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is welcome in one's letterbox, no matter what the style, but there is a type that will soon become quaintly, impossibly outdated: that most traditional of English scenes, the picture of a secluded, snow-covered country cottage with Santa, reindeer and sleigh perched magically on the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.