Saturday, 28 June 2014

Everyone Lives Down Memory Lane

When we moved from one flat to another recently I was gratified to be able to bring the 'garden' with us (I refer to the collection of potted plants which stood on the balconies). Having nurtured them, they have acquired some significance beyond decorative effect: they represent - in a very minor way - continuity; proof that I am making some sort of impact on this world and not just passing through. The plants seem to like the new place just as much as we do but lately I noticed that the bamboo was looking bedraggled: despite the season, its leaves were turning browner rather than greener. On close inspection I saw it was being drained of its sap by aphids, which came as a surprise since I thought it was just pandas that ate bamboo. Too late to save it by killing the bugs, I cut it back in the hope that it will regenerate next spring. To throw it out would have been easier but I am getting rather fond of that continuity thing: it helps remind me who I am and where I've been.

Lately I've had a few such reminders. Earlier this week I met up with a former work colleague. At the factory, where over many years we had built a business together, we talked not so much about old times as about her future plans. Coming away from the meeting my feeling, though tinged with nostalgia, was overwhelmingly one of contentment. Having established the business, I can now take satisfaction from the fact that a younger generation has used my effort as a stepping stone to the future.

Then there was my friend's 59th birthday party. Close friends and acquaintances came together to celebrate the occasion - some of whom I had seen the day before, others not since the last celebration - but, in what felt like too short a time, we reaffirmed the connections that give us context and that sense of belonging. What misery it must be to be a stranger at such a party, invited by a friend but without a stake in the shared history of the group - like a refugee starting another life in a foreign place.

I can remember the date of my friend's birthday because it coincides with the longest day of the year; otherwise I would have to rely on a system. There are well established techniques we can employ to memorise things - but I haven't got around to practising any. The anonymously-authored Latin textbook Rhetorica ad Herrenium, written around 85 B.C, documents a method of memory training which was used by the ancient Greeks and is still used today. Based around the ability of the human brain to remember spaces, it proposes the creation of an imagined building full of rooms in which information is stored. Mastery of such methods was crucial to the internalisation of knowledge in the absence of the printing press but in the age of the internet it is useful mostly to contestants in the World Memory Championship. My preferred memory aid is the electronic diary, although it does have its drawbacks: I forgot my brother's birthday this year because of dependence on it. As I sheepishly explained to him after the event, I had not felt it necessary - given our shared history - to make an entry for him. Consequently my phone, on which I now rely for prompts, did not alert me.

Nevertheless I am adamant that, with ready access to so much information, I need not clutter my mind with too many facts. Instead I shall save my capacity for personal memories - the kind that keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sorry, Russia.

Over the phone she told me her name was Maria and she would like to view the flat I had to let. Her foreign accent didn't surprise me - I've had a succession of tenants from all over the world - but I couldn't guess her nationality so, when we met, I asked her.
"Russian," she said. "You won't believe it but I come from a place called Red Army Town and I live on Lenin Street. Even my surname, Smirnova, sounds like a brand of vodka. I am like a joke Russian."

My perception of Russians has been formed by a superficial knowledge of their history, according to which a seemingly endless string of miseries has hammered them into stoic acceptance that there is neither justice nor fun to be had in this world. To meet a Russian with a GSOH is, therefore, a pleasant surprise. It is of course possible that her joviality stems from the fact that she has just landed a nice job in England (which would only stoke my prejudice) but I am hopeful that this young woman represents a newly-freed generation, one which values international harmony and co-operation above conflict and confrontation.

The man who delivers our packages from Amazon might be Russian: at the very least I am sure he is from eastern Europe. I would ask him, but the opportunity for conversation is restricted by the four or five seconds he is allocated per delivery. This morning he brought a book, The Wales Coast Path. A Practical Guide for Walkers. Having just returned from a few days of aimless ambling around the coast of Wales, my partner and I were inspired to make a project out of walking the path in its entirety. Having bought the book, she is looking forward to buying the stationery - a folder, coloured stickers, a notebook and so on- while I have my eye on a new pair of super-sandals for summer trekking. We were easily persuaded: our few days away were bathed in warm sunshine, the evenings were long and lazy and the sunsets over the sparkling sea were spectacular. Flicking through the book, however, I noted the paragraph warning of the unpredictable weather to which the area is prone - and the one explaining that the 1,680 mile-long coast is not a continuously picturesque vista: urban sprawl intrudes for many a mile. Foot-slogging through Swansea in horizontal rain is a real possibility.

The path does not follow the coastline unfailingly: some parts of it are diverted inland for practical reasons, others because concessions and permissions have yet to be wrung from reluctant landowners. Nevertheless, the creation of this leisure facility - the stitching together of all the various rights of way to form a continuous route - was initiated by the Welsh Government and is a positive example of what can be achieved by the devolvement of political control from Westminster. Driving back from the coast we stopped to visit Powis Castle, a powerful and symbolic reminder that land ownership in these isles was determined long ago by force of arms and subsequently upheld by feudal aristocracy. As I viewed the richly decorated interior stuffed with over-blown artefacts, it was not admiration I felt but resentment at the social inequality it represented. I overheard a curator talking about some of the porcelain on display:
"...of course, the family has kept all the best stuff. What you see here are just the items they can't accommodate or don't want. But it all belongs to Powis. Nothing has been brought in to fill the spaces."

Somehow her words brought to mind my new Russian acquaintance - and her splendidly proud address.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Anger Mismanagement

Last week Anon left a comment on the blog which, among other things, advised Wonderman to get angrier. They have a point: there are, after all, many things to get angry about. This morning, however, I was feeling mellow as I sipped coffee in the sunshine, sitting on a terrace overlooking a moderately busy intersection of the city's back streets. Even the people passing by appeared to be enjoying the fine weather as they went about their business. It was a feel-good morning - but not for all of us: every now and then the blare of a horn would disturb the harmony and I would look up to witness a bad-tempered protest from a driver - a twisted face mouthing curses, an arm raised in protest or exasperation. For most a single toot and accompanying curse was sufficient, but one driver, a balding, middle-aged man in an expensive-looking, open-top Mercedes, sustained his rage for much longer. Yet he ought, with his nice car and the fine weather, to have been enjoying the driving experience more than most.

I amused myself, from my lofty vantage point, by adjudicating on whether or not the various protests were justified. If a driver infringed the rules cynically or deliberately then I would empathise with the protesters but, when it came to an obvious case of a driver being indecisive, or bewildered, I judged that they did not deserve to be bullied by the tooting of horns or humiliated with derisive sneers. Surely as drivers we know that we all make mistakes? Our inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between selfish and hesitant driving is a good argument in favour of the driverless cars we have been promised.

I experienced a bout of road-rage myself this week - albeit as a pedestrian. A driver turned in front of me as I was crossing a side street. His window was down so I called out to protest that he had not signalled his intention to turn. His response was a finger in the air as he drove off. Insult added to injury is a potent mix so now it was my turn to be angry. Why should I get an insult when an apology was due? I determined to pursue the point and walked briskly after him as he dawdled along the side street looking for a place to park. With a real possibility of being able to catch up with him it dawned on me that I had better prepare my argument - and my defence. Remembering that, by chance, I was carrying a heavy wrench in my rucksack I took it out it and concealed it behind my back in case things turned ugly. Fortunately he drove off (I don't believe it was because of the wrench) and I found myself confronted instead by a group of religious proselytisers proffering leaflets and promoting peace, harmony and tolerance. I can never resist the argument I relish most - the one which pits faith against reason - and so, guiltily clutching my concealed weapon, I engaged with them until I had made my point, my outrage had dissolved and I had become, once more, the tolerant, reasonable, civic-minded paragon I always believe myself to be.

I suspect that this little flare-up of anger is not what Anon had in mind: a sustained torrent is more likely - one which motivates effective action in the cause of righting wrongs and campaigning against injustice. If that is the case I had better keep my powder dry for the big battles and not be drawn into petty disputes over rights of way. Mind you, if you give them an inch... 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A Right Royal Time-Warp

It's a very long time since Mark Twain voiced the opinion that "the institution of royalty in any form is an insult to the human race" and you would have thought by now that we, the insulted, would have had enough. Yet it was only a few days ago that the King of Spain finally saw fit to abdicate while, later in the week, our own monarch paraded to parliament in a newly-built, gilded, horse-drawn carriage, acting as though nothing should ever change. Royal dynasties, having clawed their way into their privileged positions, are reluctant to relinquish them and have developed sophisticated ways of persuading their subjects that they are entitled to lord it forever.

Nor is it difficult for them: our attention is easily distracted from the republican imperative. In these early days of summer, for instance, there is a lot of excitement being whipped up for music festivals. Carried along on this wave of enthusiasm, I found myself studying a guide to what's on offer, noting that festivals have become so popular and prolific that competition to attract audiences has led to innovations such as specialising in genres, staging in spectacular locations and even improving sanitary facilities. Trawling through the listings, however, it became apparent that most were age-inappropriate for me and that my only realistic option for a music-fest was listed on the back pages where Jazz and Folk had been inserted as a sort of public information service. Even then I had second thoughts about booking tickets: to binge for a whole weekend on concentrated cultural pleasures may, for many of us, be a necessity dictated by the working week. But how much more satisfactory it is to sprinkle the magic dust of music over everyday life than to snort it all up in one go.

I went to the Central Library (where the inscription at the entrance tells us that King George V was appointed by the grace of God to be the Emperor of India and the Defender of the Faith) to take a look at the newly accessible film archive. It's a treasure trove of British cinematic arts comprising documentaries, features, interviews and clips of all kinds dating back to the beginning of the industry. There are clumsy, publicly-funded information/propaganda films but there are also beautifully made gems. In the 1950s the British Transport Film Unit produced a series of regional features, beautifully shot in colour, scored with original music and  imaginatively narrated. Watching such films it is all too easy to become nostalgic for an imagined Golden Age when Britain, with all its traditions, seemed a better place than it is now. But this is dangerous fare: nostalgia and a fondness for tradition are feelings which monarchists can so easily exploit.

I also watched, on a whim, a five-minute piece about Dave Hill, guitarist with the 70s band Slade who, at the age of twenty, was rich enough to buy himself a big house. Dressed in full stage regalia - a gold suit and spangled forehead - he was showing a journalist around his new house, an immaculate Tudorbethan edifice located in prime stockbroker territory, in which he looked completely ill-at-ease. Despite the journalist's gentle promptings he appeared oblivious to the incongruity of the situation. Surely he could have found a funkier pad? I got the feeling that she, like me, was disappointed to find that Dave's outward appearance of non-conformity apparently disguised a deeply conformist core.

Maybe Dave had been talked into the deal by an estate agent; or maybe he was just smarter than both of us and had bought the place as an investment for the future.  But there remains the distant possibility that he was actually working his way up the ladder of respectability in expectation of an eventual invitation to Buckingham palace. His gold suit would have done nicely for the occasion.