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.