Saturday, 18 October 2014

On a Scale of 1-10...

My heart sank when my partner decided to buy a new laptop: I foresaw a stint of duty at the IT helpdesk. I am no expert but, in the land of the clueless, he who has an iota of knowledge is in demand. Since our household is fully committed to Microsoft (i.e. ensnared in its systems and afraid of the complications of disentanglement) the migration from old to new laptop involved "upgrading" from Windows 7 to 8 and, to give an idea of the complications involved, one entire morning (mine) was spent persuading our printer to cooperate with this undertaking.

This pales to insignificance when compared with the week-long saga involving Vodafone and its no-longer-compatible dongle. Communicating with big tech companies is notoriously difficult for those who favour the old fashioned pick-up-the-phone approach. While I concede that finding a Microsoft phone help-line is unlikely, some of the companies closer to home, such as the inappropriately named TalkTalk, do have phone numbers buried deep in their contact information. But the thing to remember is that, although you might very much want to talk to them, they are not inclined to talk to you. They have more cost-effective systems.

The first thing they advise you to do is trawl through a list of FAQs that do not touch on your problem; then you are urged to follow threads in user-forums frequented by desperate, pleading technophobes; after that there are long-winded articles published on "knowledge bases"(who has time to become an expert in all this stuff?); or there is live-chat (email) with people who may or may not be able to resolve your problem but for whom I feel sorry, doomed as they are to spend their days dealing with frustrated customers attempting to vent their spleen via a keyboard when all they really want to do is shout.

After all this what do you get? A Satisfaction Survey - Did our operator today solve your problem? Yes or No. (There is no provision to answer "I'm not sure yet since I have to reboot my system and start all over again".) On a scale of 0-10 how likely are you to recommend TechEmpire to a friend? (I would really like to answer "my friends are very dear to me").

In any case recommending anything to anyone should be done only if hedged around with provisos. The Albanian Scouser who fitted my new ceiling was a very skilled and efficient worker who did a good job. He was also a charmingly well-mannered person with a lively and enquiring mind. Would I recommend him to someone else? Yes, but: that someone else might have different expectations, standards, peccadilloes etc. - and they might not be able to understand a word he said. Let's just say that I would feel comfortable making an introduction. Recommendations can so easily rebound.

Last evening my friend was in town and we met up to do some of our favourite things: wine, beer, food and jazz. Being the home-town host I was confident of being able to deliver the best possible experience in each commodity, but it was not to be. The wine bar, chosen for its unusually comprehensive list, was closed to customers because of a private event. The restaurant, which had received a rave review in the national press, was underwhelming. The jazz gig had its moments but they were too few-and-far-between to persuade us to stay to the end. If it weren't for the plentiful choice of good beers - and bars which stock them - our satisfaction score-card might have looked zero-heavy.

Which reminds me: my partner hasn't yet returned the Satisfaction Survey I emailed her.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Built-in Culture

If you were to walk past the building I live in you probably wouldn't notice it. Although it's old - circa 1840 - and quite handsome, it doesn't differ from the other buildings in the block and so doesn't stand out from its fellows. Presently we have contractors in - as is the way with old buildings - fixing the ceiling, which involves scaffolding, noise, dust and general disruption, so I'm spending a lot of time elsewhere.

One place where I found sanctuary recently is in a building, from the same period, about a mile away. Previously I've walked past it many times without noticing it. When originally built as a villa for well-to-do middle-class families, it was set on a spacious plot in a green-field development on the edge of town. Over time, however, its salubrious surroundings became compromised by the encroachment of high-density housing for the working class, its garden was sold in the seventies for the building of a block of flats, and any vestige of its former prestige was buried in the camouflage of its higgledy-piggledy surroundings. Now, in the interest of preserving a slice of heritage, the house has been restored to its former glory and elevated to a degree of national celebrity: the refurbished doors were opened to the public last week to celebrate its new status as a museum. For this is where Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her family from1850 until her death in 1865, during which time she wrote most of her best-known novels.

It's not unusual to come across houses which have been the homes of famous people, although sometimes there are surprises like, for example, the modest terraced house in Audenshaw which bears a blue plaque marking it as the early home of Frank Hampson, creator of the comic character Dan Dare. While he may be less of a household name than, say Banksy, his imaginative creations had a significant cultural influence on millions of us Englishmen brought up in the 1950s. Chancing upon his birthplace, I was suffused with the comfortable feeling of "belonging". Dan dare and I are both products of a linear, indigenous culture: I could sense his origins, empathise with his ethos. In the case of Elizabeth Gaskell's house, the same is true, albeit on many more levels than at first might be supposed.

Elizabeth Gaskell, acclaimed novelist, is further distinguished by the fact that, as a woman in a male-dominated profession, the odds were against her becoming successful. Reading her books is a way to understand the workings of a society which was changing fast around her: but visiting her house/museum adds other dimensions to that understanding. For one, it affords an insight into how she was able to cope with motherhood, wifely duties, charitable works and writing: she had the help of five servants. For another, it becomes apparent that the house was a cultural hub of considerable significance. The list of genuinely "household" names associated with it forms a remarkable catalogue of influential figures of the time and a reminder of the extent to which artistic creativity and political radicalism abounded in and around the first of the industrial cities. Charlotte Bronte stayed there several times; visitors included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Holman Hunt. Charles Hallé taught one of her daughters piano. Family connections included the Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Nightingales. I don't think I shall ever walk past a house again without speculating on to what extent I am culturally indebted to it.

Maybe I could order one of those blue plaques for our building. It might be simply - but intriguingly - inscribed "Wonderman was here". That would make it stand out. The contractors could fix it while they're here with their ladders.

(The Gaskells' House)

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Tranquil Countryside?

The public space in front of our central library is being re-modelled and the scheme involves repositioning, renovating and enhancing the Lutyens-designed cenotaph. This part of the project was completed last week in time for the scheduled war-commemorative ceremonies. It incorporates elegantly curved low walls and benches in Portland stone, designed to enclose a space of "quiet contemplation" in front of the monument. Not everyone, however, appreciates the sentiment: skateboarders and trick-cyclists have already begun to use the stones as a practice facility, causing both emotional and physical damage in the process. Outrage is building and plans are afoot to thwart them.

I would have liked to stay in town to lead a vigilante posse against them, but we were committed to going away last weekend. I prefer not to travel on a Friday evening because everyone else has the same plan, but we were not going far - an hour's drive to Blackpool. Unfortunately the usual Friday evening congestion was compounded by road-works on the M6 and the fact (unknown to us) that Blackpool's famous illuminations had been switched on. Three hours later, in the centre of Blackpool, we were finally able to peel off from the queue of vehicles inching towards the seafront light-show.

What had brought us to Blackpool that evening was an obligation to attend a rubber-chicken dinner, but we planned to make the most of our trip by extending it to do some walking in Lancashire afterwards. On Saturday morning we were able to drive unimpeded along the town's five-mile seafront which, in the plain light of day, presented an opportunity to marvel at the phenomenal popularity of the place. It is, admittedly, in decline as a holiday resort - but was it ever an attractive town? Its buildings - one or two excepted - are modest, many are tawdry and the layout of the whole place appears to be random, not designed to impress. But I suppose the aesthetics of the built environment are of no consequence to the mass of visitors whose purpose is holiday fun. We drove to the next town, Fleetwood, and its more elegant seafront where the main attraction seemed to be the model boat club-house and pond.

Our destination was the western edge of the Forest of Bowland, where the camping site we had chosen - for its convenient location - was a little too close to the M6 and its surprisingly loud, insistent roar. The proprietor turned out to be a friendly chap who, with little prompting (and without mentioning the background noise), told us of his all-consuming work: filling in application forms for charitable funds to get money for the village's public amenities. Before leaving us to resume his work he pressed a feedback form into my hand. I thanked him and wished him luck, raising my voice to compete with the sound of a west-coast mainline train which was whizzing past us in the near distance.

Still, there were ducks' eggs for sale, left in a box with a jar for the money. We bought half a dozen and later made them into an intensely yellow frittata. And the walk, advertised as "offering impressive views without too much exertion", lived up to its promise. For the next five hours we trod various terrains: over low-lying fields; across streams; into wooded valleys; up to a trig point and down through deserted lanes back to the village. The only constant feature throughout was the drone of the invisible M6. But the weather was ideal and the exercise built a keen appetite for aperitifs and a hearty supper. I slept well that night - albeit with ears plugged.

Back in the city the next day, I went to check on the cenotaph. No further damage had been inflicted. In fact, it was noticeably quiet there: ideal for a spot of contemplation.

Friday, 26 September 2014


Two weeks ago there was an unusual event: the pavements in our vicinity were jet-washed. The following week there was another: a team of litter-pickers got to work on the streets. Pleased but puzzled, I asked myself some questions. Had the city council finally noticed that the pavements had begun to smell? Had it finally acknowledged that human operatives are needed to reach the nooks and crannies where the sweeping machines can't reach? Where had it found the money to pay for enhanced cleaning at a time when hand-wringing austerity is the default? Eventually I found my answers by joining the dots: the Labour Party's annual national conference was about to open in the city and our Labour Party-dominated council would be keen to create a good impression.

Now the conference is over, the litter-pickers have disappeared and we, the residents, have to cope (without counselling) with dashed expectations. But we all must learn to manage our expectations if we are to avoid either being disappointed or falling into a slough of bitter cynicism. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival - currently being staged - is a case in point. Given that there are no food specialities associated with the city, it should be no surprise that the stalls  offer only take-away meals - pizzas, hot-dogs, burgers and suchlike - none of which is special. On the other hand, because Manchester still has several good, family-owned brewers, the beers are worthy of celebration. Expect, therefore, no hand-rolled cheeses to take home but rather a few beakers of decent ale to wash down the street-food of your choice and you will not be disappointed. Consider also that if progress is to be made towards excellence, any festival is better than no festival. Let's think of it as "Work In Progress" - WIP.

To live here is to experience full-on the implications of WIP. In this formerly industrial city, there is a will to establish a new economic engine and much is being done to that end: knowledge-based businesses are being encouraged; buildings are being replaced or recycled; infrastructure and transport systems are being modified to accommodate changing demographics; plans for the long term are being drawn up and collaboration with the wider region is being discussed. Even so, there are projects recently completed which already look too modest in ambition and may soon have to be demolished. (It's as well that their architectural pedigree is too mediocre to mourn.)

One of the more ambitious schemes, stalled by the 2008 debacle, is the reclamation of a large area of inner-city brown-field formerly occupied by Victorian industries and criss-crossed by derelict canals and basins. Some housing clusters were completed, others are now being re-started, but the area has a pronounced WIP feel about it. I arrived there by tram the other day and alighted, along with one other passenger, at the hopefully-positioned station (called New Islington) which may, one day, have a cafe, shop and cycle-parking facilities but, for the time being, remains a desolate outpost alongside a big, blind block of flats on one side and un-reclaimed ground on the other.

"Do you know where the Albert Hotel is?" asked the other passenger. She was a middle-aged woman with a suitcase. "Am I in the right place? It's a bit desolate around here."
"It's back on the main road: about two hundred metres," I said, pointing to a new building on the edge of the derelict land.
"Oh dear," she said. "I don't fancy walking back here later this evening."

I tried to reassure her but she remained visibly uneasy as she set off. If all goes to plan this may be a pleasant, thriving residential area someday. Meanwhile, it's WIP City.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

First-World Food Problems

Within a few hours of returning from Nice I was back into the routines of home life. The only thing I missed was the food - or I should say the food opportunities: there were plenty of places offering pizza and cola for the gastronomically unadventurous but also lots of traditional local fare - like the restaurant we "discovered" in Vieux Nice where I lunched on poached chicken, a dish of black pasta shells and mussels drenched with intensely flavoured liquor and a bottle of Provençale rosé of such a pale hue and such a dry, nutty finish as would be impossible to come by outside of the region.

The flight home was short but fell, inconveniently, at lunch time (one of the characteristics of ageing is a tendency to favour fixed mealtimes) and although food is available on easyJet we were not keen to try it. Instead we went to the boulangerie around the corner from our hotel and bought a couple of baguettes filled with ham and cheese for an on-board picnic. And while the lady sitting next to us consumed her "meal deal" - a factory-made sandwich, a Twix and a cup of warm water containing a tea bag - with no outward sign of relish or enthusiasm, we feasted smugly on authentic French fare.

But now that we are back in the fresh-produce-desert that is central Manchester we must make the best of things. One consolation is the regular Sunday morning appearance of a fishmonger who sets up a stall on the street opposite our window. He's not your regular fishmonger offering neatly prepared fillets of cod and haddock: he says he's a fisherman, the owner of two trawlers, and has been bringing his catch here to Chinatown for 30 years. His display comprises crates of whole fish, squid, crabs, lobsters and crawly things I am not familiar with, none of which is labelled or priced. His customers are almost all Chinese and, from my observations, their approach to buying fish is more enthusiastic and more knowledgeable than ours. The early- comers, restaurateurs and older regulars, are followed later in the morning by entire families dressed in Sunday best on their way to or from dim-sum breakfasts. All of them, men, women and children, seem quite comfortable picking up and examining slimy, slippery fish and dangerous-looking live crustaceans.

Fascinated by this spectacle we resolved to join in: each Sunday since we moved in we have chosen a different fish for dinner. Along the way we bought some specialised implements - a de-scaler, fish-scissors, a filleting knife and - for lobsters - an extra large pot. Last Sunday it might have been the turn of blue-clawed crabs but, having awoken with hangovers as a result of birthday celebrations the previous night, we could only face the less threatening Dover sole.

But our relatively adventurous approach to what we eat is not quite matched by flexibility as to when we eat. When, at the suggestion of a friend, we went to the theatre last evening, there was anxiety about the timing of dinner. The performance, with its early start and four-hour duration, made no concessions to our feeding schedule and I was half inclined to call it off on the flimsy excuse that I had seen the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire and surely no actors could better Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh? But I swallowed a handful of peanuts, went grudgingly along and was duly gripped, from the moment Blanche arrived until she was finally led away by the psychiatrist and her sister's howl of anguish closed the drama.

Afterwards, while making do with a very late super of Stilton cheese and a couple of glasses of Barbera d'Alba, the theme of the play called to mind Samuel Johnson's epithet: "Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not". Later still, awoken from an unpleasant dream featuring men in white coats, I recalled some words of advice: “Never eat cheese at bedtime.” Now who said that?