly so that finding them later can escalate into a deductive process involving relatives, friends, strangers - even pets. When my favourite pair went missing recently they were discovered the next day at the house of friends I had visited - which was inconvenient but not crucial because, like others before me, I have built up a stash of spares to cope with this recurring behaviour.

I fished out a pair bought some time ago at Milan airport where, attracted to the stylish shape of the lenses and the chic transparency of the frames, I succumbed to the hypnotic aura of the retail mall. Their style, as it turns out, trumps their functionality and I don't use them often because they are invisible. I don't mean like in a comic book where they render the user invisible: I mean they cannot be seen because they are made entirely of transparent plastic and, chameleon-like, they disappear into whatever background they are placed upon, thereby compounding the difficulty of finding them. I did find them yesterday by re-tracing my movements, returning to the sofa where I had settled with the newspaper to read the business pages.

With the end of the financial year approaching, I was preparing to review what's left of my ravaged investments by checking if the pundits had any stock market tips for me. Ten years ago I read a 'how to' book about acquiring wealth and I remember the salient advice was to "buy assets" - not with one's own money but with borrowed capital. Once upon a time this was easy to do, but in 2008 it all came to an end when solid 18th Century banking principles re-asserted themselves and the dominoes toppled. That was the end of borrowing from banks to buy profit-generating assets. What to do?

It is not advisable to leave spare money, if you have any, in a savings account. Apart from derisory interest rates there is now the danger of confiscation - as Cypriots currently anticipating the arrival of gangs of sinister Russians have just discovered. It seems the only place left where you can put your capital to work is the stock market, where you might profit from the constant movement in share values. You can buy and sell shares yourself or, if you prefer, appoint a manager to do it for you. If you choose the latter, however, be aware that someone else is placing bets with your money.

Preferring to do it myself, I pressed on with my sofa-based research, wrestling with the intricacies of a system that has, over hundreds of years, complicated the simple principles of buying and selling to a point of incomprehension. For example there is a practice, known as 'shorting', whereby you borrow shares in the confidence that their value is about to fall: you immediately sell them, buy them back later at the lowered value and return them to the lender having pocketed the profit. It's clever but tricky - unless you know a) which stocks are about to fall and b) someone who will lend you their shares. Since I know neither I have decided to keep it simple and buy in hope of rising value.

There are other pitfalls, however. Before I got to the hot tips I was diverted by an article describing how the use of computers has made share trading more accessible to amateurs like me. But professionals also use them, and their systems can automatically review market trends, pick stocks and execute trades in one millionth of a second. Which means that - even if I could make a confident, informed decision - by the time I've found my invisible specs, I'm toast. It would all be much less stressful if it was someone else’s money.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Mott the Who?

At the height of their popularity in the early 1970s I was not especially interested in Mott the Hoople - although I was intrigued by the name and did like a couple of their records.  After watching a TV documentary this week about their career I am no more interested than I was then, although it has induced in me a bout of retrospection. Watching the grey-headed, grandfatherly former members being interviewed at home - two of them drowning in floral-print upholstery and chintzy bric-a-brac, another perching on a firm, shiny leather chesterfield and all of them looking bewildered - it seemed unlikely that they had once belonged to a group with a reputation for extreme hedonism in the grand tradition of rock ‘n’ roll. What were the circumstances in which these young lads from tranquil, rural Herefordshire climbed aboard the roller-coaster of fame and, after a short but exhilarating ride, reappeared years later having acquired no more charisma than your average, bog-standard pensioner? Had they been ill-advised or were they, like so many of us, simply unprepared for what lay ahead?

Towards the end of our schooldays my classmates and I were sent to the Careers Officer for a ritual appraisal of our future prospects. His methodology comprised a cursory glance at our exam results; a single, closed question - “Which of these listed careers would you prefer?”; a brief comment on the answer and not so much as one useful introduction. At the time, given our naive expectations, this all seemed quite reasonable, but I have since pondered the effectiveness of that process. (It should be noted here that parental advice in this matter was, of course, routinely ignored). Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of the officer’s system was the deliberate limitation of choice. As I recall, his list consisted exclusively of unexciting but securely salaried occupations: there was no category which carried any risk of uncertain income - no entrepreneur, no gambler, no artist, no gigolo and certainly no rock-musician.

Careers Officers of that time were either people of limited imagination or, more likely, were obliged to work within a system designed to ensure a constant supply of suitably qualified and conditioned workers for the economy. This raises the old question of what should be the purpose of education. Let us not forget that the need for an educated workforce is a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of industrialisation and urbanisation. Prior to modern times there was poverty and subsistence agriculture for the masses, wealth and leisure for the land-owning few and a fighting chance of making a living elsewhere for merchants, artists, musicians and others prepared to live on the edge. The only regular career options consisted of managing the affairs of the rich - and these, in any case, were dependent more on patronage than skill. Education for the masses was an economic irrelevance until industrialisation brought with it waged occupations and a demand for new skills.

But the economic cycle has moved on and nowadays industrial production requires fewer people, service industries predominate in our economy and the likelihood of guaranteed, long-term, regularly paid employment is receding. The ground has shifted and Careers Officers – if they still exist - must take a more imaginative approach to their duties. My belated advice would be to drop the word “career” and replace it with the phrase “life-fulfilment”; abandon the title “officer” in favour of “counsellor”; and amend that list of possible careers.

So what happened in Herefordshire schools at the end of the 1960s? Were there no officers to steer the lads into ‘proper’ careers? Or did they, uniquely, have officers who anticipated the trend and included creative arts on their lists? My romantic hope is that the lads needed no advice - that they simply followed their dreams regardless. That gives me a perfect backdrop for listening to All the Young Dudes at volume setting eleven.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Paying One's Dues

In April 1967 I was introduced to the music of Nina Simone by a girlfriend who insisted we buy concert tickets. The venue, Portsmouth’s Guildhall, was large but sparsely populated despite the fact that Nina was by then well-established in the USA and working through her third European tour. So, when she appeared on stage, dressed glamorously as for a big occasion, I squirmed in embarrassment at the rows of empty seats she had to face. She duly voiced her disappointment at the turnout but, despite that, made it plain that an audience is special, no matter its size, and that she was going to give us the best she had. And so she did.

I was reminded of this last Monday when I went along to a gig by another act from the USA, the 4-piece Becca Stevens Band. The venue was much smaller than the Guildhall but the audience was just as meagre. On this occasion, however, the artists politely refrained from commenting on the fact and simply set about fulfilling their side of the deal by delivering their act. The first couple of songs were intriguing and beautifully performed but I didn’t really warm to the musicians until they began to communicate with us in between their songs with some witty, bantering exchanges. They told us stories of their tour, praised us for being an appreciative audience, said nice things about our city, the venue and the beer and even apologised for the fact that their gig coincided with a very important football match. Oh – and they were so thrilled to be doing the next number because it was a cover of a song by local band, The Smiths. We were all won over: which, from the artists’ point of view, is quite crucial.

Musicians like to sell records and live performances are an important part of that process: they create a personal connection which makes it possible for them to convert casual listeners into life-long fans. And fans, as the football entertainment industry has proven, are an enduring source of income. The Becca Stevens Band, unlike Nina Simone, works at a time when sales of records are hard won in the face of copying, sharing and downloading so they need every sales technique they can muster.

Internet guru Jaron Lanier is currently arguing the case for reversing the general expectation that everything on the web should be open and freely available. Recipients of free internet stuff might balk at this idea but those, such as musicians, who provide that stuff and don’t get paid for it, will probably side with Mr. Lanier. Google’s business model illustrates the case: it takes the information about ourselves that we give it and turns it into a saleable commodity. In return it gives us free searches, calendars, email and so on but, since our information is obviously of value, should we not be able to sell it to Google and decide for ourselves what to buy with the proceeds?

I can see a future for this turn-about in our relationship with the web. It could even be applied to audiences and musicians. Suppose musicians were to pay us to attend their gigs: we could then use the payments to buy their recordings (if we so choose) and they, in return, would reap the benefit of having packed houses full of well-disposed audiences (free drinks would also help in this respect). Having paid out their own money they would, of course, be fully incentivised to put on a good show and to make the most of the opportunity to create fans by building personal rapport.
So musicians would have bigger live audiences and the prospect of steady record sales; audiences would be more likely to experience first-class performances, a bit of banter and free drinks; and Google would be transformed into an honest business at last.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Believe It Or Not

Moseley Old Hall is not an especially beautiful building, although its Elizabethan origins and rustic setting do lend it a degree of charm. It's the centrepiece of a farm which was expanded with the help of dowries amassed through prudent marriages, thereby enabling the elevation of a once humble farmhouse to the more gentrified status of a Hall. Somehow, perhaps because of its relatively remote location, it survived intact for long enough to become adopted by the National Trust and preserved as an example of life as it was lived in the rural heart of England in the mid 17th Century. Last week a small party of us took a guided tour of Moseley for a first-hand taste of that life which, judging by what I saw, would have been uncomfortable, gloomy and sometimes dangerous. The 21st Century may have its problems but I count myself fortunate to be here and now.

The French Renaissance essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote "nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known" - an observation on the human mind which explains one or two things quite neatly. For example I had, through ignorance, firmly believed that the expression "sleep tight" was a reference to keeping one’s eyes tightly closed during sleep. Not so. Our guide at the Hall showed us an ancient wooden bed-frame strung with hemp rope. She explained that, in order to ensure a good night’s sleep, the rope needed to be kept tight by twisting some pegs at the side. At once I understood how knowledge loosens the ties of belief.

When exploring old houses every room may be seen as a potential treasure trove of useful facts that can be used either to fascinate others of a like mind or to bore those who prefer to remain unenlightened. Which reminds me: did you know that the working classes of that period, if they were sufficiently civilized, used square, wooden trencher plates to eat from and that this accounts for the origin of the phrase "a good square meal"? This is just one of the many insights revealed by our guide illustrating, if nothing else, the evolution of household furnishing design and the failure of language to keep up with it.

But Moseley is not all about domestic trivia: it is also the site of a headline historical story as romantic as any episode from a Walter Scott novel. It seems the family held to the Roman Catholic faith at a time when its practice was prohibited. They defied the law and put their lives in danger by equipping the Hall with a secret chapel for saying Mass and a priest-hole for hiding the evidence. So, when fellow Catholic and would-be king Charles II turned up on the run from the Republicans after being defeated at the battle of Worcester, they were well-placed to accommodate him for a few days while he sorted out a plan B. On the first night they put him in the priest-hole but he protested that it was too small (I can vouch for that) so they did a risk-assessment and decided it would be safe to upgrade him to a decent room with a double bed, fireplace and en-suite chamber-pot. This turned out to be a wise move since he was enthroned nine years later, Cromwell having died and the people having become disenchanted with his austere dictatorship as a form of government.

When he became King, Charles II swam against the tide by coming out in favour of religious tolerance. Perhaps he had read M. De Montaigne, that pioneer of the sceptic school of thought, whose quoted comment, was, on reflection, probably not aimed at our perceptions of domestic furnishings.