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.