Friday, 14 July 2017

Public Poverty

Needing to fix a shelf to the wall, I dug out my cordless drill from the toolbox, only to find that the battery would no longer take a charge. The drill is so old that replacement parts are not available but, even if they were, I would have been unable to resist buying the nifty new drill I already had my eye on. At the almost disposable price of twenty quid, it comes complete with a little LED spotlight and a tiny, lithium-ion battery – the same technology as is deployed by Elon Musk in his electric cars and (on a much larger scale) the back-up system he is about to build for the South Australia power grid. Elon Musk appears to belong to a rare breed of billionaires who want to save the planet.
I am so pleased with the new drill that, with the zeal of a demented hobbyist, I have been seeking more home-improvement projects. Meanwhile, I had to dispose of the old drill and, although I felt guilty about the eco-ethics of throwing it in the bin, where else was it to go? The bin-store is in the narrow street behind our block where, three weeks ago, a cavity opened in the Victorian-era road. The Council came and put a plastic fence around it but have not been back since. I was inspecting the cavity to gauge whether it had deepened, when a scruffy-looking old bloke shambled up to me and we had a brief exchange. When I told him the Council had informed me that they were short of funds for road repairs, he launched into a ranting exposé of Council corruption, which included allegations of the misappropriation of £50 million of National Lottery funds, the Tory conspiracy to impoverish us all and a lot of other stuff that was, frankly, unintelligible. Perhaps he had evidence to back up his case, however I was not inclined to engage him for fear of being stuck there for hours in the company of someone who might have been an erudite but eccentric specialist on the subject, but looked more like a fanatical conspiracy theorist with a grudge. I uttered a polite platitude and he shuffled off, scanning the pavement for cigarette butts. Later, however, I had cause to ponder his point of view.
I was at the Town Hall, a Grade 1 listed building in the “fabulously gothic” style. I went there to listen to a piece of recorded music, one of several site-specific compositions commissioned as part of the Manchester International Festival. The music is ambient and plays throughout the vaulted, lavishly-ornamented corridors. It’s a short piece, but atmospheric and long enough to cause the listener to linger and marvel at the architecture, the like of which will never be built again. I got aesthetic pleasure from the experience, but the man I had encountered earlier would surely have objected to the allocation of public funds to such frivolity and pointed out that The Council has a statutory duty to repair roads, not fund art installations.
Actually, the shortage of funding in local government is affecting much more than minor road maintenance: environmental degradation on a larger scale looms with the neglect and in some cases selling-off of parks. Extrapolated to a global scale, there is news that the Brazilian Government has withdrawn so much funding for the agency that protects its rainforest that deforestation is again in full swing. Whereas the USA’s Republicans have publicly trashed the notion of ecological responsibility in their determination to transpose democracy into plutocracy, the Brazilian Government is not so brazen: apparently, it pays lip service to conservation while favouring the big business lobby.
It remains to be seen whether the band of billionaires who benefit from such politics will act philanthropically to save the planet; or whether developing technology can or will be deployed to the same end. Meanwhile Elon Musk appears to be hedging his bets: he has a plan to colonise Mars as a retreat from ruined Earth and is already selling places to those who can afford them.


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Disrupting Classes

This year’s opening event of the Manchester International Festival was one in which professional performers played no part. Instead, the spotlight was on a selection of citizens from various walks of life, strutting their stuff, one-by-one, along a raised catwalk, while information about them was projected onto huge screens. It was an open-air event, free to view and therefore socially inclusive in all respects. The participants – whether established, public figures or homeless individuals struggling to put a life together – all got a cheer from the crowd, simply for being who they were. The genius of the event lay in its egalitarian intention: nobody was presented as more special than anyone else.
When they all left that stage, however, the reality of social inequality would surely re-establish itself. The homeless man would still be homeless, the recovering addict would revert to spending her days seeking support from diminished social services and the well-paid professional would still be well-paid and professional. So was this a performance, or was it another of those political expressions for which the city has been notorious ever since Queen Victoria declared it a hotbed of troublesome anti-establishment activists? I hope it was the latter. For, despite the earnest wish harboured by so many for integration, society persists as a collection of bubbles bumping in to one another.
It was interesting to see this in another context: the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, which features the works of Otto Dix and the photographer August Sander, both of whom made images of their contemporaries in the various social strata. Sander’s approach took was to show his subjects in the specific context of their social standing and occupations. There were, for example, tradesmen standing proudly in their work-wear and doctors, sombre-looking, moustachioed gents, trussed up in three-piece tweed suits to indicate their gravitas and high standing in the middle classes. Sander’s body of work reveals a Western European social model that still exists, in essence.
However, as the mighty Bob revealed as far back as 1968, “the times they are a’changing” and a project such as Sander’s, if it were to be attempted today, would turn up some very different images. At the local Health Centre last week, the doctor who saw me was a very young woman of African descent, friendly, personable, and impeccably middle-class-English in her manner. (I assume she is also a capable doctor, though her skills were not stretched on this occasion.) In encountering her, I was delighted to see some evidence of social mobility that was perhaps unthinkable a generation ago.
Nevertheless, those who aspire to upward social mobility face challenges that they may not have factored in to their plans: the profession of doctor is just one of many that are losing ground in terms of prestige and consequent earning-power because of the rise of computing power and the development of robotics. Anecdotally, a friend told me that a surgeon had advised him to postpone proposed knee surgery for a few years until the procedure has been programmed in to a robot. The outcome of such a delicate operation should not be entrusted to an unreliable human unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, the writing is on the wall for GPs in respect of their diagnostic function: an individual doctor will have a limited amount of knowledge at their disposal, whereas a robot could, theoretically, have all of human knowledge available within seconds, thereby making diagnosis more of a science and less of a guessing game.
As artificial intelligence becomes more widely available, the currency of knowledge, as banked by specialists, will devalue, while qualities such as humanity and compassion will attract a premium: perhaps that is when we will see big pay rises for nurses and carers.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Photographic Memory

This past week has been tinged with nostalgia (an insinuatingly pervasive condition), though I’m not sure it was that or fear-of-missing-out that induced me to tune in to Glastonbury on the TV. It certainly wasn’t the acts themselves, none of which is on my list of favourites, past or present. I sampled the Foo Fighters, but ten minutes of the singer’s unintelligible screaming was all I could endure. I tried again, with Ed Sheeran and, although he accomplished a lot more with a lot less, even his talent turned tedious after half an hour. Maybe you have to be there to get it. In any case, the music belongs to a younger generation – and one that likes to capture everything on phones.
Shunning the TV I went to a live gig more attuned to my vintage – the Steely Dan copy-band called Nearly Dan, which is pleasingly faithful to the original, especially when you close your eyes. The audience comprised enthusiastic, mature fans, most of whom were able to remain standing, at least until the interval. However, a younger chap immediately in front of me hoisted a phone above his head and proceeded to film the act. After a while, I objected that he was blocking my view and distracting me from the performance. He desisted without protest and, soon afterwards, slunk off elsewhere, but what had he hoped to gain by recording thus?
Now that everyone has a video recorder in their pocket, filming is no longer the exclusive realm of professionals: the next day, at the cinema, I watched a ‘film’ which, apart from one short sequence, was shot entirely on phones – and not very well, at that. It was Andrew Kotting’s Edith Walks, an unscripted, unstructured video-journal of him and a few friends walking, in fancy dress, from Waltham Abbey, where some of King Harold’s body-parts are said to be interred, to St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a statue of Harold dying in the embrace of his wife/lover, Edith Swan-Neck. I could have done that, I thought, (except that I didn’t) and if Kotting can persuade people to pay to see his videos in cinemas, as opposed to airing them on YouTube, perhaps there are commercial opportunities awaiting swathes of hibernating content embedded in billions of SD cards around the world. Maybe there will be a release soon of Nearly Dan Live: Uncut and Rudely Interrupted.
I tried once more with Glastonbury but the music interested me much less than the presence of contemporaries – celebrities such as John Snow and Jeremy Corbyn – men who might be expected not to share the musical taste of their children and grandchildren. But they may have attended for other reasons: Glastonbury is not an exclusively musical event whereas (cue nostalgia) Woodstock and the Isle of Wight most certainly were. It was at the end of August 1969 that I took the ferry from Portsmouth to join 150,000 other music fans on the IOW. A major draw, for me, was Bob Dylan who, until then, had been missing-rumoured-dead following a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, he re-surfaced and chose to play IOW rather than Woodstock. (I know all this now because of the internet: at the time I was clueless.) I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix and Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well but, thanks again to the internet, I know that they weren’t there until the following year – which is strange because I don’t recall going then.
My presence in 1969, however, is not in doubt. I was the only one of my crew who possessed a camera and, among the few shots I took (they were expensive, remember), there is one of the distant stage and, with the aid of a magnifying glass, you can make out 2nd Isle of Wight Festival of Music 1969 written on the proscenium arch. I must have run out of film at the 1970 Festival. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Air-Con Discomfort

In Manchester, the heatwave continues and I have availed myself of the air-con in a new coffee-bar that has opened in the lobby of the hotel across the road. It’s a good place to cool down, quiet and comfortable, with a friendly barista who is ‘passionate’ about coffee. Nevertheless, somewhere in the back of my conscience lurks a qualm. It has to do with the state of the environment and a statistic I read recently: in 2015, the power consumed by air-con units in the USA exceeded that used in the whole of Africa for everything. Air-con is essentially selfish: not only does it consume power, but it also dumps the heat extracted from interior spaces to the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming. It was partly guilt at my participation in this ecologically questionable technology that drove me to find a natural method of cooling off: I took the campervan out to the hills of Derbyshire where, for a few days, I lived in a field where breezes blew, trees provided shade and refreshing dew formed on the lush, green grass overnight.
The site was close to the village of Eyam, famous for its grim history. (When the Great Plague of 1665 reached Eyam, the villagers voluntarily isolated themselves from surrounding populations to minimise contagion.) While there, I visited Eyam Hall, the home of a rich family, which is now open to the public. Built six years after the plague, it is of interest for reasons other than morbidity, i.e. architectural, horticultural and historical. Sitting in the middle of the village the double-fronted manor house is isolated from others by a courtyard, outbuildings and extensive grounds. Strolling around the handsome house and beautiful-but-modest gardens caused me to reflect on social inequality and the ways in which it is manifest. Here, in a 17th century English village, rich and poor lived on the same few streets, in differing states of comfort, but with one thing shared: the unpolluted environment. How different from what was to come!
Industrialisation caused the movement of people to centres of manufacturing, where the combination of pollution and inadequate housing separated rich from poor in ways that persist to this day. Those who could afford to built their houses away from the filth, while those who could not were obliged to huddle together wherever was cheapest. Friedrich Engels, in the 1880s, was appalled by the “teeming cellars” inhabited by Manchester’s workers. He also reflected on the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as applied to the physical separation of the classes, which made it less likely that empathy might play a part in stimulating compassionate social reform.
Meanwhile modern cities such as New York and Chicago were building upwards rather than outwards and those who could afford to would leave the squalor of the streets for the clean air, light and security of skyscraper apartment blocks. In Britain’s low-rise cities, residential towers gained currency post 1945, albeit translated into low-cost units for the workers and, although they provided access to cleaner air and light, they have generally been a failed experiment in social engineering and worse, cost many lives through deficient construction, unlike the more recently built ‘luxury’ apartment towers in some city centres. Meanwhile, another phenomenon has occurred: those who own valuable houses in cities are resorting to digging out their basements to increase their living space. It is, apparently, less expensive than buying land on the surface or up in the air.
As for the old advice to “buy land, they ain’t making it any more”, it no longer applies – to the rich, at least. In Dubai they are sucking up sand from the seabed and depositing it to form ‘new’ land. Then they import sand from Australia to mix the concrete to build skyscrapers, which are uninhabitable without air-con. It’s enough to make you choke on your cappuccino.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Presence of Absence?

I had arranged to stay in London for a while, to catch up with friends and relatives that I don’t see as often as I would like. As the train passed Watford, there was the customary announcement over the speakers of the imminent closure of the on-board shop. Unlike many of the announcements, this one is not spoken by a pre-recorded voice, which means that there is scope for some unscripted, human communication – entertainment even – which on this occasion was delivered by a man in laid-back Jamaican style. It went like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the shop will be closing in (pause) about, er, (pause) ten minutes. No, (pause) er, about five minutes (pause) or something like that. (pause) Anyway, I’m closing soon, so if you want any drinks or anything, you better be quick.” It came across as a laconic, mocking rejection of the corporate robo-speak of the Virgin Trains manufactured persona. I only wish that all those passengers insulated by earphones, listening to their own pre-recorded material, could have heard and appreciated that unique human moment in an otherwise predictably mechanical two-hour journey. Perhaps it would have made them smile too.
The time in London was packed, as intended, with socialising but I did find chinks in the schedule to indulge myself in some solitary pursuits: when people surround you, a little time to yourself is precious, to be savoured or made use of, not frittered away like an interval in the drama that is your life. It could be a restorative walk along the riverside, seeking out a coffee-bar to sit in and read the paper, perhaps with a fresh, flaky croissant, returning to the social whirl stimulated and ready to relish the company of others. One day I went to the Geffrye Museum of the Home where a succession of period room-sets illustrates the progressing fashions in British domestic interiors since the Middle Ages. Afterwards I concluded that I have missed my time and that I should have been most at home in a modernist bachelor apartment circa 1932. There I would have sat in a deep, streamlined armchair, puffing on a pipe while reading the paper and listening to a huge wooden wireless set; although I suppose that, after half an hour or so, I would have picked up the Bakelite telephone and sought the company of friends.
Another day I spent an hour (or was it two?) at the National Portrait Gallery, driven by curiosity to see how Howard Hodgkin – whose paintings appear to be entirely abstract – rendered his portraits of friends and acquaintances without resorting to the figurative method. (I was also curious to see whether my proposal to fix mirrors to the wall in the restaurant had yet been implemented – but that’s another story.)  All I knew about Hodgkin’s paintings was that they are gorgeously colourful and intriguingly abstract. Was this exhibition of his portraits, Absent Friends, some sort of artistic hoax? A re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes? However, the labelling and interpretive information provided by the curator explained that the artist sought to “evoke a human presence” rather than depict a physical likeness and, once I understood this, I had my explanation as to why the work intrigued me. (I had long ago been seduced by the colours.)
Hodgkin, apparently, worked his memories of his subjects and the places they inhabited into those portraits, thereby immortalising his experience. Most of us make do with reminiscing from time to time – perhaps at occasional gatherings, maybe after a few drinks – and when we die, so do our memories. Nevertheless, the experience sharpened my purpose and I returned to my social calendar determined to continue celebrating those who have influenced me over the years and building my store of memories, even if I shan’t be handing them on to posterity.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Read My Mind, Not My Lips

 What do chimps actually see when they look at a human face? According to recently published scientific research, the answer is they see the same thing we do. This week I read a press release in which are shown two images of the same man’s face: one is a straightforward photograph; the other is a print generated from the chimp’s brain waves. They are almost identical. The explanation of how brain waves can be tapped and extrapolated in this way was a little beyond my comprehension but assuming it’s not a hoax, the discovery could be very illuminating. Not only could it give us insight into how animals experience the world, but it could also make it possible to develop accurate mind-reading techniques – for humans as well as chimps.
Now, when you think of mind-reading you might be inclined to dwell on sinister applications, such as criminals acquiring your secret thoughts for the purpose of theft, extortion or worse. All they would have to do is kidnap you, wire your brain up to a reader and, hey presto, they have all your passwords or, more likely, the place where you wrote them down. Such a technique would be cleaner and more reliable than using violence to extract the information. The flip-side of the coin, of course, is that criminals could also be made to give up information, thereby making considerable savings within our judicial system.
Moreover, there are other, everyday useful applications to consider. Take, for example, shopping. The likes of Amazon and Google, being in the business of anticipating what we might buy, constantly collect whatever data they can in order to assemble profiles of us as consumers. They do a pretty good job of anticipating our proclivities, but their algorithms can’t quite keep up – they tend to show us ads for lawnmowers long after we have actually made the purchase. What would they give for direct access to up-to-the-minute information regarding our purchasing intentions? How long will it be before, in return for some useful freebie that soon becomes indispensible to our daily lives, they persuade us to wire ourselves up to our laptops so that they can monitor our brain waves and fulfil our unspoken desires?
Actually, I would willingly have allowed myself to be so wired in a shop the other day when, during the course of trying to choose a pair of sunglasses I became overwhelmed by the range of styles on offer. A sales assistant, sensing my distress, offered to help and, because she looked old enough to empathise and spoke with a fetching Italian accent, I felt I would be in safe hands, unlikely to walk out of the store as a victim of the latest eyewear fashion. She cut through my indecision by persuading me that a particular pair fitted well and suited me. The price-tag was hefty but there was a discount on offer and, although I noticed the little logo on the lens I planned to peel it off later. The assistant congratulated me on my choice despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it was hers, not mine. (Had my actual purchase matched what was in my mind’s eye, it would have looked different and cost less.) All of which goes to show that a skilled and experienced sales assistant, whilst not having direct access to a customer’s brain waves, may still be able to assess them intuitively. In this case, she recognised that I was fed up with the process of choosing and keen to acquire sunglasses without further ado.
Since I bought them, the weather has been cloudy and rainy. Moreover, the logo on the lens is a permanent feature and the specs remain in their box while I consider whether I have the stomach for taking them back and starting all over again. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Let There Be Clarity

The General Election is nigh and politicians infest the media like a plague of pesky flies, irritating me with their repetitious rhetoric. I have given up shouting at the TV and radio, it’s too stressful: instead I turn off when I hear the dreaded “let me be clear”, a phrase which seems to have been universally adopted as a prelude to their well-rehearsed question-dodging techniques, so obviously learned in media-training classes. It has become de rigueur for politicians to claim clarity while delivering obfuscation. Let’s be clear is the mantra but diversion is the real objective. Political candidates prefer to set the agenda – as in Theresa May’s obsession with Brexit “negotiations” – so as to play to their strengths or, as Thomas Pynchon put it, If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. In our relatively free-speaking society there may be plenty of discussion and debate to help us make informed, rational choices despite the hectoring, but electing leaders is not, alas, an entirely rational process.
During these weeks, even social gatherings are best avoided if you don’t want to become embroiled in the same old arguments about how the country should be governed. Maybe that explains why I took to the cinema so many times this week. In a darkened cinema you can escape the turmoil for a while. I saw three foreign films: the Finnish The Other Side of Hope; the Iranian Inversion; and the Chinese I Am Not Madame Bovary. One thing they have in common is that they deal with universal human dilemmas, albeit from different cultural perspectives. A uniquely Finnish deadpan sense of humour banishes mawkishness from the tragic story of a refugee. Deep Iranian traditions are challenged as a single woman takes charge of her own destiny. Overbearing Chinese bureaucracy presses down on a woman wronged in matrimony. Ultimately, these three stories are social commentaries and left me pondering the comparative politics of each country in relation to our own.
Perhaps a more effective escape from current politics is through poetry. The daily routine of readings that my partner and I recently established has lately become sporadic. This I do not blame on the elections but on my own tendency to be distracted by various, sometimes fleeting, interests. In order, therefore, to re-focus, I have been following up a few suggestions made by my readers. One such is from an American friend. “Try Caedmon Records,” he said, “I used to work for them, years ago.” So it was that I came to buy, on eBay, a 1954 vinyl pressing of William Carlos Williams reading his own work. (I was also seduced by the contemporary cover-art of Bill Sokol.) My winning bid of £7.99 secured me an ex-library copy but, in addition to the P&P, there was the extra expense of buying a record player, mine having disappeared around the time of the great CD switch. However, I easily acquired a small machine, retro-styled to the late 50s, and we sat together to hear the great man recite. I have to say that, putting aside the quality of the poetry and the novelty of the experience, I was disappointed by Mr. Williams’ voice, which is unimpressively high-pitched and girlish in its timbre. Still, it is authentic and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the occasional honk of an American car-horn as it passes by the studio.
Finally, I decided to catch the first episode on TV of The Handmaid’s Tale, since I have not read the novel. It is a disturbing vision of a future totalitarian USA and, even more disturbing given some of the views expressed by the incumbent President, not many steps away from becoming reality. It scared me into thinking I had better tune back in to the electioneering and do my bit to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Will It Ever End?

Being in Manchester this past week has meant being involved in the aftermath of last Monday’s suicide-bomber atrocity. We can only imagine the grief of those who were bereaved, or the suffering that will be endured by those who were maimed. We express our sympathy awkwardly: a public gathering with speeches and poetry; makeshift shrines made with flowers, candles and messages; a minute of silence observed in the city centre; all of this unrehearsed, impromptu and heart-felt. However, beyond our shocked reactions to the callous, cruel carnage, there remains the big question of what can be done to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
Throughout the inevitable commentary on the event there runs one particular thread: of this city standing together, of its various communities working as one to combat terrorism. However, therein lies a problem. For all the talk of pride in Manchester and its record of pioneering social equality, there is evidence that the city, like so many others, is rapidly deteriorating into a fragmented entity in which “standing together” is increasingly difficult. Housing shortages, inequalities in educational opportunities, homelessness and ghetto-isation are trends emerging here – as elsewhere – as a result of its land being treated as an asset to be traded for maximum profit, often by outsiders. Taken to its logical end – rich people living in luxurious central towers, the rest housed on cheap estates, or not housed at all – how will it be possible for a city to function as a whole, to nurture all of its citizens and to take care not to marginalise anyone to the extent that they will turn against their own?
Currently showing at the city’s public art gallery is an exhibition of photographs of Mancunians taken by Shirley Baker during the time of the post-war slum clearances. They give an overall impression of poverty and desolation, although there is a bright future in the offing in the form of hygienic, humane housing . And, despite the ruination, children are playing, apparently happy and unsupervised, on the grimy, dilapidated streets and un-cleared bomb-sites, a reflection of the spirit of community they enjoyed. Subsequently, however, that spirit was too often broken by the removal of families to housing estates and high-rise developments, the work of urban planners who, at that time, worked on utopian principles that omitted some of the binding ingredients of community, such as interaction on neighbourhood streets. (See, if you can, the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City about the woman who spearheaded a campaign in the 1950’s which thwarted plans to ruin New York neighbourhoods with ill-conceived developments including urban highways and population segregation.)
Social alienation in itself is not the root cause of an individual’s determination to kill their neighbours, but it is certainly fertile ground for the recruitment of people who might be persuaded to do so. The religious beliefs that underpin the death cults of ISIL and Al Quaeda are, to the majority of religious believers, contradictory of the idea of a deity who is wise, loving and merciful towards its diverse creations and has an interest in seeing them flourish. As the author Rebecca West once put it: If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. The blame for barbarity in the name of religion lies not at the door of any god but in the hearts and minds of people. To quote another, more famous, author, Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
The ultimate prevention of atrocities committed in the pursuit of religious fanaticism is not within the power of our armed forces, intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies but in the spread of enlightenment, knowledge and compassion delivered via communities bound together by shared interests.

Friday, 19 May 2017

A Confluence of Coincindences

Although I am back from Cyprus physically, my mind will not disengage readily from the place and the way that its combination of deeply-rooted ethnic traditions and more recent ‘global village’ trends can produce interesting variants on what we are accustomed to. There is, for example, a shaded restaurant courtyard in Nicosia where delicious mezze are served by the urbane proprietor to a soundtrack of his favourite Blues and Gospel music, while his caged canary sings along to BB King’s guitar-licks and twitters ecstatically in sympathy with the backing singers. Much as I was amazed and amused by the novelty, I am unsympathetic to the practice of caging creatures and, really,  hope it dies out soon.
 Returning home is comforting despite the fact that, seen from a perspective refreshed by travelling, there are aspects of one’s life that could benefit from re-evaluation: one of these is our duvet cover. Perhaps it’s the recent memory of all those exuberantly foreign fabrics but, despite its excellent quality, it does appear dull. Its drab colour does nothing to lift the spirits and it is time to give up on the idea that because it ‘tones’ with the decor it qualifies as a suitable furnishing. My partner readily agreed that life is too precious to share with a dismal duvet, so I took it on myself to find a brighter one.
On the brief walk to the shops I encountered a couple of friends who have been living abroad these past few years. They had just arrived in town and, had I left the house seconds earlier or later, our paths would not have crossed. Such coincidences, we agreed over coffee, are quite rare. Or are they? After we parted company, I bumped into someone else I had not seen for a while. I began to feel it might be a lucky day to place a bet. And then I found a pleasing duvet cover at the very first shop! I headed triumphantly for home but was stopped on Market Street by a polite young man with a clipboard who asked if I had time to answer a few questions about socks. It so happens that I have strong views on socks and was therefore willing to share them. However, all he wanted to know was how many pairs I owned, whether I ever wore odd socks, whether I had any “lucky” ones, my age and email address. I was miffed not to have been given the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for the hygienic properties of bamboo-fibre and merino wool compared with synthetics, but it was my first disappointment of the day and, incredibly, was mitigated moments later by my bumping into yet another acquaintance I had not seen in years.
The duvet cover gained the full approval of my partner and I went off to meet a friend for an early dinner followed by a concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio. I was telling him about the day of coincidental meetings as we made our way from restaurant to concert hall when – as if to prove my point – my partner stepped out of the doorway we were passing. She was leaving the gym and on her way home to make up the bed and was just as surprised by the encounter as we were. By now, both my friend and I were convinced that supernatural forces were in play and that, in the concert-hall foyer, some long-lost friend or lover would step over and buy me a drink for old time’s sake. However, despite the fact that the place was heaving, I saw nobody even vaguely familiar. It was my second disappointment of the day – and a practical demonstration of the fact that you can’t anticipate a coincidence. Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t place any bets.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Cultural Mash-ups

Here in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) there is a mosque in every hamlet and every suburb of every town yet, after two weeks, I am still not sure when to expect the five-a-day Call to Prayer. This can be inconvenient, as when I chose to have lunch in a quiet, leafy courtyard next to a mosque and the loudspeakers burst into action as I was about to place my order, drowning me out and reducing me to pointing at the menu. The waiter was unfazed.
The Call itself, when executed by an accomplished singer, is exquisitely musical, although it represents a dogma with which I have no sympathy and is, in that sense, unwelcome. It is a reminder of deeply-rooted cultural differences. After last week’s ramble around the archaeological ruins I was inclined to the view that history is all explained by geography but, apropos cultural differences, I now appreciate the point made by the writer Robert Lynd, that history may be read as the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity. I look everywhere for proof of his hypothesis and here, in the TRNC, I am somewhat encouraged: I have yet to see anyone flock to a mosque.
In Cyprus, where East has mingled with West for centuries, some dilution of traditions, even some cross-fertilisation is to be expected. Colonisation started the process and tourism continues to push it, albeit informally. But the process is haphazard. This region, despite its dependence on tourism, does not appear to have grasped how the industry has segmented and become more sophisticated. The coastline is littered with unfinished ‘developments’ – holiday villages, villas and huge hotels – which sit between a host of established facilities already catering to that market. Meanwhile the many sites of cultural and historic interest are neglected by the authorities and treated as if they are of no consequence. Evidently, they have failed to count the coach-loads of older, cultural tourists to be seen on the car parks of Salamis and the other accessible antiquities. This is a growing market and, if they need help, the National Trust could teach them valuable lessons in how to monetise it.
The same can be said of the many restaurants where the only offering is kebab, salad and chips. After a couple of meals one pines for home cooking. One restaurant I went to offered a partial remedy for this with a menu comprising a mash-up of British and Turkish staples. I was attracted by the possibilities – and its perfect sea-front location – but I had reason later to regret my choice. The interior was decked out cheaply, like a French-style Soho joint circa 1975, and I ordered kleftiko which came not in a pot, but dried up on a plate and with a dish of buttered vegetables – back again to Britain in the ‘70s. The clientele comprised ex-pats – apart from a party of Cypriots for whom this was an exotic location for a birthday celebration. The experience was cross-cultural, but at a low level of accomplishment.
There is, however, an emerging awareness of the value of eco-tourism, not only in terms of revenue but also of preserving the environment. Its development is confined – inevitably – to the remote eastern peninsula where the roads are basic. I stayed for a couple of nights there in a small eco-hotel owned and run by an earnest husband and wife team. She cooked kleftiko for dinner and it was the real thing – Turkish to the marrow. It was so delicious I forgave our hosts the background music – a slow passage of Vivaldi – certain they were only trying to please their European guests. Then, after a few mouthfuls, the Call to Prayer wafted across the veranda and the two soundtracks met, the Arab singing intertwining perfectly with the European violins. East and West in harmony, sort of, for a few moments at least.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Castles in The Sky

Having just arrived in Larnaca on the south coast of Cyprus, I found a beach bar where, at the dimming of the day, I sat outside and took that first sip of Keo beer. Is it possible, I asked myself, that it tastes the same as it did 50 years ago? Probably not: it’s more likely that the familiar-yet-foreign tang, combined with the place itself, was causing me to reminisce. I lived here as a young teenager – part of the ‘camp-following’ of the occupying British Armed Forces – and have returned from time to time to explore aspects of the island’s culture in which young teenagers are not ordinarily interested. The next day I travelled to the north coast, crossing the border created after 1974 when troops landed from Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Turkish population from the violence that had erupted between them and the Greek Cypriots.
The two ethnic groups used to be quite jumbled up on the island but since the invasion there has been much relocation, resulting in a Muslim culture separated from an Orthodox Christian one and, although tempered by years of proximity and mutuality, the two are determinedly distinct. Reunification talks are on the table but they are, inevitably, tortuous and protracted. Meanwhile there is considerable military posturing in the north compared with the relatively free-wheeling, EU-centric south. I am dismayed by the number of army garrisons everywhere I go, by the paranoia-driven unavailability of up-to-date road-maps, the fact that sat-nav is “unavailable” and that Wikipedia is blocked. I sense the dead hand of the authoritarian Turkish regime and its undeclared preference for annexation to the mainland. Nevertheless, the people are friendly – at least to tourists, which is what I am. After descending from a mountain hike (something I am not used to doing without a detailed OS map) I walked through a picnic spot where an extended family was feasting. They waved hellos and ran over with a bowl of stuffed vine leaves, insisting I eat my fill. They were much better than the tinned ones we get at home.
History is all explained by geography, if what we mean by history is the ongoing story of powers jostling for control of territory, and the evidence is plain to see in Cyprus, an island which, because of its strategic location, has been fought over for millennia. The mountains along the northern coast are topped by a string of castles, established by one dynasty or another and augmented by those succeeding. The castles, precariously perched on precipitous peaks, are astonishing in their ruined state and must have been even more so in their heyday. Just contemplating the effort that went into building them and the constant to-and-fro up and down the mountains to keep their occupants supplied makes me feel fatigued. In the end, however, the castles proved ineffective against sea-borne Arab raiders and when the Venetians took over they sensibly abandoned them in favour of coastal forts.
The mountains were also the favoured location for abbeys and monasteries built by the religious orders and subsequently sacked by the Arabs. The ruins are an important part of the tourist trail, though seeing them always makes me feel sad that once-magnificent buildings are reduced to a few stone arches, bashed-up pillars and shattered mosaic floors. Sadly, this kind of destruction is not limited to bygone ages. In many of the villages hereabouts stands the windowless, doorless hulk of an abandoned church, its interior stripped and vandalised: usually, there is a pristine mosque close by. At one such church there was, unusually, a caretaker, a friendly, loquacious, 82-year-old ex-policeman who had served under British rule. We swapped reminiscences, he lamented the division of the island and when it was time to go, we shook hands warmly. In that moment I felt the approving presence of my long-deceased dad.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ode to Alexa

At the last gathering of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, our host for the evening presented his chosen subject in a hi-tech, multi-media tour de force. He dazzled us with DVD, CD, Sonos, Youtube clips on a ‘smart-TV’ controlled via a dedicated iPhone app and – most wonderful of all – Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant, Alexa. Considering our host had quite recently professed ignorance of “streaming” and other modern media mysteries, it all went swimmingly well (barring the glitch with the iPhone app – which would have gone un-noticed had he not mentioned it). We all were particularly taken with Alexa and the possibilities she presents, among them being the elimination of the bother of finding one’s specs.
Days later I saw the film The Sense of an Ending which is set in the present but is really about the past. The protagonist – a man of the HMJAS generation – is consumed by the memory of an unrequited teenage love but has otherwise adjusted to his present life. Like most of us, he uses a smart phone and a computer – up to a point – but the flashbacks to his schooldays show us a time when the most advanced form of personal technology was the transistor radio, a valued piece of kit among teenagers in those days, despite the dearth of cool material being broadcast. The best that one could hope for back then was a steady signal from Radio Luxembourg in the evenings and some private time on Sunday afternoons, ears glued to The Top Twenty in anticipation of hearing the very few decent tracks that made it into the chart. All this was part of getting to grips with the world in general and romantic love in particular. Today’s teenagers don’t have it any easier, despite their possession of superior technology and many more channels of cool content. They still have to contend with the awkwardness of learning about love, the subtleties of which no dating app can mimic. Hi-tech, lo-tech: sometimes no-tech is what works best.
A particular no-tech pleasure I have re-connected with recently is poetry. I have some poetry books but they have lain, unopened, on my shelves for years. I always intended to read them, but very rarely did so. Now, however, my partner and I have come to an arrangement to resolve this issue: we undertake to read one poem a day – to each other. The catalyst for this resolution was my partner, whose enthusiastic appetite for reading has expanded in the poetry department since we went to see the film, Paterson.  Our routine readings are certainly making inroads into the mass of material that lurks in the books: pages that have languished in darkness since they were bound together now are suddenly exposed to the light in all their virgin whiteness, examined briefly for suitable content and either closed again forever or marked out for performance.
And therein lies the rub: which poems should I pick out? The choice of sentiment is important because it can make or break the atmosphere between us. Nothing good, for example, is likely to come from declaiming the woes of unrequited loves past. Better to extol the joys of present union or, better still, avoid all possibility of contention by going down the humorous route.
Then there is one’s performance to consider.  Getting the tone, pace, enunciation, pauses and exclamations just right can make the difference between a reading being properly appreciated or slipping past the audience unheeded or, worse still, completely un-comprehended. So, here is where I thought Alexa might help me. I could just ask and she would oblige by playing back some professionally recorded readings. Call it ‘passing the buck’ but isn’t that what assistants are for?

Friday, 21 April 2017

Good Old Days?

Last week I went to Westward Ho! It’s a nice enough seaside town, a little tatty and run down – as they often are – but undergoing a modest revival thanks to surfers and tourists with a penchant for nostalgia. There is no denying, however, that its name is what mainly distinguishes it: how many place-names include an exclamation mark? Not many, I suspect, although there is a municipality in Quebec that has two!! Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
My visit was part of a trip down Memory Lane – or I should say Lanes, those comprising the web of routes that connect the towns and hamlets around the coast, combes and valleys of North Devon. Having spent happy times there in my younger days I had great expectations of this latest return tempered, of course, by the knowledge that memory is an unreliable, fawning companion, often obliging with the kind of pleasant associations it knows you prefer and obscuring those which do not fit your idyll. And the places themselves will have changed as ‘progress’ makes its indelible marks. North Devon pre-1988 was relatively inaccessible and its unique cultural identity persisted a little longer than it might otherwise have done. That ended when the A361 trunk road opened, giving expedited access to commerce, industry and the growing number of motorised tourists and commuters encouraged by the easier journey.
But this is not a disaster story: the friends who anchor me to the place are still there and they have not changed. They might sometimes express wistfulness for the time when they felt less pressure from incomers but they are sufficiently well “dug-in” to be philosophical about it. The tourist industry feeds them via the local economy and they want high-speed broadband, good road access and supermarkets like the rest of us. Their children face the problem of expensive housing due to incomers, second-homers and the scarcity of new-build, but this is the same for their contemporaries born and bred in other desirable parts of Britain.
For visitors there are fundamental attractions that are constant: the countryside is pretty, even with the addition of a few wind-turbines; quaint village and town centres are preserved as assets; there is pollock to be had on the menus, pasties in the bakers and dark green laver in the fishmongers. And you can sometimes hear the glorious local accent, with its vowels thick as clotted cream, spoken confidently and proprietorially in contrast to the nondescript babble of incomers. Away from the hubbub is the footpath that makes its way along the Atlantic coast. I walked a section from the estuary at Lynmouth, climbing steeply up and down the sides of a series of combes on the way to Minehead before cutting back inland to Watersmeet where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join forces in a narrow, densely wooded valley.
All very beautiful, but for a taste of how life used to be in this part of the world it is useful to visit Arlington Court, former seat of local landowners the Chichesters, now owned and run by the National Trust. The estate typifies the way rural life was lived before the First World War: wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few people, social mobility was limited and rural poverty was the norm. The small scale of the “quaint” cottages in the former fishing ports, many of which are now holiday accommodation, reiterates the point. The inhabitants of North Devon have an easier life now than they did back then and Westward Ho! is partly responsible. Built specifically as a holiday resort in 1863, it established a new source of income for the locals; and, if its current revival persists, it might just do the same trick again and earn itself a second exclamation mark!

Up-market seafood trailer at Westward Ho!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Place Prejudice

I’ll tell you now and I’ll tell you firmly, I don’t never want to go to Burnley – the first line of a John Cooper Clarke poem – gives expression to the idea that it’s fine to harbour prejudice against places; which helps me feel better about my refusal to go to Dubai. I want nothing to do with an artificial city that flouts the principles of ecological sustainability and is ruled over by hereditary tyrants who deem it their right to suppress political opposition and deny equality to the female half of the population. In any case, there is nothing there but bling, which is about as relevant to my life as haute couture to an Outback sheep-shearer. Moreover, although I recently read that a former industrial area in the city is being converted into an arts quarter, I am not convinced that it will turn out to be anything other than an art market for the wealthy.
Cooper Clarke is being humorous, of course, but strictly speaking prejudice is, I suppose, prejudice and it’s really not fine for me to dismiss Dubai, or any one of millions of other destinations, as unworthy of my visitation. Without first-hand experience of a place, all one’s impressions depend on anecdote or propaganda. In reality, of course, it is impossible to go everywhere and I must rely on my experiences of the places I can manage to get to. But it’s an imperfect science: over time, things change and conclusions that were reached years ago may become invalid. Take the case of Vesta curry, a pioneering product in the field of pre-prepared meals. As I recall, the packet contained dehydrated curry and rice, the proposition being that you could eat exotic food, at home, in front of the TV, without the hassle of going abroad, or to a restaurant, or learning how to prepare and cook it. I bought into the dream at first but soon realised that there was a compromise: it tasted awful. Consequently, to this day, I shun the packaged meals that populate whole aisles of supermarket shelves, despite the probability that culinary advances and consumer focus groups have led to considerable improvements on Vesta.
However, whilst I can happily live the rest of my days without pre-prepared dinners, I cannot say the same about travelling. Since I am not obliged to venture abroad for the purpose of work, nor to support a football team, I am free (not counting the occasional semi-obligatory visits to relatives or friends) to choose where I go. When deciding on a destination for its own sake, therefore, it’s down to either train-spotting – pursuing a particular interest – or whimsy based on, yes, anecdote and propaganda. I have never been to Russia, for example, a country which these days gets a consistently bad press. Yet I would like to look behind the headlines and commentaries. I am intrigued as to how a country with so turbulent a history of wars, revolutions, repression, famine and hardship – all the things we hear about in the West – has, nevertheless, produced so many great artists. In the fields of painting, music, literature, dance, theatre and architecture there is a plethora of Russian names known around the world as foremost in their field (although, unfortunately, the most widely recognised Russian name presently is Kalashnikov). Maybe I should go to Russia – or, more specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg, where its artistic and cultural treasures are concentrated.
In case you were wondering, I have been to Burnley. It’s seen better days, to be honest, but I harbour some nostalgia for it as the birthplace of Dave Ratley, the first northerner I ever met, and a damn fine fellow – although he never wanted to go to Guildford.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Romans Remain / Roman Remains

Last week I gave expression to my inner artisan by painting a flight of wooden stairs. It was a simple job but one fraught with a particular anxiety – the risk of painting myself into the vertical equivalent of a corner. I would be working my way down the stairs so it was essential to ensure that, once finished, I would not need to go up again until the paint had dried. I made sure that I placed the radio I was listening to at the bottom. The news was on and there was a fascinating item concerning a glut of cauliflowers due to the weather having been favourable this season. (Actually, I mused, the colour of my paint could be called ‘cauliflower’– although that description would probably be deemed insufficiently alluring for the purpose of marketing.) In the days that followed, I began to notice that recipes for cauliflower were cropping up in all the media – even on my FB page – to the extent that I was reminded of the saying News is what somebody else does not want to be known. Everything else is just advertising.
A few days later I duly bought a couple of cauliflowers at the street-market in Salisbury where I had been on a visit (is anyone immune to advertising?). The drive back to Manchester via trunk roads is long and tedious so, to add a little interest, I detoured via Cirencester and stopped off at Chedworth Roman Villa (remains of) to view the mosaics and admire the ingenious hypocaust underfloor heating system. A dozen more Roman villas are dotted around the area, Cirencester having once been a major settlement on the Fosse Way, but Chedworth is the most impressive. Roman troops were recalled from Britain, quite suddenly, in about 410 AD and their departure was followed by rapid disintegration of the infrastructure they had built during their 500 years of occupation. The native population, finding itself without a police force, proceeded to strip the abandoned assets, using the stones to build dwellings and consigning themselves to life without paved roads for the next 1500 years. Why would they do that?
Roman administration brought stability but at a cost: by appropriating everything for themselves and making sure they kept hold of it, the Romans presided over a system of extreme economic inequality – such as is increasingly the case in, for example, the USA where one percent of the population owns half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Meanwhile, the mass of humanity struggles to overcome poverty. Roman villas, for all their grace and technical precocity, were the ancient equivalent of today’s private palaces, symbols of a grotesquely inequitable distribution of wealth. For every nobleman living in a villa there were thousands of peasants living in crude shelters so, when the Romans went off to defend their interests elsewhere, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the natives to re-distribute the wealth among themselves.
Some historians argue that unless there are cataclysmic events, such as the Roman evacuation, wealth will remain concentrated in the hands of the few. British history seems to back this up. The last occasions when there was major re-distribution was during the periods of upheaval following World Wars I and II. In recent years, half-hearted attempts to close down offshore tax-havens and eliminate tax loopholes have all met with limited results and the Government’s recently stated intention to legislate for the attenuation of pay packages for the CEOs of large companies will have limited success: legislation cannot eliminate greed. Revolutions and wars are, apparently, more effective agents of change.
It’s depressing. So, while I contemplate whether I would rather remain relatively poor or endure the uncertain outcomes of war and social upheaval, I distract myself by perfecting a supper-dish fit for a noble: roast cauliflower with chorizo.

Friday, 31 March 2017


The suburb of Heaton Moor used to boast a couple of rival, politically associated clubs but, over the course of the last few years, the hatchet has been buried – perhaps reflecting a general shift towards neo-liberal consensus – and amalgamation has left just one club serving as a non-aligned social venue for the neighbourhood. It was there, last week, that members of the HMJAS gathered to hear Loose Change play a very competent set of jazz-funk tunes. Unfortunately, despite the very reasonable admission price of £3 (supper dish of Lancashire hot-pot included) it turned out to be another of those sparsely attended Wednesday evening gigs which seem to abound in Stockport. Whether this is due to inadequate marketing or fundamental lack of demand, I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening, not least because fellow jazzer and Wonderman reader Dave told me that his mate, who is on the board of the National Portrait Gallery, has promised to install mirrors on the wall in the restaurant there. Those of you who recall my criticism a couple of weeks ago will recognise this as a triumph of blog-lobbying.
My euphoria continued, buoyed by the advent of springtime, and one sunny morning I ventured out to inspect the potted bamboo. For the past two years I have been defending it against aphids – and they are back again! My neighbour – who is Brazilian – came out to tend his plants and we struck up conversation about the Brazilian film Aquarius which I had just seen. He enthused about the starring actor – whose name is too Portuguese to recall – and vowed to go see it next day. On the subject of aphid control, however, he showed less interest, remarking only “there are some very convincing plastic bamboos you can get.” He has a point. Life is, indeed, short.
I didn’t let the return of the aphids spoil my week: too many other events had been clamouring for that distinction. When I collected the campervan from the upholsterers in deepest Lancashire I was delighted with the job they had done. Only later did I discover that, in removing the seats, they had disrupted some electrical connections and failed to restore them. I took the van to my local mechanic who sorted it out quickly but at considerable cost. Afterwards I found some unidentifiable plastic parts lying loose in the glove box. I suppose I will have to go back to the mechanic to enquire about them. It brings to mind the old Flanders & Swann classic song The Gasman Cometh, which employs humour to de-fuse frustration.
It has not been so easy, however, to dispel the gloom that has descended since Our Glorious Leader dispatched the ‘Dear John’ (or ‘Article 50’) letter to the European Union. I know that people argue over whether Brexit will help or hinder international trade, but that point is irrelevant in the long term since agreements can always be negotiated. Which leaves Brexit-lovers with their beloved argument for ‘sovereignty’, a concept which I value less than they: it makes me think only of drawbridges.
Still, springtime fosters regeneration, not only in nature but also in the hearts and minds of men. My partner, having noticed some crumpling in my demeanour, reserved time to conduct for me a session of re-aligning my life-focus. During such an exercise one is required to face up to big questions, such as: Why are we here? Where are we going? How will we get there? Shall we be taking sandwiches?  The session worked its magic. Sitting there, on the sunny terrace of a buzzing urban cafe, having drawn a diagram of my life on A3 paper with multi-coloured pens while sipping good coffee, anything seemed achievable: Brexiters might falter in the face of blog-lobbying; even aphids might be defeated once and for ever.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Who's In Charge?

I was walking through Piccadilly Gardens, quietly contemplating an article I had just read about aerial surveillance, when a violent scuffle erupted on the terrace of the cafe a few yards away. Tables and chairs went clattering around the concrete and a young man fled the scene while three others were wrestled to the ground by plain-clothes policemen shouting their statutory warnings as they struggled to cuff and search their prey. It was an unexpected bit of excitement for a Wednesday morning but reassuring on three counts: first that the authorities are attempting to put a stop to drug trafficking in the Gardens; second that the police gave a running commentary on what was happening; and third, that actual police officers are doing the work, not drones.
Drones? Well, yes. We already have surveillance cameras mounted on poles and helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices; drones will be next, probably fitted with tasers. They are cheaper than helicopters and admirably suited to MOOTW – Military Operations Other Than War. James Madison, the 4th US President, was remarkably prescient when he said:”The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” His insight, in itself, is disturbing but what makes matters worse is that drone operators are recruited, so it is rumoured, from the ranks of life-long video-gamers, many of whom are so inured to the inhumane consequences of their targeting that a group of artists has been moved to set up a project called #NotABugSplat, comprising a huge image of a young girl laid on the ground in Pakistan near the epicentre of US drone strikes. Her eyes look straight up at the cameras in the hope of influencing the operators’ perception of the consequences of their actions. Alas, the locals have since torn up the image and used the sheeting as building material, deeming that a more effective use for the project.
The proliferation of drones cannot be stopped – the technology is too easily accessible – but there may be a simple way to limit the potential threats they pose to life and liberty: we could take the toys away from the boys. Technology has always been the preserve of men, but it may be that women, given the chance, could deploy it in less destructive ways. It’s worth recalling here the case of Charles Babbage, inventor of the computing engine, and Ada Lovelace, the visionary mathematician who recognised its potential. When, in 1840, Lovelace saw a demonstration of Babbage’s device she went away and wrote what was the very first computer programme. Spurred on by Ada’s vision, Charles drew up plans for a more advanced version of the engine. But he was ineffective at raising the necessary finance and, though Ada pleaded with him to let her manage the project to fruition, he could not bear to hand over the reins. In the end, Lovelace’s genius foundered on the rocks of male chauvinism. 
But there are signs of change, at last. We now have females in the key positions of Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Head of the Metropolitan Police, Head of London’s Fire Brigade. Add to these achievements the fact that female soldiers will soon be joining their male counterparts in front-line combat operations and all seems set for a shift in the balance of power in favour of women. Whether or not they will do things differently remains a moot point but the real question is whether they will be allowed to, for real power lies not with figureheads but with those who control the nation’s capital and resources. The likely outcome is that we may, for some time to come, just have to make do with WINCE – Women In Nominal Charge of Everything. It’s a start, at least.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Frankenstein And The Squeaky Shoes

There is a rather good restaurant upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery. It has sophisticated food, slick service and a reasonable wine list – but the main attraction has to be its location, high above Trafalgar Square, where diners have a panoramic view of London to the south. At least, they do if they are not facing the back wall, as I was when I had lunch there last week. The restaurant has been going for many years and, during all that time, there must have been thousands of occasions when waiters have noticed the disappointment on customers’ faces as they ushered them to seats with their backs to the window. Did it never occur to the management that they could easily, and cheaply, stick mirrors onto that wall? In any case, view or no view, it is long-established practice to install mirrors in restaurants so that wall-facing diners can observe their fellows. Dining out is, after all, a form of social interaction. I pointed all this out to my companions without, I hope, labouring the point. Nevertheless, it niggled me throughout the lunch that so obvious an oversight – and one so easily remedied – should remain uncorrected.
There is a question lurking at the back of this observation: am I being too particular? Do I emphasise the negative at the expense of appreciating the positive and, if so, is this an inclination in danger of becoming an obsession? I would like to think not. After all, just yesterday, the lady behind the counter in the Spar shop complimented me on my cheery demeanour and polite consideration for her position. Mind you, the transaction had gone well: the item I wanted was in stock, there was no queue and my contactless card worked first time. Satisfaction produces good vibes. Things might have gone very differently, as indeed they did on another occasion when I was so brusque to a waiter in a cafe that my partner insisted I present my apologies, as well as a generous tip, when it came time to pay. (The waiter had tried to persuade me to try an exotic blend of tea instead of the cappuccino I wanted and was keen to get to grips with: otherwise, everything was perfect.)
I have seen two films this week, Logan and Elle, both of which have been highly praised by critics and both of which, in my experience, were disappointingly flawed. In the case of Logan, even though I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Comics phenomenon, the fantasy sustained my interest pretty well – until the end, that is, when a huge dollop of Hollywood schmaltz spoilt the whole thing and left me wishing I hadn’t bothered. Elle, on the other hand, is so not Hollywood that the parameters of its appeal are quite different and Isabel Huppert’s performance, in itself, is a good enough reason to buy a ticket. Yet there are some unconvincing plotlines which, although temporarily sustained by the drama, do ultimately unravel, thereby spoiling the overall experience – for me, at least.
I am conscious that niggles such as these must be kept in proportion so as not to overshadow one’s enjoyment and, to this end, I try always to keep an open mind, as I did last week when we went with friends to Wilton’s Music Hall for dinner and a performance of Frankenstein. Everything was set for a good night out: great company, lovely food, an appropriately historic venue and an innovative show. But even the most positive among us could not ignore the fact that the actor playing Frankenstein had a voice that was too highly-pitched for the part and that the assistant-cum-props-person who followed him around the set was wearing a pair of distractingly squeaky shoes. And those, I’m afraid, are my abiding memories of the show.

Friday, 10 March 2017


Right now it seems that the only thing protecting the liberty of American citizens from a would-be dictator is their written constitution: maybe we should get one of those, just in case. Mrs. May – our leader by default, not choice, remember – might come across as having a fair and reasonable approach to civic governance but this has yet to be tested, especially against the wave of xenophobia and associated crop of ‘strong leaders’ sweeping through nation states around the globe. But dictatorship couldn’t happen here, could it? We have our famous ‘checks and balances’ – the Monarchy, the House of Lords, independent judiciary and police services and, last but not least, universal suffrage. Yet, despite this lauded system called democracy, what we actually have right now is a kakistocracy – rule by the worst people. I see no grounds for complacency.
How did we get into this situation? One reason could be that anyone is entitled to stand for election (a good thing) but without training or qualification for the job (a bad thing). Would it not be reasonable to expect that – as in most other professions – candidates should learn the basics before applying for the position? In the case of would-be politicians such basics should include elements of sociology, history, economics and ethics so that they might at least have some idea of which pitfalls to avoid, thus eliminating the two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to policy-making. A recent example of politicians’ ineptitude is the case of those who thought it was a good idea to leave the EU. Playing down the socio-economic benefits in favour of an argument for sovereignty, they have now lumbered us with years of wasting our time and money on complex, protracted negotiations to leave the club, only to have to re-join it on some form of trading terms to save our economic bacon.
Here’s an example. When Britain joined the EU there was a resurgence of investment into its (by then, foreign-owned) car manufacturing industry. Unfettered cross-border access enabled the development of a complex web of transferable materials and skills: sales boomed in the absence of tariff barriers. Brexit will put paid to all that and the industry will wither. In an attempt to avert this blow to the economy the Government has already promised to protect Nissan against future tariffs and will probably be pressured into doing the same for other companies. A few days ago General Motors sold its European operations to the French car-maker PSA and the workers at GM’s UK plants now fear they will lose their jobs. They probably will. Ironically, VW recently announced that it is adopting English as its universal corporate language – Honda has already done so and, if PSA follow suit, we could at least console ourselves with the thought that, although cars may no longer carry a ‘Made in England’ stamp, they will at least be made in English. And since our reliance on the service sector will continue thus to grow, perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to expand the profitable business of teaching English to foreigners.
In the long-term, things may work out for manufacturing. Car production will decline, inevitably, because driverless vehicles, on-demand apps and an increasingly urbanised population will reduce the need for car ownership but, if the industry redirects its resources – to the development of batteries and renewable energy systems, for example – there could be a resurgence of manufacturing in the UK. However, since  Hofstadter’s Law predicts that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law, our politicians need to get to grips with some proper forward planning for the long-term – before a ‘strong leader’ elbows them aside.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Doris Damaged My Umbrella

I see we have begun to identify individual storms, as we already do hurricanes, by giving them people’s names. It works well, especially here in Britain where we are especially inclined to converse about our weather-events: they are more memorable if they have a human identity. “You know when Eric blew in the other week? He played havoc with my roses.” It is always gratifying to be able to name and blame someone else for one’s misfortunes and this extension of the phenomenon to natural causes is amusingly human. It makes me feel better to say that Doris damaged my umbrella, despite knowing that the responsibility for its reckless deployment was mine.
It happened on the way back from the cinema where I had just seen20th Century Women in which Annette Bening plays the single mother of a teenage son (and surrogate mother to his girlfriend and a young female lodger). There’s a lot of young-person-angst in the script but it’s handled with humour, so much so that when the mother, exasperated by it all, retorts “For God’s sake, worrying about whether you’re happy is just a short cut to depression,” the audience laughed out loud. I imagined them thinking “Yeah, get a grip. Life is full of set-backs.” And how should we define happiness, anyway? Is happiness a permanent state of relative contentment or does it comprise intermittent periods of relief from misery? I think Daniel Dennett nails it when he says “the secret of happiness is to find something more important than you are and to dedicate your life to it,” though that is easier said than done.
The cinema is in an arts complex and before the movie I was drawn to a kiosk in the foyer where passers-by were invited to try a ‘virtual reality experience’ promoting a forthcoming performance. The young person in charge of the setup, sensing that I was wary of donning a blank-faced scuba-diver’s mask, gently encouraged me with phrases like “you’ll soon get used to it” and “it only lasts four minutes” so I surrendered my dignity and took the plunge. I was transported to a writer’s studio in Paris in the 1930’s with a disembodied, animated head floating in front of me delivering a monologue. It took me a while to realise that by fixing my gaze to the front I was missing stuff. You have to move your head around: turning it left and right I was able to see into the corners of the studio; tilting it up and down I could see the ceiling and, weirdly, a representation of my own hands and knees. “What did you think?” asked my facilitator at the end. I could not think of an original or incisive thing to say. “Interesting” was about it but, later, I was able to apply the experience in a very practical way. Having just acquired my first pair of varifocal specs and finding them to be disorientating, I put them away. Trying them again later, I found that, by moving my head around, I could focus on different aspects of my surroundings. It still felt a bit like VR, however: distanced from real life by an invisible shield.
A few days afterwards I found myself back at two of my old haunts – the house I had lived in but left more than 20 years ago and a pub which had been an important social hub before I ‘settled down’. My thoughts drifted back to those former times and, at first, only happiness appeared through a haze of nostalgia. But I knew this to be a misrepresentation of reality – a sort of naturally occurring VR phenomenon – and made an effort to include in my recollections those events which could not be described as happy, not all of which I could – in good conscience – avoid blame for. To Doris I owe an apology.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hell, Hull and Halifax

From Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us!” That memorable farewell phrase employed by 16th century thieves was quoted at me just two weeks ago when I told a friend that I planned to take a day trip to Hull. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked, forgetting that “there” is the nominated City of Culture for 2017 (or he may have been simply incredulous of the nomination). The point is that Hull’s reputation has been sullied in perpetuity by the fact that it once had a notoriously nasty gaol – and a wickedly good catchline with which to advertise it: there must have been other towns with equally awful gaols at the time but who remembers them?
Hull, or King’s Town upon Hull as it was originally named in the 13th century (such was its importance as an international trading port), has seen its fortunes wax and wane over time. In recent decades the decline of its once prosperous fishing industry has been the cause of unemployment and deprivation. Civic pride was also bruised by the subsequent loss of identity and the impression of Hull as a miserable place thus perpetuated. The idea of a day-trip would not have sprung readily to my mind then. Like so many other cities, it has discovered the need to rejuvenate itself by establishing new industries for its economic base: and cultural tourism may turn out to be an important part of that. After all, history oozes from the Georgian bricks of the Old Town, as it does from the grand architecture of the late 19th century buildings sitting gracefully in the wide streets of the adjacent City Centre, where they accommodate  some of the numerous museums.
And what of Halifax? It too has impressive city-centre architecture and, most remarkably, the magnificent Piece Hall, the famed market place built in 1779 by its cloth merchants and manufacturers and now a monument to 800 years of hand-woven textile production in the area. However, the part of Halifax to which thieves referred was the public square in which was erected a gibbet, an early form of guillotine, for the purpose of beheading those who stole more than 13 pennies worth of the precious textiles produced thereabouts. I suppose clever thieves would have taken care to steal less valuable lengths of cloth but, since the gibbet was operational for more than a hundred years, it seems there were not many attentive learners. Cromwell eventually put a stop to its use, though a replica is still in situ – more a curiosity than a deterrent, I suppose. I haven’t been to Halifax lately but the Piece Hall, having undergone restoration, is soon to open as a visitor attraction containing boutiques, cafes etc. From little acorns...
Reputations are difficult to shake off: the passage of time does not necessarily erode them. Sometimes they just become entrenched in the psyche and nothing will dislodge them. Manchester, for example, is known as Rainy City despite the fact that there are seven other British cities with higher average rainfall. Some people like to believe what suits them, regardless of fact, as the recent election of Donald Trump seems to show: and a catchy slogan, such as make America great again, as has been demonstrated, only helps to reinforce their belief. I guess it’s a lazy substitute for thinking.
Where there is evidence of change, we ought to look again at our preconceptions. Hull and Halifax have changed and their reputations deserve serious re-calibration, especially given their historical importance to the commercial foundations of modern Britain. As for Hell, however, there is no evidence that it even exists, so I am quite happy to leave its dreadful reputation in the hands of the believers.