Saturday, 29 August 2015

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

Not so long ago the news footage on our TV screens featured migrants storming the border between the USA and Mexico. Now it shows migrants at our own border and it is not so easy to distance ourselves from the images. Nor should we: migration is an age-old phenomenon, it is universal and inevitable as long as its causes - war, persecution, poverty and famine - persist. Migrants are mostly desperate people. As Bob said, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And so they are coming to Europe, notwithstanding the obstacles in their way.

Europe is a politically stable region with a huge economy and vast resources but it should be remembered that its riches were acquired largely by colonial exploitation. Furthermore, the turmoil now rampant in Africa and the Middle East is due, at least in part, to the legacy it has left in these regions. Europe - and Britain is a part of Europe - may not be able to undo the damage it has done but it could and should make amends by alleviating the symptoms. Some countries - Germany and Sweden, for example - appear more willing to accept the recent swell of immigrants than others, notably Britain, whose reluctance is shameful given the prominent part we have played in its causation. So why are we afraid of accepting immigrants? Here are some of the populist objections.

We are a small, overcrowded island. This perception is heightened by the fact that most of us live in cities, many of which seem crowded because their infrastructure has not kept pace with growth. High-density occupation is an inherent - and desirable - feature of cities: it is actually economically beneficial, provided it is well planned and managed. The real problem is that it is not.

Immigrants take our jobs. Jobs only exist where there is economic activity. Immigrants, having no cause for complacency, have an illustrious record of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial activity creates a bigger economy which in turn creates more jobs for the increased population. Jobs are created as well as “taken”. And we need a bigger working, wealth-generating population to balance the demographics of our ageing population.

Our education system is overwhelmed. The children of immigrants consistently achieve higher educational qualifications than their “native” counterparts and, in doing so, are not only less disruptive in the classroom but also more likely to become net contributors to the economy.

Our social services are under strain. Social services are provided locally but funding is controlled centrally. This contradictory system will never work efficiently. Central Government should let go of this control and allow Local Authorities to allocate resources as appropriate.

Immigrants destroy our culture. If this were true then I would be worried - there is much to treasure and admire in our culture. But there is also a huge residue of prejudice, misconception and ignorance accumulated as a result of historical hogwash and jingoistic insularity. The introduction of other cultures presents an opportunity for cross-fertilisation. Because culture is a process, not an object, integration does not dilute: it enriches and enhances.

Immigrants change the nature of localities. Yes, nothing stays the same: get over it.

The plight of the refugees fleeing violence, death and destruction presents us with an opportunity, as John Buchan put it, to “pay our debt to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves” but the main obstacle to this humanitarian approach is politics. The accommodation of refugees is a relatively short-term issue but eradicating the drivers of migration is a question for the long-term - and politicians don’t embrace the long-term until they have retired from office. There is no chance that our government will say or do anything helpful to the situation until its electorate insists otherwise.

“This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” (Bob Dylan)

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Another Freudian Slip

When it comes to museums, there are some I have never been inclined to visit, the Pencil Museum in Kendal being one. I have passed its door many times knowing that I can learn the history of Kendal’s pencil manufacturing industry at any time by reading it up - should I ever feel the urge to do so. I may feel differently, however, the next time I’m in the area because, having recently been to the Robert Owen museum, Keats House and the Sigmund Freud Museum - all of them small, specialised collections - I am beginning to appreciate the value of immersing oneself physically in a subject. It’s about engaging the senses in the learning experience and conjuring up that magical quality - atmosphere.

Besides, reading up a subject is easily postponed - sometimes indefinitely - especially in the case of Freud. His theories and practices are famous but, for the layman at least, understood only at a superficial level and, like many complex disciplines, liable to be parodied in the process of popularisation. Nevertheless, surrounded as I was by all things Freud, I became conscious of my subconscious and found it impossible to resist indulging in a little self-psychoanalysis. That dream which features my appearance on stage wearing nothing but a vest: is it really about wish fulfilment? If so, should I sign up for a few sessions on the couch? But no: the damage was done so long ago that it’s too late or too pointless to bother with repairing it. Searching through my earliest memories I recall peering over the side of a ship into the deep green ocean. When, soon after, in my first year of school I painted a picture of a ship on a green sea, the teacher ridiculed me by insisting that the sea is blue. That never-to-be-forgotten humiliation is surely responsible for my enduring artistic inhibition - and my fear of being seen without trousers.

On a more positive note, however, the experience may also have catalysed in me a strong empathy for the tender and impressionable state of infancy. Whenever I see a toddler I think back to that teacher who sought to modify my impressions of the world - despite the fact that she had apparently never gazed into the deep green ocean. Whatever children experience is reality for them. One former child to whom I’m related has just turned eighteen. I first met him on the day he was born and have taken an interest in his progress ever since, encouraging him occasionally to assert his independent view of the world (taking care not to subvert his parents’ hopes). By happy coincidence I was present this week when his father took the three of us to the pub so that his son could ceremonially buy his first round of pints - legally that is. What happened subsequently will probably scar the young man for life.

The bar was busy and we had to wait our turn. When an opening appeared I acted instinctively and caught the barmaid’s eye.
“Three pints of Summer Ale, please”, I shouted. Father and son were talking but, as the barmaid started to pull the pints they looked up and realised that I had spoilt the occasion by calling the order out of turn. My apologies were grudgingly accepted.
“Think of it as one of life’s lessons”, I continued. “You need to be assertive at a busy bar.”
Our first-timer looked unhappy at this unwanted lesson but, I rationalised, he will at least have a story to tell the next generation of legal first-rounders. Besides, as Freud might have said (but didn’t) “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Window Of One's Own

It’s hard to remember what life used to be like without a PC and an internet connection. How did I find time to do all those chores like banking, application forms and research? I suppose everything just took longer, in which case I should nowadays have more time to spare for loafing about. Strangely, however, that does not seem to be the case. In accordance with Parkinson’s Law, the spare capacity has become filled with other stuff. What’s worse is, despite no longer having to queue at the Post Office to renew the TV licence and road tax, little of the time saved has been dedicated to the causes of philanthropy or self-improvement - one needs a steely determination for that: mostly it’s been squandered on online shopping, interactive social media and software-management. And while I would never blame others for my weakness in the face of temptation, in the case of software I feel entitled to some help.
The last few weeks have seen the launch of Windows 10, the latest version of an operating system for Microsoft-driven PCs. I signed up and was duly upgraded from Windows 8 which, by general accord, had been proven to be counter-intuitive, difficult to navigate, frustrating and time-consuming. Microsoft, realising that frustrated customers are likely to become ex-customers, decided to fix the problem by re-designing the operating system so that it is less gimmicky and more practical. Behind this exercise lies the principle that the system should mimic the way our brains work and, in this respect, they are making some progress. When, for example, we want to find a file it is useful to see a symbol of a file prominently displayed on the screen. But a more ambitious feature - speaking a request instead of typing it - has some way to go: when I asked “Where is the Sigmund Freud museum?” the response was “I have no results for the Sigmund Floyd museum”. My diction or theirs?
But brains don’t all work in the same way - our cranial operating systems are individually developed and honed for navigation through the complexities of whatever lives we experience. We start as infants, pressing the virtual keys of life randomly to see what will happen; we progress through childhood, exploring their functions in a more purposeful way; as teenagers we focus intensely on just a few of those functions; as adults we broaden or strengthen our interests until, in old age, we are in a position to refine them by ditching those we are disillusioned with, tired of or no longer capable of pursuing.
The Windows 10 operating system, impressive as it is, takes insufficient account of this progression. When it loads for the first time the screen fills up with gaming apps and entertainment gizmos that may be crucial to some users but are of secondary importance to others. Yes, it is possible to “personalise your Windows experience” by changing the background theme and wallpaper, but I’m sure those clever people who write the code could do better than that. What I would like to see is an operating system that comes ready-tailored so that I don’t have to spend quite so much time fathoming out what X-box is and why I don’t need it - which would leave more time for my preferred interests.
How about a version of Windows with my name on it? Surely all that’s required is some input from me - date of birth, sexual orientation, cultural and educational background, degree of curmudgeonliness, inclination to pedantry, aversion to light classical music etc. - for the developers to make my OS fully bespoke? They could include, for example, the latest Saga app which could be continuously and automatically updated as I get older: font sizes would increase, healthcare apps would be introduced to remind me of doctors’ appointments and medication schedules. I might finally get some quality loafing time - as long as I can resist the ensuing bombardment of precisely targeted advertising, that is.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

...And All That Jazz

When the need arose for me to terminate a Virgin Media broadband account I found out that there is no easy way to do it. It requires persistence, determination and a couple of hours on the phone just to reach the disconnection team, protected as they are by ranks of gatekeepers.
May I ask why you wish to terminate? Are you unhappy with the service? asked the disconnection lady.
No, I said, as calmly as I could, As Ive explained several times to your colleagues, the service has been fine but the property is being sold and so it is no longer needed.
The process is certainly a test of ones self-control and not recommended for those inclined to apoplexy but, fortunately, I had been prepared by an earlier experience which was so ridiculous that it took me beyond exasperation and left me in the bemused zone. The Post Office had turned down my application for a credit card because its system jumbled up my address whenever the man tried to enter my postcode.
Cant you enter the address manually? I asked.
No. Sorry. he said, with no acknowledgement of the irony inherent in the fact that the postcode had been allocated bythe Post Office.

These irritations - the teething problems of a technological society in its infancy - are best endured stoically. There are pleasures elsewhere which compensate us, not least the annual Manchester Jazz Festival. Performances take place at various venues but there is a hub comprising a giant marquee, a temporary bar and several food stalls erected in front of the Town Hall. Surrounded as it is on three sides by roads, its not a quiet location and this year, as the organiser pointed out in his introductory speech, the MJF coincides with the Manchester Roadworks Festival. The programmers might perhaps have considered putting the quiet, reflective artists in the permanent venues and reserving the marquee for acts which have a fighting chance of being heard. No matter, the central location of the hub appears to be an important factor in bringing jazz to the attention of people who might otherwise not go out of their way to hear it. Accustomed as I am to jazz gigs being thinly attended, I marvel at the difference a Festival can make. Not only in the marquee but also in other venues the habitual audience of older white men and sundry jazz aficionados is swollen - sometimes to capacity - by a more diverse mix of age, gender and ethnicity. Even small children are present - though this might have more to do with the fact that the schools are closed and the weather is poor than it has with parents being keen to share their enthusiasm with their offspring.

A Festival can also present organisers with opportunities to promote a wide range of musical styles and to be adventurous in their setting. John Surman, for example, played saxophones with a string quartet in the great domed reading room of the Central Library, utilising the unique acoustic properties of the space to enhance the ethereal sounds of his music. I was entranced but, between the numbers, I realised that something was missing from this and all the other gigs Ive seen before and since: bottle-holders. Musicians - lowly and exalted, young and old, able-bodied and infirm - all must stoop to the floor to retrieve their bottles of water, beer or whatever. Why has no one thought to design, make and patent a bottle holder which clips on to the stem of a music or mic stand? Convinced I had spotted a business opportunity I began drawing up mental plans for such a device but was distracted by the music and, later, my phone vibrating. Afterwards I saw that I had missed a call from the Virgin Media loyalty team - the fifth so far. 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Been There? Done That?

I recently came across a quote, attributed to Marcel Duchamp, - "I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste" - which jolted me into remembering not to get stuck in my ways. It was perhaps with this in mind that I decided to buy a ticket to Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out. I'm pleased to say that it didn't disappoint insofar as it is, as the critics say, smart, funny and imaginative, but I reckon I might have had a fuller experience if I had taken some kids along. Later that day I pushed myself a little harder, watching Eden, a French film about an aspiring DJ on the Paris club scene during the 90s and 00s. From my point of view, the experience was akin to watching a subtitled educational video on what, to me, were imperceptible differences between House, Garage and Techno dance music. I found it neither informing nor engaging. With the Disney film I had the advantage of having once been there - childhood, I mean - whereas the club-dance thing happened in a parallel universe and now it's too late to catch up. It goes to show that, interesting though it may be to leave one's familiar cultural zone from time to time, there's no guarantee that it will be either stimulating or productive.

I was on safer, more familiar ground with the continuation of my current series of mini-expeditions to some of Britain's "drive-by" counties. This week it was Dumfries, that part of Scotland reached by turning left at Gretna instead of proceeding north to Glasgow and the Highlands beyond. There's a new and unusual attraction there, the Crawick Multiverse, a fantastically landscaped series of slag-heaps, the logic of which may be gloriously obscure, but is heart-gladdeningly realised nonetheless. It wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland, come to think of it.

Crawick Multiverse is so new that there are no "heritage" road-signs to guide you to it, which might explain why there was nobody there, but even established sites were thinly populated with visitors. At Caerlaverock Castle the café ladies were unprepared for my request for coffee at 10.00 and, although they bestirred themselves valiantly to oblige, it seemed they were not expecting many customers. I had the castle to myself for a while and enjoyed a quiet contemplation of medieval life before a woman turned up with two young boys, both brandishing plastic swords, and put an end to my reverie.

Next stop was the birthplace of John Paul Jones (well signposted) where there is a small museum and an adjacent campervan site. I looked forward to killing two birds with one stone: an overnight stop and a chance to learn more about one of Led Zeppelin's less high-profile founding members. Or was he that blues singer from the 60s who is now a DJ on Radio 2? In fact he was neither. The John Paul Jones of Kirkbean grew up - very rapidly - to become a famous sailor, founder and hero of the U.S. Navy. I wasn't expecting that but, since there was nobody else at either the museum or the camp-site, my astonishment went un-remarked. At least it wasn't necessary for me to hide my embarrassment.

Back at home, relaxing not exploring, I watched Life in Squares, the TV dramatisation of the private lives of the Bloomsbury set. Their ideas successfully challenged the cultural boundaries of their time and eventually merged with the rich mainstream we now enjoy. Afterwards, nursing a bottle of Caol Ila 12 year-old single malt, I listened to Frank Sinatra reminding me that it's very nice to go trav'lin' but it's so much nicer to come home and raised a glass to Bloomsbury: and another to Monsieur Duchamp.

Crawick Multiverse