Saturday, 31 December 2016

Beach Bar Bubble

Having been away from home for a couple of weeks I find myself at a familiar stage in the cycle of wandering: feeling homesick for some of the routines and background noises of life back there. Routines can be replicated, albeit with a few compromises – such as going for a walk instead of cross-training at the expensive gym – but there is no Radio 4 to enlighten my mornings and no Channel 4 News to lend structure to my evenings.  Hence, sitting yesterday in warm winter sunshine on the terrace of a simple beach-side cafe with the Mediterranean sea lapping gently three feet below my feet I found it easy to forget, for a while, that there’s a whole world of nasty, tangled politics out there. I also found it easy to order another (quite unnecessary) glass of red, encouraged, perhaps, by the lady at the next table who looked to be about my age and was working her way, with stylish nonchalance, through a whole carafe of white, while reading a novel.
But sooner or later something happens to awaken you from the reverie of la dolce vita. In this instance it was a visit to Nicosia (or Lefkosa, depending on your cultural heritage) where I could not resist the intrigue of crossing the border into the Turkish-occupied northern half of the city although, in the end, the experience turned out to be both dismal and laughable. Imagine showing your passport twice, on the same street, to first the Cypriot Cypriot then the Turkish Cypriot authorities (all of them bored) then, after an hour or so of innocent sightseeing, repeating the performance in reverse. Nicosia is the world’s only divided capital city and one has to ask what the point of it is. Talks are under way to expedite the reunion of the island but, with the latest news from Turkey that the despotic Erdogan has arrested yet another of his hapless citizens for the “crime” of insulting him, I have limited expectations as to the outcome.
In 1974, just 14 years after the British ceded governance of Cyprus back to its inhabitants, Turkish troops invaded the island. I don’t know exactly why, but Cyprus does have a history of being coveted by regional powers – Greeks, Persians, Ptolemies, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British. It seems it’s the price you pay for having valuable natural resources, a strategic geographical location and a small, defenceless population. Still, you might think that after such a long history of cultural inter-mingling present-day Cypriots would be quite comfortable with the concept: but, despite the strong, positive faction that is working for reunion as a federal republic, there is much evidence on the ground that the indigenous Greeks and Turks prefer to retain the identities of their respective mainland forebears. Even the death this week of George Michael, born and bred in north London, had Greek Cypriots claiming him as one of their own. I’m not sure the Turks are much concerned.
Religious ardour must surely take a good deal of the blame for the inclination of both sides to insist upon their separate identities: the influence is everywhere to be seen in the scale, prominence and proliferation of places of worship. Even the smallest chapels I have been into are richly decorated with what appears to be gold. And in Nicosia, in the grounds of the Archbishopric, stands a big glass-sided ‘garage’ inside which are displayed two extravagant, stretched limousines – one Mercedes, the other Cadillac – which were the chariots of the revered Archbishop Makarios, the first President of the Republic. I detect clear signs here of a universal phenomenon: the systematic appropriation of wealth and power by a religious organisation, and agree with Woody Allen who quipped If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse. It all seems a world away from the beach-bar bubble.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Ancient And Modern

Last week the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society held its customary Christmas lunch at the (Glen) Miller and (Benny) Carter restaurant. The event is the closest most of us come to having a ‘work’s do’ these days and, though the company cannot be said to be as diverse as you might expect at your average party, the very fact of its homogeneity is in itself a celebration of a sort. This year our Glorious Leader, Peter ‘Lucky’ Lloyd, conferred jazzy nicknames on the rest of us and I found myself sitting next to the newly-dubbed Pete ‘Cannonball’ Aspinall and opposite Dave ‘Jelly-Roll’ Rigby. “Just call me Zoot”, I was able to quip.
Having thus dispensed with the seasonal celebrations, my partner and I landed the next day in Pafos, Cyprus, at the start of our customary migration from the tedium of Christmas musak. Yes, Christmas does happen abroad, but it’s easier to shelter from in places where you don’t know anyone.
Now Cyprus, as you will know, is a sun-sea-and-sand holiday destination but, when our family lived here from 1958-60, such pleasures were the reserve only of the British Armed Forces who had been sent in great numbers in the customary, vain attempt to quell an independence movement. Thus my time here is bound to be tinged with nostalgia, mostly of the “It’s all changed” variety. And Pafos certainly has changed: the once sleepy, nondescript town is now not only a haven for ex-pats and holiday-makers but also a designated European Capital of Culture for 2017, along with Denmark’s Aarhus. (None of this should be confused with Britain’s own City of Culture scheme, a quite different concept, for which Hull will be responsible in a few days time.) What qualifies Pafos for its celebrity is the astonishing collection of archaeological sites which testify to its importance as a city from as early as the 4th century BC.
The remains of former palaces, fortresses and tombs are impressive both in extent and sophistication. But as the two of us went from site to site, waking the ticket-office staff from their hibernations, we became aware that visitors are very thin on the ground at this time of year – which is a good thing if you want an unobstructed view of an ancient mosaic, unimpeded access to a rock-cut tomb or eager service in the nearby café. Local businesses, however, must be keen for the tourist season to start up. On day three we drove north to the small fishing harbour of Latsi where we had a splendid lunch in the only restaurant we could find open and where our solitude was barely disturbed by just one other table: otherwise we had the attentions of the charming Olga, our Ukrainian waitress, to ourselves.
Leaving Pafos, we removed ourselves to Limassol where we are staying in an apartment rented from a Russian lady called Ksenia. On the first day we walked in the sunshine along the seafront towards the Old Town, where we got lost and asked a couple of chaps for directions. They happened also to be Russian and, although their English was fine, their local knowledge was lacking. On the second day it rained so we visited the Municipal Art Gallery, where the surprised-looking ladies had to turn the lights on for us; thence to the deserted Museum of Archaeology where a delighted curator proudly and personally ushered us into his exhibition of the real Old Limassol, now an archaeological site just a few kilometres to the west. It was called Amathous and was established in the 11th century BC.
Such antiquity is hard to comprehend, especially if one’s own cultural ascendency is relatively recent. But Mediterranean countries wear their history well, like extra layers of clothing, and so, to my sister – who was lately waxing nostalgic about shopping in Limassol in 1960 and resting afterwards in the big café at the top of Agiou Andreas Street – don’t be too distraught that it’s a Starbucks now. Plus ça change, as they say.

Friday, 16 December 2016

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

While walking down a city side-street the other day I heard the muffled sound of a saxophone running up and down a series of scales. It appeared to be coming from one of the parked cars and, sure enough, it was: from an Uber cab. The driver was sitting behind the wheel, blowing into an alto saxophone. I smiled at him but he was too intent on his playing to notice me. So I made up a story about him: he was a recent immigrant bent on making a career in jazz music but, for the time being, found it necessary to earn his corn by driving the cab. He might, of course, have been a professional Uber driver who just happened to be a saxophone-playing hobbyist, but I didn’t feel inclined to tap on his window to ask: I preferred my, more romantic, version. It made me think of a quote which had stuck in my memory: Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colours, on the whole of our existence (Balzac).
Anyway, I was on a mission: to buy a pair of fold-flat reading-specs – the ones that fit handily into the top pocket of a shirt or jacket – for my up-coming travels. They were not easy to find (opticians seem a bit sniffy about anything non-prescription) but eventually I got some in Waterstone’s bookshop and, flush with my success, hopped into the lift to escape the shopping mall. But it’s busy at this time of year and I was swept deep into the car by several women pushing prams, herding toddlers and wielding shopping bags.
“It’s a bit of a squeeze,” said one of the women to her brood, “breathe in!” We all smiled.
“Actually, breathing in makes you bigger,” I said. “You get thinner when you exhale.”
She did not reply but looked at me with a sour expression. She could have been thinking don’t belittle me in front of my children or, perhaps, nobody likes a smart-arse but, whatever she thought, it was obvious that she had no use for the scientifically correct gem of information I had imparted, nor was she in the mood for pedantic banter. On my way out I squeezed past her, avoiding eye-contact but exhaling ostentatiously.
Later I went to the cinema to see Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. It struck me as being a top-notch piece of cinema-craft, lushly and lovingly shot, a prime example of an escapist movie with a cast of nasty characters, a beginning steeped in menace and a resolution that, predictably, turned violent. But I don’t much care for violence and it was the preceding trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson that stayed in mind as the lights went up. It promised something quite different and I determined to see it later in the week.
I took the specs back to Waterstone’s because they didn’t really work: they were designed to fold flat, certainly, but they were also designed to slide inexorably off one’s nose and into one’s lap – or worse. I timed the outing perfectly so that afterwards I could walk to the cinema, arriving 15 minutes after the advertised screening time so as to avoid sitting through the adverts all over again.
Paterson lived up to my expectation. It is indeed a different type of movie – more of a low-key, everyday story – devoid of violence, full of tenderness, simplicity and honesty. The eponymous hero is a bus driver who writes poetry in his spare time: or he might be a poet who drives a bus in order to pay his way. I'm rooting for the latter.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Strange and Familiar

Strange and Familiar: Britain as revealed by international photographers is the title of an exhibition of photographs curated by Martin Parr and currently showing in Manchester. It covers the period from the 1930s to the present day and is a fascinating view of aspects of our life as perceived by foreigners. For the most part the contributors steer clear of the picturesque landscape – one exception being Paul Strand’s dreamy images of the Outer Hebrides – and home in on the nitty-gritty of everyday people, places and people-in-places, many of which will be familiar to older generations. (So familiar, in fact, that I could swear the girl on Earl’s Court tube station, snapped by Gian Butturini in 1969, is my girlfriend of the time.)
When I wrote last week some less-than-euphoric impressions of Australia I received this comment from Anonymous: “Don’t suppose you’ll be getting a job with the Australian Tourist Office then?” which came to mind when I was scanning the photos at the exhibition, very few of which flattered their subject. I did not mean to suggest that my Australian experience wasn’t beautiful in many respects: I saw plenty of perfectly-formed beaches – I even ventured on to a few – but those beaches were all part of my expectation. Like the foreign photographers who shunned Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, I took them for granted and fixed my attention on a few of the ordinary telling details of the foreign environment. In Bondi, for example, after a mandatory look at the beach we retreated a couple of streets to find refreshment and were fascinated to see not only the off-duty surfing crowd but also a procession of Jewish families making their way to (or from) synagogue, which goes to show that, for all its international reputation, the beach is, after all, simply the boundary of an otherwise normal big-city suburb.
Details kept intruding into my fixed, romantic image of Australia with its outback, wine valleys, mountains, exotic flora, fauna and ever-present ocean. One of these was the fly-screen, that omni-present domestic deterrent to the intrusion of winged insects. I began to notice that there was no way to cope with the opening of the sliding variety if – as was invariably the case – your hands were full of sundowners, snacks or, in some cases, three-course meals which you were attempting to transport out onto the balcony, terrace or patio etc. Surely, I thought, someone must be selling a foot-operated, spring-loaded mechanism to do this job? Or how about a photo-electric cell attached to a motor? They are quite common in public toilets. I still fantasise about moving to Australia, patenting a mechanism which everybody would buy and making my (belated) fortune. But if I lived there I suppose that, like everyone else, I would just get used to juggling the trays and using my elbows.
In a way Australia struck me as being strange and familiar: the old colonial ways persist, to some extent, alongside ‘foreign’ tropes. How a photographer might portray this could be an interesting proposition. A photograph can be a powerful form of communication and, with the application of thoughtful technique, an educational experience. Henri Cartier Bresson’s photos of the coronation of George VI, for example, show not the procession but the reaction of the crowd, thereby telling us something about the King’s subjects. In contrast, the amusing collection of Boring Postcards collected by Martin Parr and displayed in another room demonstrates just how dully factual – even pointless – a photograph can be. In this same spirit, a prose description of Australia’s beautiful beaches would be all very well but we already know that they exist and that they are beautiful. They are the familiar: give us the strange.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Australian Growing Pains

It was while taking a break from snorkelling over the Great Barrier Reef that I learned of Trump’s triumph. The Americans sitting next to me on the boat were pretty chuffed about it: I shrank from pointing out to them that one of Trump’s pledges was to cut funding for climate-change research, thereby multiplying the chances of the demise of the very phenomenon of Nature that they had travelled all this way to enjoy. No matter: American taxes will be diverted to space research instead, so future generations of tourists may have other planets to exploit and degrade.
We’ve been in Australia visiting friends and relatives. It’s been 15 years since our last visit and almost 40 since my first but I still get a sense of a place that is a pastiche of America – the vast territory accommodating generous plots of land per house, the big skies urging people out of doors – and of Britain, as evidenced in the tangible traditions and trappings of governance persisting from colonial times. No doubt much has changed since then – my expertise does not run to a proper analysis – but wherever we went our chaperones would to say “Of course, it’s all changed since you were last here”. Some of this would be down to recent influxes of migrants who have brought with them different customs and practices but, more prosaically, there are cumulative pressures on the cities which face the global trend of population concentration. And in dealing with this, Australians have a particular crisis of sustainability to resolve. Much of the housing stock is low-rise and widely-spaced in a suburban idyll which lacks adequate public transport infrastructure. The resulting reliance on cars is disturbing: in the households we encountered it was common for each adult to own a car and to drive it to the nearest shop.
And the architecture of the houses themselves is environmentally unfriendly. Traditionally, in very hot climates, houses were built to take advantage of whatever naturally cooling properties could be exploited. In Egypt and in parts of southern Italy, for example, houses would have thick walls and high-domed interiors with vents to allow cooling breezes: in colonial Australia they were built of wood, raised from the ground, surrounded by overhanging verandas and, ideally, situated so as to take advantage of natural shade and prevailing winds. But nowadays all of this is ignored in favour of universal modern building techniques and the panacea of air-conditioning. In the face of 30 degrees Centigrade I appreciate air-con as much as the next person: but what does it ultimately cost us in degrees of climate change?
Then there is the other kind of climate that is changing: the geo-political one. The shifts brought about by the economic rise of Asia and China now loom large over Australian politics. Its alignment with the economies of the West can no longer be taken for granted and, especially now that Trump proposes to abandon free-trade negotiations with Australasia, Australia will be obliged to take its business elsewhere.
Perhaps this is all too much for the “Grey Nomads” – the baby boomers who have taken to their mobile homes so as to follow the fair weather around their vast continent and take advantage of the zero costs of clothing, heating and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. They may just be able to see out their time in the remnants of the old Australian dream while the young generations forge a new one.

But what of the dispossessed aboriginal people? I have never spoken to one, though I saw groups of them sitting under trees in Perth, performing for tourists in Sydney and wandering disengaged, like ghosts, through the streets of Cairns. Perhaps they are just biding their time until, after the climate-change apocalypse, they can once more take custody of the land and nurture it back to health.

Saturday, 29 October 2016


One day, quite recently, I got out of bed on the wrong side and slid seamlessly into a default state of irritation. My wise, caring (and occasionally irritating) partner quickly spotted this and offered me some constructive advice. She explained that irritation is a useless, counter-productive emotion in which one may choose not to indulge. In order to be irritated we need to believe we're not getting something we deserve – thwarted expectations are the cause – and, although irritation tries hard to persuade us that we are justified in our reaction, if we choose to adjust the expectation, we negate the anguish. After a week in which circumstances have tested the theory almost to destruction, I am pleased to report that this works.
It happened that the weather was set fair and we had packed our bags for a couple of days hiking the coast of Anglesey. In excited anticipation we went to load up the campervan (which is kept in a "secure" underground space) only to find that someone had put a brick through the window, stolen some of the contents and vandalised part of the interior. It put paid to our plan for a getaway but we resigned ourselves, nevertheless, to Plan B which involved going to the movies. But then it fell to me to spend the next three hours on the phone to the insurers, the emergency glass replacement company and the police. As it was Saturday afternoon all their offices were closed and calls diverted to 24-hour out-sourced help-lines, each of which required me to recite my name, DOB, postcode and full address before allowing me to explain my situation, on the hearing of which I was passed quickly on to someone else who went through exactly the same procedure. It was... exhausting. But, eventually, the vehicle was dispatched to a repair centre and I went home.
The walk home is just two blocks and passes a bank of ATMs, a favourite spot for street-beggars, one of whom happened to be sitting on the bag of bedding stolen from our campervan. My first reaction was outrage, turning quite rapidly to anger, but I walked on a while before pausing to consider my response. I can't deny that I felt like taking physical revenge for the damage done to our beloved campervan, but your average white, middleclass, liberal-leaning leftie knows that violence is never the answer and so I restrained the instinct to lash out. Anger-management technique is quite similar to irritation control but it's more important to master it because of the consequences: whereas an irritated person might be inclined to harrumph, sulk or raise their voice, an angry person treads the tightrope of violence. And so I consoled myself with an empathetic reflection on the social ills that are the cause of homelessness, addiction and the resulting petty crime. “I am not the real victim”, I recited.
I took a photo of the beggar sitting on the bedding and, along with some evidence he left at the scene of the crime – a tube of medication issued at HMP Strangeways – gave it to the police to deal with. They still have been unable to apprehend him, despite his obvious presence: perhaps they think, as do I, that it would do no good; perhaps they are just under-resourced.
And so, days later, with the campervan in a compound awaiting the manufacture of a new window ("sorry sir, it's not a standard size – no one keeps it in stock"), the beggar still to be seen on the streets, the police sending me conflicting messages and the insurance company finding obscure get-out clauses, I remain adamant in choosing to be neither irritated nor angered. In fact, having mastered the techniques for the subjugation of irrational human behaviour, I am now considering signing up to a Vatican correspondence course, Sainthood: the Next Steps.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Trumpery: The Forgotten Noun

The verb “obambulate” – to walk around – could have been coined to ridicule President Obama’s indecisive approach to foreign policy. But it wasn’t. And Donald Trump, if he were less of a blunt instrument, could have used it effectively to make fun of what he considers to be weak presidential leadership. But he didn’t. The clever or poetical use of words to score telling blows against opponents is an art he has not mastered. His catch-phrase – Make America Great Again – may appeal to an audience of recently dispossessed blue-collar workers but otherwise lacks the nuanced subtlety and precision of lines such as, say, Bob Dylan’s ...they may call you Chief/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody...
But if the Republican candidate has not capitalised on the power of word-play, the same can be said of the Democratic candidate, who appears to have ignored the open goal offered to her by the word “trumpery”, defined as: 1, something showy but worthless; 2, nonsense or rubbish; 3, deceit; fraud; trickery. And “trump” which, in colloquial English, means fart. I may be getting carried away with personal demonization here when I should be making judgements more impartially based on policies, but it’s an easy rut to fall into as concrete proposals are submerged in the cut-and-thrust of campaigning. Precisely how, for example, would President Trump propose to reverse the fortunes of the Rust Belt manufacturing towns, home to so many of the unemployed who have put their faith in his powers? Does the New York property developer really have an economic formula to counteract the industrial decline which has impoverished them? I think not: but desperation, not logic, drives their thinking and the certainties spouted by a blustering liar are the straws to which they cling. Obamacare? Who needs it?
From my perspective there are some scary things coming out of America – and I don’t just mean masked Halloween clowns. Having just seen Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie I worry that swathes of its population show that tendency to moral certitude which is characteristic of ignorance. This is not to single out America for judgement but, because the current Presidential election focuses our attention on its global power and influence, the spotlight shines brightly upon it right now. Trump epitomises my worry precisely because he projects the kind of unquestioning moral certainty that is the hallmark of an uncivilised person. All human progress has been the work of those who have questioned or doubted current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The more uncivilised the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. My recommended antidote to this condition, should the patient be willing, is a dose of metaphorical obambulation, by which I mean the healthy exercise of consideration of all aspects of the human condition; or, in other words, education. On current form there is little chance of converting Trump to this way of thinking: he is, whether he knows it or not, living proof that politics comprises “the systematic organisation of hatreds” (Henry Adams, 1838 – 1918). He is a small man and “when small men begin casting big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set” (Lin Yutang 1895-1976).
It may be coincidence that the committee in Sweden just awarded the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan, but I prefer to imagine that they intended a kindly and timely reminder to Americans that there is good stuff in their cultural cupboard with which to counter the wearisome, blind-alley rhetoric of their political discourse. There is someone who can prick the bloated bubble of self-aggrandisement that contains Donald Trump with nothing more than a catchy tune and a pithy, home-truth, such as: You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that’s winning. I hope they’re paying attention over there.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Neither One Thing Nor T'Other

I’ve never really seen the point of brunch: too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, it just makes a mess of the day. This view probably reflects how deeply I am steeped in the traditional work ethic and the timetable for living imposed by industrialisation, but it’s a hard one to shake off despite the many who don’t share it. I suppose brunch suits people who don’t need to divide their days into conventional sections comprising a.m. and p.m. with lunch in between, people whose working day is flexible or, in some cases, non-existent. And then there are the wannabees, those for whom the freedom to brunch is an aspiration but, for the time being, must remain a weekend treat. Still, I harbour the prejudice that brunch is, if not actually immoral, at best a guilt-ridden indulgence.
Despite this however, I did meet friends for brunch last Sunday (not at my instigation). The cafe was funky and full, packed with millennials and their young families competing to be heard over their own cacophony. A waiter took our order soon enough but I suppose we should have realised all was not well when three other waiters subsequently came to take it again: but one doesn’t like to make a fuss. Sure enough, however, our order had been lost. It was just as well that I had eaten breakfast at 07.30 as usual, because by the time our food finally arrived it was actually lunchtime. The fortuitous net result was no change to my dietary routine (apart from the fact that I would not choose to have Eggs Benedict for lunch).
The following Tuesday morning I met a like-minded friend at the Royal Academy where, after a fortifying cup of coffee, we ventured into the Abstract Expressionism show. The galleries were not busy (the brunchies having not yet arrived) and we were able to get up close to the paintings – not that it was necessary: because so many of the canvasses are very large, there was more benefit in being able to view them, unobstructed, from a distance. Moreover, the galleries themselves are on a grand scale which makes the venue well-suited to the works on display.
The entry fee includes a personal audio guide which is packed with art-historical information and curatorial interpretations of key works. But the real bonus is the inclusion of a few brief passages of 1950s jazz, such as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Their purpose is to illustrate the idea that while visual artists of the era were pushing the boundaries of technique and meaning, musicians were doing likewise. The effect of listening while viewing certainly enhanced my feeling for Abstract Impressionism: in fact the experience was so convincing that I would like to try it again, this time with iPod in pocket.
Choosing favourites from this body of work is impossible – no sooner do you decide on a Jackson Pollock than a Joan Mitchell catches your fancy – but personal preferences begin to emerge after a while, and some paintings are more “accessible” than others as far as the layman is concerned. I think, for example, of Rothko’s works. The curator informs us that the artist insisted his paintings be shown unframed, unglazed and hung low on the wall. This way he hoped to maximise the immersive experience for the viewer. It seemed to work well. Perhaps it would work even better while listening to Blue in Green from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
The show is a big one and there is only so much exquisite art one can take in the course of a morning. As we both began to tire we realised – no coincidence, surely – that it was lunchtime.

Friday, 7 October 2016

I Don't Know

It seems to me that life was simpler back in the sixties – although, admittedly, that may have been from the perspective of not knowing what I didn’t know. But the internal combustion engine certainly was simpler. If something went wrong – as it frequently did – you could easily diagnose the problem by peeking under the bonnet, noting the symptom and tracing the cause – usually steam coming from radiator caused by broken fan belt or failed water-pump. But when my campervan broke down last week no amount of peeking could throw light on the problem. It required the attendance of an engineer – not a mechanic, I noted – whose first action was to plug a computer into the diagnostic terminal (I didn’t know there was one) and peruse the list of faults that came up on the screen. Unfortunately, however, this was just the start of an extended process which required a good deal of human intervention in the form of experts deploying their experience to identify and fix the actual cause. Their job would have been easier if the vehicle had been fitted with a computer which learnt from each fault and subsequent fix. Man and machine in perfect harmony.
Computers are being developed which attempt to mimic human thinking by learning from their mistakes (or miscalculations) and when this technology is perfected it could be usefully deployed not only for engine problems but also for the wider benefit of mankind: for whereas individual humans may learn from their experience and modify their behaviour accordingly, collective human memory is leakier than an old colander and subject to distortion, manipulation and degradation – especially in the sphere of democratic governance. It is acknowledged that leaders, not being omniscient, must rely on specialist advisors to define policies where required. Typically, this means economic and military advisory panels but, because these often have a woeful ignorance of the precedents of history, leaders would do well to augment them with a panel of history experts. In addition, and in the interests of greater objectivity, they should subject all their resulting proposals to algorithmic analysis by artificial intelligence and act only on those outcomes.
Of course this approach would not be acceptable to dictators or megalomaniacs. For them the primary aim is to acquire and hold on to power; and one way they do this is to keep the majority of their constituents in blissful ignorance. The less people know, the more meagre are their aspirations and, therefore, the more easily are they appeased. Ignorance is the biggest obstacle to progress, which is why the best thinkers prize collaboration and the pooling of knowledge. They recognise only too well the need to know what they don’t know. Some of our politicians, on the other hand, seem to manage very well indeed without such awareness: millions watched in disbelief as one American Republican politician last week proved that he didn’t even know Aleppo is a place, let alone a problem, while yet another had to be reminded that there is a difference between “strong” and “dictatorial” when it comes to assessing Putin’s style of leadership. But then they are appealing to an audience that believes that Donald Trump will revive dead industries in Virginia and elsewhere, despite his giving no clue as to how he will achieve this. It appears that the parties concerned in this process are content not to know what they don’t know.
Politics in the sixties was, rather like engines, simpler in terms of identifying cause and effect. But now the traditional parties are struggling to get to grips with seismic shifts in employment patterns, wealth inequality and shifting international power blocs. Perhaps it’s time they employed the latest complexity-busting tool: bring on the artificial intelligence and let’s see if it can introduce some fair-play to human affairs. Then we will perhaps know what we didn’t know.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Traditional Tucker

There are pockets of rural England which still cling to elements of the past: places where everyday life is shaped by the ownership and produce of the land, the medieval layouts of their market towns and the continuous occupation which constitutes the very warp and weft of tradition. I spent a few days last week in several such places, centred roughly on Hereford, where I had gone specifically to celebrate the harvest of apples and to sample that most excellent by-product of their abundance, cider. But on day one, like a schoolboy in a tuck-shop, I became excited by the wealth of other traditional regional produce to be had and the backdrop of English history against which all is displayed.
In Hereford itself, the Cathedral houses the Mappa Mundi, a pictorial depiction of the known world, drawn up by monks around the year 1300. At its centre is Jerusalem (i.e. Christianity) but the land-masses all around are so unfamiliar that we can only identify them by their labels. Still, considering very few people travelled then, I was impressed by the attempt and especially by the picture of the man skiing in Norway. And at the top of the map is the gate to the after-world where you turned left for heaven or right for hell, a practice which persists to this day at the entrance to modern airliners. The Mappa Mundi was a masterpiece of propaganda, presented by the Church to its congregations as an authoritative guide to world affairs until, more than a hundred years later, further enlightenment was offered in the form of a bible translated, for the first time, into English. It was called the Wycliffe Bible but became popularly known as the Cider Bible because the translator interpreted the Latin word for booze colloquially, i.e. cider. And I have to say that much of the cider I tasted on the tour did have heavenly qualities.
The heyday of English cider production is long gone but there is a revival, along the lines of the craft beer revolution. One of the small-scale cider makers I visited pointed across the valley to the huge factory of Weston’s Cider and told me that their turnover had recently spurted up to £64 million p.a. – depressing news for lovers of the real thing. But he was optimistic, explaining that, despite the watered-down nature of their products, industrial producers had grown the overall market and raised awareness of the beverage, thereby creating opportunities for artisan producers like himself. He was the third producer I had visited, and the most insistent on lecturing me in all aspects, subtleties and variations of the cider-making process which is, essentially, not complex: from what I remember you need only squash the juice out of the apples, wait for it to ferment and then drink it. All else is degrees of subtlety or, in the case of the big industrial manufacturers, cheating.
To a man – and they were all men – the cider producers I encountered were honest toilers at their ‘lifestyle businesses’ but could have benefited from a little training in how to close a sale – I quaffed many a free sample without feeling obliged to purchase anything and, at one unattended barn-shop, could have driven off with the entire stock – but sales-training would be the beginning of commodification, and we really don’t need any more Weston's or Bulmer's.
Not forgetting that apples can also be eaten, before returning home I helped myself to some rare varieties – for free – at Berrington Hall and added them to my haul of cider, plums, damsons, cobnuts, walnuts, organic vegetables, pork pies and other produce from the myriad ‘family butchers’ along the way. My tuck-locker is now full and I shall soon resemble Billy Bunter.

Windfalls at Berrington Hall

Friday, 23 September 2016

Australia Bound

Things were pretty grim for many people in the UK at the beginning of the 1970s, which was perhaps the reason so many of my friends left. They went to Australia where, according to reports filtering back, the living was easy. Brits, especially, were welcomed with open arms (presumably so as to facilitate the Australian sport of Pommie-bashing, although my friends must have held their own, since none of them ever returned). I visit them from time to time and am due to go again later this year, which is why I have taken more interest lately in things antipodean. For example, we dined last week in a Hoxton restaurant owned by an Australian chef who invited us to bring our own bottles of wine (thereby making our dinner almost affordable). It reminded me that the first time I had encountered this practice was in Sydney circa 1980 where ‘BYOG’ inscribed on a restaurant door was explained to me as an acronym for Bring Your Own Grog. Good on yer, chef!
Whilst in London I went to an exhibition on the work of Ove Arup, the Danish-born, one-time philosophy student turned world-famous engineer/architect whose iconic early work, the penguin pool at London zoo, was soon overshadowed by much grander projects. The one in which I was particularly interested, of course, was the Sydney Opera House. Designed by another Dane, Jorn Utzon, apparently without much practical detail concerning realisation, it was Ove Arup and his team who eventually figured out how to build it. The complexity of the curved structures was such that, for the first time in architecture, a computer was employed to work out the mathematics of the structural integrity: otherwise they would still be at it with slide-rules. The Opera House turned out beautifully, despite running over budget, but I have suspicions as to the originality of its design: here is a photo of the Manchester’s Oxford Road railway station, built in 1960. Jorn and Ove might have saved themselves a lot of work had they spoken to its creators.

I also went to see the exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? in which architecture of another kind was featured – the geodesic dome, as popularised by Buckminster Fuller. It was part of the 1960s counter-culture that flourished in America where, at the forefront of the early eco-warrior movement, people established communes upon the ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainability. By now the movement should have swept the world, such is the irrefutable logic of not destroying our planet, yet it’s astonishing – and not a little depressing – how easily it was steamrollered by neo-liberal capitalism, leaving just a few diehard idealists clinging on in the backwoods. It is, then, perhaps a coincidence of timing that the film Captain Fantastic has just been released: its protagonist is just such a diehard and those of us who regret our own pathetic capitulation to capitalism can’t help but cheer him on in his determined struggle against the military-industrial complex.
Somebody suggested I might need a visa to visit Australia. It seemed unlikely - I mean, it is some sort of colony isn’t it? But it has been 15 years since I last went and much has changed since, particularly in respect of the migration of populations, so I went online to check. Sure enough, there is no longer a fast-lane for Brits. The good old days are over: now we have to queue up with the rest of humanity to make a case for a brief visit to see old friends – blood relatives even – in case we might hide behind a billabong tree to avoid the flight home. What they don’t realise is, it’s not that bad here: things have brightened up since the 1970s. Anyway, I received an email acknowledging receipt of my application some days ago, but still no visa. Did someone tell them that I went to that Revolution exhibition?   

Friday, 16 September 2016

Black And White Moments

The other day I was approached on the street by a black youth who asked me whether I had any credit on my phone. I did (I have a contract) but was a bit wary of saying so. He blurted out his reason for asking: he was late for college and needed to call and tell them but, since his own phone had no credit, could he use mine, please? There was no one else around and my street instinct – such as it is – warned of a scam, so I summoned the following reply: “Well, if you’re late, you’re late: that will be obvious to them. There’s no point in phoning. You should just make sure you arrive on time instead.” And with that I walked away. It was a rather churlish response, admittedly, but it served two purposes, the primary one being to avoid handing my phone over to him; the other being reiteration of a pet gripe about people phoning to state the obvious.
Afterwards I was wracked by remorse. Had I made an unfair assumption that, because he was young and black, he was intent on stealing my phone? Would I have reacted similarly to a white youth? The answer to both questions, I concluded, was yes, which at least eased my conscience apropos racial prejudice. Besides, I thought, I may have been guilty of making assumptions, but so was he in assuming that I was carrying a phone worth stealing and that I would hand it over to him. Never mind, I reasoned, at least I had given the whippersnapper a deserved lecture on the virtuousness of arriving on time as opposed to the futility of apologising for failing to do so.
All this was still meandering through my consciousness days later and came to the fore while I was mooching around the exhibition Revolution at the V&A. I felt comfortable there among so many others of my ilk, some of us watery-eyed with nostalgia, but when I entered the room showing a gigantic projection of the Woodstock film, I was struck by the fact that in all the footage of the “half a million strong” audience I could see no black faces. They were all young and white; the only black people visible were on stage. It was a long time ago and populations generally may be more mixed these days, yet the oft-quoted description of America as a “melting pot” is misleading. It would be more accurate to liken the cultural landscape of America to a mosaic – with some bleeding at the edges – than a stew which might one day become a perfect blend of its ingredients. And I’m not sure that Britain is any different in that respect, given that a majority of us voted to reject the principle of a European Union, thereby implicitly abandoning any ideal of cultural integration.
Some days later I stepped out of Forest Hill train station to catch a bus to Dulwich Picture Gallery – a classic hangout of white, middle class, middle-aged folk – and, unable to locate the bus stop among the confusing junction of roads, I decided to ask a local. Conscious, perhaps, of the need to build bridges I approached a pair of scary-looking black youths who were hanging around. They didn’t know the answer but, undaunted, pulled out their smartphones to consult their apps. I was impressed by their politeness and willingness to help but they couldn’t get the hang of orientation until I pointed out that the names of the roads were visible on the sides of the buildings. “Oh yeah!” they said in apparent astonishment. And so, working together, we located the stop. I thanked them for their attentions and they bade me “Have a good day”. It felt like a nice riposte to the start of the week.  

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Fit For Purpose?

It was 1975 when I last attended a summer music festival so, aware that the format has evolved considerably since those days, I decided that the time was right to catch up. I persuaded my partner (whose experience in the field was zilch) that we should buy weekend passes for Festival No. 6, located in the grounds of the wonderfully picturesque faux village of Portmeirion at the head of Afon Dwyryd estuary, North Wales. It was an easy sell, given the lovely location and the promise of “something for everyone” – poets, comedians and authors, as well as the usual eclectic mix of musicians – and we looked forward to a weekend of leisurely picnics on the grassy banks of the estuary, spiced with wafted music and interspersed with forays into the performance venues.
The weather forecast, unfortunately, proved accurate and the rain fell solidly as we drew into the park-and-ride site. We were directed on to a muddy field (later described by a local as "an officially designated flood-plain") and that was when we began to doubt the infrastructural integrity of the event. Nevertheless, true to our credo that weather conditions should not be allowed to dictate our mood, we boarded the shuttle bus with a positive mind-set and in eager anticipation of the (expensive) smorgasbord of cultural events about to be spread before us. Ultimately, however, we had to admit that it would have been more fun if it had not rained all day: food and drink were taken uncomfortably standing under whatever shelter could be found – any venue that had a roof on it being perpetually rammed full, regardless of suitability or desirability.
Outdoor festivals are, of course, inevitably vulnerable to the elements, though I maintain that more pre-emptive action could have been taken – for example in the form of duck-boards along walkways which were obviously prone to water-logging – and, having learned that the numbers attending were far greater than in the previous year, I suspect that the site was stressed beyond its naturally comfortable capacity. Do I detect a whiff of rampant capitalist greed coming from the direction of the organisers, or is it my 1960’s idealism fogging realistic expectations? It may be a little of each. But my hackles were certainly raised by the blatant and shameless propagation of social elitism as evidenced in the way that accommodation on site was segregated according to means. It's a good idea to provide pre-erected tents for hire, but I would have preferred to see an egalitarian system rather than a mirror of Britain’s appalling housing policy. Whereas the “council” tents were set cheek-by-jowl on a hillside, where sleep must have been impossible without the deployment of velcro-bottomed sleeping bags, the luxurious bell-tents were erected on a spacious, level field. There was even a super-posh campground – the equivalent of a gated community – where security guards checked for possession of the requisite gold wristbands before allowing entry.
Such elitism is anathema to the flower-power generation but, of course, the organisers of No.6 come from a different angle. Whereas festivals based on the Woodstock model have a homogeneous appeal – young people, popular music – and are easily organised to cater for such uncomplicated expectations, multi-discipline events are aimed at audiences of all ages, means and proclivities and must, therefore, provide accordingly. This is not an easy feat to pull off. As any craftsman will attest, a multi-purpose tool will never deliver excellence: to do something well requires specialist knowledge and attention to detail.  And so the next time I feel the urge to go to a festival it will be one dedicated specifically to beer, or jazz, or poetry, or apples. The all-purpose jamboree might just be a trip too far, man.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Madding Crowds

August Bank Holiday in Manchester is synonymous with the Gay Pride festival. For three days and nights The Gay Village is surrounded by an eight-foot high steel fence and you need to buy a wristband to get in. It’s a big, raucous party which spills out onto the surrounding streets and, because we live within earshot yet are not inclined to participate, we usually leave town to escape the madding crowd. Escape, however, needs careful consideration as Bank Holiday weekends are notoriously busy with hordes of people travelling and competing for access to getaway destinations. So this year we stayed put, hiding in the empty cinemas. But there was no avoiding the Festival completely, as I discovered when I left the gym and became trapped on the wrong side of the road for half an hour as the Pride Parade passed me by (in more senses than one).
On Monday, however, the sunny weather beckoned and we ventured out for a picnic, catching the train to nearby Lyme Park. Walking past the line of cars at the entrance I had a moment’s worry that far from escaping the crowd, we were about to walk right into it. But the park is extensive and its patrons mostly disinclined to venture far from the cafe and toilets so, after a ten minute walk, we found the perfect picnic spot at Darcy’s Pond (named for the bathing scene in the film of Pride and Prejudice). No one else was in sight, so we spread our rug and got to grips with a bottle of cava. The picnic was progressing nicely: the weather was perfect, the setting so 18th century English – complete with a folly on the distant hill – and I became mesmerised by the splendidly coloured dragonflies playing over the water, so much so that I took a swig of pinot noir without noticing the wasp swimming in it. We both panicked: I struggled to spit it out while it, desperate to escape, stung me under the tongue. What flashed through my mind was the memory of a woman once recounting how she had suffered anaphylactic shock after sharing a bite of her sandwich with a wasp: she was saved from certain death by emergency medical treatment.  My companions showed due concern at this but, when it became apparent that my reaction amounted to no more than soreness and swelling, readily resumed their relaxed mode. The countryside, I remarked, may be pretty but it can be treacherous. I was quite pleased to get back to town, scuttling past the steel fence to the sanctuary of home and the comfort of antiseptic mouthwash.
A few days later we left town again, this time in the campervan, for the countryside proper where we are currently enjoying some gentle hiking (while I keep a discreet lookout for potential health hazards). So far, however, the most menacing incident has been imaginary. Walking along a deserted stretch of estuary coastline we approached a rickety wooden building on stilts protruding out of the trees. Below it, on the beach, there was a collection of weird, makeshift structures, sculptures and what looked like sacrificial totems. I thought of giving the place a wide berth, fearing it might be the habitation of a Manson-like tribe of dropouts but, as we got closer, I saw that next to it stood a perfectly ordinary bungalow and was reassured by the fact that, apparently, they still had neighbours. Closer still and some posters and an outside point-of-sale kiosk – complete with honesty box – revealed it to be the home-cum-workshop of a pair of artists who have opted out of the mainstream.
But tomorrow, ironically, we leave the solitude of the countryside to join the thronging multitude at Festival No. 6.  We will need wristbands to get past the steel fence.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Flagging Up Concerns

Last week I took myself to the cinema for a few hours respite from the media coverage of the Olympics.  I saw, among other films, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words and was struck by how international her life was. She left Sweden early on and lived subsequently in California, Italy, Sweden (again), Paris and London. The peripatetic lifestyle endowed her with fluency in several languages and exposed her to multi-cultural influences. No doubt she retained a kernel of Swedishness deep down but she had the rare opportunity to experience life as a global citizen – or at least, as a Western Hemispherical one, which is a step in the right direction if, like me, you mourn Brexit as a lost opportunity to push civilisation beyond the destructive rivalries of nationalistic interests and towards the idea of transnational governance.
The news is full of issues which affect us all a lot more than our position in the Olympic medal table: cruise liners are sailing through the North-West Passage so that tourists can see the last of the ice and, in doing so, contributing to its demise; plastic micro-beads are accumulating in the sea and clogging up the biosphere, and the best we can do is phase them out of cosmetics by 2020; nations fight wars over the possession of oil, minerals and water – resources which belong to the planet not to random groups of individuals. A logical thought-process might be expected to conclude that humanity must act in unison to avert disasters of its own making. As the diplomat Mohammed El Baradei said, “Our primary allegiance is to the human race and not to one particular colour or border. The sooner we renounce the sanctity of these many identities and try to identify ourselves with the human race the sooner we will get a better and a safer world.”  We need a global approach to saving the ‘global village’ but, unfortunately for us all, the extent to which global activity is considered successful is measured in commercial units i.e. the ubiquity of iPhones, Coca-Cola and gas-guzzling SUVs – all of which exacerbate rather than resolve the problems by creating competition for finite resources.
Meanwhile the Olympic Games steamrollers on, dominating the news as if none of this mattered. And to what purpose? Bearing in mind the fact that many of us are not very interested in physically competitive sports (although we may be pleased for the individuals whose lives are raised by it), the cost and the hoo-hah appear to be out of all proportion to the benefit. And to those who argue that it’s pure entertainment I would point out that the net result of this entertainment is an extreme and sometimes bitter whipping-up of international rivalry: this year Russia is sulking because it was caught out cheating and China is smarting because it thinks Team GB must be up to no good. The original ethos of healthy competition is tainted by individuals who cannot bear to lose and by cynical regimes looking to seduce their constituents with trophies – by fair means or foul.
Surely the many billions of pounds that are raised in broadcast fees and commercial sponsorship (47% and 45% respectively) could result in a legacy which is more significant than a few sports arenas, some extended infrastructure, the propagation of a league of super-athletes and the exaltation of national banners? What are the Games, with their high global profile, contributing to world peace and environmental co-operation? I think it’s time to put the International Olympic Committee under the control of the United Nations and ban all flags but the Olympic flag. There is no inherent evil in competition – it raises standards – but let those standards be attributed to the human race, not nations A, B or C. We may never have a global government but we can at least strive for a global conscience: and a nation-neutral Olympics could help us get there..

Saturday, 20 August 2016

A Fishy Conundrum

Mackerel don’t like sunshine – according, that is, to the amateur fisherman on whom we were relying for our supper. When we first arrived at the campsite he told us that he goes out in his boat every day and, in the evening, sits outside his motorhome with his catch for sale at 50 pence per head – DIY gutting: what he neglected to mention was that when the sun shines – as it has for the past few days – the mackerel disappear into the depths so he will inevitably come home with an empty bucket. When I asked him why he even bothered to go out on sunny days he looked at me as if to say “What else would I do?” We had expected that our hike along the Wales Coast Path would put us in the way of abundant freshly-caught seafood but this has not been the case. We came across just one fishmonger – and he was closed that day. Whatever is caught by whoever remains in the fishing industry must be sold elsewhere. Fortunately, that evening, we had a carnivores’ option on board for the BBQ – again.    
But the unavailability of fish has been partly compensated by another type of produce. Curiously, the coastal towns – large and small – have been rescued from culinary desertification by Italians: there is no shortage of prosciutto-and-rocket panini, fancy Tuscan wines and authentic espresso. The Welsh descendants of Italian immigrants are challenging the ubiquity of the chip-shop and pub-lunch offerings for so long associated with British seaside holiday resorts and the effect of this competition can be seen in an apparent fight-back by the traditional outlets. It is recognisable in the adoption of the Farrow & Ball colour palette so familiar to visitors to the resorts of Suffolk and Norfolk, chalk boards proclaiming trendy menus, chairs and tables spilling out from fashionably stripped interiors and welcoming staff who have been taught to smile at customers.   
But the hike is not all about sustenance, any more than it is all about invigorating exercise and magnificent views. It is also about appreciating the peculiarities of infrastructure that enhance the individuality of a place.  For instance, what to us is a continuous path is actually divided by county into sections for the purpose of administration, so that the rivalry between Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire as to which has the most beauteous coastline is evident in the resources devoted to the adequacy of the signage, its branding and the state of maintenance of the route. And, tourism being such a crucial part of the economy, there are little ‘hopper’ buses that ply the single-track roads from cove to cove. These are useful indeed but the traveller must be alert to the fact that the brightly-liveried and cutely-named Strumble Shuttle, Poppit Rocket and Cardi Bach buses are run by different contractors whose policies on ticket pricing and customer-friendliness can vary alarmingly.
And, at this, the height of the summer season, the holidaymakers themselves provide much to interest the observant. The path is not what the majority come for – most of the time we saw no more than one or two other hikers – but when it drops down to an accessible beach there is the expected throng. Beaches can be busy places: little children run about excitedly, dig pits and paddle, squealing; older children play cricket or volley-ball with their parents; water-sports enthusiasts launch their various forms of transport – dinghies, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks – I never thought there could be so many variations of flotation fun; and professionals take boatloads of people out to see dolphins and seals. We spotted dolphins once – a mother and calf we were told, although it was hard to tell from our cliff-top view-point. We watched them frolic for a while before they swam off.
“Dolphins like the sun then,” said my partner.
“Yes”, I replied. “So, how come you never see dolphins at the fishmongers?”

Friday, 12 August 2016

Lost but Found

Driving off in the campervan, our mood was one of eager anticipation at the prospect of a couple of weeks away and a mixed programme of activities – a brace of social engagements, plenty of time for un-planned bimbling and a background project, walking a few more sections of the Wales Coast Path to add to those we had already bagged. As if on cue, a rainbow appeared over the M6, a vivid, perfect arc of colours, shadowed by another, paler version above it: an augury, we agreed.
On day two of our travels, however, I lost my phone. Well, I didn’t lose it exactly, I left it in the back of a taxi and the next fare appropriated it. There is a certain kind of sinking feeling that accompanies the moment of realisation that you have lost something valuable – it used to apply to wallets but now that they are likely to contain nothing more than a few quid, a couple of unusable credit cards and old receipts, it’s more likely to be phones that are the cause of grief. Lost your car keys? It’s a negligible setback: call a cab to get home and fill in the insurance form for compensation. Lost your phone? Lost your life. I woke up in the night fretting about identity theft. Eventually I calmed down, reasoning that I had locked the phone with a password, my partner still had hers and, in any case, where we were going – the west coast of Wales – the chances of catching a cell signal would be slim. I resigned myself to being off-grid.
We had ticked off the social engagements and it was time to do some exploring – of the tame kind i.e. National Trust properties. First up was Claydon House, a vanity project which brought financial ruin to James Verney, partly because he employed Luke Lightfoot, a wood-carver but not an architect, to build it for him. Huge chunks of it were later demolished lest they collapse but it remains a grand house – with some extremely fine wood carvings adorning the interiors. The family’s descendants made a good bargain with the National Trust: they get to live there and have the maintenance taken care of in exchange for allowing the public limited access to the most spectacular parts.
Visits to such places are a snooper’s delight: they afford insights into the families’ intimate histories, as well as revealing socio-historical context. Llanaerchon is a good example. The manor house is at the centre of a self-sufficient country estate, the whole of which has been uniquely preserved by an accident of history. When the lady of the manor was widowed early she did not inherit the property but only the right to remain there as a tenant for the rest of her life and, as such, was not allowed to make any alterations to the place. She lived to be 104.
By the time we set off on our first ten-mile stretch of coast I had almost persuaded myself that I was free from digital enslavement. While my partner expressed periodic frustration at not being able to check email, or even text messages, I exuded an annoying disregard for the urgency of any such communication. ‘Be in the moment’ became my motto. The following day we tackled a 14-mile section of the path, from New Quay to Aberporth, where it rises and falls steeply between the sparsely-populated cliffs and river mouths. Porpoises and seals can be seen out in the sea, they say, but they were too elusive for us. We did, however, spot a radio mast atop a promontory and, for a while, even I became hopeful of a Vodafone signal. There was no such thing, however, and as we passed close by we saw the reason why: “Ministry of Defence Property. Keep Out.”

(In case you’re wondering, this post comes to you courtesy of Cardigan public library.)

Saturday, 6 August 2016

English, As She is Spoken

A newspaper headline got me in a tiz last week. It stated that Yorkshire is the most ‘British’ region in the UK because, according to scientific mapping of DNA samples, it has the highest concentration of Anglo-Saxon genes. But, given that the native British were in situ before the Anglo-Saxons arrived (eventually to become what we now call the English), the headline is incorrect and Yorkshire, according to genetic distribution, should be described as the most English part of Britain.
The headline typifies the confusion that surrounds the definition of nationality for UK citizens. Even the government can’t cope with it, as we saw in its drafting of the Brexit referendum. The ‘British people’ were asked to make a stark choice, without consideration of the fact that they do not see themselves as a unified entity with common interests: the result has left us with endless analysis of who exactly voted for what and why. Is it really feasible to address a series of complex social, economic and political issues with a simple yes or no question? People tend to live in bubbles defined by their social circumstances: those who occupy the ‘unemployed residents of devastated former industrial town in the far provinces’ bubble will have a different experience and outlook from those in the ‘wealthy inhabitants of another part of the country’ bubble. It is, therefore, surprising that any degree of commonality or national identity exists at all. Perhaps, as in a bowl of soap-suds, bubbles jostle around, occasionally bursting and co-mingling, but mostly remain bound together. In the UK, however, society’s bubbles exist within even bigger ones – the several notional, national boundaries.
I consider myself to be English but by what measure? Perhaps not being Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish helps to narrow it down, but that’s just a start, an elementary guide for foreigners who are unfamiliar with the complexities of the United Kingdom’s constitutional make-up. DNA testing might help in the definition but, as the aforementioned research also shows, the average UK resident is only 36.94% Anglo-Saxon and, given that the British Isles has been an ethnic melting pot for millennia, I doubt that the essence of Englishness is embedded in genes. I prefer to think of it as ingrained in the culture (sorry, Yorkshire) and believe that it is acquired through absorption, assimilation and diffusion.
I can, of course, only offer anecdotal evidence to support my theory (such is the unquantifiable nature of the beast) and am always alert to situations in which only an English person feels completely at ease. Like, for instance, a recent lunch with friends in a pub in the Essex countryside, where the bar-staff were home-grown and the closest thing to foreign was the word croutons on the menu. Tourists, had they ventured so far into that deep redoubt of the English, might have delighted in the authenticity of the experience. But tourists don’t need to stray so far to experience English essence; it is available – at a price – on the main tourist routes. Take, for example, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where I recently dined. The 185-year-old restaurant is reputed not to have changed much since its foundation. Certainly the interior is a well-preserved marvel of the Imperial Age and reflects, discreetly of course, English tradition (of the wealthy Londoner bubble variety) in every detail. The menu is from the glory days of English cuisine i.e. before the advent of WWI stopped it in its tracks and WWII finally put an end to it. But despite the perfectly orchestrated theatre of the ‘institution’ there was one thing that struck a discordant note with me: English is the second language of all the front-of-house staff.
             I was reminded that, comforting as it is to revel in one’s Englishness, the embracing of change is essential to ensuring it doesn’t become a mere sideshow in the greater historical pageant.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Just A Figure Of Speech

Ten days of jazz – the Manchester Jazz Festival – were about to commence and I was due to leave town three days in. I also wanted to attend at least one session of the concomitant Beer and Blues Festival and had a previous commitment to spend a day at the cricket. Suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) I had to get organised in order to bag a few gigs, otherwise the bird would have flown and left me bereft.  So I sat down calmly to get my ducks in a row. That was when I noticed the cruelty of the metaphor. Surely, I thought, there’s an appropriate figure of speech that doesn’t refer so casually to the killing of birds? But I couldn’t think of one.
Anyway, my ducks refused to line up so I decided to absolve myself of the pressures of planning, go with the flow, wing it, free as a bird to attend whichever gigs happened to coincide with my available time-slots. I didn’t even study the programme in detail, but reasoned that a random approach would open my ears and awaken my senses to music that I had previously been deaf to or unaware of. In any case it’s a low-risk strategy: jazz is such a catholic genre that any festival worth its salt will include a variety of styles and interpretations, some of which I was bound to like. Besides, as we know, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
The first performance I got to was a rather dreamy set by Solstice, fronted by the singer Brigitte Beraha. Although this kind of vocal jazz is not my favourite thing, I discovered that it’s not necessarily always for the birds. The circumstances of a warm Saturday afternoon, a glass of rosé and a marquee full of appreciative listeners lent the music a pleasantly soothing effect and, in one fell swoop, I felt my nerves calmed and my reasoning justified.
I returned for the next act, a Spanish outfit called De La Purissima, also fronted by a female vocalist. Julia de Castro, however, is chalk to Brigitte’s cheese. She takes a very theatrical approach to singing, using posture, gesture and costume to startling effect. Well, I at least was startled at the sight of this raven-haired beauty wearing an elaborately braided matador jacket, a tightly-fitting yellow tartan miniskirt and a tall peineta on her head. I would have liked more of a bird’s eye view but my ticket entitled me only to that of a worm.
The next day I was at the cricket with several fellows from the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society (birds of a feather do flock together) none of whom had been at the Purissima gig. I described how, after the second number, Julia had declared the temperature inside the marquee overwhelming and had asked some hapless old geezer in the front row to step onto the stage and assist her in removing her jacket. He did so with due gallantry, although he wobbled a bit returning to his seat and looked up in alarm when she later threatened to remove her skirt. None of this got much reaction from my pals: either they were sceptical about it having anything to do with jazz or there was something interesting happening on the cricket pitch which my uninformed eye had failed to notice. I tried again.
“I had a good night at the Beer and Blues Festival,” I said.
“There was a singer called Kyla Brox, daughter of Victor. Remember him?”
They all remembered the legendary Manchester bluesman. I had their attention.
“She was terrific,” I said “and the beer was good too.”

You could say I had killed two birds with one stone, I noted to myself.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Touring Modestly

Searching the shops for a new pair of sandals I am reminded that footwear-retail is mainly about fashion and that foot-shaped shoes are available only at hard-to-come-by specialist outlets. Alright, my feet may be more hobbit than human but, even so, does anyone actually have pointy feet? I am back in town after a week in the country and conscious that the rugged hiking sandals that had served me well on the coastal paths of Cardigan Bay are clumsy and inappropriate in a paved environment. The search is on for a pair of man-about-town sandals.
The hiking sandals had also served as driving shoes on our tour which, starting the morning after a party in Lymington, progressed rapidly up through SW England and mid-Wales to the west coast. Here we teamed up with two friends and experienced the relative novelty of staying in B&B accommodation. It has much to recommend it – assuming that one is open to random experiences and the eccentricities of others.
The first two nights were spent in a small hotel, a typical conversion from one of the many private holiday villas built in the 1890s by Birmingham industrialists who subsequently decamped to the Continent between the wars, leaving them to be used as schools, institutes or guest-houses. Fawlty Towers comes to mind, although the service, in this case at least, was professional: John Cleese has done us all a favour. The town, Barmouth, is still a holiday resort, though past its heyday when the railway brought visitors galore whatever the weather. Perhaps it gets busier during school holidays but, in the meantime, the absence of crowds suited our laid-back mood. We lingered awhile in a pub in eager anticipation of the live music but it turned out to be a come-all-ye and our enthusiasm waned soon after the first Tom Jones impersonation.
Moving on, each place we went to had something of interest, something to delight, amuse or surprise. In Aberystwyth there is a very sophisticated Spanish deli-cum-bar and a tiny Italian cafe which makes terrific panini to take away and eat along the handsome promenade. The village of Llangranog nestles picture-perfect into a cove and its two cafés are bang up-to-date with their sophisticated menus, while just next door traditional fish-and-chips are on offer. Tywyn is a coastal town which seems short of coffee shops, so we made do with a takeaway Costa from Spar and strolled – almost alone – along the impressive promenade, refurbished with EU money. Information boards describe the sea-creatures that can be spotted, although even they were absent that day. Another board warns of the ugly-looking weaver fish that lurks beneath the sand where its poisonous spikes present a hazard to bathers’ feet.
But the peculiar intimacies of B&B were experienced at a remote, former farm-house high up on the coastal path. The landlady, a woman of about 50, lives there with her mother (whom we didn’t see). She made it clear that we city dwellers were to be pitied and that she alone held the secret to a happy, fulfilled existence. She had a yurt in the corner of her garden which she used as a meditational retreat. She also had a grand piano in a music room and one evening she entertained us before bed time with a repertoire of songs from her days as a bar-room player. She was good but seemed, I thought, rather lonely and bitter.
On our last day the weather was warm enough for the beach. One of our party took a dip in the sea but soon came out complaining of a pain in his foot. The lifeguard confirmed that it was a weaver fish sting and treated it accordingly.

“What were you thinking?” I said “You should have worn beach-sandals.” 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

I Saw a Ghost Outside Aldi

Last week I was glad to hear some good news: two newly-commissioned hovercraft have just entered service. Yes, 50 years after I, an awestruck, penniless student without the price of a ticket, watched the inaugural passenger flight lift magically from the pebbles of Southsea beach and skim away over the sea to the Isle of Wight, hovercraft are (still) go! In a small way their enduring success serves to salve the injury caused to our British pride by the wince-inducing, post-referendum antics of the nation’s political establishment and, in the midst of the unseemly scramble for short-term political advantage masquerading as The National Interest, remind us that there is more to being British than the pain of embarrassment at the greed of our establishment, outrage over the inequalities of our society and guilt over our past colonial crimes: we can at least claim to have spawned the visionary Sir Christopher Cockerell, the man who, with a hair drier and a couple of empty tins, one placed inside the other, demonstrated the feasibility of hovering and went on, undaunted by sceptics (and unhindered by restrictive EU regulations) to invent a thrillingly new mode of transport.
Unfortunately the swelling of pride was short-lived. I became overwhelmed with the events commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme, firstly at a laying of wreaths on the classic, Lutyens-designed war memorial outside the Town Hall. The site is currently surrounded by extensive roadworks and overlooked by a huge building-under-construction but all work stopped for the ceremony and the men in hi-viz vests on the scaffolding enjoyed a better view than we on the ground, our necks craned for a glimpse of the proceedings. VIPs in civvies and top-brass in uniforms took turns to step up and lay wreaths; a clergyman spoke of God and heavenly rewards; a soldier extolled the virtues of duty and sacrifice; the buglers sounded the Last Post and it was impossible not to be moved. But when the band struck up and marched off to join a parade through the streets, I peeled away to find a quieter contemplation.
There is a small exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Visions of the Front: 1916-18, comprising paintings, drawings and lithographs by official War Artists of the time. Many of the images on display I had seen before but, viewed in the context of the commemorations, they evoked the time, the place and the horror with a poignancy I had not previously experienced. They also left me, incidentally, pondering how they compare in efficacy with photographic equivalents. Are photos, created in an instant, a more objective representation of events than hand-made images which are worked up after the event with the artist’s conscious and considered intervention?
I had earlier encountered a piece commissioned by a living artist: Jeremy Deller’s We Are Here comprised thousands of actors dressed in WW1 uniforms and presenting themselves, silently, among the crowds outside shops and railway stations around the country. The project had been deliberately unpublicised for maximum effect – a clever and effective ploy. Outside Aldi I approached a lost and lonely-looking soldier, expecting to become engaged in talk. But he silently handed me a card and looked resolutely into the distance. The card simply said

Corporal John Davidson
17th Battalion
Highland Light Infantry
Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916
Aged 38 years

It was as if Corporal Davidson and his comrades had emerged from their graves and memorials to take their places, temporarily, in the fabric of everyday life and, by doing so, had brought us face to face with the reality of their deaths. What could all those men have achieved if the war had not robbed them of their lives – and us of a generation of potential visionaries?