Saturday, 16 September 2017

Leeds Man

On Radio 4’s humorous programme Have I Got News for You! I once heard a piece in which the participants were challenged to invent a headline for the Great Fire of London in 1666, as reported by their chosen newspaper. One of them came up with “The Yorkshire Post – Leeds Man’s Jacket Badly Singed.”
The lack of empathy for the plight of those outside one’s immediate circle is both the joke and the tragedy. What prompted its recall was the media coverage of the destruction caused by hurricanes in the Americas and the monsoons in the Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The tepidity of my sympathy for the victims of those events made me feel somewhat ashamed. What little empathy I did manage to summon was, in any case, overshadowed by my outrage that the coverage of the Atlantic storms was far more extensive than that of the Asian floods, despite the latter having affected millions more people and much weaker economies. And my outrage was further stoked by the sight of President Trump, Climate-Change-Denier-in-Chief, professing sympathy with his electorate’s problems while, in practical terms, conspiring with industrial leaders to exacerbate them.
However, just as I was lamenting (and making excuses for) my empathy- deficit, I heard a news item that helped me feel a little better about myself. It concerned a child who has total lack of empathy. The ensuing discussion concerned the causes of such a condition, social and/or hereditary, and the extent to which it can be rectified. The hereditary cause is not so common, which is fortunate for all of us as it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse and sociopaths are not nice people to live with. Extreme cases, such as the one featured, do not care whether their condition is fixed and may, therefore, undergo years of ineffective psychoanalysis, or end up incarcerated as criminals – or both. Social causes are easier to reverse.
Most of us, however, are socialised to the extent that we can agree to get along together most of the time. We have learned to appreciate the concept of humanity and we are, therefore, susceptible to modifying selfish behaviours accordingly. Humanity may be defined as the quality of compassion or consideration for others, but what that encompasses is not straightforward. The boundaries of your humanity depend on which moral code you are signed up for – or are co-opted into. If, for example, your ethical code is defined by adherence to a religious creed that will not countenance homosexuality as normal human behaviour, it is unlikely that you will be compassionate towards homosexuals who are ostracised.
For those whose values are secular, there is the notion of a social contract – an arrangement whereby society attempts to form a consensual agreement on what does and does not constitute behaviour that is compassionate and considerate of all its members. However, since so many diverse and evolving ideas, beliefs and biases have to be added into such an equation, this is necessarily a constant work-in-progress.
The hope of the secularist-humanitarian is that the evolution of the social contract will progress towards eliminating bias, prejudice and injustice in the interest of fostering humane systems of governance. Optimistically, one can point to the spread of these ideals – the United Nations embraces them and has four agencies devoted to delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by both man-made and natural disasters (though it is often hindered by international politics). However, institutional altruism such as this originates in the hearts of humans and, while it is said that charity begins at home, we must all be thankful that it does not always stop there. The Leeds Man story reminded me of that.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Pencil Factory

I have never been to the Pencil Museum at Keswick in the Lake District. It has always seemed too limited a concept on which to spend time, though it may well be worthy and I expect it is popular with holidaymakers committed to spending a week or so in a region where, whatever the season, rain can drive everyone indoors. We campervanners, however, have no need to hang around and wait for the sky to clear: we just ‘up-sticks’ and move on. (Although I suppose that phrase needs updating, since it originates from a time when a wanderer’s shelter comprised canvas supported by wooden poles.)
I was in the Lake District this week to rendezvous with an old friend. We don’t see each other often so we both arrived the evening before our planned hike around Langdale Pikes. After supper at the local pub, we settled in to our campsite for the night – as did the rain. The next day’s forecast, fortunately, was “brighter later” so we set off enthusiastically, our conversation ranging from nostalgia, through updates on family and mutual acquaintances, to current affairs and shared cultural interests. The walking became strenuous towards the end, especially where we lost our bearings for a while, but at its conclusion, we congratulated ourselves on having sufficiently youthful limbs to carry us through and arranged to meet again soon for another hike – in Norfolk, perhaps.
Back at camp I was ‘upping-sticks’ when a neighbouring campervanner approached me to ask whether I had a set of Allen keys. “Yes,” I said. “I have a comprehensive tool-box that I have been carrying for about thirty years and I am delighted that, at last, my prudence has paid off.” He was also delighted – on his own behalf – and explained that, like me, he normally has Allen keys to hand but, being from Australia and in a hired vehicle, was without the means to tighten his loose fitting. Men who fix things are called ‘blokes’ as opposed to ‘chaps’ or ‘lads’, neither of which categories seems to signal the inclination or ability to mend broken stuff.
With the rest of the day free, I decided to drive home via one of the visitor attractions – Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage or The World of Beatrix Potter, perhaps. However, being a bit of a bloke, I opted instead for the bobbin mill at Stott Park. It ceased production in 1971, the last of sixty such factories in the region, which sprang up because of the plentiful supply of trees for coppicing and water for powering machinery. Their ready customer base was the cotton industry of nearby Lancashire. The mill ended its days powered by electric motors, though they were – and still are – attached to the original belt and pulley system that drives all the equipment, so our tour guide was able to demonstrate bobbin-making.
From a mechanical/industrial-ingenuity perspective, the whole set-up, which began in 1835, is admirable and fascinating, but our guide was careful to remind us, from behind a retro-fitted safety-guard, of the human cost of these early industrial endeavours. Boys had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship just to qualify for a lifetime working twelve hours a day, five and a half days a week at a single, repetitive and inherently dangerous task, for which they received only subsistence wages. Things may have changed (for some of us) but vestiges of our industrial past are embedded in our language, reminding us how hard it was. For example, the mill workers were obliged to buy their own hand tools so that they would be sure to look after them. If they left the job having worked well they were given a sack to carry them away in, but if they left under a cloud of disapprobation their tools were thrown in the fire. Better to be sacked than fired. Either way, you could always try your luck at the pencil factory. They were tough times for workers – and they still are: the gig economy, with its self-employment and zero-hours contracts is proof that exploitation never went away – it just changed its image.


Saturday, 2 September 2017

History? A Walk In The Park

Learning British history is as simple as a walk in the park – or anywhere else you may happen to stretch your legs. Next week, for example, I shall be hiking in the Lake District National Park and, while admiring the picture-postcard landscape, will remind myself (and my hapless companion) that most of it is not quite as nature intended, having been modified by mankind’s economic activities. The flanks of the hills that once were clothed in trees are naked now, cleared and stripped of new growth by the sheep that are the mainstay of farming in the area. Moreover, I learned from a local barmaid (in the days before they all came from the EU) that the common place-name ending “thwaite” is Old Norse for “clearing in the woods”: deforestation has been going on for a long time. It is pointless, however, to bemoan the fact that the hills are treeless – sheep farming will persist for as long as it is economically viable. It would be more useful to recognise such phenomena as the imprints of history on our countryside.
But in our built landscapes it is, perhaps, easier to decode the stories of history. Stroll through enough suburbs and, if you are interested, you will begin to identify when they were built, which will soon prompt the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Make your way through the crowds on the High Street, where familiar liveries and logos compete to draw your attention and distract you from looking up at the architecture, and pause instead to ponder why the street layout is the way it is. The most obvious markers, however, are the monuments and statues peppered around public spaces. They may be so familiar that we become blasé and disinclined to stop and read their inscriptions, nevertheless their presence, in itself, is as much a part of our identity as the houses in which we live. The recent call for the removal of Lord Nelson’s statue from Trafalgar Square is, therefore, alarming, though it does raise the question whether we think consciously about our history or clothe ourselves in it uncritically. Nelson was a significant national figure and, like most of his contemporaries, did not embrace the moral or ethical standards that are widespread today. But rather than remove him from his column and thereby erode public awareness of our history, we would do better to place a statue of Napoleon facing him to more completely illustrate the story of Trafalgar.
Away from the grandeur of Central London, along the north bank of the Thames Estuary, I was walking with friends who pointed out the features of its layered history that make up in interest what the area lacks in visual appeal. There are ancient and barely visible remains, like the row of wooden stumps that was a medieval jetty. There is the star-shaped stone fort at Tilbury, lovingly preserved by English Heritage. (It is currently closed while being used as a set for Mike Leigh’s film of the Peterloo Massacre, a crucial event in the fight for universal suffrage, yet not well known – outside of Manchester, that is). There is industrial archaeology-in-the-making just nearby, where a redundant power station awaits its uncertain fate. As the land gets lower, we walk past a jetty where earth spoil from excavations in and around London is deposited to create arable fields which, one day in the future, passers-by will assume were always there.
We end up at East Tilbury, a small town that once was home to the headquarters of the worldwide Bata shoe-making empire. The elegant, grade II listed factories are now empty but intact and, at their entrance, stands a bronze statue of Thomas Bata himself. He once made a fortune from supplying boots for Mussolini’s army, but one hopes that the remote location will protect his effigy from a call for its removal on that account.

 


  

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Multilingual Aspirations

Lately, a persistent pain in my shoulder has been waking me in the early hours and the only way to relieve it has been to get out of bed. The pain disappears, inexplicably, but at the cost of sleep deprivation. Later in the day I find myself inclined to catch a nap, like the chap in the same row as me at the cinema who dozed off during the film Final Portrait. Of course, his slumber may have been induced by the lugubrious pace of the plot (an account of Giacometti’s method and approach to painting a portrait from life) but I envied him his repose while making an effort myself to stay awake for the sake of my partner. For the record, the film has its merits, chief among them being a depiction of the artistic life in early sixties Paris and the romantic mix of bohemian behaviour and sophisticated manners for which it was renowned.
Last week I tackled my shoulder pain by experimenting with my pillow arrangement, putting an extra one in place. I have since had seven consecutive pain-free nights (though I cannot explain why the previous pillow setup of at least three years’ standing failed me so suddenly). Feeling refreshed, I ventured to the cinema once more. This time it was to see a 1962 French production, Le Doulos. Again, the setting was Paris in the early sixties – though this time in gritty, subtitled monochrome – and the cops-and-robbers plot was pacey and complex, all of which would have been enough to keep drowsiness at bay, even if I had slept badly.
I come from a generation of English schoolchildren obliged to learn French so, in theory, I can speak and understand it (to a limited degree). Lack of practice, however, means that any hopes I might have of following film dialogue without recourse to the subtitles is optimistic. Nevertheless, French remains my automatic default language when obliged to mouth a foreign phrase – no matter which country I happen to be in. It all goes back to colonial times, when you could get by with either English or French – preferably English, bearing in mind P.G. Wodehouse’s description “Into the face of the young man...there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French”.
As it happens, it is the Italian language that is currently causing me angst. I am anticipating a trip to Sicily later this year and am keen to capitalise on the evening classes I took 25 years ago. I hope to revive my linguistic capability to a level that demonstrates my European credentials and distances me from the ghastly brigades of Brexiteers. It shouldn’t be too difficult: the past decades have seen a proliferation of all things Italian in the UK. There is now a presence on every high street of restaurants, pizza places, coffee shops and delis all sporting the colours and vocabulary of Italy. Fewer Brits than ever now confuse “espresso” with “expresso” and I even heard someone recently order a bottle of Verdicchio without hesitating over the awkward grouping of consonants.
So, I dug out an old phrasebook to brush up. I’m sure the essentials of the language are still in place since it was published but I have noticed that it contains phrases that were once considered essential but have since fallen into redundancy. Many of these are included in the section headed Post Office. Nowadays, people are far more likely to be asking for a wi-fi passcode than a stamp. I would do better, it seems, to ditch the phrase book and download a phone app which could translate almost anything – including sentences like “Could I have an extra pillow, please?”  



Saturday, 19 August 2017

Mind How You Go

LSD is back in fashion, but with a difference. Whereas we Boomers were accustomed to take it in unmeasured doses and at irregular intervals, the Millennials have adopted a systematic approach: in Silicone Valley, at least, people are ‘micro- dosing’ themselves regularly, convinced that they reap mind-enhancing benefits without the hallucinations more usually associated with it. They are using LSD to sharpen their creative and business skills, disdaining the practices of 1960’s ‘trippers’, whose random experimentation with the potentially mind-altering drug they regard as foolish and reckless. Meanwhile, those of us Boomers who survived the experience are now free to spend our dog days (with one eye on the Millennials’ progress) savouring such enhancements of the mind as we may have accumulated. In my case, this translates into spending more time in galleries, museums and gigs.
Last week’s incessant rain had put the dampers on a plan to spend the day in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so, instead, I opted for The Hepworth gallery in nearby Wakefield to see an exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s Indian Paintings, inspired by his time in Mumbai. I would happily take home any one of these paintings, so that their exuberant, colourful expression would cheer and inspire me on even the dullest day. Alas, the cost is beyond my means and, although prints are available, I have a limited amount of wall space and don’t spend that much time staring at it, so I left the gallery empty-handed but elated, passing as I did so, a group of boisterous Boomers on their way in – not unusual on a Tuesday, except that these were all dressed in traditional Indian garb. I hoped they were not expecting to see figurative paintings of their ancestral city.
A few days later I was at The Whitworth Gallery, which I enjoy because it displays both art and design. The debate over what differentiates one from the other may have been resolved long ago and by higher authorities than me, however, seeing the two disciplines mixed together certainly encourages comparison, questioning and probing into the blurry boundary. I acknowledge no hierarchy of relative importance: art may be deemed inspiring, though it serves no practical use; design might be equally uplifting insofar as it introduces aesthetics into everyday experiences. Whatever, body and mind must both be served in the interest of overall good health.
Raquib Shaw’s exhibition at The Whitworth includes artefacts from various collections displayed along with his own extraordinarily complex and colourful creations, demonstrating the cross-fertilisation of traditions, techniques and materials over time, cultures and continents. It seems appropriate that, for this show, Shaw was commissioned to create a design for wallpaper – given that The Whitworth is home to many historically important examples – and it is his wallpaper that covers the walls of the gallery. From a distance, it looks like a richly coloured pattern comprising lush, exotic foliage. Get close, however, and you see myriad mythical figures and weird faces woven into the forms. It makes a fascinating backdrop for his strange paintings, all of which glow with colour and shine with glitter.



In an adjoining gallery, there is a completely contrasting show – a display of furnishing fabrics, designed for Heals in the late sixties, by Barbara Brown. The geometric forms and simplified colour palettes she employed typify the ‘pop-art’ of the period. The patterns that she – and others like her – created, formed a literal backdrop to much of my life back then, signalling a bright, modern future stripped of fussy, overblown decoration and obscurely classical references.


Of course, I have no idea if either of them used LSD – but, if they had, I would guess that Boomer Brown discovered micro-dosing way ahead of its time, while Millennial Shaw must have gone retro and dropped a random tab.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Your History: Pay Per View

Back in the early 1700s, the fabulously wealthy Delaval family commissioned starchitect of the day, Sir John Vanbrugh, to design and build them a grand residence at Seaton on the Northumberland coast. The project went well and the outcome was considered to be Sir John’s finest work. The family entertained there lavishly – until 1822 when, while they were spending Christmas in London, a fierce fire severely damaged the main hall. Word had been sent to the servants to warm the house prior to the family’s return and it may be that the servants had been over-zealous, or careless, or that one of them harboured a grudge and was out for revenge. The accepted story is that the fire was spread by the presence of crows in the chimneys, but I prefer the grudge theory: after all, the Delaval fortune came from the land that was given them by William the Conqueror, who had taken it by force. Inheritance of land is not a valid moral justification for ownership.
I had previously driven eastwards, following Hadrian’s Wall towards Newcastle, on the way noting the evidence of thousands of years of territorial disputes that permeates not only the landscape but also the place-names, such as Rudchester, where I turned north, to the walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the Romans departed, it straddled the contested border between Scotland and England, changing hands 14 times. Now, with its picturesque ancient buildings, remnants of its fortifications and a significant position at the mouth of the salmon-rich river, it remains a desirable place to live and I could not help peering into estate agents’ windows to indulge in some fantasy house-hunting – so much more enjoyable than the real thing.
Ruined castles and their ecclesiastical equivalent, abbeys, abound in NE England. If you are interested in getting a close look at them, however, there is a price to be paid, since they are often in the custody of an outfit called English Heritage, a charity devised to privatise and outsource conservation of the nation’s historically significant piles of stone. On this trip, I bit the bullet and subscribed to an annual membership, since the price of individual admissions would have been onerous. They gave me a map of England showing all their sites, so I can be sure to get value for money by calling in at each one as I pass. This, however, is challenging, since I am doing the same with my National Trust membership. At Lindisfarne, at least, there is an opportunity to bag two in one - the abbey on one membership and the castle on the other – or there would be if the castle were not currently closed for refurbishment. So, I used the time saved to walk around the bleak island and try to imagine the hardship endured by Cuthbert who, back in the 13th century, chose this sparsely populated, windswept spit of land as the launch pad for his mission to spread Christianity. Further down the coast, past the still-inhabited Bamburgh castle and the evocative ruins of Dunstanborough castle, the remains of another Cuthbert-inspired abbey, Whitley, perch high on a promontory at Tynemouth. Once isolated, it is nowadays at the edge of a conurbation, overlooking a cove that is home to Riley’s Fish Shack, where local seafood is prepared with respect and served with cool, contemporary panache.
 But in the rich hinterland of Northumbria lurks another grand house built on the proceeds of land inherited from the Normans – Wallington. However, its last owner, Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, declared himself a socialist and, believing that private ownership of land was inconsistent with socialist principles, gave the estate back to the people (via the National Trust) – albeit after he had lived out his life there. Despite his example, alas, Norman socialists remain thin on the ground.


Friday, 4 August 2017

In Search of What?


Many of us in the later stages of life, unencumbered by ill-health, untethered from regular employment and unhindered by family obligations, find ourselves able to travel a good deal more than previously – just for the fun of it, the adventure of it, the heady illusion of freedom it promises. In a way this represents a return to one’s youth, when the yearning to explore the world beyond trumped the prospect of settling down prematurely to a predictable life-plan. Unlike in youth, however, we have gained useful experience: we know to avoid dull destinations, dangerous situations and tiresome companions. As for whether or not we have the means to travel first-class, that should not impinge on our determination to embark: there is a case to be made that cosseting dulls the edge of an experience. (On the other hand, however, there are times when a glass of champagne and a comfortable seat epitomise the pleasure of getting from A to B.) Currently, my mode of travel is by campervan.
So what is it about travel that appeals? After all, for many it is a miserable experience, something to be endured as a means to an end: ask anyone who passes through an airport during peak holiday season, or who has no choice but to drive when the roads are busiest. How would they regard the Taoist saying “the journey is the reward” or Buddah’s pronouncement “it is better to travel than to arrive” or R.L. Stevenson’s “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”? Leaving aside the metaphorical allusions, they would probably disagree and make, instead, a strong case for the primacy of destination over journey. The secret of happy campervanning, however, is the successful combination of the two; and the means required to accomplish this are a generous time-span, a flexible schedule and a surfeit of appealing places to go – all of which, I am happy to say, are available to me and those in similar circumstances.
Summertime is campervanning time. The days are long and there is maximum chance of catching fair weather for healthy outdoor pursuits such as hiking, biking and al fresco wining and dining. Intersperse these activities with bouts of exploration of the local architecture, history, customs and curiosities and there is barely time to keep up with current affairs in what quickly becomes “the outside world.” In fact, I find it necessary to return to base camp (home) periodically for the purpose of maintaining some of life’s essentials – such as watching films, attending gigs, rendezvousing with friends and attending medical appointments. On a brief return last week I saw four films: David Lynch: The Art Life, The Death of Louis XIV, Dunkirk and The Beguiled (the last of these being the least beguiling); on another flying visit I managed to catch seven gigs at the Manchester Jazz Festival. The next planned return (I am currently on the Northumbrian coast) will involve a rendezvous or two but, predictably, my (non-critical) hospital appointment has been cancelled without explanation.
Meanwhile the travel adventure continues and includes a pet project – ad hoc research into the extent to which coffee-shop chains have infiltrated small towns, making available decent coffee and croissants where, in years gone by, neither was to be had. However, I notice a growing number of local entrepreneurs have latched on to the phenomenon of townies wanting espresso and begun to play Costa and Nero at their own game – often with superior product and more personal service. Independents fight back!
But the last word on the art of successful campervanning goes to Rousseau, who wrote (perhaps a propos something entirely different) “the happiest is the person who suffers least pain, the most miserable who enjoys the least pleasure” and it is in that spirit that I navigate the byways of Britain.


Friday, 28 July 2017

Life on the Edge

There’s remote and there’s more remote: right now we’re merely remote, situated, as we are, in a camping field on a cliff-top in southwest Wales. At least, it feels remote, looking out at a sea with no boats and all around nothing but the odd farmhouse or holiday cottage. The nearest shop is a 20 minute walk away and, although I know the same can be said of many a suburb, it’s the lack of people and motors that makes the difference. The sense of remoteness, however, is deceptive: within an hour we could drive to a sizeable town, with a high street full of Italian-themed coffee shops occupying former premium retail premises.
“More remote” describes the place we were at last week: Fionnaphort, on the western-most tip of the Isle of Mull, is essentially a transit point for the busloads of tourists who turn up daily for the ten-minute ferry ride west to the Isle of Iona. However, it does have a shop and, within it, a Post Office, where my partner selected a postcard and asked for a stamp. Without any hint of humour, the man took the money for the postcard and asked her to step slightly to the left where the Post Office counter is located so that the stamp could be sold under a separate transaction. Amused by this, we then attempted to book a boat trip to the uninhabited Isle of Staffa. There was no booking office, simply a hoarding bearing the times, prices and a phone number. However, there is no phone signal and the public phone is out of order. “Och, jest tern up,” advised the young girl in the seafood kiosk but when we did, the boat was full. “It’s because the weather’s nice,” said the captain/bosun/purser/guide, “Do you want to book for tomorrow?” We did. He scribbled my name on the back of a scrap of paper and sailed off. One soon comes to accept that informality and idiosyncrasy are part of the charm of life on the edge.
The weather next day was even fairer, so we determined to be at the quay early and, while we were waiting, try the seafood at the kiosk. There was, unfortunately, no dressed crab – my favourite – but the girl assured us that her dad was out in the boat and would soon arrive with fresh supplies. So I made do with langoustines and we sat outside watching the tourists come and go from Iona, while a young piper busked alongside. I took the time to contemplate the attraction of this place to its visitors, many of whom are foreigners: North Americans of Scottish extraction, drawn to their ancestral lands, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds; land-locked Europeans, savouring the novelty of rugged coastlines at the very edge of their continent; and British townies like us, getting a fix of nature, at little cost and in relative safety and comfort. As for the locals, those who choose to call the place home, I can only speculate why as, to my shame, I have not transcended the visitor experience to engage with them on a personal level.
There is, incongruously, a ‘fine-dining’ restaurant, Ninth Wave in a house outside Fionnaphort, where we and a party of friends had dinner one evening. It remains a mystery to me how it sustains a customer base, being in such a remote spot (our friends had to drive 90 minutes, each way), but the cooking is exquisite, in a finicky-foodie sort of way. More to our liking, however, was The Crofters’ Kitchen, two miles up the road to nowhere, where a group of what used to be called hippies has opened a shop and cafe offering home-grown produce, baked goods and bought-in wholefoods. These two ventures are admirable additions to run-of-the-mill tourist catering but I do fret about how they will fare in the winter, when life on the edge must get quite bleak. I would like to be there to find out and, in the process, make deeper contact with the locals.

  

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?