Saturday, 23 July 2016

Touring Modestly

Searching the shops for a new pair of sandals I am reminded that footwear-retail is mainly about fashion and that foot-shaped shoes are available only at hard-to-come-by specialist outlets. Alright, my feet may be more hobbit than human but, even so, does anyone actually have pointy feet? I am back in town after a week in the country and conscious that the rugged hiking sandals that had served me well on the coastal paths of Cardigan Bay are clumsy and inappropriate in a paved environment. The search is on for a pair of man-about-town sandals.
The hiking sandals had also served as driving shoes on our tour which, starting the morning after a party in Lymington, progressed rapidly up through SW England and mid-Wales to the west coast. Here we teamed up with two friends and experienced the relative novelty of staying in B&B accommodation. It has much to recommend it – assuming that one is open to random experiences and the eccentricities of others.
The first two nights were spent in a small hotel, a typical conversion from one of the many private holiday villas built in the 1890s by Birmingham industrialists who subsequently decamped to the Continent between the wars, leaving them to be used as schools, institutes or guest-houses. Fawlty Towers comes to mind, although the service, in this case at least, was professional: John Cleese has done us all a favour. The town, Barmouth, is still a holiday resort, though past its heyday when the railway brought visitors galore whatever the weather. Perhaps it gets busier during school holidays but, in the meantime, the absence of crowds suited our laid-back mood. We lingered awhile in a pub in eager anticipation of the live music but it turned out to be a come-all-ye and our enthusiasm waned soon after the first Tom Jones impersonation.
Moving on, each place we went to had something of interest, something to delight, amuse or surprise. In Aberystwyth there is a very sophisticated Spanish deli-cum-bar and a tiny Italian cafe which makes terrific panini to take away and eat along the handsome promenade. The village of Llangranog nestles picture-perfect into a cove and its two cafés are bang up-to-date with their sophisticated menus, while just next door traditional fish-and-chips are on offer. Tywyn is a coastal town which seems short of coffee shops, so we made do with a takeaway Costa from Spar and strolled – almost alone – along the impressive promenade, refurbished with EU money. Information boards describe the sea-creatures that can be spotted, although even they were absent that day. Another board warns of the ugly-looking weaver fish that lurks beneath the sand where its poisonous spikes present a hazard to bathers’ feet.
But the peculiar intimacies of B&B were experienced at a remote, former farm-house high up on the coastal path. The landlady, a woman of about 50, lives there with her mother (whom we didn’t see). She made it clear that we city dwellers were to be pitied and that she alone held the secret to a happy, fulfilled existence. She had a yurt in the corner of her garden which she used as a meditational retreat. She also had a grand piano in a music room and one evening she entertained us before bed time with a repertoire of songs from her days as a bar-room player. She was good but seemed, I thought, rather lonely and bitter.
On our last day the weather was warm enough for the beach. One of our party took a dip in the sea but soon came out complaining of a pain in his foot. The lifeguard confirmed that it was a weaver fish sting and treated it accordingly.

“What were you thinking?” I said “You should have worn beach-sandals.” 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

I Saw a Ghost Outside Aldi

Last week I was glad to hear some good news: two newly-commissioned hovercraft have just entered service. Yes, 50 years after I, an awestruck, penniless student without the price of a ticket, watched the inaugural passenger flight lift magically from the pebbles of Southsea beach and skim away over the sea to the Isle of Wight, hovercraft are (still) go! In a small way their enduring success serves to salve the injury caused to our British pride by the wince-inducing, post-referendum antics of the nation’s political establishment and, in the midst of the unseemly scramble for short-term political advantage masquerading as The National Interest, remind us that there is more to being British than the pain of embarrassment at the greed of our establishment, outrage over the inequalities of our society and guilt over our past colonial crimes: we can at least claim to have spawned the visionary Sir Christopher Cockerell, the man who, with a hair drier and a couple of empty tins, one placed inside the other, demonstrated the feasibility of hovering and went on, undaunted by sceptics (and unhindered by restrictive EU regulations) to invent a thrillingly new mode of transport.
Unfortunately the swelling of pride was short-lived. I became overwhelmed with the events commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme, firstly at a laying of wreaths on the classic, Lutyens-designed war memorial outside the Town Hall. The site is currently surrounded by extensive roadworks and overlooked by a huge building-under-construction but all work stopped for the ceremony and the men in hi-viz vests on the scaffolding enjoyed a better view than we on the ground, our necks craned for a glimpse of the proceedings. VIPs in civvies and top-brass in uniforms took turns to step up and lay wreaths; a clergyman spoke of God and heavenly rewards; a soldier extolled the virtues of duty and sacrifice; the buglers sounded the Last Post and it was impossible not to be moved. But when the band struck up and marched off to join a parade through the streets, I peeled away to find a quieter contemplation.
There is a small exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Visions of the Front: 1916-18, comprising paintings, drawings and lithographs by official War Artists of the time. Many of the images on display I had seen before but, viewed in the context of the commemorations, they evoked the time, the place and the horror with a poignancy I had not previously experienced. They also left me, incidentally, pondering how they compare in efficacy with photographic equivalents. Are photos, created in an instant, a more objective representation of events than hand-made images which are worked up after the event with the artist’s conscious and considered intervention?
I had earlier encountered a piece commissioned by a living artist: Jeremy Deller’s We Are Here comprised thousands of actors dressed in WW1 uniforms and presenting themselves, silently, among the crowds outside shops and railway stations around the country. The project had been deliberately unpublicised for maximum effect – a clever and effective ploy. Outside Aldi I approached a lost and lonely-looking soldier, expecting to become engaged in talk. But he silently handed me a card and looked resolutely into the distance. The card simply said

Corporal John Davidson
17th Battalion
Highland Light Infantry
Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916
Aged 38 years
  

It was as if Corporal Davidson and his comrades had emerged from their graves and memorials to take their places, temporarily, in the fabric of everyday life and, by doing so, had brought us face to face with the reality of their deaths. What could all those men have achieved if the war had not robbed them of their lives – and us of a generation of potential visionaries?

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Party's Over?

The Glastonbury Festival came at an inconvenient time this year coinciding, as it did, with the referendum on Brexit. How many of the young people who flocked there heeded the advice of farmer Eavis to organise their postal or proxy vote before they set off for the weekend with their tents and wellies? Is it possible that some of them were content to leave the shaping of their future in the hands of others (some of whose own futures are so short they might not even live to see Article 50 invoked)? And yet I think back to my own festival-going days and recall that I ranked the importance of voting well below that of securing tickets for Jimi Hendrix. It may be a natural tendency of the young to be preoccupied with youth, but I suspect our educational curriculum is partly at fault for not giving more prominence to the teaching of civic responsibility.
I admit that I watched a few of the Glastonbury acts on TV, though I did so guiltily: it seems such a cop-out to watch for free – and from the comfort of home. I didn’t enjoy them. Besides the guilt, I just could not get the excitement of the gig without actually being there. And then there was the generation issue: with one, sad exception the acts belonged not to mine but to the millennial (voters or otherwise) and I could not relate to them. I have not, strictly speaking, given up on festival-going. Some years ago I, along with many others of the Isle of Wight generation, switched to jazz festivals which, apart from offering a different style of music, generally take place in urban centres. This means that the venues are proper buildings fitted out with rows of seating, bars and toilets. Occasionally there are marquees involved, but they are usually situated close to comfortable facilities.
Lately, however, I have become uneasy with the idea that my default setting is “safe, comfortable and one-dimensional” so, this year, I shall be taking a tentative step back in time. I shall be braving the elements at Festival Number 6. Admittedly this event takes place in a semi-exposed location and I do have the campervan to retire to, nevertheless it is more than a symbolic move away from the armchair and TV. The festival also offers more than music – there will be performances of various types and even gourmet dining events. In short it promises to deliver a multi-cultural experience and, I hope, a fair degree of inter-generational mingling, insofar as that is possible – or even advisable.
I got a taste for inter-generational mingling last Saturday at a nephew’s 21st birthday party. It was a great do, although the timing may have been unfortunate for those of his friends who had hopes of attending Glastonbury. Still, not one of them mentioned it to me, possibly because our conversations tended to be politely perfunctory. But there is no doubt that as the evening progressed I noticed a tendency for those of similar age to gather themselves into groups until, eventually, the prospect of them mixing became more remote.
Inevitably there was much talk about the generally unwelcome result of the referendum. People were gloomy about the prospects for the future but happy for the present: the hospitality flowed freely, the band was hot and the dancers let it all hang out it. Still, I thought, there is some irony here. We are celebrating the coming-of-age and the dawning of opportunity for a young man just as a big door has been slammed in his face. We talked it over and over, some of us staying up to see the dawn, reluctant to concede that the party’s over.

The party's not over yet!

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Birthrights?

There are little corners of England, by-passed by major routes, where the progress of civilisation is impeded by geography and it is possible to imagine that time has stood still. One such place is Arnside & Silverdale, a chunky peninsula to the west of the M6 just above Lancaster. Here I walked all day through a landscape in which the traces of human habitation are fainter, lighter on the ground than usual. It’s not absolute, of course: there is a railway line that courses doggedly North-South following the coastline as close as it dares; there are defunct smelting chimneys left over from earlier industrial enterprises; farms double-up as holiday retreats and there is a large (but well camouflaged) settlement of chalets nestled into a small bay. Still, on a summer’s day in June, when the countryside is wearing its cloak of a thousand shades of green spotted with flowers of every imaginable colour, it seems there is no finer place to be than in England. How easily we are duped.
England is, in many respects, a fine country, but so are many others and none can claim to be top of the pile: there is not even a possibility of ranking them since we cannot agree a common matrix of measurement. Objectivity is impossible as long as our minds are fixed by feelings of patriotism or claims of ownership and our understanding is limited by ignorance and fear of the other. This is why phrases such as “putting the ‘great’ back into Britain”, or “making America great again” are so ridiculous. It is also why you should go and see Michael Moore’s latest film, Where To Invade Next?
The film highlights some key social policies in various European countries and compares them with American practice: during its course I was provoked to laughter and tears but, in the end, to outrage. If you see the film you might, like me, watch in amazement as French primary schoolchildren sit down, every day, to a three-course lunch prepared by a chef and served by waiting staff; envy the Italian workers who go home for a two-hour lunch break and get eight weeks paid leave; cheer the Slovenians who provide free university tuition for their people – and anyone else who cares to enrol; applaud the Finns whose kids attend school three hours a day, take no SATs and are the world’s best-educated (they also have no private schools – rich and poor grow up together); congratulate the Icelanders, the first to elect a female president and the only ones to have prosecuted, convicted and jailed their bankers; admire the Germans whose generous and sympathetic approach to mental healthcare is respectful and wise; nod to the Norwegians who actively rehabilitate their prisoners; praise the Portuguese who refuse to criminalise drug-users.
All right, there are probably some aspects of life in all of these countries which are less than satisfactory, but the common thread is their embrace of a basic principle – nurturing citizens so that they in turn nurture each other: the wellbeing of society is thereby addressed organically. The examples in the film highlight the fact that the policies pursued in the USA are exactly the opposite.  America puts individual gain above social harmony and appears not to see the cause and effect. This should worry us all – and it should particularly worry Brits, because Michael Moore saw no reason to come to here.
I like being English/British/European (though I prefer to think European/British/English) if only because there are nations less fortunate that I might have been born into – just ask any refugee. Better still, however, I like the notion, expressed by Marguerite Yourcenar*, that “one’s true birthplace is that wherein, for the first time, one looks intelligently upon oneself.”


*Novelist, 1903-1987

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Language of The People

Lawrence Lessig* contends that ‘Writing’ is the Latin of our times. The modern language of the people is video and sound. I suspect he has a point. In fact, it could be one of the reasons why there has been a less than stellar increase in the number of Wonderman readers over the years. Still, there is the possibility that writing will linger awhile yet, since we now have longer life expectancy: writers – and their readers – will be around for some time yet, resisting progress with a determined, if ultimately doomed, rearguard movement.
In the longer term, however, it won’t matter what happens. ‘Statistics’ show that we devote more time and money to medical research – i.e. prolonging human life – than we do to finding renewable energy sources in order to prevent the destruction of our habitat. The net result – more people sharing fewer resources – might explain why we spend even more money searching Space for habitable alternatives. The absence of joined-up thinking here is frustrating and one can only hope that Margaret Mead** was right when she said Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
But if the future, such as it might be, belongs to vloggers, film-makers, musicians and sound-bite practitioners, it does not necessarily imply there will be a dumbing-down of standards: there is sure to be constant competition among them not only to perfect techniques but also to provide the best content. The process has been underway for some time already, although there is still much amateurism to endure. We can, for instance, all be DJs now – all you need is a Spotify account or similar and you have the means to compile playlists – but the trick with playlists is to play them at the appropriate time and to an appreciative audience. At a smart restaurant last week our conversation was spoiled by the dance music which, I suspect, was the choice of the very young-looking staff.
I had a similar experience in a real-ale establishment where, as the sole customer, I talked with the young barmaid while I waited for my pal to turn up.
‘Do you stay open until four a.m. like the place next door?’ I asked.
‘Oh no. This is the kind of bar where people like to come for a quiet chat, not to rave all night,’ she said.
The soundtrack she was playing made this hard to believe and, when my pal arrived, we took our ale to a table as far away as possible from the speakers. But I think she turned the volume up to make sure we could appreciate the skill with which she had put together her favourite tracks. We did not stay to double her turnover. At the professional end of the scale there is more likely to be a market-led approach to playlists. They may not always get it right but when they do it works well – Caffè Nero had it spot-on with a mix of soothing jazz last Wednesday morning. Or perhaps it just suited my mood.
Other people’s playlists can grate on the ears and nerves, but try creating your own and you will be surprised at how many hours are consumed in the process. Perhaps it’s best left to the professionals who provide those themed playlists on internet ‘radio’ stations – Throwback Thursday is one of my favourites – so that you can deploy your time more profitably. Last week I was persuaded (in cash) to attend a focus group and to bring along a short video-recording of myself: a vlog. I took up the challenge enthusiastically. Vlogging may be a useful skill to have, given the predicted lack of demand for writing.

*Professor and political activist, 1961-

**Anthropologist, 1901-1978.