Saturday, 28 February 2015

Snapshot of a Community

I opened an Instagram account last month - just to see what all the fuss was about. (I know, it's been four years since the app was launched, but one does one's best to keep up.) Instagram syncs with my Facebook and Twitter accounts and serves the same purpose - social networking - albeit specifically through the medium of photography. I see that it's a useful way of sharing photos of friends and family with friends and family; I see also that it has potential as a tool for self-promotion; and I see that it's a ready way of honing and showing off one's photography skills. But, in respect of this last, whenever I feel inclined to try for the perfect sunset I invoke the late Ansel Adams who is reputed to have said "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept".

Whether he intended it or not, Ansel Adams' observation can be applied not only to photographs but also to mental images, such as those that politicians have learned to conjure in our imaginations by using carefully crafted sound-bites. In this way they seek to reduce complex issues to simplistic, one-dimensional views impervious to argument or refutation. For example, one which has been ubiquitous of late is "hard-working families". There may be many hard-working families around but the mental picture of them as tightly knit, honest, deserving units of mum, dad and a couple of children battling against unfair odds is Disneyesque in its simplicity. It masks the complexities of individual circumstances, aspirations and social values. Gone are the days when people could be persuaded or coerced into rallying around the three core values of God, King and Country: Britain is now too diverse - and too media-savvy - to buy into that formula.

This was illustrated in my own little corner of the UK by the dissolution this week of the Manchester City Centre Residents Forum. After 13 years of incorporation, the four remaining identifiable members agreed to meet and put a formal end to what had become a dormant entity. It was originally established with the encouragement of the City Council, which was seeking a means of communicating with a population which at that time had grown from zero to five thousand in just a few years. As the regeneration of the city got under way, former commercial and industrial buildings were being converted to residential use and a new "community" was being created. I put my hand up to become a committee member and have witnessed the initial enthusiasm soar and subsequently plummet. At its height the MCCRF, capitalising on the novelty of regeneration, organised popular events and activities based on discovering the city's heritage.  We collected subscriptions and produced newsletters; volunteers leafleted new apartment blocks to expand membership; donations were collected from estate agents in return for insider information.

It was all very labour-intensive, so, as widespread use of the internet took hold, we embraced the tools, establishing a user-group courtesy of Yahoo to communicate via email instead of post. But this proved to be a double-edged sword, hastening the end by making it easier for individuals to air their grievances (especially in respect of parking) and form factions. Apart from occasional requests for recommendations for reliable tradesmen, there was little evidence of "community" activity. Inevitably, face-to-face contact dropped off and physical meetings came to be seen as inconvenient.

All in all it became apparent, sooner than it might otherwise, that the idea of a city centre community was flawed in one major respect: most of the residents, being transient, are somewhat community-averse. The concept of MCCRF ultimately proved to be...fuzzy, and the final meeting concluded with the least transient faction - three sixty-something blokes - discussing football over pints of ale in the pub.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Community Support

Our itinerary took us past Stonehenge: we would have liked to visit it, but rain was belting down so we decided to leave it for another time - ideally an evening of clear skies when you can watch the sun setting spiritually through the stones. So, with a few hours to kill, we swung into the nearby small town of Amesbury to see what was of interest. In the car park I asked a chap to recommend a coffee shop.
"Just up there on your left. The Friar Tuck" he said. It didn't sound promising and, as we approached, it didn't look it either; closer still and the smell of fry-ups vindicated our suspicion.
We peered around from under the umbrella, hopeful of an alternative, but saw none among the familiar array of shop-fronts. There was the handsome-looking Bell Inn, but the experienced wanderer through the rural towns of England has reason to be wary of such exterior charm, having too often found a gloomy interior, obsequious staff and Nescafé, served until 11.00 a.m. But we were in luck: this place had been rescued by Wetherspoons, the pub company founded by a New Zealander which has restored life to many of our redundant but interesting buildings. Its formula seems to be a good-quality fit-out (respectful of the buildings' heritage) and an all-day offering of food, proper coffee and decent ale at reasonable prices. Not surprising then that The Bell Inn was buzzing with locals hanging out and sorting their lives. Here, in the de facto Amesbury community centre, we found a comfortable corner to shelter from the rain, read and drink Lavazza.
In Manchester, the next morning, I walked past a gaggle of Police Community Support Officers. It's unusual to see so many of them together but I assumed they might be huddled in a pre-deployment briefing. Further on I walked up behind a big bloke - shaved head, thick, bull-like neck, grey jogging pants - talking loudly into his phone and, just to confirm my prejudice, I hung back to listen.
"He's not hard. So? He head-butted a few old guys. That's not hard. Anyone can do that. Anyway no one likes him. He's just a bully, Dave. Seriously, I'd take a bat to his head" and so on for 200 yards. Fascinated, but fearful of being caught eavesdropping, I crossed the road.

Later, back at home, there was a knock on the door - which is also unusual (for those not accustomed to flat-dwelling, we are not easily accessible - great for avoiding hawkers, Halloween scroungers and carol singers). I opened the door to a couple of PCSOs, come to question me, I supposed, about a violent-looking chap with a bull-neck and grey jogging pants. But their mission was actually more prosaic.
"Sorry to trouble you sir, we're doing a survey and would like to ask you a few questions - if you have five minutes."
Disappointed but intrigued, I invited them in to sit, politely but awkwardly, on the sofa, all bundled up in heavy outdoor clothing and fluorescent jackets.  Apologetically, one of them read me a questionnaire obviously adapted from a market research handbook - "How likely is it - very likely, not at all likely" and "On a scale from 1-10" etc. I felt their embarrassment and sensed they would rather be on the street looking out for crime.
"It's a community policing feedback initiative" they explained.
I asked if they had got any other respondents in our block.
"No," they said "we're struggling to get to grips with the community round here".
"Go to Wetherspoons on the corner", I said.
"You could get your quota ticked off there and be back on the job in half an hour".

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Androids Can't Do Jazz

Whilst I found the film Ex Machina entertaining and suspenseful, I also thought it raised some important questions. Just what is the purpose of replicating humans in electro-mechanical form? How closely will artificial intelligence be able to mimic the human brain? Will androids eventually be able to pass themselves off as humans? What does ex machina mean and what is the correct way to pronounce it?

Of these, the last is the easiest to answer because we can look it up. Otherwise, we are in the realms either of fantasy or informed speculation. Pleading ignorance of the latter, my responses must be rooted in the former and my conclusion is that there will never be a completely convincing android. Nevertheless, I must admit to having found Ava, the female android in the film, sexually alluring. It's probably because she was actually human but, if I were an inflatable sex doll manufacturer, I would consider diversifying into androids.

However, my brief musings on the future were displaced the next evening when, at a meeting of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, we examined the histories of scat - in which the singer substitutes nonsense syllables for words and tries to sound like an instrument - and of vocalese - in which words are sung to melodies originally written for instruments. The session reinforced my preference for not hearing vocalese again, but was otherwise instructive. I learned, for example, that Millicent Martin's irritating style derived from Annie Ross's. As regards scat, it was not invented in 1927 by Louis Armstrong when he forgot his lyrics - there are earlier exponents on record. Furthermore, it is far more sophisticated than "doo-be-doo-be-doo". Take this example of Sarah Vaughan performing live in 1969: her singing is not only expert and inventive but also passionate, intense and exciting. Watching her at work, rivulets of perspiration running down her handsome, expressive face, is enough to banish all thoughts of android sex.

Later in the week I had cause to consider the role of androids in society at large when I encountered one of them working at the local branch of Santander bank. I was there attempting to close the defunct account of a defunct society of which I am the treasurer. The sticking point was that the mandate required a second signatory and I had no record of who that might be. The bank did, but they wouldn't disclose the information without the second signatory's endorsement. This is the kind of stand-off that androids are very good at: they don't get frustrated or annoyed; they don't even see the funny side and why would they? They know that their prospects for future employment are assured, come what may.

The sum of money involved in my transaction is piffling yet the levels of security are higher, it seems, than those required to withdraw vast sums of untaxed cash from Swiss banks, no questions asked. This is infuriating, as is the "revelation" that the former head of HSBC bank in Switzerland presided over tax-evasion tactics for wealthy British subjects and was subsequently rewarded with a post in Government. Both are amusing in so far as they are predictable. Taxes, after all, never were intended to be levied on the rich. The potted history runs thus: the Monarch needs cash so he/she squeezes the land-owning aristocracy who, in turn, squeeze their tenants. Modern refinements to this chain of events do not change the underlying narrative, one which paints society into a corner by enriching a few individuals at the expense of the masses.

What the plot needs at this point is a literary deus ex machina - a contrivance by which a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly resolved by the intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. I suggest the creation and appointment of a parliament full of android politicians. (Androgynous might be best).

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Cause and Effect

Walking through the city centre on the way to the dentist one morning - icy wind freezing my face - I passed a few doorways where rough sleepers were emerging from mounds of assorted bedding, cardboard and polythene. I imagine they are jobless as well as homeless (though I've never concerned myself enough with their plight actually to ask them) and therefore in no rush to get to work. But the Big Issue sellers were already up and at it, as were the street entertainers - 'human statues' and buskers - whose physical extremities must be endowed with better circulation than mine. Later, leaving the dentist, my face frozen now by novocaine, I saw that the beggars had taken up strategic positions at lucrative patches. Another day, another dollar, as someone once succinctly put it.

Life is tough these days: the safety net of the welfare state is not as tight-meshed as it was, nor am I optimistic for its future robustness. Globally the trend is for private wealth to increase as public funds diminish, reminding me of the time I asked an Italian why so many of Italy's historic monuments were closed pending renovations. Could they not afford to maintain them? "Italy is a poor country, full of rich people" she replied, referring obliquely to the widespread practice of tax avoidance. Given the rate at which wealth is being concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals and given also that the more wealth they have the more of it they can divert towards avoiding taxes, we are all set to go back to the future - C19th levels of inequality.

The struggle to make a living at a time of job famine and welfare drought does, however, stimulate human ingenuity and creativity. While circumnavigating the beggars and smelly doorways I was struck by the quantity, quality and diversity of the buskers on the streets: a young man with a terrific voice rendered a lovelorn "poor me" ballad (though he needs to work on his guitar technique); a young woman sang classical music prettily and without an amplifier; and a boy/girl duo took me back to Peter, Paul and Mary days with their lachrymose but tightly harmonised version of 500 Miles. Later, while enjoying the musical virtuosity of TheImpossible Gentlemen in the warmth and comfort of that most excellent venue Band on the Wall, I thought of the freezing buskers and hoped that they too would someday be able to command big ticket prices.

The next evening I attended a meeting for the 20,000 city-centre residents to talk to the police. A small room had been reserved, which was just as well because those present were the Divisional Commander, the City Centre Commander, the PCC, two councillors and about ten of us, eight of whom had come to voice personal grievances. One man wanted to know why the police didn't clamp down on people smoking joints outside his building; another was concerned that not enough police were available to prevent drink-and-drug fuelled disturbances in the wee small hours; another objected to beggars and homeless people on the streets - and so on. They were missing the point: our police chiefs were patient and polite but they know the problem is that we have a diminishing number of cops chasing an increasing number of petty criminals.

The police can't get on top of such a situation. It's up to us to change laws which criminalise people unnecessarily - marijuana, for example, could be legalised and taxed - and to regulate pub and club licensing hours so that trouble is contained. Measures like this would allow police to concentrate on serious crime and fraud while we set about resolving the causes, not the symptoms, of joblessness and homelessness.