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?

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Party's Over?

The Glastonbury Festival came at an inconvenient time this year coinciding, as it did, with the referendum on Brexit. How many of the young people who flocked there heeded the advice of farmer Eavis to organise their postal or proxy vote before they set off for the weekend with their tents and wellies? Is it possible that some of them were content to leave the shaping of their future in the hands of others (some of whose own futures are so short they might not even live to see Article 50 invoked)? And yet I think back to my own festival-going days and recall that I ranked the importance of voting well below that of securing tickets for Jimi Hendrix. It may be a natural tendency of the young to be preoccupied with youth, but I suspect our educational curriculum is partly at fault for not giving more prominence to the teaching of civic responsibility.
I admit that I watched a few of the Glastonbury acts on TV, though I did so guiltily: it seems such a cop-out to watch for free – and from the comfort of home. I didn’t enjoy them. Besides the guilt, I just could not get the excitement of the gig without actually being there. And then there was the generation issue: with one, sad exception the acts belonged not to mine but to the millennial (voters or otherwise) and I could not relate to them. I have not, strictly speaking, given up on festival-going. Some years ago I, along with many others of the Isle of Wight generation, switched to jazz festivals which, apart from offering a different style of music, generally take place in urban centres. This means that the venues are proper buildings fitted out with rows of seating, bars and toilets. Occasionally there are marquees involved, but they are usually situated close to comfortable facilities.
Lately, however, I have become uneasy with the idea that my default setting is “safe, comfortable and one-dimensional” so, this year, I shall be taking a tentative step back in time. I shall be braving the elements at Festival Number 6. Admittedly this event takes place in a semi-exposed location and I do have the campervan to retire to, nevertheless it is more than a symbolic move away from the armchair and TV. The festival also offers more than music – there will be performances of various types and even gourmet dining events. In short it promises to deliver a multi-cultural experience and, I hope, a fair degree of inter-generational mingling, insofar as that is possible – or even advisable.
I got a taste for inter-generational mingling last Saturday at a nephew’s 21st birthday party. It was a great do, although the timing may have been unfortunate for those of his friends who had hopes of attending Glastonbury. Still, not one of them mentioned it to me, possibly because our conversations tended to be politely perfunctory. But there is no doubt that as the evening progressed I noticed a tendency for those of similar age to gather themselves into groups until, eventually, the prospect of them mixing became more remote.
Inevitably there was much talk about the generally unwelcome result of the referendum. People were gloomy about the prospects for the future but happy for the present: the hospitality flowed freely, the band was hot and the dancers let it all hang out it. Still, I thought, there is some irony here. We are celebrating the coming-of-age and the dawning of opportunity for a young man just as a big door has been slammed in his face. We talked it over and over, some of us staying up to see the dawn, reluctant to concede that the party’s over.

The party's not over yet!