Saturday, 1 August 2015

Been There? Done That?

I recently came across a quote, attributed to Marcel Duchamp, - "I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste" - which jolted me into remembering not to get stuck in my ways. It was perhaps with this in mind that I decided to buy a ticket to Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out. I'm pleased to say that it didn't disappoint insofar as it is, as the critics say, smart, funny and imaginative, but I reckon I might have had a fuller experience if I had taken some kids along. Later that day I pushed myself a little harder, watching Eden, a French film about an aspiring DJ on the Paris club scene during the 90s and 00s. From my point of view, the experience was akin to watching a subtitled educational video on what, to me, were imperceptible differences between House, Garage and Techno dance music. I found it neither informing nor engaging. With the Disney film I had the advantage of having once been there - childhood, I mean - whereas the club-dance thing happened in a parallel universe and now it's too late to catch up. It goes to show that, interesting though it may be to leave one's familiar cultural zone from time to time, there's no guarantee that it will be either stimulating or productive.

I was on safer, more familiar ground with the continuation of my current series of mini-expeditions to some of Britain's "drive-by" counties. This week it was Dumfries, that part of Scotland reached by turning left at Gretna instead of proceeding north to Glasgow and the Highlands beyond. There's a new and unusual attraction there, the Crawick Multiverse, a fantastically landscaped series of slag-heaps, the logic of which may be gloriously obscure, but is heart-gladdeningly realised nonetheless. It wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland, come to think of it.

Crawick Multiverse is so new that there are no "heritage" road-signs to guide you to it, which might explain why there was nobody there, but even established sites were thinly populated with visitors. At Caerlaverock Castle the café ladies were unprepared for my request for coffee at 10.00 and, although they bestirred themselves valiantly to oblige, it seemed they were not expecting many customers. I had the castle to myself for a while and enjoyed a quiet contemplation of medieval life before a woman turned up with two young boys, both brandishing plastic swords, and put an end to my reverie.

Next stop was the birthplace of John Paul Jones (well signposted) where there is a small museum and an adjacent campervan site. I looked forward to killing two birds with one stone: an overnight stop and a chance to learn more about one of Led Zeppelin's less high-profile founding members. Or was he that blues singer from the 60s who is now a DJ on Radio 2? In fact he was neither. The John Paul Jones of Kirkbean grew up - very rapidly - to become a famous sailor, founder and hero of the U.S. Navy. I wasn't expecting that but, since there was nobody else at either the museum or the camp-site, my astonishment went un-remarked. At least it wasn't necessary for me to hide my embarrassment.

Back at home, relaxing not exploring, I watched Life in Squares, the TV dramatisation of the private lives of the Bloomsbury set. Their ideas successfully challenged the cultural boundaries of their time and eventually merged with the rich mainstream we now enjoy. Afterwards, nursing a bottle of Caol Ila 12 year-old single malt, I listened to Frank Sinatra reminding me that it's very nice to go trav'lin' but it's so much nicer to come home and raised a glass to Bloomsbury: and another to Monsieur Duchamp.

Crawick Multiverse

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Country Life

The man-bag that has served me well for many years is frayed and worn so I’m searching for a suitable replacement - and when I say “suitable” I mean fit-for-purpose, modest in appearance and devoid of flashy branding. It’s a tall order. Having just returned from the countryside, where man-bags are as seldom seen as polished black shoes. I’m also aware that there are those to whom this quintessentially metropolitan dilemma might seem ludicrous, but it takes all sorts to sustain society's cultural fecundity.

I've just spent a few days in a quiet part of the Marches, where the border of rural Shropshire nudges unevenly into Wales (or, if you’re Welsh, the other way round). This part of the country is attractive, especially in July when the valleys seem to overflow with fifty shades of green, the fields seem full - either with fat livestock or ripening crops - and the ancient, soft hills seem to overlook the whole, inviting you to ramble up and over their flanks to admire the vistas under their protection.

It’s easy on the eye but there’s much more to it than that. The ruins of medieval castles dominate strategically important promontories all along the border and the substantial mound of Offa’s Dyke weaves its way around and between them. It’s clear to see that the fight for possession of this fertile land was long and hard. What’s more, whoever gained eventual control subsequently kept the area to themselves. Whether picnicking alone on the ramparts of Montgomery Castle (Trefaldwyn if you’re Welsh), walking cross-country without sight of other people or driving ten miles of single-track road without encountering another vehicle you can’t help feeling that the place is a kind of historical theme park whose existence is known only to a few.

Although it feels timeless, change does occur, albeit slowly. Protected from over-development by being out-of-the-way, many of the small towns and tiny villages look like film sets for costume dramas and this, to some extent, has been to their advantage. The pubs remain in business, traditional inns survive as hotels and there are independent retailers on the high streets. I bought home-cured ham from a butcher’s wife who told me that tourists are increasingly important to trade now that “there’s no money in farming”. Tourists come for the countryside, for the history and for the produce. But the butcher and his wife were looking old and tired. Maybe the shop will be tea-rooms next time I visit. Likewise, at the farm which accommodated my campervan, the farmer’s wife told me she’d lived there for seventy years, which accounts for the old-fashioned, informal charm of the site. I dread returning to find that new owners have painted the fences white and festooned them with safety warning signs.

Finally, I made a token pilgrimage to Newtown, where Robert Owen was born in 1771 and where there is a museum dedicated to this son of a saddler who became a wealthy industrialist and one of the most famous social reformers and thinkers of his age. His heroic promotion of free education and better working conditions for all was so far ahead of its time that, in the UK at least, it still isn’t accepted. “To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.”  That doesn’t sound controversial to me.

I love this part of the world, with its history spun like a three-dimensional spider-web all over it, but after just a few days I had to drive home. Those hills are a cell-phone nightmare and there was no Costa Coffee shop with free wi-fi anywhere to be found. And as for man bags....

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Woke Up This Mornin'...

“Zip-a-dee dooh-dah, zip-a-de ay / my oh my what a wonderful day…” If only. Occasionally I just wake up in a bad mood – I can’t put it any plainer than that. My self-esteem is low, my attitude is negative and my body is sluggish. I might have drifted contentedly off to sleep some hours before but an unaccountable mood-swing has occurred during the night. I could, perhaps, blame the residual effects of disturbing dreams - if I were able to remember them. It’s certainly not a case of “woke up this morning, trouble knocking on my door” because, for the present at least, things are going swimmingly. No, the cause of the bad mood is a puzzle, one which I ponder while I breakfast alone. (That way it’s just the toaster that gets it. And the radio.)

I guess I’m not the only one who experiences this kind of grumpy awakening, since people have been getting out of bed “on the wrong side” for as long as I can remember. That said, I know a couple of characters whom I suspect of never having done so since they always appear to be in a good mood. But as I’m not present in the mornings when they wake up, I can’t be sure. Perhaps they do but are emotionally resilient and recover quickly, like those toy figures with bulbous, weighted bases that right themselves uncomplainingly whenever they get knocked over. For some of us, however, turning that frown upside down can be more of a struggle.

My personal methods of recovery include the following: mood-altering substances (tea and toast) prepared meticulously and taken in generous but measured quantities; a critical review of my personal circumstances which, on the whole, concludes that my situation is satisfactory, verging on smug; a mental singalong to “Always look on the bright side of life” (I can’t do the whistling part); and, finally, a metaphorical pulling up of socks. If none of this is sufficient, my partner can be counted on to oblige with an encouraging comment, such as “What’s wrong with you, you miserable git?”

Most mornings, fortunately, these measures are not required: instead, the line "Oh what a beautiful morning" will be on the tip of my tongue followed, as I saunter into the street, by the classic Hello lamppost, what you knowin’”. Nothing can be finer than to be in a good mood and when I wake up in one I’m not inclined to dwell on how or why it came about, I’m just thankful. That said, I've learnt to remain on the alert for situations that might spoil things. I'm aware that at any point during the day I might become angry, outraged or disappointed and that any or all of these emotions could tip me into a bad mood. The trick is not to allow this to happen, though how I actually do this effectively, all the while resolutely refusing to embrace a far-eastern religious belief system, is an on-going experiment. Still, simply being awake gives me a fighting chance of making sure I get into bed on the right side. From then on, it’s just a matter of hoping for the best.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Time Shifts

Wimbledon’s on the telly again. It seems to have come around very quickly since last season. Is time compressing as I get older? Certainly the days no longer seem, as they used to, endless and ready to be filled with whatever adventures come my way; the weeks are pitilessly brief, leaving no time for idle frittering; the end of the month seems to loom as soon as it begins; and years feel rationed, inducing the onset of a certain anxiety to get things done before time runs out. All of which might explain a late-flowering of interest in subjects which, in my younger days, would have been peripheral to my consciousness.

Time is limited but subject matter is limitless – this is a formula which induces mild panic attacks, causing me to hop from one subject to another. This last week, for example, I saw a show of Jackson Pollock’s Black Paintings, an exhibition of Ancient Mayan artefacts, a contemporary dance production called The Tree of Codes, a documentary film about Scientology and the first 15 minutes of Shaun the Sheep. I also visited Vindolanda and took a short walk along a section of Hadrian’s Wall. But I have not been watching Wimbledon: you have to draw a line somewhere.

It’s nothing more than coincidence, but I did have pollock for dinner on the day I went to Jackson Pollock’s show and, while I haven’t found time to research whether the names have a common origin, I did read that the artist was (understandably) displeased by his nickname “Jack the Dripper”. Beyond that - and the wonderful paintings - the thing that struck me was that he died suddenly, at the age of 44 which, in my experience, is too young to get a real sense of time running short.

At the Mayan exhibition I studied a time-chart which showed the beginnings of Mayan civilisation coinciding with the building of Stonehenge at around 3000 BC. A few days previously I had been at Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Army in the AD 120s when the Mayan civilisation still had another 1400 years to run before it was smashed by the Spanish colonisers. Dominant civilisations lasted for millennia back in the days before intercontinental travel became possible: they were able to develop and mature slowly and in relative isolation from each other. The contemplation of such long time-spans can be quite unsettling when you’re anxious about your own fleeting span.

I saw a lot of stonework, the tangible, durable legacy of these ancient civilisations. I haven’t been to Mexico to touch the ruined Mayan temples but I did lay a tentative finger on a large fragment of sculpture in the museum; I have stroked Stonehenge - back in the days before it was fenced off; and I patted the face of Hadrian’s Wall when I stopped for lunch last Thursday. I was attempting, in each case, to connect viscerally with the past by way of what remains. It’s a form of time-travelling which helps me to appreciate how people lived in ancient times, and it leaves me in awe at how hard they must have worked to construct their temples, walls and palaces.

Ancient civilisations pushed at the limits of what it was possible to build without the benefits of mechanisation and, in doing so, left us with impressive monuments, valuable information - and something else: objects were made by hand, generally according to the stylised pattern-books of the day, but every now and then we see the individual touches of the maker which reveal our common human traits. Their lives were different - more rigidly controlled and less free - despite which they found time for artistic expression. Perhaps mine is a quintessentially modern, first-world dilemma.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Prioritise to Maximise

This week I learned how to skin and fillet lemon sole: it's what you must do if you buy fish from the man who brings them in from the coast every Sunday morning. He sells them whole because they are fresh from his own boats and he doesn't have time to prepare them - or so he says. So I found a tutorial on You Tube, donned my apron and got to work. The job, from first incision to mopping the floor, took an hour: there were two fish. I cooked them simply, not bothering to make a fancy sauce, for, by this time, Shirley Conran's words "Life is too short to stuff a mushroom" were ringing in my ears.

It's possible, of course, that some people like to spend hours stuffing mushrooms, but the key to contentment in this respect is prioritisation. Assuming - as I do - that there is no afterlife, then it makes sense to utilise this life to maximum effect and not waste it fannying about. Planning is crucial in this respect: identify your objectives, prioritise them and focus on closure. Successful resolution depends on application - like the concert pianist who, when told by an admirer that she was lucky to be so talented retorted, "Luck has nothing to do with it. I practise eight hours a day".

I was pondering all this as I sat idly in a deckchair in the garden of the Manchester Art Gallery. Each time a tram rumbled past I heard my phone make an unfamiliar noise. When I investigated I saw that the phone was attempting to connect to the wi-fi networks in the passing trams. Should I be concerned about this or should I just let the machines resolve the matter between them?

How easy it is to get distracted from one's primary goals. It's some time since I last reviewed my own - I wrote them in a notebook which I then put away somewhere so safe that I now have to rely on memory; which is a handy justification for displacement activities. Remember that wizard wheeze to pay off the mortgage in five years by not spending money elsewhere? What a brilliant idea. But how many people manage to do that? You have to remain focussed and an effective way of doing that is to stick to a daily routine designed not to leave time for deviation. My own attempt at such rigour incorporates a daily walk to the gym for a brief fitness work-out. The gym itself holds no distractions but the walk can present challenges.

Take, for example the Furries - young people who dress up in animal costumes. Every Saturday they congregate at the bar next to the gym, spilling out onto the street to smoke and, if the weather's fine, gambolling in the small park across the way. I decided at last to ask a couple of them why they dressed so. They told me it was a form of artistic expression and that they adopt - or create - anthropomorphic personae so as to feel free from human behavioural constraints. I probed deeper to find out if it was just a passing fad but no, it's been an established movement since 1986. I wanted to ask whether aficionados eventually 'grew up' and moved on but I didn't want to cause offence and, anyway, the absence of older people spoke for itself.

Frankly, I suspect that Furries are wasting their time in escapist activities. I should have reminded them that "Pleasure may come from illusion, but happiness can come only of reality" and urged them - what with life being so short - to get real. But everyone's entitled to their own prioritisation - and, anyway, I began to feel uncomfortable talking to an oversized rabbit with a Lancashire accent.