Saturday, 28 May 2016

Papering Over The Cracks?

The other day I visited the William Morris museum at Water House in Walthamstow, where I saw plenty of gorgeous wallpapers and textiles. Just as stimulating, however, was the chance to contemplate Morris’s socio-political philosophy and the apparent paradoxes of his life: while his father’s wealth came from investments in the stock market, Morris himself made his living from writing, designing, manufacturing and retailing, all the while advocating and agitating for Marxist socialism. He didn’t succeed in defeating capitalism but he certainly added significant momentum to the cause of a fair and equitable form of society which is, after all, a constant work in progress.
He died, at the age of 62, in 1896 – around the time of the birth of the last known living survivor of the 19th century, news of whom last week prompted stories about the fact that we are living longer. If the current trend is extrapolated, many more people in future can expect to live beyond the age of a hundred and the phrase three score years and ten (surely a euphemism for senescence) will finally become redundant. Life may always be nasty and brutish for many unfortunate humans, but it will no longer be quite as short: in which case we had better get to grips with the quality of it.

Those twenty-somethings who currently find themselves trapped in our dysfunctional capitalist economic system may have seen the glimmer of a benefit to their predicted longevity. While it is a fact that many of them cannot find regular, well-paid employment, decent accommodation or a debt-free future, at least they have more time to sort it out. Why rush to take out a loan to get a degree so that you can search a diminishing job-market for a salary which will enable you to pay back that loan and then take out another loan to buy a gaff? At twenty, you have another 80 years to crack it.

Here’s the thing to do: bide your time. Follow William Morris’s example: live off mum and dad for as long as possible, become politically active and put your efforts into shaping a society that will serve you instead of the other way around. Do not rest until all the international tax havens are put out of business and the border-dodging corporations are made to pay their share of the cost of running society. Don’t forget that all the while robots are making jobs scarcer so your hope of finding one becomes increasingly hopeless. In any case you may never need one: today’s ‘minimum wage’ could soon, if we all push it, become a universal grant – a ‘citizens’ dividend’ – funded by the taxed profits generated by our robotic industries.

There are encouraging signs that youngsters are already making preparations for such a future. An article in the news recently described how, just when you thought it was all over for doorstep deliveries of bottled milk, a revival has been clocked in cities as diverse as East London, Bristol and Sheffield. There is, apparently, a nascent social-conscience-driven backlash against exploitative supermarkets, coinciding with a growing desire for higher-quality food and drink – as also seen in the outbreak of specialist coffee-houses, real ale micro-breweries and artisan bakeries – most of which appear to be the fruits of the labour of young people. Their parents’ generation was responsible for the degradation of foodstuffs: instant coffee, pasteurised beer, industrial bread and the invention of a whole industry called “food manufacturing” – the products of which account for the spread of obesity and diabetes. But the children are starting to take control of their diets. Perhaps today’s young, knowing that they will live longer, have resolved to stay healthier.

And perhaps they will use some of their lengthened lifespan to extend that period of youthful outrage which is a crucial force in the fight for social justice.  William Morris would have.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Fifty Years On

Last Tuesday evening was the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s concert at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester (now a Radisson Hotel). The event is remembered particularly for the fact that someone in the audience shouted “Judas!” as Bob came on stage with his electric guitar and supporting rock-band. I wasn’t there – although I was at one of the London dates on that tour and remember well the controversy over whether this represented a sell-out from ‘folk’ to ‘pop’. Mancunians who were there, however, organised a commemorative concert on Tuesday at which the original play-list was performed and the audience was encouraged to shout in unison at the precise Judas moment. This, I presume, was meant to be ironic, although I can’t be sure because, again, I wasn’t there.

It seems to me now, after fifty years of listening to music, strange that anyone should express outrage over musicians choosing to progress from one genre to another or trying out different instruments, styles and techniques to express themselves. Genre-purists are misguided if they think there was ever a time when their preferred musical style had not been influenced by what went before it. They may, if they wish, keep digging for fools’ gold but their time – and money – would be better spent on a ticket to see the film Miles Ahead, looking out especially for the line in which Miles Davis says “jazz is just a made-up word, man”.

The benefits of cultural cross-fertilisation are difficult to quantify (although one wit asserts that “a change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points”)* but they certainly apply to more than just music. In the fields of cultural endeavour, while it is good to identify and preserve the most refined products of any established genre, the opportunities to adopt or adapt from elsewhere enhance the sophistication and complexity of social interaction. Take, for example, the sandwich: where once the choice was limited to either cheese or ham, white or brown, now it encompasses pannini, burritos and wraps from around the globe. And now there is the bao. I have hitherto walked past the Chinese ‘bakery’ across the road and looked with suspicion at the goods in the window, none of which resembles a loaf of bread. Then I read a foodie review which explained the mysteries of the bao, a bun which is steamed, not baked, often with the savoury contents already implanted. Hey presto! Another version of the sandwich.

Yesterday I stepped across the road and got myself a bao for lunch. It was stuffed with spicy pork and was quite delicious. Baos will henceforth be added to my repertoire of lunch-time choices. Red bean pancakes, however, will not: I had picked one on a whim because it looked interesting, but appearances can be deceptive and I found it had the consistency of sticky playdoh and a taste not worth the effort required to chew it. Note: exotic does not necessarily equate to desirable.

Actually, I might have attended the Bob Dylan commemorative concert but for a prior arrangement with an expeditionary force from the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society to a gig featuring the rarely-seen-south-of-the-border Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith. In fact, the band was a trio led by Norwegian bassist and composer Arild Andersen, a musician noted for his progressive approach – which includes the use of electronic enhancements to his instrument. Given that most of our members had been attracted initially to the gig by Tommy Smith’s reputation, they were nevertheless delighted – if surprised – by the first, triumphal number. Dave said that he had never before heard of such a thing as an electronically enhanced upright bass. Nevertheless, he showed no sign of outrage and did not have to be restrained from shouting “Judas!” How time mellows us.

*Alan Kay, Computer Scientist, b. 1940 -

Friday, 13 May 2016

Bimbling Through History

The rail journey from Manchester to Ruskington in rural Lincolnshire requires two changes – three trains – the last of these being a single-carriage unit which resembles a bus. Away from the inter-city mainlines, rail services which were once the transport arteries of the nation are now grudgingly provided as an afterthought, a “social requirement” clause in the operators’ contracts. I have never wanted to live in the countryside, not just because the consequence of sparse public transport is an environmentally damaging dependency on cars, but also because things don’t change or, if they do, at a pace too glacial for my liking.

Of course I like to visit the countryside – to check that the guardians of tradition continue to stand firm against the tides of progress, as well as to savour its unchanging delights: farm shops full of fresh produce; cider presses tucked away among orchards; woods full of bluebell-flooded undergrowth and landscapes laced with empty roads promising re-discovery of the pleasures of motoring. Ironic, I know, but the best way to appreciate all this is by motor, and I am currently bimbling around the Midlands in the campervan, indulging myself. To bimble is to travel whimsically and unhurriedly on the back-roads, the rat-runs of farmers and remote hamlet-dwellers. It’s very therapeutic and, having spent much of the previous day sat-navving my way through the traffic-stressed conurbation of Birmingham, I am more than up for it.

The quality of the bimbling depends, of course, on what an area has to offer, one indicator of this being the number of those brown signs with the white lettering and symbols pointing to local attractions. My preference is for historic sites and buildings of the sort cherished by the National Trust and English Heritage. The Midlands seems to have more than its share of these, though not all signs can be relied upon to lead to treasure. The one pointing to Hoar Cross Hall via the Ardley Arms heritage inn, for example, took me past a shuttered pub and on to a spa hotel. And, after driving four miles along a rutted single-track lane, I once found the promised tithe barn closed because it was a Tuesday.

However, there was joy to be had this week in the discovery of two 15th century manor houses, just a few miles apart yet very different in character and historical significance. Packwood House looks authentic but was put together in the early 20th century by a wealthy industrialist using architectural salvage from the break-up of country homes abandoned by their owners in favour of modern bungalows in Bournemouth. His name was Graham Baron Ash, although he encouraged people to call him Baron – as befits someone with pretensions to a noble lineage. It’s as if he anticipated Terry Pratchett’s advice to turn your life into a story or you just become part of someone else’s story. I don’t know how well he got on with his neighbours the Ferrers who, though shorter of money, were longer of lineage and felt no need to invent a background. Their manor house at nearby Baddesley Clinton was a bastion of Catholicism through the difficult years of the reformation – which may explain why it is surrounded by a moat.

Deep in the countryside, up the small lanes, behind the ancient trees such houses have survived first by keeping a low profile and then by latching on to wealthy benefactors who can preserve them, turn them into museums and bottle their histories for public consumption. But visiting them can induce a dangerous nostalgia for departed traditions. Those brown, heritage road-signs are currently outnumbered by big red ones bearing the sinister message LEAVE. It seems that some of the guardians of tradition want to do more than stop the clock. They would like to reverse the painstaking progress we have achieved in making common cause with our continental neighbours.

Friday, 6 May 2016

We Don't Need No Education

The action of the parents who kept their young children away from primary school on Monday in protest against what they believe are unnecessarily early Standard Assessment Tests caused me to ponder their case. I listened to a Government Minister defend the tests as necessary to measure not only pupil progress but also the effectiveness of the teaching system, yet he refused to voice an opinion on whether a less rigid approach is better for very young pupils. I suppose he has his targets to meet, which gives us a clue as to why we should be wary of governments' motivations when it comes to our children's educational regime: they will be inclined to perpetuate the social structure that keeps them in power. Exams must be passed and certificates issued so that employers can choose who to employ.

Government policies on education change and evolve, but we should never assume that a national curriculum is designed to be in the best interests of the individual. Pink Floyd, who are not education professionals, made the point with their metaphorical line "just another brick in the wall". Ideally we would be taught to ask questions as well as answer them. John Stuart Mill (1806—1873) was home-schooled by his father who introduced him to as many educated people as he could muster and urged him to question everything they said: and the result? – a radical thinker and social reformer, so far ahead of his time that he was in trouble by the age of 17, jailed for promoting obscenity because he had published a pamphlet describing and advocating forms of contraception.

J.S. Mill was, of course, socially privileged: such home-schooling was and is impractical for most people. Private schools offer parents a compromise in the form of a high teacher-pupil ratio, but only the wealthy need apply. The promise of private education is that more time and resources are devoted to the development of a child's character. Character development is essential: failure to qualify academically is not necessarily a disadvantage if you have acquired resilience, confidence and a variety of interests in the course of your education. You could make a living (assuming you need to) out of whatever talents you possess and whatever social contacts you can muster. The current Education Secretary has publicly acknowledged the importance of character education, but resources are stretched thin and the emphasis remains on passing exams.

There are, however, two high-profile careers for which you don't have to pass any exams at all. One of them is business, the other is politics. In fact, too much schooling can inhibit progress in these fields (through starting late and allowing the intrusion of inconvenient academic habits such as fence-sitting). And there is one skill common to success in both business and politics for which certificates are not available: self-promotion. Donald Trump is a case in point. But he has another crucial element in his favour. It has been demonstrated that the biggest single factor determining success in business is fortuitous timing: Uber and AirBnB both hit their stride at the height of the last recession, when people needed to generate income from their spare rooms and from their cars. Politicians likewise rise on the tide of demand and, as the equity-gulf between rich and poor has disenfranchised millions of Americans Trump has found a ready audience – dislodged "bricks in the wall" – eager for him to solve their economic woes and "make America great again". How will he do that? He refuses to answer that question – presumably because he doesn't know the answer. Qualifications, evidently, are not required for the job of leader of the world's most powerful nation.