Saturday, 19 July 2014

On The Home Front

Walking home slightly tipsy one evening I was pick-pocketed by a woman who appeared to be a foreign tourist in need of directions but was, in fact, feinting. She managed to steal a couple of notes from my pocket while I was leaning in to understand what she was saying. I am prudent when I go out, taking with me only a limited amount of cash, so its loss was easier to dismiss than the sense of foolishness I felt at having fallen for the trick. To salve my pride I waxed philosophical: this was an enterprising method of wealth re-distribution, executed with an admirable degree of skill and bravado. But I might not have been so forgiving of a straightforward mugging.

I had been drinking earlier with a friend who, being a whole generation younger than I am, is about to become a father for the first time. (We had arranged this evening out because we both knew it would be our last opportunity for about 18 years.) The baby will be a boy and the parents have already decided on his name and his nursery wallpaper - both of which I interpret as indicators of their actual and aspirational social standing. I hope it all works out as planned, although my week subsequently seemed to be full of un-promising signs for those about to be born.

I've been following a TV drama called Utopia which is about a secretive attempt to sterilise the human race in order to avert over-population. The plot is overblown but is redeemed by quirky characters, wacky humour and colourful filming. Behind these techniques, however, lies the serious issue of population growth and the strain it will put on our resources. “What do you think will happen when water becomes scarce?” asks the protagonist.
“We'll tear each other to pieces,” comes the reply.

Then I went to an evening lecture on domestic architecture and house building - a subject which is unhealthily entwined with politics. The effect of prevailing economic policies on the quality, quantity and location of housing has resulted in a stock which is not necessarily appropriate to society's present needs. The speaker argued in favour of prefabricated buildings and a trailer-park approach to relieving shortages, enabling affordability and the location of housing where it is demanded. We have an unsustainable economic model where housing has become 'financialised': a dwelling is more often seen as an investment, or even as a substitute for retirement savings, rather than a functioning habitation. If people don't save there will be less money for investment; and low investment levels spell trouble in the future. The obstacles to rectifying the situation are numerous and complex, but a good place to start might be the de-coupling of the mortgage and house-building industries, along with adjustments to planning regulations so that prefabricated homes may be situated temporarily on brownfield sites.

So, not only does my friend’s son face the prospect of swelling populations fighting for resources, he may also have to spend most of his own resources on finding a decent place to live. And that’s before we factor in the difficulties of being able to afford education and healthcare in what may well be by then a completely profit-driven system. A vestige of optimism returned after watching Richard Linklater's film Boyhood. I came away with the feeling that boys have a degree of inherited resilience to the vicissitudes of life and that my friend's son may have a reasonable chance of surviving his future after all.

At the end of the week I spent an evening with a friend of my own generation and, walking home slightly tipsy (avoiding eye contact with anyone who looked in the least bit foreign), I reflected on how fortunate we have been and what a poor hand we have passed on.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

L'Angleterre Profonde

It was a warm, sunny evening and we sat outside reading the Sunday papers, aperitifs in hand and a BBQ at the ready. Apart from a few playful rabbits, we had the meadow to ourselves. We had earlier completed a walk around the Tees valley, taking in some pretty views and meeting no one but a gaggle of randomly dressed teenagers lugging huge rucksacks who, from previous experience, we took to be a group of Duke of Edinburgh Award hopefuls. And now, after a brief negotiation with a farmer, we had secured a bucolic overnight site for our campervan and were enjoying the benefits of a temporary tenancy with unimpeded views over swathes of green, rolling countryside. Behind us was the imposing ruined core of 12th Century Bowes castle, beside us a stretch of the Pennine Way - although no hikers came by that evening. In fact the only intrusion was the sound of traffic from the invisible but not-so-distant A66: that and a solitary 'ding-ding' from my Nokia notifying me of an incoming text message.

The purpose of our trip to the North East was threefold: to pay our first visit to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts, to hike in or around the Tees Valley and to avoid being stuck at home, in front of the TV, watching the Wimbledon men's final. When I conceived the idea, however, I had not realised that our route through Yorkshire would be complicated by road closures and diversions on account of yet another sporting fest - Le Tour de France. (Yes, I am naive enough to imagine that a French cycle race would have not the slightest impact on my life.) And so, to offset this unfortunate timing, we set off a day early.

I have since forgiven the French for the inconvenience, having read a piece by one of their journalists admitting to their collective ignorance of the charms of l'Angleterre profonde  (the sun had been shining in Yorkshire that day) and comparing it favourably with their own hinterlands. If they get as far as the North East, they will discover that it too is a very attractive region. Anthony Gormley's massive, rusting Angel of the North dominates the low hills south of Gateshead seeming to say "You have arrived at a significant place" and, sure enough,  a few miles further north you cross one of the Tyne's spectacular bridges into the centre of Newcastle where the steep topography displays to dramatic advantage streets lined with magnificent stone buildings. They are impressive but, when you consider that one end of Hadrian's Wall is still visible nearby, you realise that they represent just one layer of the important history of this place.

The waterfront of Newcastle reflects the passing of its industrial economy - people now live in converted and newly built apartments; hotels and restaurants occupy some of the prime locations - and the Baltic Centre itself, once a flour mill, has become a tourist destination. Unfortunately I had, in my haste to get away, neglected to check the programme of exhibitions and was disappointed to find two of the three galleries closed for re-hanging, the top floor closed to all except customers buying tickets to ride a zip-wire across the river and the terrace bar reserved for the exclusive use of wedding guests. Fortunately the fine weather made an alternative walking tour of the city both feasible and enjoyable.

Back in the meadow, we were talking about the importance of forward planning, especially in the case of our up-coming trip to Nice on September 5, when that text message arrived. It was from my Finnish friend whom I last spoke to a year ago. It read "Fancy joining me with vacation trip to Nice on Sept. 4 - 9?"

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Bunkering Down

  1. Wimbledon coincides this year with the World Cup, providing sports fans with a glut of entertainment. For someone like me, who lives with a fan but is not interested, these are trying times. Media coverage seems endless: tennis matches can go on for a whole day, football matches often run into extra time and, even when they're over, there is post-contest analysis to be endured. Fans appear to be incurably addicted: the more they get, the more they want.
    On the other hand my lack of interest in sport is also incurable. School did its best to introduce me to its benefits and - to be fair - made allowance for the fact that it doesn't work for everyone: after a while we were given the choice on Wednesday afternoons of training either as sportsmen or soldiers. I chose to join the Army Cadet Force. The authorities' real agenda - that of recruitment - was never made explicit, nevertheless I was happy to swap the sweaty rugby kit for the smart military one whenever I could.
    Last Monday, driven out of the apartment by tennis on the telly, I took refuge in a nuclear bunker. Deep in the Cheshire countryside there is a building which, having started life as a radar station, was later adapted to serve as the command centre for regional government in the event of nuclear war with the USSR. It is a museum now - perhaps there is a new bunker elsewhere - and I was amused to see a military uniform just like the one I wore as a cadet. Otherwise I was appalled by the realisation that nuclear war had seemed at the time to be almost inevitable - and that I might have been called upon to do my duty. It was clear from the displays that the effects of such a war had not been underestimated but it was also evident that no amount of preparation would have saved us from its effects. A screening of Peter Watkins' award-winning 1965 film The War Game demonstrated this but, although it had been commissioned by the BBC, they declined to show it until twenty years later. A notice on the wall towards the exit gives a clue as to why: "If the next war is fought with nuclear weapons, the one after that will be fought with bows and arrows." Albert Einstein.
    But not all my anti-sport outings turn out to be profound. Yesterday I spent a few hours in that part of town where the shabby old buildings have been revived by a new generation of tenancies: the shops, bars, tea-rooms and restaurants of the youthful 'alternative' culture, the independent, under-capitalised, hopeful businesses mostly doomed to a brief flourishing. One of these, a little place where chocolate is made and sold, I patronise occasionally to satisfy my craving for the serious stuff. Inside there are three tiny tables for those who want to sit and sip hot chocolate in a setting which could be described as either intimate or claustrophobic, depending on circumstance.
    I usually buy chocolate-to-go but, in order to draw out the time, I ordered a drink and took a seat. Almost immediately I realised I had put myself in that classic Hammer horror movie scene where a hopeful stranger walks into a bar and is made to feel like an unwanted intruder. The three people at the other table were obviously on familiar terms with the proprietor and my arrival had interrupted their conversation. After a while they resumed, making no attempt to include me and, since there was no quiet corner for me to retreat to, I was faced with either imposing my presence or pretending not to listen.
    I arrived home unexpectedly early that day - and with a feeling that I was interrupting something. 

Plan A. (There was no Plan B).

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Everyone Lives Down Memory Lane

When we moved from one flat to another recently I was gratified to be able to bring the 'garden' with us (I refer to the collection of potted plants which stood on the balconies). Having nurtured them, they have acquired some significance beyond decorative effect: they represent - in a very minor way - continuity; proof that I am making some sort of impact on this world and not just passing through. The plants seem to like the new place just as much as we do but lately I noticed that the bamboo was looking bedraggled: despite the season, its leaves were turning browner rather than greener. On close inspection I saw it was being drained of its sap by aphids, which came as a surprise since I thought it was just pandas that ate bamboo. Too late to save it by killing the bugs, I cut it back in the hope that it will regenerate next spring. To throw it out would have been easier but I am getting rather fond of that continuity thing: it helps remind me who I am and where I've been.

Lately I've had a few such reminders. Earlier this week I met up with a former work colleague. At the factory, where over many years we had built a business together, we talked not so much about old times as about her future plans. Coming away from the meeting my feeling, though tinged with nostalgia, was overwhelmingly one of contentment. Having established the business, I can now take satisfaction from the fact that a younger generation has used my effort as a stepping stone to the future.

Then there was my friend's 59th birthday party. Close friends and acquaintances came together to celebrate the occasion - some of whom I had seen the day before, others not since the last celebration - but, in what felt like too short a time, we reaffirmed the connections that give us context and that sense of belonging. What misery it must be to be a stranger at such a party, invited by a friend but without a stake in the shared history of the group - like a refugee starting another life in a foreign place.

I can remember the date of my friend's birthday because it coincides with the longest day of the year; otherwise I would have to rely on a system. There are well established techniques we can employ to memorise things - but I haven't got around to practising any. The anonymously-authored Latin textbook Rhetorica ad Herrenium, written around 85 B.C, documents a method of memory training which was used by the ancient Greeks and is still used today. Based around the ability of the human brain to remember spaces, it proposes the creation of an imagined building full of rooms in which information is stored. Mastery of such methods was crucial to the internalisation of knowledge in the absence of the printing press but in the age of the internet it is useful mostly to contestants in the World Memory Championship. My preferred memory aid is the electronic diary, although it does have its drawbacks: I forgot my brother's birthday this year because of dependence on it. As I sheepishly explained to him after the event, I had not felt it necessary - given our shared history - to make an entry for him. Consequently my phone, on which I now rely for prompts, did not alert me.

Nevertheless I am adamant that, with ready access to so much information, I need not clutter my mind with too many facts. Instead I shall save my capacity for personal memories - the kind that keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sorry, Russia.

Over the phone she told me her name was Maria and she would like to view the flat I had to let. Her foreign accent didn't surprise me - I've had a succession of tenants from all over the world - but I couldn't guess her nationality so, when we met, I asked her.
"Russian," she said. "You won't believe it but I come from a place called Red Army Town and I live on Lenin Street. Even my surname, Smirnova, sounds like a brand of vodka. I am like a joke Russian."

My perception of Russians has been formed by a superficial knowledge of their history, according to which a seemingly endless string of miseries has hammered them into stoic acceptance that there is neither justice nor fun to be had in this world. To meet a Russian with a GSOH is, therefore, a pleasant surprise. It is of course possible that her joviality stems from the fact that she has just landed a nice job in England (which would only stoke my prejudice) but I am hopeful that this young woman represents a newly-freed generation, one which values international harmony and co-operation above conflict and confrontation.

The man who delivers our packages from Amazon might be Russian: at the very least I am sure he is from eastern Europe. I would ask him, but the opportunity for conversation is restricted by the four or five seconds he is allocated per delivery. This morning he brought a book, The Wales Coast Path. A Practical Guide for Walkers. Having just returned from a few days of aimless ambling around the coast of Wales, my partner and I were inspired to make a project out of walking the path in its entirety. Having bought the book, she is looking forward to buying the stationery - a folder, coloured stickers, a notebook and so on- while I have my eye on a new pair of super-sandals for summer trekking. We were easily persuaded: our few days away were bathed in warm sunshine, the evenings were long and lazy and the sunsets over the sparkling sea were spectacular. Flicking through the book, however, I noted the paragraph warning of the unpredictable weather to which the area is prone - and the one explaining that the 1,680 mile-long coast is not a continuously picturesque vista: urban sprawl intrudes for many a mile. Foot-slogging through Swansea in horizontal rain is a real possibility.

The path does not follow the coastline unfailingly: some parts of it are diverted inland for practical reasons, others because concessions and permissions have yet to be wrung from reluctant landowners. Nevertheless, the creation of this leisure facility - the stitching together of all the various rights of way to form a continuous route - was initiated by the Welsh Government and is a positive example of what can be achieved by the devolvement of political control from Westminster. Driving back from the coast we stopped to visit Powis Castle, a powerful and symbolic reminder that land ownership in these isles was determined long ago by force of arms and subsequently upheld by feudal aristocracy. As I viewed the richly decorated interior stuffed with over-blown artefacts, it was not admiration I felt but resentment at the social inequality it represented. I overheard a curator talking about some of the porcelain on display:
"...of course, the family has kept all the best stuff. What you see here are just the items they can't accommodate or don't want. But it all belongs to Powis. Nothing has been brought in to fill the spaces."

Somehow her words brought to mind my new Russian acquaintance - and her splendidly proud address.