Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cathedrals of Culture

Manchester's London Road Fire Station, built in 1906 and now listed Grade II, has for the past 28 years been unoccupied and uncared-for. When the fire service vacated it back in 1986 it was bought by a hotel company which, despite promising otherwise, left it to rot. The Council has just launched a second attempt at compulsory purchase so as to give other developers a chance to secure its future. Assuming the CPO is successful, there remains the question of whether it should be converted into a hotel or a cultural asset. Not that the Council will necessarily have a say: the outcome will be determined by economics. My bet would be on it becoming a hotel.
The recently released Cathedrals of Culture, a collection of six documentary films about buildings including the Oslo Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, illustrates (among other things) how the various architects were free to design the buildings to fulfil specific functions, uncompromised by having to convert, say, a fire station into an arts centre. They appear to have succeeded admirably. But one of them, the 19th century National Library of Russia in Leningrad, now resembles a museum because technological advances have rendered much of its functionality redundant.
When Manchester central library re-opened this year after a three-year refit, some found it difficult to comprehend the changes. The main entrance now leads straight into an open coffee lounge-cum-display area full of interactive screens; to one side there are cosy booths for watching archive films; on the other side is an enclosed performance space; at the back there are banks of computers - and a few books - dedicated to local history. The main book collections are elsewhere in the building. In short, the interior has been modified to reflect the change in the way that a lot of information is now stored and accessed.
The librarians that I've encountered there seem pleased with their new working environment, although their expertise remains rooted in the past. I borrowed a couple of e-books (for the first time) and, having read them, wanted to 'return' them. I logged into my account but they were not listed there. At the library I asked why. The librarian looked frightened.
"I don't know much about e-books," he said "I'll ask Colin."
"Well," said Colin, "you don't 'return' them. They expire."
"Fine," I said "but why don't they appear on my account?"
"I don't know," said Colin. "Maybe my colleague can help."
Luckily, his colleague was familiar with this FAQ. "It's because the service is provided not by the library but by a third party," he explained. Three of us had learnt something serendipitously.
I went to get refreshment at the coffee bar. In front of me was a young woman, smartly dressed in a red suit and formal shoes, carrying under her arm a two-metre long aluminium step-ladder. She had ordered coffee and a muffin which she paid for and picked up without releasing her grip on the ladder. She strode purposefully away, to change a light bulb perhaps? Or erect scenery in the Performance Space? Maybe make a start on the Christmas decorations? Stick posters up in Kiddies' Korner? Fetch a book off a shelf even? Library life has certainly diversified.
There are some evenings when a glass of good claret is all I crave and that evening I had my eye on a bottle of Léoville Barton, generously presented to me some time ago. Before breaching it I checked on the vintage and was disappointed to read that, although it was rated excellent, it would not be at its best for another 28 years. I probably won't be around then, but I hope that London Road Fire Station will. (Applicants for the bottle must be under the age of 40.)

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Domestic Mystery Thriller

We were awoken at 03.20 on Monday by a loud noise. It wasn't an attempted break-in or an explosion: it was the sound of a cupboard door falling six feet to the kitchen floor. There had been no earthquake, it just fell off its fixings. As I picked it up to lean it against the wall I saw something else which had fallen to the floor, but noiselessly. It was a letter A, one centimetre high and made of rubber.  I put it on the counter in case it too might need re-fixing - although I couldn't think to what. Later that morning I asked my partner if she had lost a letter A. She looked at me sympathetically.

I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch so I left the cupboard door for later. As for the letter A, I consigned it to the same 'mysterious incident' category as the two coasters which had lately disappeared from their usual place on the sideboard. Arriving early at the restaurant I saw that most of the tables were laid out for big office parties and, knowing this would ruin any hope of an intimate lunch, I phoned my friend to divert him to a different part of town. (By now I was already planning to publish a map on Facebook for those who prefer to walk through town avoiding the hundreds of wooden Christmas Market cabins that have blocked all the pedestrian thoroughfares.)

We decided on a restaurant that had opened only the day before so they had no Christmas party bookings to disturb our tête-a-tête. On the other hand, being anxious to impress, they overdid the service with too-frequent intrusions. Still we managed - without trying - to lunch until late afternoon and in doing so took ownership of the day. I had time only for a brief nap before my next engagement, a Modernist Society illustrated talk on the saving of Preston Bus Station.

The tragedy of Preston's Bus Station is that it is a magnificent building in the wrong place. The Town Planning Dept. says it would make sense to demolish it; but who will trust their judgement when they put it there in the first place? It has just been reprieved by a Grade II Historical Buildings listing but this is not a guarantee that it will survive intact - or even at all. Most of the building is, in fact, a multi-story car-park and it would be a very useful facility to have at an airport - if only they could move it.

Two days later I found another letter A when I was installing a new printer in the study. (There isn't much wrong with the old one, it just needs the insides cleaning, but the time and trouble of dismantling it make no sense given the affordability of a replacement; although the new model requires different cartridges, so the stock in the cupboard is now redundant). I put the second letter A alongside the first one and looked around the room for objects that might have letters missing from them. I could see none.

That evening I attended a big band concert at the invitation of my friend who plays in the trombone section. The repertoire was not entirely to my taste, but the experience of seeing and hearing 35 musicians collaborating expertly is exhilarating whatever the programme. It was late when I got home, still humming White Christmas, but I kept an eye open for stray typographical characters as I prepared for bed. It was then I picked up my new slippers and saw that the soles had the maker's name stuck on in one-centimetre high rubber letters. The A's were missing.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

In Praise of Visionaries

At last the weather has turned cold and the cycle of our seasons is normalising: I can now wear the merino vest I bought in preparation. And it's good for the retail trade - the backbone of our economy - which will not be left with piles of redundant jumpers to dump later in the outlet malls. I just hope the bogeyman, climate change, is not playing tricks on us and this turns out to be a false start because I've also bought an enormous book - The English and their History by Robert Tombs, 891 pages, 1.7 kilograms - to see me through the long, chilly evenings and the SAD-prone days.

At first, daunted by its scale, I put the book aside for when I had a substantial chunk of free time but then, confronting my feeble procrastination, I took the plunge on Tuesday evening. From page one I was hooked. What I like about a good history book is that it enlightens the long view, the big picture and the broad context, usefully counterbalancing the insular short-termism that is the daily diet of our socio-political news-feed: especially in a week such as this when Osborne presented Cameron's Government budget. To say that they have an eye on re-election would be an understatement. To question their motives would be naive. They are, of course, defending the assets they acquired by conquest in 1066.

I 'm only up to page 71, but it is already clear that the English are, to some extent, still subservient to their Norman conquerors. (The name 'Cameron' is thought to be derived from a Norman baronial name - Cambernon. The name 'Osborne' is Viking in origin, but the Normans were Vikings who had settled in France before crossing the Channel for their England-grab). And if this all sounds like a conspiracy theory, just drop the word theory: there is strong evidence of the actuality (follow this link to get started!). Our Normans do not appear to be inclined to work for the benefit of all. For example the visionary concept of the European Union - "the first time in history that a bunch of grown-up nation states have had the wisdom and maturity to abandon some of their precious sovereignty for the greater good"* -  is of no use to them.

Talking of visionaries, Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey is once more on general release and, on seeing it again after 40 years, I was amazed by his prediction that Hilton Hotels would be providing the space-station accommodation (Virgin may actually beat them to it, but we get the point). He also knew that fashion would be crucial, even in space. The appointment of Hardy Amies as costume designer was inspired: those snazzy suits sported by the civilians in the Hilton conference facility are in vogue again. But the treachery of HAL the computer is the most significant prediction. The danger of conferring artificial intelligence on machines has cropped up more recently: I think Professor Stephen Hawking must have popped down to his local Odeon this week, bearing in mind his timely warning that we should be very afraid of AI.

But I am more optimistic. Certainly HAL was dangerous, but HAL was working in space with no one around to moderate its behaviour. Here on earth the Health & Safety at Work Inspectorate would monitor it for anti-human tendencies. If each nation had a HAL (an updated model) programmed to formulate government policies, we could eliminate those interminable, expensive and ineffectual humanoid international negotiations. The HALs could commune together using their algorithms to make rational decisions about asset ownership, wealth distribution, the elimination of poverty and armed conflict - and the reinstatement of the seasons. AI: what's to fear?

Saturday, 29 November 2014


For many days an unwanted tea-tray was propped against the wall next to our back door. It was waiting to be re-cycled via the charity shop next to the railway station so, on my way to catch the 10.37 to Liverpool, I dropped it off. I've donated many redundant possessions to that shop and I've noticed that the ladies (never a man) behind the counter don't even look at what I plonk in front of them. They treat objects which I consider useful and of some value with exactly the same lack of interest as they do a trivial ornament. They look at me and say "Thank you so much. Do you have a gift-aid card?" Still, I made sure the tray was clean.

Before leaving home I read about a housing regeneration scheme in Stoke-on-Trent, the former epicentre of pottery manufacturing long enmired in what appeared to be terminal decline. But all is not lost, apparently. During its heyday the workers acquired formidable skills and the good news, for those who remain, is that they are in demand once more. The surviving companies are having some success in the markets where the "Made in Stoke" label still retains a cachet. And well-regarded designers are locating their workshops to Stoke so as to take advantage of the skills and facilities there. Recognising this, the housing scheme aims to foster communities of people rooted in the city, its heritage and its future.

Among the examples quoted to illustrate the potteries' finest achievements were the Minton Peacocks, four-foot high majolica facsimiles, brilliantly painted and glazed. Twelve were made but only nine are accounted for, as a result of which they are extremely valuable. I know it's a mere coincidence (these things do not 'happen for a reason') but, later that day, the first thing I noticed at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery was - a Minton Peacock. Normally I would have walked past such a piece with no more than a nod at its irrelevant magnificence but, this time, I just had to stop and examine it. I admit that, while pottery peacocks don't do it for me, they do have a certain presence.

Actually I was at the Walker to view the exhibition of works chosen for the John Moores Painting Prize, having earlier been at the Tate where there is a lot of Andy Warhol's output on display. Maybe it's because Warhol's work is so familiar that I was less interested by it than I was by the freshness and variety of expression in the prize paintings.  Incidentally, the manager of the Walker told me that we have Margaret Thatcher to thank for the preservation of Liverpool's permanent collection of art: she nationalised it so as to save it from being sold off by the bankrupt city council of the day. Whether it's true or not, his anecdote did prompt me to take a closer look at the collection.

Returning to Manchester I saw that the station concourse had acquired some of the trappings of Christmas. Tesco had erected a tent and its people, dressed in elf costumes, were offering little plastic cups of champagne to passers-by. It seemed a counter-intuitive sort of marketing ploy for a company whose share price has recently been ruined by scandalous misrepresentation of its accounts, but I may go again tomorrow to see if there's any left.

Then I dropped into the charity shop, ostensibly on the lookout for interesting novels, but with a surreptitious eye on the china ornaments and bric-a-brac. Unfortunately coincidence did not repeat itself:  there were no four-foot high pot peacocks. And even if someone were to bring one in, I'm sure the ladies would make no comment.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

From the Customer's Point of View

All I wanted was to sit down with a cup of (decent) coffee and watch for a while as the world went by. But, modest though it was, my ambition was thwarted. I'd been sitting in Carluccio's for 15 minutes without being approached by a waiter before I realised that the place was under-staffed and much of the world was going by while I remained thirsty.

I decided to cut my losses and go elsewhere - a place I remembered in a nearby back street, a ramshackle independent cafe called Tarkk whose proprietors claim to be "passionate" about coffee. And so they are: if only they were equally passionate about customer service the place would be great. I joined the short queue at the counter where, without a smile, they took my order - and my money - and instructed me to take a seat. After the by now customary wait of 15 minutes I approached the counter to ask how they were getting on. The ensuing consultation between the three staff members resulted in another instruction to sit down but no acknowledgement that they had clean forgotten to make the coffee. An apology would have been nice - accompanied by a 'courtesy' croissant perhaps - but neither was forthcoming. I sat obediently, feeling somehow to blame and fretting that perhaps I hadn't followed their required procedure.

And so it was that what ought to have been a mindless morning routine became a contemplation of comparative business models. On the one hand the corporate, Carluccio's, whose success depends on perfecting a system for delivering customer satisfaction; on the other the independent, Tarkk, whose success depends on - the same thing. It's not all about the coffee.

Carluccio's failed because the waiter was either unable to cope or not sufficiently motivated to make up for his co-workers' absence. Otherwise it's a successful, expanding business with a good understanding of the need for powerful branding (a jolly, fat Italian chef with a catchy name); consistency of offering in the tried-and-tested MacDonald's manner; stylish, modern interiors; a standardised menu and a usually robust system for delivery.
I wanted Tarkk to please me but it conspired not to, leaving me instead with the impression that its modus operandi is designed for the convenience of the proprietors and/or those who work there. The obscure name (trikky to spell) may have some significance to whoever devised it, but to me is just weak branding. The space, furnished with disregard for comfort and disdain for interior design, reeks of cheap recycling. As a small and probably underfunded business, it could and should have deployed its biggest asset - personality - when it most needed to. It's not all about the coffee.

Not that I have become obsessed with 'customer satisfaction' but, when I went later  to see the work of German artist Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern, the topic was still on my mind. It's a retrospective exhibition covering the years 1963 - 2007, which means that there's a lot of art on the walls. In fact, considering the entrance fee of approximately £12, the show is rather good value for money. But Polke was a great experimenter with new techniques and by the time I was halfway through the galleries I began to tire of work which seemed to have been made more for the sake of the process than the expression. Just show me the art, I thought, never mind your systems of delivery.

On my way home I paused at a falafel street-stall. The cheerful operator, sensing my interest, insisted I try a sample. It was delicious. I made a purchase and, strolling happily on my way, realised I was experiencing real 'customer satisfaction': and it wasn't all about the falafel, either.