Saturday, 15 October 2016

Neither One Thing Nor T'Other

I’ve never really seen the point of brunch: too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, it just makes a mess of the day. This view probably reflects how deeply I am steeped in the traditional work ethic and the timetable for living imposed by industrialisation, but it’s a hard one to shake off despite the many who don’t share it. I suppose brunch suits people who don’t need to divide their days into conventional sections comprising a.m. and p.m. with lunch in between, people whose working day is flexible or, in some cases, non-existent. And then there are the wannabees, those for whom the freedom to brunch is an aspiration but, for the time being, must remain a weekend treat. Still, I harbour the prejudice that brunch is, if not actually immoral, at best a guilt-ridden indulgence.
Despite this however, I did meet friends for brunch last Sunday (not at my instigation). The cafe was funky and full, packed with millennials and their young families competing to be heard over their own cacophony. A waiter took our order soon enough but I suppose we should have realised all was not well when three other waiters subsequently came to take it again: but one doesn’t like to make a fuss. Sure enough, however, our order had been lost. It was just as well that I had eaten breakfast at 07.30 as usual, because by the time our food finally arrived it was actually lunchtime. The fortuitous net result was no change to my dietary routine (apart from the fact that I would not choose to have Eggs Benedict for lunch).
The following Tuesday morning I met a like-minded friend at the Royal Academy where, after a fortifying cup of coffee, we ventured into the Abstract Expressionism show. The galleries were not busy (the brunchies having not yet arrived) and we were able to get up close to the paintings – not that it was necessary: because so many of the canvasses are very large, there was more benefit in being able to view them, unobstructed, from a distance. Moreover, the galleries themselves are on a grand scale which makes the venue well-suited to the works on display.
The entry fee includes a personal audio guide which is packed with art-historical information and curatorial interpretations of key works. But the real bonus is the inclusion of a few brief passages of 1950s jazz, such as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Their purpose is to illustrate the idea that while visual artists of the era were pushing the boundaries of technique and meaning, musicians were doing likewise. The effect of listening while viewing certainly enhanced my feeling for Abstract Impressionism: in fact the experience was so convincing that I would like to try it again, this time with iPod in pocket.
Choosing favourites from this body of work is impossible – no sooner do you decide on a Jackson Pollock than a Joan Mitchell catches your fancy – but personal preferences begin to emerge after a while, and some paintings are more “accessible” than others as far as the layman is concerned. I think, for example, of Rothko’s works. The curator informs us that the artist insisted his paintings be shown unframed, unglazed and hung low on the wall. This way he hoped to maximise the immersive experience for the viewer. It seemed to work well. Perhaps it would work even better while listening to Blue in Green from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
The show is a big one and there is only so much exquisite art one can take in the course of a morning. As we both began to tire we realised – no coincidence, surely – that it was lunchtime.

Friday, 7 October 2016

I Don't Know

It seems to me that life was simpler back in the sixties – although, admittedly, that may have been from the perspective of not knowing what I didn’t know. But the internal combustion engine certainly was simpler. If something went wrong – as it frequently did – you could easily diagnose the problem by peeking under the bonnet, noting the symptom and tracing the cause – usually steam coming from radiator caused by broken fan belt or failed water-pump. But when my campervan broke down last week no amount of peeking could throw light on the problem. It required the attendance of an engineer – not a mechanic, I noted – whose first action was to plug a computer into the diagnostic terminal (I didn’t know there was one) and peruse the list of faults that came up on the screen. Unfortunately, however, this was just the start of an extended process which required a good deal of human intervention in the form of experts deploying their experience to identify and fix the actual cause. Their job would have been easier if the vehicle had been fitted with a computer which learnt from each fault and subsequent fix. Man and machine in perfect harmony.
Computers are being developed which attempt to mimic human thinking by learning from their mistakes (or miscalculations) and when this technology is perfected it could be usefully deployed not only for engine problems but also for the wider benefit of mankind: for whereas individual humans may learn from their experience and modify their behaviour accordingly, collective human memory is leakier than an old colander and subject to distortion, manipulation and degradation – especially in the sphere of democratic governance. It is acknowledged that leaders, not being omniscient, must rely on specialist advisors to define policies where required. Typically, this means economic and military advisory panels but, because these often have a woeful ignorance of the precedents of history, leaders would do well to augment them with a panel of history experts. In addition, and in the interests of greater objectivity, they should subject all their resulting proposals to algorithmic analysis by artificial intelligence and act only on those outcomes.
Of course this approach would not be acceptable to dictators or megalomaniacs. For them the primary aim is to acquire and hold on to power; and one way they do this is to keep the majority of their constituents in blissful ignorance. The less people know, the more meagre are their aspirations and, therefore, the more easily are they appeased. Ignorance is the biggest obstacle to progress, which is why the best thinkers prize collaboration and the pooling of knowledge. They recognise only too well the need to know what they don’t know. Some of our politicians, on the other hand, seem to manage very well indeed without such awareness: millions watched in disbelief as one American Republican politician last week proved that he didn’t even know Aleppo is a place, let alone a problem, while yet another had to be reminded that there is a difference between “strong” and “dictatorial” when it comes to assessing Putin’s style of leadership. But then they are appealing to an audience that believes that Donald Trump will revive dead industries in Virginia and elsewhere, despite his giving no clue as to how he will achieve this. It appears that the parties concerned in this process are content not to know what they don’t know.
Politics in the sixties was, rather like engines, simpler in terms of identifying cause and effect. But now the traditional parties are struggling to get to grips with seismic shifts in employment patterns, wealth inequality and shifting international power blocs. Perhaps it’s time they employed the latest complexity-busting tool: bring on the artificial intelligence and let’s see if it can introduce some fair-play to human affairs. Then we will perhaps know what we didn’t know.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Traditional Tucker

There are pockets of rural England which still cling to elements of the past: places where everyday life is shaped by the ownership and produce of the land, the medieval layouts of their market towns and the continuous occupation which constitutes the very warp and weft of tradition. I spent a few days last week in several such places, centred roughly on Hereford, where I had gone specifically to celebrate the harvest of apples and to sample that most excellent by-product of their abundance, cider. But on day one, like a schoolboy in a tuck-shop, I became excited by the wealth of other traditional regional produce to be had and the backdrop of English history against which all is displayed.
In Hereford itself, the Cathedral houses the Mappa Mundi, a pictorial depiction of the known world, drawn up by monks around the year 1300. At its centre is Jerusalem (i.e. Christianity) but the land-masses all around are so unfamiliar that we can only identify them by their labels. Still, considering very few people travelled then, I was impressed by the attempt and especially by the picture of the man skiing in Norway. And at the top of the map is the gate to the after-world where you turned left for heaven or right for hell, a practice which persists to this day at the entrance to modern airliners. The Mappa Mundi was a masterpiece of propaganda, presented by the Church to its congregations as an authoritative guide to world affairs until, more than a hundred years later, further enlightenment was offered in the form of a bible translated, for the first time, into English. It was called the Wycliffe Bible but became popularly known as the Cider Bible because the translator interpreted the Latin word for booze colloquially, i.e. cider. And I have to say that much of the cider I tasted on the tour did have heavenly qualities.
The heyday of English cider production is long gone but there is a revival, along the lines of the craft beer revolution. One of the small-scale cider makers I visited pointed across the valley to the huge factory of Weston’s Cider and told me that their turnover had recently spurted up to £64 million p.a. – depressing news for lovers of the real thing. But he was optimistic, explaining that, despite the watered-down nature of their products, industrial producers had grown the overall market and raised awareness of the beverage, thereby creating opportunities for artisan producers like himself. He was the third producer I had visited, and the most insistent on lecturing me in all aspects, subtleties and variations of the cider-making process which is, essentially, not complex: from what I remember you need only squash the juice out of the apples, wait for it to ferment and then drink it. All else is degrees of subtlety or, in the case of the big industrial manufacturers, cheating.
To a man – and they were all men – the cider producers I encountered were honest toilers at their ‘lifestyle businesses’ but could have benefited from a little training in how to close a sale – I quaffed many a free sample without feeling obliged to purchase anything and, at one unattended barn-shop, could have driven off with the entire stock – but sales-training would be the beginning of commodification, and we really don’t need any more Weston's or Bulmer's.
Not forgetting that apples can also be eaten, before returning home I helped myself to some rare varieties – for free – at Berrington Hall and added them to my haul of cider, plums, damsons, cobnuts, walnuts, organic vegetables, pork pies and other produce from the myriad ‘family butchers’ along the way. My tuck-locker is now full and I shall soon resemble Billy Bunter.

Windfalls at Berrington Hall

Friday, 23 September 2016

Australia Bound

Things were pretty grim for many people in the UK at the beginning of the 1970s, which was perhaps the reason so many of my friends left. They went to Australia where, according to reports filtering back, the living was easy. Brits, especially, were welcomed with open arms (presumably so as to facilitate the Australian sport of Pommie-bashing, although my friends must have held their own, since none of them ever returned). I visit them from time to time and am due to go again later this year, which is why I have taken more interest lately in things antipodean. For example, we dined last week in a Hoxton restaurant owned by an Australian chef who invited us to bring our own bottles of wine (thereby making our dinner almost affordable). It reminded me that the first time I had encountered this practice was in Sydney circa 1980 where ‘BYOG’ inscribed on a restaurant door was explained to me as an acronym for Bring Your Own Grog. Good on yer, chef!
Whilst in London I went to an exhibition on the work of Ove Arup, the Danish-born, one-time philosophy student turned world-famous engineer/architect whose iconic early work, the penguin pool at London zoo, was soon overshadowed by much grander projects. The one in which I was particularly interested, of course, was the Sydney Opera House. Designed by another Dane, Jorn Utzon, apparently without much practical detail concerning realisation, it was Ove Arup and his team who eventually figured out how to build it. The complexity of the curved structures was such that, for the first time in architecture, a computer was employed to work out the mathematics of the structural integrity: otherwise they would still be at it with slide-rules. The Opera House turned out beautifully, despite running over budget, but I have suspicions as to the originality of its design: here is a photo of the Manchester’s Oxford Road railway station, built in 1960. Jorn and Ove might have saved themselves a lot of work had they spoken to its creators.

I also went to see the exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? in which architecture of another kind was featured – the geodesic dome, as popularised by Buckminster Fuller. It was part of the 1960s counter-culture that flourished in America where, at the forefront of the early eco-warrior movement, people established communes upon the ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainability. By now the movement should have swept the world, such is the irrefutable logic of not destroying our planet, yet it’s astonishing – and not a little depressing – how easily it was steamrollered by neo-liberal capitalism, leaving just a few diehard idealists clinging on in the backwoods. It is, then, perhaps a coincidence of timing that the film Captain Fantastic has just been released: its protagonist is just such a diehard and those of us who regret our own pathetic capitulation to capitalism can’t help but cheer him on in his determined struggle against the military-industrial complex.
Somebody suggested I might need a visa to visit Australia. It seemed unlikely - I mean, it is some sort of colony isn’t it? But it has been 15 years since I last went and much has changed since, particularly in respect of the migration of populations, so I went online to check. Sure enough, there is no longer a fast-lane for Brits. The good old days are over: now we have to queue up with the rest of humanity to make a case for a brief visit to see old friends – blood relatives even – in case we might hide behind a billabong tree to avoid the flight home. What they don’t realise is, it’s not that bad here: things have brightened up since the 1970s. Anyway, I received an email acknowledging receipt of my application some days ago, but still no visa. Did someone tell them that I went to that Revolution exhibition?   

Friday, 16 September 2016

Black And White Moments

The other day I was approached on the street by a black youth who asked me whether I had any credit on my phone. I did (I have a contract) but was a bit wary of saying so. He blurted out his reason for asking: he was late for college and needed to call and tell them but, since his own phone had no credit, could he use mine, please? There was no one else around and my street instinct – such as it is – warned of a scam, so I summoned the following reply: “Well, if you’re late, you’re late: that will be obvious to them. There’s no point in phoning. You should just make sure you arrive on time instead.” And with that I walked away. It was a rather churlish response, admittedly, but it served two purposes, the primary one being to avoid handing my phone over to him; the other being reiteration of a pet gripe about people phoning to state the obvious.
Afterwards I was wracked by remorse. Had I made an unfair assumption that, because he was young and black, he was intent on stealing my phone? Would I have reacted similarly to a white youth? The answer to both questions, I concluded, was yes, which at least eased my conscience apropos racial prejudice. Besides, I thought, I may have been guilty of making assumptions, but so was he in assuming that I was carrying a phone worth stealing and that I would hand it over to him. Never mind, I reasoned, at least I had given the whippersnapper a deserved lecture on the virtuousness of arriving on time as opposed to the futility of apologising for failing to do so.
All this was still meandering through my consciousness days later and came to the fore while I was mooching around the exhibition Revolution at the V&A. I felt comfortable there among so many others of my ilk, some of us watery-eyed with nostalgia, but when I entered the room showing a gigantic projection of the Woodstock film, I was struck by the fact that in all the footage of the “half a million strong” audience I could see no black faces. They were all young and white; the only black people visible were on stage. It was a long time ago and populations generally may be more mixed these days, yet the oft-quoted description of America as a “melting pot” is misleading. It would be more accurate to liken the cultural landscape of America to a mosaic – with some bleeding at the edges – than a stew which might one day become a perfect blend of its ingredients. And I’m not sure that Britain is any different in that respect, given that a majority of us voted to reject the principle of a European Union, thereby implicitly abandoning any ideal of cultural integration.
Some days later I stepped out of Forest Hill train station to catch a bus to Dulwich Picture Gallery – a classic hangout of white, middle class, middle-aged folk – and, unable to locate the bus stop among the confusing junction of roads, I decided to ask a local. Conscious, perhaps, of the need to build bridges I approached a pair of scary-looking black youths who were hanging around. They didn’t know the answer but, undaunted, pulled out their smartphones to consult their apps. I was impressed by their politeness and willingness to help but they couldn’t get the hang of orientation until I pointed out that the names of the roads were visible on the sides of the buildings. “Oh yeah!” they said in apparent astonishment. And so, working together, we located the stop. I thanked them for their attentions and they bade me “Have a good day”. It felt like a nice riposte to the start of the week.